Remember turning in your grades at the end of the school year? Did Zack’s B in geometry tell you enough about his mastery of the Pythagorean theorem or the area of a rectangle? What about Grace’s state test scores? Did they fully represent who she was as a critical thinker and creative problem solver? Did Quincy’s reading scores leave you explaining to parents and administrators that he is actually making outstanding progress? Sara has shown exceptional leadership among her peers this year, but how could you acknowledge that? Were you left with the feeling that those marks on a report card didn’t adequately represent your students and what they could do? You’re not alone.

K–12 educators, particularly at the secondary level, are considering these questions and asking if today’s scoring metrics are able to provide a robust picture of who our students are and what they can do. Do those scores represent what you are teaching? What skills and dispositions do your students gain outside the classroom that go unmeasured or unnoticed? What knowledge, positive learning behaviors, or habits of the mind or heart would you like to measure, acknowledge, and validate but cannot within current frameworks?

Educators are hopeful that a flexible assessment model called digital badging is a way to bridge these gaps and describe student attributes that are currently left 
unacknowledged.

Stargazing: What Is Digital Badging? 

Today, we learn everywhere: in formal classrooms and informal basement workshops; less-structured environments, such as makerspaces and libraries; and more-structured contexts, such as religious institutions and dojos. We know that future success rests not only on our students’ content knowledge, but also on their behaviors and mental mindsets. Our graduates need to draw from the skills they develop in multiple arenas, yet the skills they learn in one space are rarely acknowledged or valued in others. If Mia learns how to program a robot at a makerspace, there is no mechanism for sharing that accomplishment with her computer programming teacher in middle school so that he can provide her with challenging work instead of repeating what she already knows. 

Digital badging recognizes learning and growth wherever it happens and helps people connect their accomplishments across institution types. In bringing together students’ accomplishments (“stars”) in various learning spaces, we can better see their full range of potential (“constellations”).

In many ways, digital badges resemble Scouting’s merit badges: They symbolize levels of achievement, honor, status, or recognition. Badges take different forms according to their context. When used in social media, badges may simply mean, “I was present.” In online gaming, badges may indicate a specific game level or an earned tool or privilege. For educators, however, digital badges acknowledge that an earner has demonstrated declarative knowledge or skill in a content area as well as intellectual, social, or behavioral growth.

Unlike a Scouting badge, which is permanently affixed to a sash or vest, a digital badge exists in cyberspace. Badges earned from multiple institutions can be ported to a central virtual gateway and, from there, embedded in social media profiles, blogs, and electronic portfolios. This gateway, named a “badging backpack” by Mozilla, serves as a new kind of resume or portfolio. 

Individuals can filter, shuffle, sort, hide, or display badges in various configurations to appeal to a variety of audiences and for a variety of purposes. Current teachers—as well as future employers, university admissions officers, community organizations, and bosses—are able to view this backpack to get a deeper and more granular understanding of who the individual is as well as the “hard” and “soft” skills and dispositions he has demonstrated.

Digital badges have the potential to be the effective and flexible tools teachers have long sought to guide, recognize, assess, and spur learning. And they can recognize the soft skills not captured by standardized tests, such as critical or innovative thinking, teamwork, or effective communication.

Mapping the Universe: Badges Unpacked

Digital badges are created in online badging systems. These systems will host the information for a badge and make it easy for you to define a badge and for users to accept an earned badge. In its most basic form, the badging process is relatively simple: Educators enter badge criteria into the system and attach a badge image. Some badging platforms will allow you to enter class data as well. Once you review students’ work, you can issue badges. 

One advantage of the badge-definition process is its flexibility. You can also attach evidence of an accomplishment (similar to an e-portfolio), align with standards, share with other teachers or students, or attach rubrics. 

As you create your badges, it’s important to consider that just like celestial objects, the badges are the most useful, or shine the brightest, when they are part of a larger system. Designing badges to work together in context to measure and acknowledge related sets of skills is usually a better practice than designing badges that measure isolated skills. 

There are many free systems to choose from. Badg.us is an open source platform, and For All Badges is free for individual teachers. 

We recommend using a badging system built on Mozilla’s Open Badge Infrastructure (OBI). The OBI is a framework for organizing badge data that allows your students to easily move their earned badges from your system into others, particularly into Mozilla’s free individual “backpacks." Badges’ interoperability reduces the historic disconnect between institutions, as badging credentials from multiple sites can appear in students’ backpacks as long as they are issued by an OBI-compliant badging system.

But what information goes into creating a digital badge? To start, a digital badge is an image. Depending on the badging platform you use, you may choose from the system’s prepopulated collection of graphics, import a Creative Commons image, use a badge-design tool like the one the Chicago Summer of Learning Badge Studio uses, or design your own. 

Behind that image is metadata, a collection of information that travels with the image. This metadata (and don’t worry, the badging system will prompt you for the information you need and then “bake” it all together) includes:

Learning objectives. When the student earns the badge, what will it symbolize in terms of what the student has learned and can now do? In other words, when a third party looks at this badge, what can they deduce about the student’s skills and abilities? To maximize accountability, a learning objective might be a Common Core State Standard or a single skill excerpted from a larger standard. 

