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Digital Badges

Labo : Open Badges in Education - Step 1

Lab Session Summary: Introduction to Open Badges

By Alexandre Enkerli. The 13 November 2014


Vitrine technologie-éducation has organized two labs on the use of badges in learning contexts. This lab in English focuses on informal learning while a French one revolves around educational institutions. Each lab involves a set of three online meeting sessions between which participants are encouraged to engage in diverse activities.

The following summary describes the content of the first lab session in English, held on October 23, 2014. On November 20 (1:30–3:00 p.m. EST/UTC-5,18:30–20:00 UTC), we will hold the second lab session in English during which we will follow up on the learning process by delving deeper into practical cases and issues.


Instead of the usual videoconferencing setup, Vitrine has tried an unusual model for this lab on badges in education. During this session, our distinguished guests were part of a Hangout on Air which was broadcast in real time through YouTube. Meanwhile, participants were encouraged to contribute to a collaborative document which helped us track coments and questions while generating something akin to collective intelligence.

Despite the “fishbowl effect” of having participants listening to a small group of guests, this particular setup has allowed for a productive dynamic among diverse people involved in the lab.

In some ways, live online meetings constitute the most visible part of our labs. Both realtime broadcasts and recordings available after-the-fact may greatly expand lab usefulness. It should be noted, however, that much activity happens “in the background”, outside of those live sessions. Not only are participants encouraged to work on their own between lab sessions, but much of the work happens “behind the scenes” as practitioners from diverse spheres of activities get to know each other (and each other’s work). The potential for asynchronous work may remind one of the now-popular “flipped classroom” model.


The following experts graced us with their presence on October 23 (in alphabetical order):

The diversity of perspectives represented in this panel goes to show badging’s breadth and depth as a central issue. Without being a mere excuse to gather together fascinating people, badges have obvious potential in the development of communities of practice around innovative learning and assessment practices.

Issues Covered

Based in large part on questions submitted by participants and guests ahead of the lab session, the following issues have been covered explicitly:

  • Badge quality
  • Microlearning
  • Self-directed learning
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Serious games
  • Safety

These headings represent broad categories which include more specific concepts, used in badge-related work.


Though the issue of badge quality was raised in part by a panel expert, Learning Agents President and CAPLA member Don Presant, it tends to dominate discussions of badging projects with institutional partners. As Presant explained, CAPLA is looking into quality assurance in the recognition of prior learning, finding interesting possibilities in badging.

A discrepancy between badging and traditional credentials may be obvious when badges are held to stricter standards than grades.

Don Presant pointed out “A Guide to Quality in Post-Traditional Online Higher Education” published by a company called Academic Partnerships and distributed by Contact North. This guide included the following tidbit:

Thus Open Badges may provide a portfolio of evidence of learning, but they do not yet provide an indication of quality.

As should be expected, strong reactions to such a statement came from group members who advocate for badges’ legitimacy. After all, the evaluation criteria and “evidence of learning” contained in a badge itself represent a clearer “indication of quality” than an isolated grade, a context-free “grade point average”, or even a degree from an unknown institution.

In the case of formal institutions, CNUSD’s Director for Curriculum and Instruction April Moore argued that part of the badge’s credibility may come from the issuer’s reputation. On the other hand, Indiana University Associate Professor Dan Hickey pointed out that crowds assess the value of badges which are transacted through social networks.

Ashoka Canada’s Director of Learning Networks Charles Tsai discussed the possibility for an organization with credibility across the field to issue badges showing similar achievements in different contexts.


Part of the enthusiasm around badges comes from the possibility to divide learning processes in smaller parts which may be rearranged. Concepts such as “unbundling”, “chunking”, “stacking”, and “granularity” all have some currency in this context.

Overall, hopes stem from the possibility for a learner to earn badges on several occasions during her learning career, instead of waiting for final transcripts and terminal degrees. An interesting possibility, discussed by Curtin University’s Academic Engagement Developer Kim Flintoff, revolves around the “rebundling” of smaller requirements, elements of evidence, and signs of recognition on the way to full qualification.

Employment-related training also benefits from this type of granularity, since a training session may easily demonstrate its value without leading towards full accreditation. As Dan Hickey pointed out from his experience, some learners are even able to use badges as a way to prove the value of workshops and courses to managers, thereby claiming hours of relevant work.

Self-Directed Learning

A participant’s question on Self-Organized Learning Environments has led to a discussion of self-directed learning. Charles Tsai stated heartfelt optimism about the potential for programs and even schools designed by learners themselves. Since a video he created about the topic has “gone viral”, Tsai has been hearing about a number of similar projects.

In such a context, badges may act as a way to track learning, providing evidence and data on the validity of the process. More than traditional credentials, badges follow learners through their own trajectories instead of imposing predetermined programs.

Though left undiscussed in this lab session, the homeschooling movement could gain from a similar approach to accreditation.

Extracurricular Activities

Partly due to the lab’s orientation, the recognition of work done outside of standard courses has led to stimulating exchange among lab guests. Bridges between formal and informal contexts are being built in useful ways.

As a school principal, April Moore oversaw a K–12 program which issued over 380 000 badges. Though these badges were initially designed for formal learning, badging quickly broadened to include community service and extracurricular activities. For instance, as Moore said, achievements in the 100 Mile Club would never appear on her school’s transcripts but can easily be badged. Examples such as the Chicago Summer of Learning (CSoL) and Cities of Learning were particularly influential in this approach to badging activities outside of course settings. Eventually, Moore’s program went as far as allowing community partners to issue their own badges linked to the school district.

