Digital Badges For Learning in the Classroom and Beyond


6.20.12 | A pair of stories by Education Week reporter Katie Ash provides a big-picture overview of the pros and cons of digital badges and a close-up look at how badges are being used in a graduate course. 


Alex Halavais, who teaches a master’s program on interactive communications at Quinnipiac University, began implementing digital badges in place of a traditional grading scale last spring. The new system enables him—and his students’ prospective employers—to better gauge the specific skills his students master. 

“It’s an index of your learning biography,” Halavais told Education Week. “It allows you to stitch together your [educational career] in interesting ways.”

In addition to substituting a certain number of badges for letter grades, Halavais also introduces a collaborative element. One of his students, Mark Rossi, explained to Education Week how it worked:

The badge system Halavais created relied on a peer-review process in which certain students who had achieved a certain level of badge could approve other students’ badges, says Rossi. All badges were sent to Halavais for final review.

“I’m pretty much an independent worker, so [this system] caused me to reach out, which was a little uncomfortable at first, but it was great once you broke the ice,” says Rossi. “Everybody really enjoyed the interaction of reviewing and being reviewed.”

And because the class was online, the setup helped spur collaboration and interactivity with his peers, creating a sense of community in lieu of a face-to-face classroom.

Another one of Halavais’ students said he liked being graded via badges because it allowed him to learn at his own speed, on his own schedule. But he raised questions about whether it would work for younger, less motivated students. 

Those concerns are not uncommon. Some skeptics see badges as another example of too many “treats” in exchange for learning. Henry Jenkins, the provost’s professor of communication, journalism and cinematic arts at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, views the badges system as another step toward the “gamification” of education.

“[Gamification] is a system which does not trust the power of intrinsic motivation and feels the need to add a layer of extrinsic motivation,” Jenkins told Education Week. “Some forms of gamification rely so heavily on points schemes that there is far less effort to make the activities meaningful in and of themselves.”

Skeptics of the badge system refer to research showing that giving out rewards for tasks students would do anyway for their own personal benefit reduces their overall motivation.

Advocates, however, see the badges initiative as creating new opportunities to assign real-world value to students’ interests and skills, and to acknowledge that these skills are important regardless of their origin.

We want as much as possible to create multiple entry points for learning and multiple pathways for career and academic success.

– Connie Yowell, The MacArthur Foundation

“Kids are learning in their peer group. They’re learning online. They’re learning in interest groups and after-school programs,” said the MacArthur Foundation’s Connie Yowell. “One of the things that is abundantly clear to us is that learning is incredibly fragmented, and there’s nobody that’s helping the learning that’s happening across those connections.”

This year’s fourth annual Digital Media and Learning Competition, organized by HASTAC and Mozilla with support from MacArthur, focused on badges for lifelong learning, with both student and teacher entries. Mozilla has developed the Open Badge Infrastructure – an open-source system that functions as a technical platform for developing and sharing badges. It includes a “digital backpack” for storing, managing and displaying badges.

The badges system also enables students of all ages to receive a kind of quantifiable acknowledgement for their achievements outside of school, which allows for new learning opportunities. According to Yowell, badges encourage students to make stronger connections between the multiple, diverse places where learning takes place.

“With badges, you can actually scaffold out a pathway of what is next,” Yowell says. “We want as much as possible to create multiple entry points for learning and multiple pathways for career and academic success.”

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