Performance task/required evidence of learning. What specific task or outcome did the student have to complete to earn the badge? Was the evidence of learning hosted online, where a viewer can see it? Or was evidence observed by the mentor or teacher? Apply the Goldilocks Principle: You want a task that’s “just right” in scope and difficulty. A project that is too long may have too many parts for someone to be able to point to the specific skills being developed. One that is too difficult or impossible to attain without significant adult intervention will discourage learners from trying. On the flip side, a project that is too simple (such as an assignment to bring in a current events article) will generate a flood of submissions without developing a specific skill and may lead students to view badges as a competition, not a learning activity. In some cases, students may not view your badges as something of value and may not be motivated to engage in the process.

Levels-related badges. Just like video games, where unlocking a level gives you access to new tools or privileges, badges can serve as prerequisites or gateways to other, more complex badges. Some badges, when bundled together, could culminate in a kind of “metabadge.” 

Digital Badging in Action

What might digital badging look like in your classroom? Let’s consider an example from the English language arts portion of the Common Core State Standards:

W.9-10.7 Gather relevant information from multiple authoritative print and digital sources, using advanced searches effectively; assess the usefulness of each source in answering the research question; integrate information into the text selectively to maintain the flow of ideas, avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.

This standard bundles together several implicit skills, including searching, determination of authority, resource utility, note-taking, synthesis, idea flow, original scholarship, and citation. This is too broad for a single badge, as a student skilled in most but not all areas would go unbadged, reducing motivation. Therefore, let’s narrow the focus to citation.

Sample Badge for Citation Skills

Badge name: MLA Citation Skills
Issued by: High School Media Center
Learning objective: “Follow a standard format for citation” from CCSS Writing 9-10, Standard 7. 
Performance task: To earn this badge, a student has to demonstrate the ability to create in-text citations of direct and indirect quotes and format a bibliography correctly using MLA format, as described on the library website.
Evidence: The student’s final paper will be posted on his/her online portfolio, which may be linked to the badge. The school librarian will evaluate the evidence.

At the beginning of a learning challenge, the badge:

Helps students monitor their own learning. By providing guidelines or a learning path, the badge lets students know, for example, that a bibliography, indirect quotes, and direct quotes are three places where citation matters. 

Motivates learners. It helps students set goals and envision success. This is the trickiest step of badging. Students are conditioned to think in “do the work, get a prize” mode. Meaningful badges should be a stretch that students can achieve. 

Beware of “gold star syndrome,” where the learner’s goal shifts from acquiring skills to acquiring a large quantity of badges. Try to focus on qualitative characteristics, not criteria that focuses on quantity (“Identifies rigorous sources” instead of “Uses five sources”).

Aligns with best practices in learning and teaching. Badging begins with the end in mind. Rather than merely doing a series of activities, the instructor thinks about the end goal, then works backward to envision assessment and learning activities.

What might earning this badge signify for a student after the challenge has been met? There are myriad possibilities. Because the badge can be displayed publicly, others can see the student’s accomplishment. The badge might:

Exempt a student from a future task. For example, the student might be able to bypass an intermediate “bibliography check” in the future.

Signal readiness for parallel or more complex tasks. The badge above shows that the student understands MLA formatting. Perhaps in a future project, she can tackle APA style.

Serve as a “star” in a larger “constellation” of skills. Perhaps the citation badge gets combined with a note-taking badge, a search badge, and a synthesis badge, which can be exchanged for a “research skills” or “Writing” metabadge.

Unlock privileges. Students can earn the opportunity to use special equipment, processes, or permissions. Her badge might give her the chance, for example, to circulate the room and help others. 

Signal to future admissions officers. The badge, especially if the school is well regarded, could indicate the caliber of college readiness for a student. Combined with other badges, it could help her place out of initial coursework.

Signal to future employers. If the student wants a summer job at the local online newspaper, her citation badge, combined with a badge for interviewing skills, another for summarization, and a third for completing tasks on time, could form a constellation indicating her potential as a well-prepared intern reporter.

Beam Me Up, Scotty

Educators share a commitment to creating well-rounded, curious students and a concern that assessment metrics provide only a partial snapshot of a student’s skills and dispositions. Digital badging may offer learners a flexible, inclusive ecosystem that connects formal and informal learning, skills and dispositions, and competencies and abilities. 

Our conversations about digital badging have compelled us to re-evaluate the content, context, and assessment of learning. As we have worked through badging projects, we have asked ourselves, How do we define evidence of learning? Is skill development a yes or no proposition? Do we badge developing skills or just those that have been mastered? How do we know that learning has stuck? And how do we use badging to promote intrinsic motivation, not merely relabeling extrinsic sticker charts as badging? Whether you ultimately adopt badging or not, these are critical conversations for critical times, and badging offers us a fresh opportunity to articulate who we want our graduates to be and how we help them get there.

—Kristin Fontichiaro is a clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Information and faculty coordinator of the Michigan Makers projects on makerspaces and badging. 

—Angela Elkordy is a doctoral candidate in educational leadership, with an instructional technologies cognate at Eastern Michigan University’s College of Education. She is lead developer for a badging system in a graduate certificate program. 
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