Digital Badge Design Principles for Recognizing Learning

Cross-posted at HASTAC

by Andi Rehak and Daniel Hickey

This post introduces the design principles for recognizing learning that are emerging  from the Design Principles Documentation Project (DPD).  A previous post summarized how the DPD project derived these principles. This is the first of four posts, to be followed by posts outlining the principles for using badges to assess, motivate, and study learning.

First and foremost, digital badges serve to recognize some learning or accomplishment.  As succinctly put by Mozilla's Carla Casilli and Erin Knight in their EDUCAUSE Brief, "badges signify accomplishments such as completion of a project, mastery of a skill, or marks of experience."  An important distinction here was made by David Wileywhen he pointed out that "badges are not assessments…badges are things we award to people who pass assessments.”

In more formal educational contexts, this practice is usually called "credentialing."  We are using a more general term of “recognizing” to emphasize that many of the practices for recognizing learning with badges are more informal.  For example, while a Girl Scout badge is technically a credential, few would call it that.  The different DML projects recognize various types of learning.  The way that learning is recognized and who recognizes it also varies. These differences then have consequences for assessing, motivating, and studying learning.

Our Process for Identifying these Principles
We first identified the intended practices for recognizing learning in each project's proposal.  As project teams began implementing those intentions, we interviewed them to uncover their enacted practices.  The 5-10 enacted practices for each project were then sorted into a manageable set of more general principles.  We debated categories and subcategories ourselves. We then discussed and refined them at a half-day workshop before the DML conference with 45 badge project team members.

This resulted in the preliminary set of design principles listed below, starting with the ones that were most widely represented.  These principles are not set in stone.  The principles and (eventually) sub-principles will continue to evolve as we work with them, identify resources that are relevant to each, share them with projects, and begin sharing them more generally.  We seek your questions and suggestions.  Please post comments directly on the blog.

Nine Principles for Recognizing Learning with Digital Badges
The following principles are ordered by prevalence in the current badging practices of the DML Competition 4: Badges for Lifelong Learning awardees. While these principles were developed based on the practices of the DML awardees, these principles should be useful in helping organize efforts to design and refine any badging system. The usefulness of the principles will (hopefully) increase as they are connected to existing literature on credentialing of learning experiences as the DPD team delves into that phase of the project.

1. Use badges to map learning trajectories.  Most of the projects used badges to organize curriculum and learning experiences by either determining levels of badges or offering meta-badges. Alternatively, some projects allow for a more learner-directed process that encourages students to create their own trajectory.

2. Align badges to standards.  Many of the projects used national or international standards to increase the external value of the badge. Alignment to standards is presumed to improve transparency of the credential and help to facilitate better communication of earner knowledge and skills. Some of these standards were more formal such as, the Common Core State Standards, while others were the less formal such as "21st Century Skills." Sometimes the alignment was very formal but other times it was very informal.  Highlighting the relationship between recognition and assessment, the formality of this alignment was usually defined by the formality of the assessment practices involved. 

3.  Have experts issue badges.  Having experts issue badges increases the credibility of the badge and likely influences the usefulness of the credential outside of the issuing community.  At some level, some expert is associated with issuing badges.  But the nature and role of this expert varied quite a bit, as did that way that the expert was him or herself credentialed.  Sometimes the expert held an external credential, while other times the expert was credentialed by the community; some projects include both. 

4. Seek external backing. External backing is presumed to increase the usefulness of the badge as name recognition is a driving force in getting schools or employers to recognize the badge. In the projects that sought external backing, this seemed different than just using badges as a means of external communication. Whether or not the badge is actually externally endorsed, existing formal relationships can increase its external value. (For those wishing to have formal credit granted for a badge, this is the first step.) Partnerships increase communication of the learning recognized in the badge and thus increase the importance/usefulness of the badge for earners. In some cases, a badge is formally endorsed and carries the insignia of the endorsing institution.

5.  Recognize diverse learning.  Credentialing a broad spectrum of experiences helps to legitimize these areas and recognizes knowledge and skills which would otherwise only be implicitly noticed or not at recognized. While this principle could be uncovered in nearly all of the projects at some level, we highlighted several projects that embraced it explicitly. These projects recognized skills and learning outside of what is traditionally recognized in formal learning environments, giving badges for both "hard" and "soft" skills.

6.  Use badges as a means of external communication of knowledge and/or skills.   As with the previous principle, most projects did this at some level.  But some projects really made a concerted effort to increase communication of the learning or accomplishment that the badges represent.

7. Make badges permanent.  While many projects did not explicitly discuss whether or not their badges would expire or require upgrading, a few made strong cases for learners being able to have permanent credentials that will always exist to recognize that specific skill, knowledge, or experience.

8.  Recognize educator learning as well.  Some of the projects awarded badges specifically to educators.  This is a different principle that relates to the several projects where additional badges were included alongside student badges.  These were sometimes that same as the badges for students and other times they were specific to the educators.  Generally speaking, these badges were used to recognize the educators’ participation in the broader learning ecosystem.

9.  Award formal academic credit for badges.  In a few projects, badges were used as a supplement to a formal grade for in-school experiences. Currently, only a couple of projects have successfully created partnerships that allow a badge to directly result in formal academic credit. This of course greatly increases the value of the badge for badge earners.

A Design Implication
We conclude by introducing a dilemma we faced in this process.  This dilemma was embodied in the distinction between (a) integrating badges into an existing curriculum and (b) creating a badge system and a curriculum at the same time.  For a while we treated this as a design principle for recognizing learning.  But we came to see it more as a “design implication.”  This difference seems to have great impact for the design of the badging practices (and likely for the learning ecosystem that results).  But this distinction was largely a result of the context in which badges were being introduced, rather than a deliberate choice.  As such it did not seem like this qualified as an actual design principle. When badges are being added to a pre-existing curriculum, the curriculum will constrain the way learning is recognized. For example, if an existing curriculum is not aligned to standards, it is very difficult to align a badge to standards. Alternatively, when the curriculum is being developed alongside badges, the options for both may seem limitless and overwhelming. A pre-existing curriculum can importantly help to structure design decisions. There are specific advantages for either approach.
We would love to hear what people think about this distinction or about our design principles for recognition of learning with digital badges.


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