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Digital Badges

Labo : Open Badges in Education - Step 2

Lab Session Summary: Use Cases for Digital Badges

By Alexandre Enkerli. The 4 December 2014



Two new guests joined us for this second live session. Bridget McGraw, an independent consultant who has been working with Temescal Associates on Afterschool programs, and Erin Fields who co-leads badging projects at UBC. Fields was kind enough to write her own summary for that session. As was the case during the first live session, we also benefitted from contributions made by April Moore, Charles Tsai, Don Presant, James Willis, Kim Flintoff, and Dan Hickey.


Learning Curve

As participants might experience, there is a learning curve involved in badging projects. While some of the learning involves practical and even technical components, much of the work to be done revolves around difficult, even philosophical questions.

One such issue, as Ashoka’s Charles Tsai put it, concerns the type of learning people want. As Tsai had discussed with Mozilla’s Mark Surman, much of the value in badging comes from a shift in educational paradigms. Change is hard and Tsai further offered that guidance is important as diverse stakeholders get into badging. From issuers and earners through the whole ecosystem accepting badges as a valid representation of achievements, it appears essential that everyone understands the whole process surrounding badges.

According to Indiana University’s James Willis, badging sheds a new light on ethical dimensions of learning processes and assessment.

  • “In terms of being able to help others achieve educational attainment that they otherwise would not have as opportunities, that is a deeply ethical concern.”

Badging’s openness and transparency, according to Willis, can avoid the “nihilistic turn” which stems from utilitarian approaches to educational technology.

CNUSD’s April Moore discussed offline coaching to ensure that badge developers think through all the steps involved. For instance, making decisions about the weights associated with badges requires forethought and badge issuers need support through such an experience. Moore encouraged participants to jump into badging and deal with concrete situations instead of merely thinking through abstract issues.

According to Erin Fields, the next step in the UBC badging projects is to create tools needed for faculty and staff to implement badges in a considered way. Lessons learnt during this year’s three pilot projects should help in the creation of these tools.

Indiana University’s Dan Hickey offered solid advice on capturing key decision points in the process. When do badge developers come to a “fork in the road”, so to speak? For each of these decision points, pros and cons need to be weighed for an appropriate option to be selected. Later in the process, these same decision points help in identifying important results in the approach. Hickey plans to ask participants in his own research projects to document the full process, identifying key aspects of the reasoning.

Badging Platforms

Some of the learning has to do with the technical aspects of badging. For instance, some technological issues have delayed plans by the UBC team to transfer badges from WordPress to Mozilla Backpack. During a short discussion between UBC’s Fields and Bridget McGraw, the very difficulty involved in “baking a badge” can help prevent people from creating fake badges.

The “homework” for this second live session involved three badging platforms (Youtopia, Open Badge Factory, and Moodle’s support for badges). Unsurprisingly, these platforms’ affordances were discussed by participants and guests. For instance, participant Brenda Lamb found both Youtopia and Moodle’s badging features to be lacking in user-friendliness. Even though her badges were thought out, interface problems made the badging process more difficult. Participants and guests agreed that Youtopia made too many assumptions about a badge’s purpose and meaning.

The three badging platforms selected for the homework had the desired effect, helping participants think through the requirements in a badging process. However, other badging systems and services were discussed during this lab session, some of which had key advantages.

For instance, Charles Tsai explained that Credly offers some prompts which help badge creators dig into the value and meaning of each badge. Given the learning curve involved in badging projects, this type of support may have an important effect on such projects.

Similarly, as Bridget McGraw pointed out, ForAllRubrics lets the badge creation process “flow”, from a pedagogical point of view. Criteria and evidence are paired with rubrics, making for a seamless integration of pedagogy and technique. Dan Hickey, for his part, had been using the ForAllRubrics mobile app to help support badging in the context of a hackathon.

In addition, April Moore found out that Mozilla Foundation’s own BadgeKit was perceived as nonthreatening by users, especially in terms of designing the visual aspects of a badge.


Visual design can be a key factor in badge creation and, as planned, much of the live session revolved around badges’ visual appearance.

