Badging: Not Quite the Next Big Thing

While badging and digital credentialing are gaining acceptance in the business world and, to some extent, higher education, K-12 educators — and even students — are slower to see the value.

March 2013 seemed to represent a turning point for badging, the practice of offering a digital validation of skills learned, content understood or goals accomplished.

That's when the MacArthur Foundation highlighted the winning projects of its Badges for Lifelong Learning competition at the Digital Media and Learning Conference in Chicago. The competition, co-sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Mozilla Foundation, had attracted nearly 100 competitors a year earlier. The winners shared $2 million worth of development grants.

When THE Journal contacted some of the grant award recipients three years later, progress toward wide proliferation of digital credentialing — or badging — seemed uneven at best. While there is growing acceptance of the practice among more nontraditional education providers, some of the K-12 projects recognized by the MacArthur Foundation have stalled. Nevertheless, there seems to be firm conviction that, as we begin to visualize education in new terms, badging is an obvious answer to the question of how to provide evidence of competency across a wide variety of disciplines and scenarios.

Evidence of Lifelong Learning
A digital badge or credential is a validation, via technology, that a person has earned an accomplishment, learned a skill or gained command of specific content. Typically, it is an interactive image posted on a web page and connected to a certain body of information that communicates the badge earner's competency.

Credly is a company that offers off-the-shelf credentialing and badging for organizations, companies and educational institutions. One of its projects, BadgeStack, which has since been renamed BadgeOS, was a winner in the 2013 MacArthur competition. Virtually any individual or organization can use its platform to determine criteria for digital credentials and then award them, often taking advantage of an open-source tool like WordPress. The credential recipient can then use the BadgeOS platform to manage the use of the credential, choosing to display badges on social media profiles or uploading achievements to a digital resume, for instance.

Credly obviously has a lot invested in the success of digital credentialing, so perhaps it is no surprise that its founder and CEO, Jonathan Finkelstein, sees great strides in the three years since the MacArthur Foundation competition.

"For us, the use has grown tenfold in the last three years," Finkelstein said. "Thousands of organizations are issuing credentials today on our platform."

Among clients are the New York City Department of Education, The Smithsonian, Instructure and Educause.

People are learning in all sorts of new ways," Finkelstein said. "They're unbuttoning what were traditionally degrees, diplomas or transcripts. People have begun to see there has to be better evidence of lifelong learning."

Finkelstein and others see, with the persistently growing interest in competency-based education (CBE), that badging is a way to assess and document competency.

Kevin Byers, a competency-based system coordinator and math teacher at Westminster High School in suburban Denver, said, "If we acknowledge that learning can take place anywhere, badges are an indicator that learning has taken place."

His school is in the Adams County School District 50, which seven years ago shifted its focus to competency-based education for the entire district — all 10,000 students. That is in line with the Colorado Education Initiative, which is working to make CBE a part of all educational efforts throughout the state, from kindergarten to the university level.

The statewide goal is to prepare students for tomorrow's workplace, identifying potential careers in industries that will be part of Colorado's future economy, determining the skills that will be required to fulfill those careers and teaching those skills to students today. The hope is that, in conjunction with employers, schools can determine the skills tomorrow's workers will need and work backwards to teach those skills to today's students.

'It's a Trust Issue'
There are obstacles, though, to universal acceptance of digital credentialing.
For one, not every community, company or organization sees a badge as something of value.

Credly's Finkelstein said, "If I started using 'Jonathan-bucks' as my currency instead of a dollar, I'd have to go to the people in my community and prove they have some kind of value. When you create a new badge or credential, you're faced with the same thing."

Old habits die hard, Finkelstein and Byers agreed, and the reluctance to take digital credentials seriously is linked to the reluctance on the part of many educators to see value in CBE.

"It's convenient to create semesters and courses and credit hours," Finkelstein said, "but that's not the only vessel through which knowledge can be conveyed. It's not the only vehicle through which assessments can happen."

Byers observed that even though the opportunity exists to use badges as evidence that students in his district have achieved competency, it has been hard for teachers to understand.

"It's a trust issue," he said. "Do you trust whoever it is that issues the badge? Do you trust whoever oversees the learning?"

When Adams County School District 50 won its MacArthur Foundation grant three years ago, it was in conjunction with a company called EffectiveSC, which worked with game maker Intrific to turn its "Outpost" game into one called "Space Wolf," specifically so students at Westminster High School (whose mascot happens to be the wolf) could use it to learn algebra and geometry. Students could earn badges by moving through levels in the game, which paralleled math concepts they had learned.

The experiment was not entirely successful, Byers said, and development on the project in conjunction with EffectiveSC and Intrific has been suspended for the time being. There are primarily two reasons, one involving teachers and the other students.

Teachers at Westminster had a hard time trusting educational games, he said.

"No fault due to the badging," Byers said. "They just had trouble looking at games as the validation that the students understand the concepts."

Students themselves had trouble understanding why the badges were important, and that was largely because they were used to accumulating points in other electronic games they had played throughout their childhoods and perceived them as signs they were successful at mastery of a game, not that they had been successful at understanding math concepts.

Indeed, there is tension in the world of badging between seeing them as a reward and as evidence of competency.

When a player earns points for his or her success in a game, those points have no value outside of the environment in which the game is played. For points, badges, credentials — however you want to define them — to be perceived as evidence of competency, they have to have portability and be viewed with value outside of their own environment.

"The movement is going toward portability," Finkelstein said. "For that to work, you have to have transparency and alignment to clear learning standards."

Finkelstein suggested that the perceived value of credentials is gaining momentum faster in non-traditional educational arenas than in traditional K-12 classrooms. He pointed to the example of Educause, which started its badging program with its own existing professional development programs and has since expanded to almost every part of its organization, now offering badges for everything from subject expertise to leadership skills and contribution to the community.

Byers is equally confident that his K-12 district and others like it eventually will catch on to the trend too. He attributes the slow acceptance rate to the growing pains that have come with the introduction of CBE into the curriculum.

"We are in a unique situation to leverage those badges," he said. "We aren't doing that now and, honestly, it's because we're still trying to figure things out with our competency-based system. If we juggle too many balls, they all drop."

In March, Credly received $2.5 million in new funding from private equity firms, indicating the investment community is beginning to see some value in badges.

The March SXSWedu conference in Austin, Texas, had several sessions on the subject of badging, and traditional universities are beginning to experiment with it as well. Among them are the University of Central Florida, the University of Notre Dame and Arizona State University with its Global Freshman Academy, which offers first-year students a number of alternatives to a conventional academic program.

"Transferable credentials that allow people to add credentials throughout their life is something new and important," said Adrian Sannier, chief academic technology officer for Arizona State University Online.