Digital Badges Make Their Mark on K-12 Education

We're all familiar with the merit badges earned by Boy and Girl Scouts to signal achievements and acquired skills. So what if we applied the same concept to education to give students a more concrete way to showcase their abilities to schools and potential employers? Education innovators around the country have been working on ways to do exactly that, and digital badges may be the latest trend taking K-12 and, eventually, higher education by storm. At this rate, digital badges could be poised to revolutionize the way we view learning and measure educational achievement.


New trends with digital badges

In March, digital badges made a major leap forward on several fronts. The MacArthur Foundation, which one year ago awarded $2 million in development funding to winners of its Badges for Lifelong Learning competition, revealed the results of those efforts at the Digital Media and Learning Conference in Chicago. The Mozilla Foundation, creators of the Firefox web browser, released its Open Badges Infrastructure, open-source software that allows users to collect and display digital badges in one convenient place. At the same time, the city of Chicago announced that digital badges would play an important role in its Summer of Learning initiative, hailed as the nation's largest citywide learning campaign.

So far, digital badges have been embraced most enthusiastically by K-12 educators, though if the trend catches on, their applications could be far-reaching. Many current badging systems exist at the K-12 level simply because educators there have been most "open" to them, said Sheryl Grant, director of social networking for the Digital Media and Learning Competition, in THE Journal. As more and more students begin to question the value of a traditional college education, digital badges could be a potential game-changer, particularly for those in college who want additional ways to demonstrate their competencies to employers. "The college career path is a very narrow one, and it's expensive. Everyone shouldn't have to go down the same road, and digital badges have the potential to provide a system for giving credit for doing valuable, marketable things outside of school," said Alexander Halavais, associate professor in Arizona State University's School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, to THE Journal.

Digital badges can also be useful for lifelong learners who want concrete evidence of skills acquired outside of a traditional degree program. So far, badges seem like particularly promising tools for veterans, who often return from military service with skills and experiences that are difficult to account for on a resume, but valuable in many types of jobs. The Obama administration has embraced the idea, with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan calling badging "a game-changing strategy," and offering $25,000 to the best badging project for veterans seeking skilled employment.

While our reliance on resumes in the job hunt process is unlikely to disappear anytime soon, badging proponents hope that employers will begin to favor digital badges for the more concrete information they may provide about a job seeker's preparedness. While a resume allows the opportunity to list degrees earned and classes taken, it ultimately relies on the job seeker's claims about what his or her skills and experience are. Digital badges, on the other hand, can link to the course curriculum and a student's actual work for each class.

"You don't often see actual proof of learning attached to a resume, but you do with a badge," Grant said. "You can click through and actually see the curriculum. You could see the rubric, the multiple-choice test, a detailed portfolio. You can show a learning pathway. And there are a lot of different types of assessment you could tuck into a badge. It doesn't have to be tied to anything that we are already familiar with. This technology is giving people an opportunity to ask, 'How are we sure that we are truly assessing learning?'"

Looking into the future

It is unclear how digital badges will be received in the job market, but their enthusiastic reception in K-12 education seems to indicate bigger things to come. In the meantime, a re-examination of the way students acquire knowledge and skills in and out of the classroom could be an interesting result of digital badging's entry into the educational scene.

"Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Badging in the Classroom -- Our Definitive Guide," THE Journal, June 4, 2013, John K. Waters
Digital Media and Learning Competition, dmlcompetition.net
Mozilla Open Badges, openbadges.org
"An Online Badge of Success," The Providence Journal, June 1, 2013, Tom Mooney
"Open Badges Transform the Higher Education and Labor Markets," Evolllution, June 13, 2013, Erin Knight
"Mayor Emanuel City Officials and More Than 140 Leading Community and Civic Organizations Launch First-Ever Citywide Summer Learning Initiative," Press Release, cityofchicago.org, March 12, 2013