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Chart students' growth with digital badges

By Kristin Fontichiaro
February 26, 2015
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Remember turning in your grades at the end of the school year? Did Zack’s B in geometry tell you enough about his mastery of the Pythagorean theorem or the area of a rectangle? What about Laura’s state test scores? Did they fully represent who she was as a critical thinker and creative problem solver? If you feel that those marks on a report card didn’t adequately represent your students and what they could do, you’re not alone.

K-12 educators, particularly at the secondary level, are considering these questions and asking if today’s scoring metrics are able to provide a robust picture of who our students are and what they can do. Do those scores represent what you are teaching? What skills and dispositions do your students gain outside the classroom that go unmeasured or unnoticed? What knowledge, positive learning behaviors, or habits of the mind or heart would you like to measure, acknowledge and validate but cannot within current frameworks?

Educators are hopeful that a flexible assessment model called digital badging is a way to bridge these gaps and describe student attributes that are currently left unacknowledged. Continue reading for a deep dive into the world of digital badging, or snag a copy of our book on the subject, Reward Learning with Badges: Spark Student Achievement by badging aficionado Brad Flickinger. 

What is digital badging?

Students are more than a statistic, a grade or a test score. Use digital badging to measure achievementToday, we learn everywhere: in formal classrooms and informal basement workshops; in less-structured environments, such as makerspaces and libraries; and in more-structured contexts, such as religious institutions and dojos. We know that future success rests not only on our students’ content knowledge, but also on their behaviors and mindsets. Our graduates need to draw from the skills they develop in multiple arenas, yet the skills they learn in one space are rarely acknowledged or valued in others. If Mia learns how to program a robot at a makerspace, there is no mechanism for sharing that accomplishment with her computer programming teacher in middle school so that he can provide her with challenging work instead of repeating what she already knows.

Digital badging recognizes learning and growth wherever it happens and helps people connect their accomplishments across institution types. In bringing together students’ accomplishments (“stars”) in various learning spaces, we can better see their full range of potential (“constellations”).

In many ways, digital badges resemble Scouting’s merit badges: They symbolize levels of achievement, honor, status or recognition. Badges take different forms according to their context. When used in social media, badges may simply mean, “I was present.” In online gaming, badges may indicate a specific game level or an earned tool or privilege. For educators, however, digital badges acknowledge that an earner has demonstrated declarative knowledge or skill in a content area as well as intellectual, social or behavioral growth.

Unlike a Scouting badge, which is permanently affixed to a sash or vest, a digital badge exists in cyberspace. Badges earned from multiple institutions can be ported to a central virtual gateway and from there embedded in social media profiles, blogs and electronic portfolios. This gateway, named a “badging backpack” by Mozilla, serves as a new kind of resume or portfolio.

Individuals can filter, shuffle, sort, hide or display badges in various configurations to appeal to a variety of audiences and for a variety of purposes. Current teachers — as well as future employers, university admissions officers, community organizations and bosses — are able to view this backpack to get a deeper and more granular understanding of who the individual is as well as the “hard” and “soft” skills and dispositions he has demonstrated.

Digital badges have the potential to be the effective and flexible tools teachers have long sought to guide, recognize, assess and spur learning. And they can recognize the soft skills not captured by standardized tests, such as critical or innovative thinking, teamwork or effective communication.

Badges unpacked

digital badging in the classroomDigital badges are created in online badging systems. These systems will host the information for a badge while making it easy for you to define a badge and for users to accept one. In its most basic form, the badging process is relatively simple: Educators enter criteria into the system and attach a badge image. Some platforms will allow you to enter class data as well. Once you review students’ work, you can issue the badges.

One advantage of the badge-definition process is its flexibility. You can also attach evidence of an accomplishment (similar to an e-portfolio), align with standards, share with other teachers or students, or attach rubrics.

As you create your badges, it’s important to consider that, just like celestial objects, the badges are the most useful, or shine the brightest, when they are part of a larger system. Designing badges to work together in context to measure and acknowledge related sets of skills is usually a better practice than designing badges that measure isolated skills.

There are many free systems to choose from. Both and Badgr are free and open source platforms.

We recommend using a badging system built on Mozilla’s Open Badge Infrastructure (OBI). The OBI is a framework for organizing badge data that allows your students to easily move their earned badges from your system into others, particularly into Mozilla’s free individual “backpacks.” Badges’ interoperability reduces the historic disconnect between institutions because badging credentials from multiple sites can appear in students’ backpacks as long as they are issued by an OBI-compliant badging system.

But what information goes into creating a digital badge? To start, a digital badge is an image. Depending on the badging platform you use, you may pick from the system’s pre-populated collection of graphics, import a Creative Commons image, use an online badge-design tool like the Chicago Summer of Learning Badge Studio, or design your own.

