Digital Badges: What Are They And How Are They Used?

Digital Badges: What Are They And How Are They Used?
Summary: If you’re interested in learning about digital badges and you don’t know where to start, this article is for you.

A Guide To Digital Badges: What They Are And Where They’re Coming From

Simply put, a digital badge is an indicator of accomplishment or skill that can be displayed, accessed, and verified online. These badges can be earned in a wide variety of environments, an increasing number of which are online.

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The term “badge” or more specifically “digital badge” in some circles has become a catchall term for any form of digital credential. This isn’t accurate however, and is often a source of confusion. Digital badges are just one subset of digital credentials, and this fact is worth diving deeper into.

Digital Badges are just one part of the larger credentialing ecosystem. There are many ways to recognize an achievement, and many forms of proof for a variety of needs. A digital badge serves both as recognition of learning or achievement AND digital proof of that accomplishment. | Source: Accredible

Defining Digital Credentials

Digital credentials are digital forms of any type of physical credential. These range from driver’s licenses, passports, tickets to membership certificates, online certifications, training completion certificates, and countless other examples. Digital credentials are simply digital versions of these traditionally paper credentials, that shows proof of some kind of qualification, completion, clearance, or competence. On a practical level, these digital credentials should be verifiable just as their paper counterparts. All should contain the individual’s name, what the credential is for, who issued it, and if necessary, when it expires.

Confusion Across Industries

Because of the wide array of credentials and industries adopting the term “digital credential” it is often difficult to determine exactly what is meant when someone references digital credentials. For example, some tech industries consider a password or user ID as a credential. In the online learning industry, a digital credential is often associated with a digital version of a traditionally paper certificate used to designate course completion or competency.

We’ll be exploring digital credentials as they apply to some form of learning or achievement. This includes higher education, continuing education / executive education, MOOCs, associations, online learning, training programs, certifications, bootcamps, awarding bodies, and more.

Categories Of Digital Credentials

Following are the 3 forms of learning-associated digital credentials:

1. Test-Based Digital Credentials

Like the name suggests, test-based digital credentials are awarded to individuals who can prove competency in some subject through a proctored exam. Often times this exam is done online, but it’s not uncommon for individuals to travel to physical test centers to complete their examination. This is common for higher stakes credentials. For example, to receive one of the various certifications offered by the International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP), individuals schedule either an online or in-person examination through the IAPP website. These testbased credentials are very similar to online certificates (see below), the main difference being they require an exam to pass. The output -a digital version of a completion certificate- is often the same, however.

2. Digital Certificates

Digital certificates are essentially the same as test-based digital credentials, but they don’t require a proctored exam to receive. Often these digital certificates are issued for completion of a course or seminar, or might be the digital equivalent of a certificate of membership of a group or association.

3. Digital Badges

Badges are still very much in their early stages of growth, and as a result are much more ambiguous in their application (which is one of the reasons why we created this guide). Sometimes they’re awarded for higher stakes accomplishments, such as completing a rigorous examination or passing a course. Other times they’re given out for low stakes tasks such as watching a video or going through an HR training program. Whereas test-based digital credentials and digital certificates are are designed to look similar to their physical counterparts, digital badges have a more unique look.

A (Brief) History Of Digital Badges

Most are familiar with the concept of a badge, but digital badges weren’t really on anyone’s radar until around 2011 when Peer 2 Peer University and The Mozilla Foundation co-authored a paper titled “An Open Badge System Framework”. In this paper, a badge was defined as “a symbol or indicator of an accomplishment, skill, quality or interest”. Example systems included the Boy Scouts of America, Girl Scouts, and even technology companies like Foursquare. According to the report, badges “have been successfully used to set goals, motivate behaviors, represent achievements and communicate success in many contexts…. [B]adges can have a significant impact, and can be used to motivate learning, signify community and signal achievement”.

The paper does highlight one very important fact about badges - context is more important than design: “[T]he information linked to or ‘behind’ each badge serves as justification and even validation of the badge.”

In short, it’s imperative that the badge includes information on who earned the badge, what the badge represents, how it was earned, when they earned it, who issued it, and whenever possible, evidence examples of the work that went into earning the badge.

The Open Badge Standard

The Mozilla Foundation would go on to develop an open technical standard called Open Badges in 2011, which served as a common system for issuing, collecting, and displaying digital badges across various websites and non-profit organizations. Contextual information like “what the badge represents, how it was earned, when they earned it, who issued it” is critical to the definition of a badge in this standard.

The Open Badges standard was founded in 2011 by the Mozilla Foundation. | source: Open Badges

Open Badges 1.0 was launched in 2012, and by 2013 over 1,450 organizations were issuing badges. The Badge Alliance, a network of organizations and individuals committed to building and advancing Open Badges, was formed in 2014. In 2014, Concentric Sky, and edX partnered to launch Badgr, an open source project to serve as a reference implementation for Open Badges. In 2015 IMS Global Learning Consortium announced their commitment to Open Badges as an interoperable standard for credentials, and later in 2016 it was announced that stewardship of the Open Badge standard itself would officially transition to IMS Global on January 1, 2017.

The Anatomy Of A Digital Badge

In addition to the image-based design we think of as a digital badge, badges have meta-data to communicate details of the badge to anyone wishing to verify it, or learn more about the context of the achievement it signifies. Together these data should provide all the information needed to understand what the badge signifies: Who received the badge? Who issued the badge? What was the criteria for issuing the badge? Does it expire?

Some or all of this information will be displayed in a visual format wherever the badge is displayed, but it is also stored within the digital badge’s meta-data so it can be verified any time - even if you only have the image!

Other information like tags, expiration date, whether or not the credential was revoked are optional fields that may or may not be displayed with the badge image, but will always be included in the meta-data if they are relevant to the badge.

Example badge (issued using Accredible) with meta-data shown. The badge image shown here will contain copy of all the information on display (issue date, badge name, etc) that can be retrieved later, even without visiting the webpage. | source: Accredible

In order for a digital badge to be Open Badge Compliant, it needs to have certain required meta-data:

  • Badge Name.
  • Badge Criteria (Often written in the description section).
  • Badge URL.
  • Issue Date.
  • Issuer (an account or record associated with the organization issuing the badge - at least their name).
  • Recipient (an email or user account associated with the badge owner).

Other meta-data is optional, but very useful to help explain to anyone viewing the badge its context and current state.

  • Alignment (Standards adhered to).
  • Additional Information about the Issuer.
  • Expiration Date.
  • Evidence URL.
  • Revocation / Revocation reason.
  • Tags.

If you want to know more about how to use digital badges successfully, download the free eBook A Comprehensive Guide To Digital Badges now.

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