Contributing to work done on “co-curricular activities”, Don Presant descibed a way in which some transcripts include mentions of service activities. Badges have yet to replace textual mentions on these transcripts, in most cases. On the other hand, Champlain College Saint-Lambert CERAC Coordinator Geneviève Rock explained that Cégep à distance, at least, is looking into assigning badges to replace these mentions in transcripts.

Geneviève Rock’s work at Champlain’s CERAC (Centre of Expertise in the Recognition of Acquired Competencies) also made for a useful discussion of the bridges between academic instutions and employers. Focusing on employers’ needs, Rock’s team has been integrating terms used to describe such requirements. As employers may provide titles and other specifications for badges, the fit between recognized competencies and employment could improve significantly.

Serious Games

Because games often involve badge-like achievement and reward systems, serious games appear particularly well-suited for learning badges. In parallel with our lab, Affordance Studio game entrepreneur and Vanier College French Teacher Avery Rueb started adding badges to his serious games, putting things in motion.

As a lab participant, Avery Rueb helped guests share insight on other relationships between games and badges. Dan Hickey, for instance, described research on gamification in learning, distinguishing (with Collins and Halverson) between benefits for “just in time” learning and lack of impact for “just in case” learning. The distinction also bears on differences between educational and work contexts. Much learning done in formal education is done “just in case” it might be handy while much vocational training benefits from efficiency set in the “just in time” model. It sounds like badges may provide more help with the instant gratification of the latter than with the delayed feedback in the former. This imbalance could present a challenge in contexts were badges to prove ineffective in learning situations requiring sustained effort and patience.


Nowadays, computer security and safe computing may represent a core preoccupation for educators and parents. As badging can pose specific threats, two sets of safety issues were discussed during the lab session.

On one hand, badges themselves are valuable assets which need to be protected from attacks. Hickey mentioned BadgeSafe for Canvas, a badging service built by Accreditrust for use within the Canvas Learning Management System (LMS). This service ties in with the TrueCred Framework to secure “high-stakes credentials”. The very existence of such a service may feed discussions of badge value, away from assumptions that badges are simply added on top of existing credentials.

With some guests from the United States (and important work on badges coming from the US), it was important to address limits on badging imposed by the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Since COPPA prevents the public display of some identifying information about persons under the age of 13, a badge profile like the ones created through Mozilla Backpack cannot be created for young children. Because of this, badges issued at K–6 schools in April Moore’s district had to be kept private until people who earned them turned 13. Though that particular district’s badging experience may be too young to tell, Dan Hickey pointed out that similar experiences elsewhere have put badges at the centre of an important rite of passage.

Common Themes

Apart from those issues which were covered during the lab session, a number of connecting threads emerged from the conversation. Among these, three themes may help deepen participants’ badging work:

  • Badging as an alternative to other systems
  • Common currency
  • Motivation

Alternative to Other Systems

As one could expect, part of the first lab session revolved around the relationships between digital badges and other systems meant for the recognition of skills and knowledge.

Among such systems, degrees, certification, and grades were likely present at the back of our guests’ minds, as key components of formal education. A core point about badges is that they can serve as an alternative to traditional credentials, a point made clear in an interview conducted by Charles Tsai, with Mozilla Executive Director Mark Surman. That interview is available on YouTube and was part of our lab presentation.

An important point made during our lab session is that badges should offer added value beyond traditional credentials and not reproduce what may already be covered. For instance, several competencies are already recognized officially by Champlain’s RAC (Recognition of Acquired Competencies). Badges might not be needed for the same competencies, though they could add more context to (and evidence for) these competencies. Additionally, achievements in community service or even health and fitness could be badged as a way to expand traditional grade reports.

April Moore’s suggestion to “zero in on priorities” when designing badges echoes the sentiment behind some activities planned in this lab, including badge creation and work with a badge canvas.

A Common Currency

A notion of badges as a common currency was mentioned on several occasions during this first lab session.

A badge’s “exchange value” puts it in a broader ecosystem, an ongoing issue for our upcoming sessions. Links between educational institutions, community stakeholders, and (potential) employers have been explored by several of our guests. Bringing badges beyond classrooms is a central concern. For instance, a badge issued by a well-recognized organizations affords harmonization across educational institutions when it is given to students from diverse schools.

The emphasis on common currency might reflect the panel’s diversity, especially in terms of sectors of activity. Open exchange through shared standards figures prominently among connections between learners, teachers, social entrepreneurs, employers, trainers, administrators, and researchers.


Partly based on a debate between Alfie Kohn (YouTube) and Dan Hickey (YouTube), the relationship between badges and motivation has been raised. For instance, though separate in some ways, the practice of badging attendance raises the risk of misplaced motivation.

As Hickey stated, badges might have the same effects as those observed in the experiments discussed by Kohn if they are based on arbitrary and extrinsic incentives. On the other hand, badges also connect to intrinsic motivation. For instance, badges can fill a credentialing need unmet by other systems.

The credentialing function of badges has been mentioned on several occasions. For instance, Dan Hickey reminded us that the pioneering work with badges done at P2PU’s School of Webcraft had more to do with practicing web designers than with inexperienced learners. These designers’ skills were hidden in proprietary work, and badges served as a way to give them recognition for prior learning. In such a case, the motivation to receive a badge is neither extrinsic nor arbitrary.

Mentioned later was the possibility for extrinsic motivation to work with internally-facing badges or for ungratifying work. Behaviourist theories and experiments serve well in such cases and connections to gamification may be obvious.


At the end of the lab session, particpants were advised to attempt a simple badge creation exercise. The purpose of this exercise is to help relevant issues come to the fore. Beyond theoretical and abstract considerations surrounding badges, this lab is concerned with concrete examples, practical questions, and learning experiences related to badge projects. Some participants have declared an interest in trying out badges, and this lab should help them experiment with badging.

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