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Digital Badges – They’re All Winners!

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

On March 1, 2012 the winners of the Badges for Lifelong Learning competition (DML4), part of the Digital Media + Learning Conference, were announced. The winners represent an enormous range of areas and competencies and would seem to be a strong indicator that digital badges are here to stay. Here is an overview of the concept, a look at some of the most interesting winners of the competition, and where the badges concept may go from here.
 

A Bit about Badges
The digital badge is a simple concept. Essentially it is an icon or symbol that represents a specific competency or achievement and the level of that proficiency. In this case, badges represent real skills and abilities that an individual has, but lacks a traditional credential for.

We live in an increasingly complex world where informal learning is not just a fact of life, but a necessity for cyber-survival. For those who never received official credentials such as a high school diploma, a GED, or college degree, having a way of demonstrating the variety of important skills accumulated over a lifetime of experiences is critical in the job search process. Even for those with a college degree, badges provide an excellent way to showcase skills gained by learning new technologies as they emerge, or through on-the-job training, civic engagement, or a host of other informal, independent, or non-academic opportunities. Digital badges represent a formalized way for this learning to be recognized, acknowledged, and appreciated by employers, colleagues, and peers both in the virtual and real worlds.

Prior to this competition, the concept has been primarily part of the gaming world where badges indicate levels of achievement or specific skills related to game play. Using them beyond the confines of a digital game has been an intriguing idea with no clear vision regarding how it would or could work outside of a virtual environment. That changed with the announcement of the 30 winning concepts, each set to receive between $25,000 and $175,000 to make their visions a reality (Simpson, March 1, 2012). In conjunction with these efforts, Mozilla is creating an "Open Badges Infrastructure," which will allow learners to collect, organize, display, and share the badges they accumulate over the course of their lifetimes.

The Envelope, Please
Here is a look at a few of the winning entries aimed at learners and the potential impact that these efforts will have on education and business.

American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen Badges – Proposed by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), this initiative aims to help at-risk middle and high school students get engaged in learning through participation in high quality digital media work which connects their education to  career goals. It takes advantage of existing resources such as StoryCorps U, RoadTrip Nation, PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs, and several projects from the American History and Civics Initiative.

This badge project takes a targeted approach to engaging disenfranchised youth through digital technology. Students may pick and choose the specific areas that they are interested in and obtain badges indicating their competencies in a variety of areas including project management, video and audio production, research, leadership, and written communication (CPB Framework). It addresses a major concern about the disconnect between rewired youth and traditional schooling by providing a bridge between the two.

Badges for Vets – The U.S. Departments of Veterans Affairs and Education, Labor and Energy, proposed a badge system that helps military veterans find work by "translating military training and experience into marketable credentials so employers will see Veterans as among the best qualified in any job applicant pool" (Badges for Vets).

Addressing the difficulty that veterans have in matching their military training with civilian job requirements, particularly in cases where formal education and credentialing are required, this project provides a way for veterans with real skills, such as leadership, to leverage that experience and practical training in the job market. This initiative has the potential to decrease the number of the veterans utilizing the G.I. Bill to return to college for formal education by acknowledging existing skills and allowing some veterans to move directly and smoothly into the workforce.

Design for America: A Badge Community for Innovation – Taking advantage of an existing network of extracurricular student design studios based on college campuses, this project engages interdisciplinary student-led teams to collaborate with community partners to solve local problems, such as reducing infection in a hospital by improving hand sanitation practices (Design for America). Students engaged in these efforts will utilize an online system to track project progress and work collaboratively to reach milestones in the design process that equate to specific badges.

Having a formal badge system that recognizes innovative thinking and project-based learning is a great step towards recognizing and rewarding student work and achievements reached through collaborative, hands-on learning.  This is an underrepresented area, even in formal academic settings, as the true value of project-based learning and innovative thinking are hard to capture with a letter grade.

Intel and the Society for Science and the Public Badges – Intel and the Society for Science & the Public proposed this badge initiative to recognize and reward the independent research, thinking, and learning that happens in conjunction with the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair and the Intel Science Talent Search, two prestigious science fairs. Badges granted through this project will allow students to exhibit their proficiency in researching and utilizing the scientific method (Intel and Society for Science and the Public).

A project like this opens the door for acknowledgement of other types of extracurricular, but rigorous and challenging student work such as Math is Cool, spelling bees, geography bees, Quiz Bowl, etc.  Recognition of these efforts could contribute to college admissions consideration, or eventually could lead to college credits in the relevant areas.

MOUSE Wins! Badge-based Achievement System for National Youth Technology Leadership
  – Using the social learning platform Mouse Squad, this project aims to help young people in building computational, digital, and workplace literacy and includes specific competencies as well as social dynamics (Mouse Wins!).

Literacy in the Information Age is a complex and constantly changing objective which can be hard to measure, and it can be even harder to convey to future employers, even though it is an absolutely critical skill set and is necessary to function in society and the workforce (Marquis, 2011). Implementing a system which begins to track, evaluate, and acknowledge these emerging literacies is an important step for showcasing these very important skills, but also for beginning to quantify them so that educators and employers can articulate their expectations about the real literacy skills that students should be developing in school.

Further Reading
These are just a few of the 30 winners of the Badges for Lifelong Learning competition and represent only the Project Awards. Additional winners were announced for their work in proposing larger-scale digital badge platforms, such as Moodle as Issuer, Mahara as Displayer, and for the Teacher Mastery & Feedback Competition, which contained entries, such as Who Built America? Badges for Teaching Disciplinary Literacy in History.

There are many more to explore on the DML4 site and they are all worthy efforts to acknowledging informal learning. How successful these individual projects are remains to be seen. But if any or all of them take off and effectively utilize the Mozilla framework for displaying and sharing them, the concept should gain acceptance in the business world and may force acceptance by higher education. How the badges systems integrate with accreditation and higher education are critical issues still to be resolved, but maybe a happy balance can be reached that allows digital badges to become a significant contributing factor to future educational innovation and to reducing the financial burden of college.