Digital Badging: 3 Things You Need to Know

skills puzzle piece

As a child, I looked forward to my local library’s summer reading program. I completed reading challenges, earned rewards for fulfilling my weekly reading goals, and was awarded a certificate at the end. It was great motivation to develop my reading skills.

Today, higher education institutions are adopting similar kinds of models to teach adults various skills, and award them with digital badges that can be displayed on résumés, e-portfolios, personal websites, and social media pages.

What’s the philosophy behind digital badging programs?  And how do they work? Here’s what you need to know.

1. They typically recognize different skills than degree programs.
Digital badges are not the same as degree or certificate programs. In most cases, badges certify concrete, relatively small skills or competencies.

A good example of this is Colorado State University’s online Certified Gardener program, which teaches practical horticultural techniques in online courses that each take one or two weeks to complete. Participants in the program can pick and choose among topics like “pruning,” or “plant diseases,” and earn respective digital badges for each. They can also take groups of courses and earn badges for different categories of subjects, like “diagnostics and pest management.” Essentially, badging programs give people the freedom to craft their credentials as necessary to their situation.

Such approaches work well for teaching skills that are not traditionally recognized in formal education programs. However, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Vocational and Adult Education recently commissioned a report on the feasibility of integrating digital badging programs in more formal learning environments.

2. They offer motivation to learn and to showcase your knowledge.
Digital badges are based on a principle known as gamification, or “the use of game design elements” outside of a game context. This means that participants receive rewards for the successful completion of different requirements (akin to scouts earning merit badges, or getting prizes for passing certain levels in a game). New research suggests that gamification has been found to be an effective motivational technique that has the potential to revolutionize the traditional structure of higher education.

Gamification principles have long been used in business contexts to encourage certain activities. Airlines award customers with frequent flyer miles to reward credit card usage. Coffee shops distribute punch cards to reward shop loyalty.

As a form of gamification, digital badging is a fun, and often more accessible approach to education. Many programs use adventure-like themes, such as CSU’s certified gardener program with its “trek” and “quest” badges. At the very least, digital badges are designed to be visually appealing, so they showcase people’s skills in an eye-catching manner.

3. Their value can sometimes be a challenge to articulate.
Although digital badges can make it easier, faster, and more fun to learn new skills, it’s important before earning them to ensure you can communicate their value to others. Educause, a leader in educational training and one of the forerunners in digital badging, argues that a downside of digital badging is that, “The value in each badge rests largely on the credibility of the issuer and the badge requirements, as well as the badge earner’s articulation of its importance.”

For digital badges to carry any weight, entities that issue the badges must be well respected (preferably a recognizable institution like CSU, or a well-known educational organization). It is also vital that the digital badge earner be able to articulate the value of the badge to employers, clients, or others who might need proof of competencies. Digital badges are still relatively new, and not everyone is aware of the existence or credibility of such programs.

This won’t always be the case, though. As badge programs grow in popularity, and more institutions begin to offer them, we are sure to see digital badges become a widely accepted endorsement of skills.

What do you think about digital badges? Have you participated in a badging program? Would you enjoy having badges integrated into your online courses?

Learn more about CSU’s online digital badge programs.

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