Badging: Stacking the Odds in Your Favor (Q&A with Acclaim’s Pete Janzow)


How will badging change higher education?

Open Badges are the data standard that defines a new form of web-based credential to recognize (and communicate about) learning. Colleges and universities are beginning to use Open Badges in a variety of ways. Some schools are unbundling the diploma and using badges to communicate specific learning outcomes. Continuing education and workforce development programs are early adopters of badges, using them to bridge non-credit learning to degree programs. Badges are also increasingly part of the conversation around competency-based learning. In general, badges are emerging as a tool that can help to connect college to career opportunities for learners.

Learners are the focal point for the open badges ecosystem. Through badging, learners can earn badges that communicate their proficiencies with industry-relevant, in-demand skills. Some institutions are even designing their badge systems in partnership with hiring organizations.

In our recent webinar with the Chronicle of Higher Education, we received an overwhelming number of questions about badging – so many, in fact, that we could not respond to all of them in the available time. In this post, Pete Janzow of Acclaim answers the most pressing of those questions and provides additional resources for anyone interested in learning more about badging… read on!

Q: How are badges different from “grades” (A, B, C, etc.)? I’m concerned that grades are huge over-simplifications of complex performance characteristics and would like to understand how badging can improve upon, or replace this. -Jason H. 

A: Jason, badges are just an open standard to represent and communicate learning achievements – they don’t impose requirements around the simplicity or complexity of the performance evaluation methods applied by issuers. So while they can be used to communicate course credit or grades, badge earning criteria are not limited to only these traditional outcomes.

This openness makes some in higher education skeptical or uncomfortable about the true value that badges can communicate about learning outcomes, however the badges themselves merely communicate the assessment methods used to recognize achievement. During the badge system design process issuers define earning criteria, so more comprehensive or non-traditional methods of performance evaluation can be easily and transparently articulated to badge earners and consumers (e.g. employers) alike.

Recently some thought leaders in the open badge community have suggested that assessments related to badges should always be based on “authentic assessment” methods, however the Open Badges standard is agnostic about this additional layer (although badges are certainly well-suited to applications of authentic assessment). The emerging best practice for badges awarded by accredited higher education institutions typically emphasizes only that badge-earning assessments are instructionally and psychometrically valid and that they are clearly communicated through open badge criteria.

Q: Can badges only be used in non-credit learning environments? -Ronnie K. 

A: Great question, Ronnie, although it’s early to say what will emerge as the predominant applications of Open Badges in higher education.  However, they are already being used in a wide spectrum of learning situations that range from badges to recognize leadership or participation in curricular and extracurricular activities, to badges that map and communicate job-related competencies learned in courses or experiential learning, to badges for credit-conferring courses that are part of degree-granting programs.

Continuing education, workforce development and executive education programs that culminate in non-degree certificates are ideal for badges because of their practical orientation and frequent use in helping learners develop job-related knowledge and skills.

Q: Badges seem like they only allow for a “pass/fail” assessment of learning.  How would badging work when one wants to assess, in a more nuanced way, the learning achieved by students performing at varying levels? -Alan L. 

A: It’s true, Alan, badges do impose a binary type of decision; earners either meet the criteria defined for a badge or they do not. However there are two ways that a badge-based system can reflect a nuanced or complex model of performance assessment. First, issuing organizations can define systems of badges that reflect “stackable” competencies, or alternative badges awarded that reflect specific performance levels on complex assessment criteria.  In this way an issuer might define a “gold” version of a badged achievement for top performers, with “silver” or “bronze” levels to recognize acceptable performance at lower points on a rubric or scale. Second, the criteria for each badge can articulate complex requirements and even authentic evidence of performance by the learner. The evidence can even be included as a link directly from the conferred badge, so that earners can share access to required documents and other evidence along with each badge.

Q: Who, in higher education, is using badges, and what industries specifically are recognizing them? -Michelle L. 

A: It is still very early in the adoption cycle for badges, so we’ll learn a lot more in the upcoming months and years about which programs emerge as leaders and which industries most rapidly embrace Open Badges as alternative, complementary learning credentials. Our Open Badges in Higher Education white paper describes how various institutions are applying badges, along with a list of some of the colleges and universities already involved.  The early adopting industries for Open Badges are often those industries where credentials are already a part of career pathways and job qualifications: IT, Health Care, and Finance are three such examples.  In addition, there has been a lot of recent activity around using badges to represent the development of entry-level non-cognitive skills like communications, leadership, creativity and teamwork.

Q: What kind of resistance are you seeing from educators and institutions around the implementation of badging-based credentialing? -Marica T. 

A: Marica,  it’s very early to try to characterize sources of resistance – or support – for badge in higher education.  However, as with other innovation forces in higher education, Open Badge leaders can expect to encounter some headwinds. There are some prerequisite assumptions and conditions that must be met before badging initiatives can take root, so colleges and universities that lack these preconditions are likely to struggle (and resist) implementation of Open Badge systems.

For instance, programs that lack support for standardization of learning outcomes, for learning design best practices, or a culture of valid assessment methods may not be ripe for implementing Open Badge programs. Programs that fail to recognize the emerging competition from informal and online higher education alternatives may also resist badging. And finally, programs where there is no tradition or culture around innovation or change management, or where authorities attempt to impose top-down control over learning credentials will likely resist badging efforts.

Among employers awareness of badges is still nascent and few groups understand how badge ecosystems work.  As more learners earn badges that recognize diverse learning achievements support from employers will grow. As employers and industry groups comprehend how badges can help to standardizing job requirements and articulate skill gaps we expect badge ecosystems that include candidates, learning institutions and employers to reduce labor market friction and increase access to pools of talented workers.

(These questions constitute part 1 of this series. Stay tuned for part 2 in early March!)