Blog Post

The Future is Now: Unpacking Digital Badging and Micro-credentialing for K-20 Educators

Angela Elkordy,
Doctoral Candidate
Eastern Michigan University, Dept. of Leadership and Counseling

*The original post of this article appeared on The National Council of Professors of Educational Administration blog. Please click here for more information. 
            Proposed as a supplemental or alternative credentialing system, the concept of badges, specifically digital badges, has created quite a buzz in the past year. While the idea has both advocates and detractors, there is substantial interest emanating from business and government sectors, as well as in higher education communities. Digital badging systems have been proposed to assess, recognize, and communicate knowledge acquisition, particularly in content areas which are currently neither taught nor assessed in tradition learning environments. An important trending discussion for all educators, the introduction of new, potentially widespread alternative credentialing is particularly pertinent for faculty in higher education preparing leaders in the field.
          Stimulated and facilitated by the “Open” philosophy of the Internet which has proliferated free or equitable access to resources in education, publishing and software, a growing body of learners is acquiring skills and competencies in informal environments. The momentum behind the digital badges concept is building in large part, because learning now can be continuous, no longer bound by time or location, interest-driven, or, increasingly, by cost.  However, at this point, the outcomes of the learning processes are not measured, assessed or communicated to interested audiences in any meaningful or systematic manner.  A digital badge ecosystem has been proposed as a method to organize and articulate some informal learning, hence making it “visible” to others.
          The potential of digital badges is being explored not only by agile, technology-based (and hosted) communities such as StackOverflowKhan Academy and various social media (e.g. FourSquare) but also in more traditional contexts such as the U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the U. S. Department of Education and the New York State Department of Education (through Badgestack). In addition, the Smithsonian Institutions, Microsoft, Intel as well as entire school districts (e.g. School District of Philadelphia and Adams County School District 50) are implementing digital badge projects.
          In higher education contexts, forward thinking educators such as Alex Halavais, Arizona State University and Daniel Hickey, Indiana University have piloted the use of badge schema to supplement or replace more traditional grading schemes in courses. In a recent post to his blog, Remediating Assessment, Dr. Hickey articulates his methodology in issuing digital badges to students in a doctoral class in Educational Assessment (Hickey, 2012).  Interest in using digital badges in higher education is gaining purchase: writing recently for the HASTAC blog (Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory), Sheryl Grant considers some of the innovative higher education projects such as the Open Michigan badges initiative to acknowledge scholarly contributions to an open education initiative (University of Michigan). Grant also poses thought provoking questions and summarizes widespread interest in the badges idea as shown by a growing number of news articles and blog posts (Grant, 2012).
          The use of digital badges has myriad implications for faculty preparing future educators, specifically K-16 administrators; potentially, the repercussions of the movement could reverberate throughout K-20 education, as a “disruptive” technology, compelling the rethinking the existing structures and frameworks of education in formal environments. Are digital badges “insurgent credentials” as recently described by Dr. Mike Olneck? (2012). Or could they be a progressive and conciliatory bridge to acknowledge and validate learning in both formal and informal environments?
What are Digital Badges?
          Digital badges are essentially credentials which may be earned by meeting established performance criteria. A digital badge, much like its boy or girl scouts’ cloth counterpart, is an image or symbol representing the acquisition of specific knowledge, skills or competencies. The vision of a digital badging “ecosystem,” that is, a loosely connected framework of badges designed by various authorizers for different purposes, is moving forward to realization. Development and dissemination of the concept has been leveraged by significant  technological and developmental support in the past year through Mozilla’s Open Badge Infrastructure (OBI) ( and the Digital Media and Learning Competition on Badges for Lifelong Learning (, supported by the MacArthur and Microsoft Foundations.
          The OBI currently being developed by Mozilla provides an important centralized collection and distribution point for badge authorizers and developers, permitting them to “register” digital qualifications. A critical design point of the OBI is the metadata or descriptive information embedded into the digital badges provides data describing the badge issuer (authorizer), date earned, criteria for earning the badge as well as assessments, and sometimes, links to products which demonstrate learning. Using the proposed open [software] architecture, badge authorizers will be able to design software “widgets” or plug-ins to interface directly to the OBI, sharing performance criteria and issuing digital badges.   Badges may then be viewed through a “digital backpack,” displayed through digital transcripts or on social media pages. Access to these web-based credentials will be controlled by privacy settings and authentication processes. (For more information, see the Mozilla Wiki Badge FAQS (
          The idea of a system to recognize, communicate and articulate skill development addresses some of the knotty issues in learning and assessment of competencies which are essential for the knowledge-based workplace, skills which are not adequately measured through standardized testing. As web-based, “open” credentials for which criteria are available to be reviewed upon demand with an Internet connection, digital badges, for perhaps the first time, may provide unique assessments which could be:
  • transparent (because the specific criteria are published);
  • evidence-based (for some badges, products which demonstrate learning will be “attached” to the users’ badges, similar to a digital portfolio);
  • acknowledge and hence make visible skills and competencies needed for the workplace but which are neither “taught” nor assessed in formal environments;
  • flexible (even transcultural, embodying criteria important to communities of practice transnationally)
  • granular (very specific skills and knowledge sets can be targeted) and in some sense, may be
  • “common assessments” in that authorizers may openly solicit feedback on badge criteria and design aspects from pertinent communities of practice. In this manner, badge criteria could be “crowd sourced” by relevant experts.
          Advocates of badging are hopeful: Arne Duncan, U. S. Secretary of Education recently described the use of badges as a “game changing strategy. “ “Badges can help engage students in learning, and broaden the avenues for learners of all ages to acquire and demonstrate—as well as document and display—their skills” (MacArthur Foundation, 2011). Firmly grounded in motivational and learning theories as well as social/educational psychology, badges are already successfully implemented to measure and reward achievement within academic and professional learning contexts such as in epistemic (learning) or serious games.
          Still in its infancy, the emerging idea of using badges in education is controversial, with supporters and critics having strong opinions on either side. In order for badges to be effective in the long run, it will be important to address the salient points of detractors and to build a transparent, flexible system. Ironically, the process of responding to badge criticism mirrors the process of how badges can possibly function as formative assessment, in that the badge ecology can be strengthened in the process through both positive and negative feedback.
           Dr. Alex Halavais, a “skeptical evangelist” regarding the possibilities of digital badges, cultivates a critical, yet optimistic view: “To look at how some badges have been used in the past and not be concerned about the ways they might be applied in the future would require a healthy amount of selective perception. I have no doubt that badges, badly applied, are dangerous. But so are table saws and genetic engineering.” (2012).
          Furthermore, Professor David Goldberg, a cofounder of the HASTAC organization which co-sponsored the recent Digital Media and Learning Competition, “the deeper point about badges is that where they work, they work always within contexts that socially support them and where their users are invested in their significance. They do not work for everyone, as motivations or modes of recognition.” (2012)


