Initial Questions About Digital Badges and Learning

by Daniel Hickey
This post suggests some initial questions about learning that you might want to ask if you are considering using digital badges.  A version of this post is being prepared for the November 2012 edition of EvoLLLution magazine.  That article will consider how digital badges can be used to both enhance learning and recognize learning in ways that might help colleges and universities attract larger numbers of adult learners back to school.  This post poses these same questions in a more general context.

Since its announcement in September 2011, the MacArthur Foundation’s Badges for Lifelong Learning initiative has generated immense interest in digital badges as a transformative alternative for recognizing learning and achievement.  One of the products of this initiative is the EDUCAUSE brief Seven Things You Should Know About Badgesby Erin Knight and Carla Casilli from the Mozilla Foundation.  This succinct introduction defines badges as “digital tokens that appear as icons or logos on a web page or other online venue which are awarded by institutions, organizations, groups, or individuals, to signify accomplishments such as completion of a project, mastery of a skill, or marks of experience.”

Thanks to the MacArthur initiative, additional support from the Gates Foundation, and the efforts of Mozilla and HASTAC, roughly thirty diverse educational programs are now systematically incorporating digital badges. But growing appreciation of the potential of digital badges has spurred numerous other programs and schools to consider issuing badges. Because badges are so new, potential issuers have many questions.  Thanks to a burst of work at Mozilla, many questions (especially ones about creating, issuing, earning, and sharing badges) already have answers.  But many important questions can’t be answered yet. And when answers to those questions do emerge, it seems likely that many of the answers will start with “It depends...”  The questions concerning learning seem to be some of the most difficult.  This brief is an initial effort to identify the initial questions about learning that educators, programs, and schools might want to ask if they are thinking about issuing digital badges. Links are added for more details and elaboration.

What learning-related functions will your badges serve?  All badges function to recognize learning; as such, most badging practices also function to assess learning. Existing learning systems tend to be organized around teaching rather than learning.  This means that deciding what learning to recognize and how to assess that learning can be surprisingly challenging. Recognizing and assessing learning serves to motivate learningBut some of the motivational functions are likely to be unplanned and unintended.  Additionally, badging practices offer (mostly unexplored) potential for evaluating and studying learning.  Finally, these functions interact with each other in complex and unpredictable ways.  These functions and their interactions are explored here.

How will you assess the learning that you have decided to recognize with badges?  In many cases, badges will function as summative assessments of prior learning.  Badges can also function as formative assessments in support of learning, by providing guidance, feedback, and motivation.  Additionally, badges can function as transformative assessments that transform existing learning systems or allow new ones to be created.  These different assessment functions will interact with each other in maddeningly complex ways.  In particular, the more salient summative assessment functions can easily overwhelm and undermine intended formative and transformative functions.  This is elaborated here.

What sorts of claims will your badges make about the earners and what evidence will your badges contain to support those claims? Value is not inherent in the badge itself but in the assertions made by information the badge contains. Traditional notions of validity associated with psychological measurement and educational assessment seem insufficient to address the evidential questions raised by the summative functions of digital badges. Notions like credibility, face validity, and social validity that many measurement theorists dismiss as “unsanctioned” aspects of validity will be more widely embraced. Meanwhile, potential formative functions of digital badges give new importance to consequential aspects of validity, while potential transformative functions call attention to the emerging notion of systemic validity.

What assumptions about learning will frame your consideration and implementation of badges?  By pushing the conversation from teaching to learning, badges and related assessment practices will force many learning systems to grapple with assumptions about learning that have been taken for granted.  It appears that many of the summative functions and evidential aspects of validity can be adequately theorized using traditional “associationist” theories of learning embraced by many instructional designers and measurement specialists.  Arguably, some the formative functions of assessment and consequential aspects of validity call for modern “constructivist” theories of learning embraced by many educational psychologists and cognitive scientists, while some of the transformative functions and systemic aspects of validity will call for emerging “situative” theories of learning being advocated by many learning scientists. This is elaborated here.

How will your badges be introduced?  Will it be a centralized effort or pockets of innovation?  Academic institutions may ask whether they will be introduced in a non-academic unit.  Attaching badges to existing assessment practices for an educational program is straightforward.  Adding badges and assessments for an existing educational program is complicated.  Creating an entire assessment and educational system around badges is even more complicated. The “mission creep” that often accompanies good assessment practices may introduce additional complications. That may happen with adding badging to existing assessments reveal shortcomings of those assessments.  More mission creep can occur when improved assessments reveal shortcomings of the instruction.  While the changes are transformative for learning, they can be disruptive as well.

How are you going to refine your badging practices?  As stated above and nicely elaborated by Carla Casilli, the initial design of badging practices is likely to be a bit chaotic, and you will probably end up doing some things differently than what you initially intended. A driving assumption behind Indiana University’s Badge Design Principles Documentationproject is that many learning systems will not appreciate some of the important aspects of badge system design until badges start actually being issued.  The project further assumes that many of these factors are going to be quite specific to the particular educational context in which particular badges are being awarded.  This means that the search for “best practices” for badges may be quixotic; a more productive question is likely to concern whether particular practices are appropriate in particular contexts. 

How will you protect the rights of earners to control what happens with the evidence contained in their badges? Attorneys at Mozilla have been studying the privacy issues associated with digital badges, particularly as they relate to COPPA and FERPA. Privacy concerns also raise issues about badges and learning, particularly when the evidence contained in badges is used to learn whether or not programs are effective and to improve them. While this potential is largely unexplored, the metadata of each badge embodies the values of a particular learning system.  This metadata, and the information linked to it, can be used to evaluate programs. Badges offer entirely different possibilities for learning researchers.   Consider, for example, that some researchers are beginning to associate online attitude surveys with digital badges.  The evidence that badges will or might contain may be incredibly useful for in terms of accountability, evaluation, and research. However, collecting and using this evidence raises new issues concerning consent, ownership, and privacy. 

This document was produced with the support of the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning initiative, via its support for Indiana University’s DML Design Principles Documentation project.  Project members Elyse Buffenbarger, Rebecca Itow, and Andrea Rehak contributed to this brief. This document reflects the opinions of the author and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the MacArthur Foundation or Indiana University.


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