Digital Badges: A Credential Whose Time is Now?

The idea of digital badges has been kicking around for a few years. The microcredentials are exactly what the names suggest: Badges are credentials; they are awarded when a learner has completed some experience that leads the awarder to believe the learners can do things now that they couldn’t do previously. Badges are micro-credentials; they are awarded for small sets of skills and knowledge. Badges reflect less learning than a course.

Digital badges are digital; when awarded learners earn digital badge, is granted permission to add a token to their backpacks (which can also be added to LinkedIn profiles and other online places). The token is linked to the details of the badge including the awarding organization, the competencies represented in the badge, and other information controlled by the awarder.

There are some characteristics of digital badges that make then appealing to today’s learners. First, they are competency-based. Traditionally schools award credit based on seat-time. Grades are necessary (of course), but the students who is able to learn more quickly is required to await the length of the course before earning the credential. Earning a badge requires the learner demonstrate they can perform the skills described in the badge. It is not enough to know about the topic, then must know how to perform.

Digital badges can be cross-disciplinary. Consider the school that encourages students develop research skills. In any course that includes a research project in the syllabus, the instructor can add a digital badge. When registering for courses, students can enroll in those featuring digital badges in research, so they can end their studies with broad research experience. That experience can become the focus of job interview discussions for the student.

Digital badges are also time-limited. Consider the learner who earns a digital badge in the most recent spreadsheet software. Those skills are “cutting edge” until the next version of the software is released. While those skills may still useful, they may increasingly dated. Learners us their existing skills to return to earn a new badge in the new version of the software.

As education emerges out of the current crisis, the time and situation seem right to find an increased role for digital badges. How can we help students demonstrate their learning? How do we connect our courses? How do we prepare students to apply their new learning? How do we be agile—quickly designing and redesigning what students tell us they need?

These are questions whose answers might be structured around digital badges.