However, as Dan Hickey pointed out, badge design issues can become a disproportional concern for some, preventing projects from going further. Describing a specific project, Hickey claimed that:

  • “Anybody who’s worried that much into the design of the badge didn’t get that there’s so many other things that matter beyond the design of the badge.”

A type of consensus has emerged around badge design that it should be as legible as possible. As a badge serves to visually represent an achievement, an effective badge makes learning manifest. As both Erin Fields and Charles Tsai have pointed out, information about institutional source is already part of badge metadata and needs not be included in a badge’s visual design. In such a situation, badge design can focus on representing the learning experience involved.

A common strategy to design badges is to blend images and words, as in badges displayed by Kim Flintoff which use Curtin University typography to establish a common identity. Care must be taken to make badges distinctive. Bridget McGraw pointed out a “family” of colour-coded badges created by the Long Beach YMCA to identify three groups of participants.

However, Ashoka Canada’s Charles Tsai encourages people to think of badges as beautiful designs, works of art which need no word or branding. For instance, Ashoka contracted a visual artist who was able to create badges which work through visual metaphor instead of text or references to the Ashoka logo. Such badges, he argues, help market this technology by capturing attention more effectively than a series of corporate logos.

The process of creating the visual design can even involve learners themselves, as was the case in April Moore’s school district. Though they started by working with technically proficient adults, they have transitioned to student-generated images in some cases.

Branded Portfolios

Through the issue of badge design, Erin Fields led us to think more deeply about the importance of badge repositories. Though an individual badge may not need to be branded, there are clear advantages to having an institutional “learning locker” as a type of badge-enhanced portfolio.

What Fields described evokes the notion of local “backpacks” in which learners could manage their own badges. Mozilla Backpack is a centralized repository for Open Badges and several badging systems offer space for badge display. Yet part of the badge appropriation process has to do with making them relevant in a specific ecosystem. Interest in having a Quebec-wide repository for badges has been discussed in parallel with our labs.


As one might expect, the relationships between badges and institutional credentials remain relevant throughout the lab. Addressed in part during the first lab session, issues around credits, transcripts, and proofs continue to haunt lab guests and participants.

Badging involves a move from traditional credentials to microcredentials or even, as Charles Tsai prefers calling them, open credentials. As Tsai explained in this “hot tips” video, these terms may help others understand the issues in a more appropriate way.

Concerns over credentialing are pressing, in many educational contexts. As learning can happen outside the classroom, some people may perceive credentials as the primary role of colleges and other institutions of higher learning.

During this second lab session, an institution’s “stamp of approval” has been a common theme. Typically, institutions have no problem with badges being earned by their members. Difficulties arise, however, when a badge is perceived as emanating from that institution. To college stakeholders, for instance, it would appear that a badge can play a part in their school’s reputation. The same logic applies to that college’s degrees, the value of which is thoroughly assessed by employers, professional organizations, universities, and even competitors.

In such a context, institutional reluctance over badges is both unsurprising and telling. Erin Fields described the political nature of discussions about badges with representatives of UBC’s senate. Badges take a whole new meaning when they are to become part of a transcript.

As Charles Tsai surmised, links to institutions provide an important incentive for badge earners. Though corporate logos may be uninspiring, they may prove enticing to individuals who want to associate their identities with such entities.

In April Moore’s experience, it was essential to distinguish badges issued at the school or district level from all other badges. Badges issued by teachers may put this issue to the fore, as the nature of the hierarchy would imply.

In some cases, as in the Curtin Leadership Academy, institutional approval for badges can be obtained somewhat easily. According to Kim Flintoff, the key to that approval process was that his team had a deep understanding of how those badges would be used. As in other dimensions of badging, the involvement of a full ecosystem makes quite significant a difference.

Institutional approval needs not be limited to educational organizations. Hours after the end of the lab session, Bridget McGraw was flying to Kenya to gain approval for a badging project done through the National Museum in Nairobi.

Beyond the Curriculum

The relationships between curricular and extracurricular activities constitute an important focus in this lab. As an ePortfolio expert, Don Presant became interested in badges through his work on “co-curricular records”. According to Presant, CCRs came out of microsites from student organizations. These microsites were originally meant to manage student membership and events, but they were eventually used to track student activity and even generate “transcripts” of service hours.