Behind the image is metadata, a collection of information that travels with it. This metadata — and don’t worry, the badging system will prompt you for the information you need and then “bake” it all together — includes:

Learning objectives. When the student earns the badge, what will it symbolize in terms of what the student has learned and can now do? In other words, when third parties look at this badge, what can they deduce about the student’s skills and abilities? To maximize accountability, a learning objective might be a Common Core State Standard or a single skill excerpted from a larger standard.

Performance task/required evidence of learning. What specific task or outcome did the student have to complete to earn the badge? Was the evidence of learning hosted online, where a viewer can see it? Or did the mentor or teacher observe evidence? Apply the Goldilocks Principle: You want a task that’s “just right” in scope and difficulty. A project that is too long may have too many parts and make it difficult for someone to point to the specific skills developed. One that is too difficult or impossible to attain without significant adult intervention will discourage learners from trying. On the flip side, a project that is too simple, such as an assignment to bring in a current events article, will generate a flood of submissions without developing a specific skill and may lead students to view badges as a competition, not a learning activity. In some cases, students may not view your badges as something of value and may not be motivated to engage in the process.

Levels-related badges. Just like video games, where unlocking a level gives you access to new tools or privileges, badges can serve as prerequisites or gateways to other, more complex badges. Some badges, when bundled together, could culminate in a kind of “metabadge.”

Digital badging in action

What might digital badging look like in your classroom? Let’s consider an example from the English language arts portion of the Common Core State Standards:

W.9-10.7 Gather relevant information from multiple authoritative print and digital sources, using advanced searches effectively; assess the usefulness of each source in answering the research question; integrate information into the text selectively to maintain the flow of ideas, avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.

This standard bundles together several implicit skills, including searching, determination of authority, resource utility, note-taking, synthesis, idea flow, original scholarship and citation. This is too broad for a single badge, as a student skilled in most but not all areas would go unbadged, reducing motivation. Therefore, let’s narrow the focus to citation.

At the beginning of a learning challenge, the badge:

Helps students become aware of what to monitor in their learning. By providing guidelines or a learning path, the badge lets students know, for example, that a bibliography, indirect quotes and direct quotes are three places where citation matters.

Motivates learners.It helps students set goals and envision success. This is the trickiest step of badging. Students are conditioned to think in “do the work, get a prize” mode. Meaningful badges should be a stretch that students can achieve.

Beware of “gold star syndrome,” where the learner’s goal shifts from acquiring skills to acquiring a large quantity of badges. Try to focus criteria on qualitative characteristics rather than quantity — for example, “Identifies rigorous sources” instead of “Uses five sources.”

Aligns with best practices in learning and teaching. Badging begins with the end in mind. Rather than merely doing a series of activities, the instructor thinks about the end goal, then works backward to envision assessment and learning activities.

Badging outcomes

What might earning a badge signify for a student after the challenge has been met? There are a myriad of possibilities. Because the badge can be displayed publicly, others can see the student’s accomplishment. The badge might:

Exempt a student from a future task. For example, the student might be able to bypass an intermediate “bibliography check” in the future.

Signal readiness for parallel or more complex tasks. If one badge shows that the student understands MLA formatting, perhaps in a future project, she can tackle APA style.

Serve as a “star” in a larger “constellation” of skills. Perhaps the citation badge gets combined with a note-taking badge, a search badge and a synthesis badge, which can be exchanged for a “research skills” or “Writing” metabadge.

Unlock privileges. Students can earn the opportunity to use special equipment, processes or permissions. Her badge might give her the chance, for example, to circulate the room and help others.

Signal to future admissions officers. The badge could indicate the caliber of college readiness for a student. Combined with other badges, it could help her place out of initial coursework.

Signal to future employers.If the student seeks a summer job at the local online newspaper, her citation badge, combined with a badge for interviewing skills, another for summarization and a third for completing tasks on time, could form a constellation indicating her potential as a well-prepared intern reporter.

Educators share a commitment to creating well-rounded, curious students and a concern that assessment metrics provide only a partial snapshot of a student’s skills and dispositions. Digital badging may offer learners a flexible, inclusive ecosystem that connects formal and informal learning, skills and dispositions, and competencies and abilities.

Our conversations about digital badging have compelled us to re-evaluate the content, context and assessment of learning. As we have worked through badging projects, we have asked ourselves: How do we define evidence of learning? Is skill development a yes-or-no proposition?

Do we badge developing skills or just those that have been mastered? How do we know that learning has stuck? And how do we use badging to promote intrinsic motivation, not merely relabeling extrinsic sticker charts as badging? Whether you ultimately adopt badging or not, these are critical conversations for critical times, and badging offers us a fresh opportunity to articulate who we want our graduates to be and how we help them get there.

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Kristin Fontichiaro is a clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Information and faculty coordinator of the Michigan Makers projects on makerspaces and badging. Contact her at

Angela Elkordy is an assistant professor of learning sciences at the National College of Education, National Louis University, Chicago. She is an advocate, developer, researcher and consultant for the use of digital badges in K-12 learning contexts, for students and teachers. Contact her at