A Brief History of Digital Badges in Higher Ed

Yesterday I was invited to attend a meeting held by our IT Shared Services team who was giving a case study on their digital badges project. In short, they saw a professional development need for their team and wanted to build curriculum and a subsequent badging system for IT employees. IT employees now have a way to earn and document professional growth. There is also a motivation factor with a built in leaderboard so you can size yourself up next to your peers. I’ve spoke to them about their ideas previously, but I continue to be impressed by the effort that has gone into it, and I’m happy to see that it will be a scalable service to the rest of the University. Their pilot project is a textbook example of how to good IT departments can deploy technology properly: Figure out how IT could use it and prove out the concept. If IT can find a use case for the technology, that ownership is helpful to gain momentum campus wide. But this system will be an excellent resource for instructors and other departments looking to make the leap into open badges.


As they were presenting about the project, they went into the background of digital badges and the Mozilla Open Badge project which I’m very familiar with. But one thing that caught my attention was a comment that this is not really being implemented heavily at a higher education level (most of the movement is in K12 and public services). That was a little surprising since I’ve considered incorporating badges into my course the next time I teach it. I couldn’t imagine actually I would actually be that early of an adopter. Last night I was Googling for a list of higher ed projects using digital badges–either at the faculty or institution level, but I was hard pressed to get more than a couple of examples at a time (usually Purdue or UC-Davis). Thus I sat out to uncover every higher ed project I could find that incorporated badges. So without further adieu:

  • Purdue University – Purdue developed Passport in 2012, a mobile app for earning and disseminating badges. You can see a demo of the platform at openpassport.org from the learner’s perspective, and get a grasp of the faculty offerings (such as badge design templates) here. It has been integrated by Bill Watson in a course on learning-systems design as well as Purdue’s self-paced platform NanoHubU, which focuses on science, engineering, and nanotechnology.
  • UC Davis – UC Davis Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems Major has became the go-to example in media for badges in higher ed, though, as recent as Feb 2014, they have said they have yet to implement them. Their badge system is baked into a custom e-portfolio system for the program and is focused around core competencies and individual achievements. They also plan to be fairly egalitarian with it, allowing anyone within the system–students and faculty alike–to create new badges. You can read a nice and thorough case study here as well as the Inside Higher Ed article.
  • Carnegie Mellon – Students can earn badges by participating in Carnegie Mellon’s Computer Science Student Network where they develop computer science skills and knowledge. Website is explicit that faculty may utilize the badges for formative assessment. Badges are based around a formula they call the “MAGIC” formula (cute) Motivation Assessment Guidance Identification Certification/Credentialing. Several links to research that been done in conjunction with the University of Pittsburgh.
  • Seton Hall – Created campus wide badges for students who participate in campus events. It’s pretty neat because students can simply swipe their ID card at events to earn the badges. They have another program where freshman earn badges by attending mandatory freshman events. Their badges have a very similar look and feel to Foursquare badges (not surprising) and you can even see a public leaderboard (Congrats to Thomas Zucker, who leads the pack with 44 badges and 76 points!)
  • Longwood University – Longwood has leverage BadgeStack by Learning Times to build a badging system for workplace development for high school students. Students participate in “quests” to earn badges like Thinker, Networker, and Communicator. According to this report, 28 percent of those who signed up earned all 10 individual badges.
  • University of Central Florida – Faculty from University of Central Florida’s School of Visual Arts and Design built their own learning management system for a course called Adventures in Emerging Media that has badge achievements built in. Students indicated that they were motivated seeing peers atop leaderboards and event create that a special Facebook group where students could discuss how to earn hidden badges. Here’s a slideshare on the course.
  • Indiana University – Daniel Hickey integrated badges for his doctorate course on educational assessment “Capturing Learning in Context.” He utilizes ForAllBadges to deploy the Mozilla badges and wrote up a nice blog post about the specifics.
  • Borders College – Created a university-wide badge system through their e-learning team to help promote use of Moodle.
  • Brigham Young University – David Wiley (now with Lumen Learning) used badges in his graduate seminar (and now open course) “Introduction to Openness in Education.” I can’t find much about the endeavor as the original site is been pulled down, but here’s a blog post on the build. He was also kind enough to develop Badge Widget Hack which allowed his students to display them outside of their backpack (also available on GitHub). He was (at one point at least) very vocal in the New York Times about how quickly alternative credentialing would catch on.
  • Quinnipiac University – Alexander Halavais (now at Arizona State University) created digital badges for a master’s level Sociology course. According to this EdWeek article, students grades were simply based on how many badges they earned. He has gone on to publish a wonderful piece on the “genealogy” of badges as well as a thoughtful critique titled “The Skeptical Evangelist.”
  • Ohio State University – This one is a stretch. I can’t tell whether this one got off the ground or not, but OSU was one of two winners of the Digital Media and Learning Competition: Badges for Lifelong Learning competition that was tied to a university. This initial proposal was that OSU Game Development Team would partner to build a badging system to “encourage learning by connecting identity or motivation for visiting museums and parks with content” and promote Native American history and culture. Sans a placeholder website, and a few blog HASTAG blog posts from 2012, I can’t find much progress.
  • Lipscomb University – Students earn badges that measures 15 competencies, based on the Polaris® Competency Model. These competency based assessments can translate up to 30 credit hours. Thanks Laura Gibbs for the information!

So there you have it. Eleven examples of projects: Six led by faculty, four by administration, and one from the department level. I was surprised to only be able to find a handful of efforts (some of which are no longer continuing) but this should be the most exhaustive list to date. From my findings, the OU Badges project is one amongst a few and has a solid strategy: create a space that makes it easier for open badges to be adopted throughout the community.

My hope isn’t necessarily to debate the merit of the badges (much smarter people than me make much better arguments on both sides–I recommend reading Alex Halavais “Skeptical Evangelist” post mentioned above as well as Tuft’s working paper “New and Alternative Assessments, Digital Badges, and Civics”), but to simply show the potential diversity of digital badges because of the openness. In the case of open, what is its upper hand is also being argued as its biggest pitfall. Openness brings rich diversity and use cases through accessibility. At the same time accessibility breeds heavy skepticism to the validity and quality of open badges. It’s safe to say that it is (virtually) uncontrollable, but I could make a good argument that’s exactly what one should want. There’s a lot of learning that can happen in the uncontrollable[ref]Or as Amy Collier and Jen Ross put it, the “messiness”[/ref] that simply can’t be blueprinted by one person.

Last week, while attending a Sloan-C conference, there was an excellent presentation on digital badges by Brad Zdenek from Penn State. I tweeted one of his slides that really stuck with me:

At a classroom level, can open badges help decode what our transcripts aren’t designed to convey? One other thought I had yesterday is why institutions aren’t doing more to help guide the discussion of what can and should  equate to a badge. It seems like one of the academy’s core competencies is credentialing, and we would be better suited to lead the discussion instead of sitting back and see if open badges stick around. I would love if someone knew and could point me to a consortium that’s exploring how universities can unite around micro credentials in efforts to give them more validity and industry acceptance. But that’s probably going to take more than 11 use cases.