Connected Learning Through Digital Badges

Digital badges might just be the answer. The answer to what? Closing the achievement gap, lowering the dropout rate and preparing 21st century learners for the workforce.

Digital badges might just be the answer. The answer to what? Closing the achievement gap, lowering the dropout rate and preparing 21st century learners for the workforce. At least, that’s what badgers (a term I’m pretty sure I just coined) are saying. Supporters of the new breed of learning tools have high hopes, and they’re not exactly in the minority. With everyone from the MacArthur Foundation to NASA getting in on the badge action, it’s clear that this is no flash in the pan fad. So what exactly are digital badges and how do they work? If you don’t know already, it’s time you found out.

What Digital Badges Do

If you’ve ever raced in the Pinewood Derby or recited the Girl Scout pledge, you already have a general idea of how badges work. You learn a new skill or subject and as a reward, you receive a badge — a physical marker that you can point to and tell others, “I know this!” But while merit badges may teach children new things and help them explore their interests, these embroidered credentials aren’t factored into curricula, and they definitely aren’t a point of interest for future employers. Digital badges, however, are a whole other story.

Once earned, digital badges can be displayed on blogs, personal websites, résumés and college applications. Each badge represents a skill that might otherwise go unnoticed by parents, teachers and potential employers. In the process, these badges act as a bridge between the learning that happens inside and outside of the classroom. As Connie Yowell, the director of education for U.S. programs at the MacArthur Foundation told EDWeek, “Kids are learning in their peer group. They’re learning online. They’re learning in interest groups and after-school programs. One of the things that is abundantly clear to us is that learning is incredibly fragmented, and there’s nobody that’s helping the learning that’s happening across those connections.”

More than bridging formal and informal instruction, digital badges could help students across the spectrum identify their interests and plot a trajectory for success. A student who earns a badge in one skill will unlock new learning opportunities, gaining more knowledge and earning more badges at every level. It’s a system that helps 21st century learners do more than just learn — it helps them discover their passions, and possibly even their careers.

The Future of Digital Badges

So when can we expect these badges to become an integral part of the education system? The answer’s not so easy. Although the majority of educators support the concept of badges, these learning tools raise certain issues that have yet to be resolved. Experts are unsure how to properly monitor the distribution of badges and how mastery of more subjective skills like leadership can be gauged, and by whom. They’re also unsure how they’ll standardize the badges — because just as earning the same degree from different colleges means different things, students who learn the same skills through different sources shouldn’t be awarded the exact same badge. These are problems with no simple solution, but advocates of the DIY-based learning tools are continuing to work towards a functional system.

In the meantime, new concepts for digital badges are being created every day, including impressive entries like NASA’s robotics badges, a Noah Comprende badge system by PBS KIDS GO!, and badges designed by Emerson College that prepare students for volunteer service. Locally, the Robotics Academy at Carnegie Mellon has implemented badging for computer science learning through the Computer Science Student Network project. These are just a few of the winning entries from the Badges for Lifelong Learning Competition hosted by HASTAC, Mozilla and the MacArthur Foundation, and they represent only a small sampling of what digital badges can do — and what we can expect them to do in the future.

Is your organization or creative team working on a system that uses digital badges as learning tools? If so, share your goals and challenges with the Spark Network by tweeting your story to @SparkPgh.

Published June 19, 2012