Cw Resource2 Insights

Digital Badges for Educational Achievement

Is Your Organization Ready?

This week, Managing eLearning features a guest post from Colin Skinner, an instructional designer at Web Courseworks.

Learning today happens everywhere, not just in the classroom. But it’s often difficult to get recognition for skills and achievements that happen outside of school. Mozilla’s Open Badges project is working to solve that problem, making it easy for anyone to issue, earn and display badges across the web through a shared technical infrastructure. The result: helping people of all ages gain and display 21st century skills and unlock new career and educational opportunities.

– From Mozilla’s Open Badges wiki page

The Mozilla Foundation launched its Open Badges project in September 2011. Since then, adoption of “badging,” as it has come to be known, has been steadily increasing:

  • Mozilla put on a grant-funded competition to help a variety of organizations develop their own badge programs.
  • Higher-ed institutions like Purdue and the University of California–Davis are offering badges alongside their courses and degrees to help students further differentiate themselves.
  • Corporations like Dell and HP are successfully using badges to incentivize employees to boost their social media presence.

If you’re an association education or technology director, you might be intrigued by the possibility of bringing badges to your members. The good news is that the technological barrier is much lower than it used to be, although a certain amount of savvy is still required. In this post, we’ll run through some of the main questions you’ll need to consider in order to get your badges program off the ground.

Is my badging program needed? Will the badges be valued?

Digital badges are a type of micro-credential, meaning that they are smaller in scope than traditional credentialing systems such as degrees and certifications. As such, they have certain advantages over those systems: they are more flexible, less costly to implement, and therefore more accessible to learners. However, because they aren’t regulated[1], they can be awarded by almost anyone, making it more difficult for employers to assign meaning or value to them. For example, a summer camp may award a “Master Welder” badge for successfully attaching two pieces of metal together, while a professional association may award an identically-named and similar-looking badge for completing 40 hours of hands-on training.

As this example illustrates, badges derive their value from the credibility of the issuing organization as well as the requirements for earning them (just like traditional credentialing systems). During our CourseStage Users Group Meeting earlier this year, consultant Mickie Rops cautioned associations against jumping on the badges bandwagon prematurely. In order to be successful, your badge program must be built on a well-crafted credentialing system that is attractive to your members and their employers. To effectively convey your badges’ value, position issuer and requirements information up front. For example, work your logo into the badge image and make the name of the badge clearly reflect what members had to do to earn it.

If you’re confident that a badging program will meet your association’s credentialing needs, read on to learn about some of the technological considerations involved.

What do I need to know about the Open Badges Infrastructure (OBI)?

The Open Badges Infrastructure (OBI) is the collection of open-source technical standards and software that make “badging” possible. There’s a lot that falls under that umbrella, including a variety of applications and tools, some of which are discussed below. I’ll keep this discussion just brief enough to give you a general idea of what is happening behind the scenes.

Mozilla frames the badging discussion in terms of four groups:

  • Issuers award badges to earners who meet certain criteria
  • Earners receive badges from issuers and display them to consumers
  • Displayers are software platforms that earners can use to display badges (e.g. social media)
  • Consumers (e.g. employers and colleges) use badges to make hiring/acceptance decisions

These terms are used frequently in the badging world, so it’s good to be familiar with them. As an issuer, you will be responsible for creating your badges, deciding who to issue them to, and hosting the data for the badges you award. Creating a badge involves designing the image to represent the badge and deciding on the criteria for earning it. Once an earner meets those criteria, you “bake” a badge for them, meaning you embed the image file with metadata about that specific awarding instance. You can then email the badge to the earner or send it to their badge “backpack.”

Thankfully, much of this process can now be automated using various open-source and proprietary tools from Mozilla and others, as we’ll see below.

What tools does Mozilla offer for earners and issuers?

For earners, there is the Mozilla Backpack. This is intended to be the central online repository for all the badges an earner has acquired. Issuers can send badges directly to the backpack, and earners can organize their badges into groups and decide which ones they want to share on social media sites like LinkedIn and Twitter. Anyone with an email address can sign up for their own backpack. A handy user guide with pictures is available here.

For issuers, there is BadgeKit, which is Mozilla’s back-end web app for creating and issuing badges. BadgeKit’s simple badge design interface lets you create badge templates and drafts and specify any metadata, such as earning criteria. If you have a front-end website that you use to display badges to earners and collect applications, you can use the BadgeKit API to publish badges to your site, review earners’ applications, and award badges.

BadgeKit is currently in private beta testing, so a version of the web app hosted by Mozilla is not publicly available. However, if your association has IT resources, you can download the source code and set up an instance of BadgeKit on your own server. A how-to guide for this process is available here.

Setting up BadgeKit sounds like a lot of work. Aren’t there any third-party tools available?

Certainly. Credly is a popular choice that combines earner/Backpack functionality and issuer/BadgeKit functionality into one app. Anyone can create a free account with Credly to start earning and issuing badges. If you’re an association running a larger operation and willing to pay an annual fee, you can upgrade to a Pro account to unlock advanced issuing functionality.

If your association uses WordPress, you should definitely check out BadgeOS. BadgeOS is a free plugin that turns your WordPress site into a platform for badge earning and issuing. This is nice because your members won’t need to log into a separate system like Mozilla Backpack or Credly to claim their badges. Instead, you can deliver them straight to your members’ profiles on your association’s website.

Unlike the other options we’ve discussed, BadgeOS doesn’t let you design badge graphics in the system. However, BadgeOS communicates with Credly out-of-the-box, so you can create badges in Credly and easily send them to your BadgeOS platform.

Finally, if your association has an LMS, you might already have an end-to-end badging solution at your fingertips. The latest version of Blackboard Learn as well as recent versions of Moodle and our own CourseStage all have badging capabilities. And since these platforms live in your LMS, they can sync with your learning content—you can set up badges to be automatically issued to your members when they complete certain courses or activities.

All of these tools are OBI-compliant, meaning badges created or earned via any one of these platforms can be pushed or uploaded to any of the others, including the Mozilla Backpack.

Summary

Digital badges are gradually gaining acceptance in the higher education market, and continuing/ professional education is poised to follow that trend. With the right technology, you can make your idea for a badging program for your association a reality. If hosting your own BadgeKit instance scares you, viable third-party solutions are available, especially if you’re already using WordPress or a modern LMS. However, before you begin, make sure your badging system is fully conceived and that your badges will be valued by your professional community.


[1] Digital badge issuers aren’t regulated now, but they could be in the future. ASTM International is working on a new standard that will “form the basis of a system of recognition or accreditation of digital badge issuers.”

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