Responses to such documentation combining extracurricular activities with formal transcript have been mixed. As Presant described them:

  • “Why is all this effort going into creating another piece of paper that employers don’t want to look at?”

Yet again, the finality of the assessment dictates important considerations at every step in the process. Badges provide a key answer to this question, especially if they are used in innovative ways.

Presant gets inspired by the use of badges and portfolios as part of narratives and conversations. For instance, an interviewer is likely to ask the following question:

  • “Tell me a time when you had to get along with somebody that you didn’t like.”

In such a situation, a badge can support an applicant’s answer to this question, providing evidence. Furthermore, stringing badges together makes them into a medium for telling stories about learning and professional development.

Prefiguring our next and last lab session on the full ecosystem around badges, Presant further described ways potential employers are announcing skills and assets which applicants need to match. The creation of “talent pipelines” complements the curricular approach favoured at colleges and other institutions of higher learning.

Learning Pathways

If learners can tell powerful stories through badges, pedagogues can use badges to help learners along learning pathways. Based on important work done by Mozilla’s “Director of Badge System Design + Implementation”, Presant provided participants with a clear model for badge pathways.

From disconnected badges which can be earned in parallel, a learning project can link achievements in increasing levels of complexity all the way to self-directed learning putting learners in charge of their own paths.

  1. Individual Badges
  2. Leveled Badges
  3. Linear with Milestones
  4. Clustered with Milestones
  5. Complex/Self-Directed


As planned, multiple cases have been discussed through this lab session. These particular cases should serve as inspiration to participants in their own projects, whether or not they involve badges.

  • Erin Fields described the early success of a “pre-pilot pilot” project for badges in a Videogame Law course at UBC.
  • Kim Flintoff focused on badges used in a challenge-based approach at Curtin University, with particular attention paid to the Leadership Challenge as part of the Curtin Extra Certificate.
  • April Moore provided further insight on badging in the Corona-Norco Unified School District, including initial enthusiasm by elementary school teachers for “feel-good” badges given to everybody.
  • Bridget McGraw broadened the discussion through the example of Kenya’s Trust for Indigenous Culture and Health where she is putting a badge project together “to get thousands of students to contribute recipes that elders are using to stay healthy with indigenous plants”.


As was the case between the first two live sessions, participants were asked to engage in offline activities. Though these activities won’t be graded, they should help shape the learning experience which is at the core of the lab’s experimental approach.

Badging Contexts

Part of the homework given to participants was created by Erin Fields. As she explained its goal, this part of the assignment gives prominence to pathways.

  • “To develop a badge-based learning pathway and a brand around badges.”

Participants are asked to think about the broader context needed to make a badge into a valuable tool for the program itself.

Badging Contexts Activity

As described in our lab’s collaborative document, this part of the assignment proposes the following activity:

  • Using your own institutional context or the case study below, develop a badge based learning pathway and brand. The resources provide you with tools and approaches to design badge based learning. Use one or more of the resources to develop your badge based program.
  • Be sure to describe your decision-making process. More than the end result, the paths through which you go to design this program are the key to your own learning experience.


For his part, Don Presant shared a customized document meant to help participants answer key questions in the badge design process. This workbook integrates inspiration from the following sources:

  1. Badge Canvas from DigitalMe
  2. Open Badge Design Toolkit from JISC
  3. Badge Design Template from the Open Badges MOOC
  4. A customized digital badge canvas adapted by Serge Ravet for our French language lab on badges.

Involving the Network Partners

Concerned with the full ecosystem surrouding badges, Charles Tsai asked participants to connect with three organizations in their networks and figure out, with members of those organizations:

  • What badges can you create that we would want to see?
  • What badges can we create so that others can integrate them in their application process?

Taking Part in a Community of Practice

Many parts of the lab’s activities happen outside of the live sessions. For instance, participants have been encouraged to do some practical work between online meetings and several contacts have been established around the lab “membership”. As we get into the last lab session, we hope to contribute to a wider community of practice around badges.

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