Well designed, robust badges can be associated with important principles of learning and motivation of particular interest to educators because of their potential for deep and lasting knowledge:


  • contextual learning situations (situated learning and cognition);
  • scaffolding through learning trajectories;
  • socially constructed/mediated learning, particularly in “connected” environments which facilitate, mediate and promote content or skills related content;
  • participatory learning;
  • motivational and interest learning;
  • ongoing, formative feedback as well as summative assessment;
  • creation of “visible” learning paths which encourage reflection, self-regulation and autonomy and
  • building of social capital, self-esteem and self-efficacy.
Digital Badges and Educator Professional Development
          One of the more exciting ideas coming out of the badge movement is the idea of using a digital badge ecosystem to acknowledge new skills and knowledge growth in specific epistemic or professional groups, particularly where the expectation is continued professional growth. In the K-12 environment of high expectations and concern over administrator and teacher effectiveness, a digital badging system could complement existing credentialing structures to reflect ongoing professional growth.
          Professional development opportunities include formal coursework as well as informal learning experiences such as conferences, workshops or classes. Educators earn CEU’s, which are useful, but do not articulate or assess new skills or competencies. Digital badge advocates are excited and hopeful about the idea of using badges for educators working in K-12 environments, because newly acquired skill sets are made “visible” through badge learning trajectories as well as performance outcomes. Importantly, trajectories encourage learners along a clearly defined path of skills acquisition and understanding; when a digital badge schema is designed to move learners through tasks of increasing difficulty, formative feedback guides learners through the mini-curricula, which terminates in a summative assessment (the highest badge level).
          The potential for digital badges to provide cohesive systems for teacher professional development is in the early stages of recognition and promotion; the Digital Media and Learning Badges Competition, in 2012, called for “Teacher Mastery” projects (see the winning entry by the American Social History Project). Also, recently, as part of “Connected Educators Month” (August, 2012), the U.S. Department of Education Connected Educators initiative solicited additions for a database of professional development opportunities for teachers to earn badges.
          An innovative program piloting the use of digital badges for teacher professional development in the sciences, Teacher Learning Journeys, is being jointly developed by the NSTA (National Science Teachers’ Association) and NASA. The project, directed by Penn State professor and P.I., Dr. Kyle Peck, builds upon the Aerospace Education Services Project (AESP) which seek to reach in-service teachers for professional development. The objective of Teacher Learning Journeys is to ameliorate gaps in content and/or pedagogical knowledge in the STEM areas through six types of activities including pedagogical content knowledge, assessment and collaboration. The purpose is to help teachers engage students more effectively in STEM subjects by making instruction more participatory and hands-on learning opportunities.
          The project design, explained Dr. Peck, is based upon research on professional development and adult learning principles to be relevant, ongoing, and create connections to other learners. Using a travel metaphor, complete with a “passport” articulating personal visions of “journeys”(learning goals and perceived knowledge needs), teachers engaged in learning units designed by a team of educational specialists including curriculum and development experts. Teachers design individual professional development trajectories which they described as an “itinerary” on their passports. Upon completion of the module, learners demonstrated at two levels for which they earned “stamps” or “badges” depending upon the complexity of the tasks. Certificates of completion and badge “transcripts” were provided to teachers who volunteered to be part of the study.
          A pilot program conducted during summer, 2012 yielded positive results with 36 teachers earning a total of 154 awards; post-pilot survey respondents highly valued the learning from the modules as well as recognition provided by digital badges. Future development plans include increasing the content offerings of the learning units, to incorporate a social network such as NEON, alignment with standards and possibly incorporating a cohort framework to facilitate collaborative learning. See more Teacher Learning Badges here.
Implications for Educational Administration Faculty
          Clearly there is a gap between the skills necessary to function in the workplace of tomorrow, and what is measured, gets done (credit Peter Drucker).  “For all the talk by educators and policymakers about the need for “multiple measures” for evaluation or for the need to value other types of learning not demonstrated on multiple choice tests, there hasn’t been much discussion about how exactly these alternatives could actually be implemented in reality” (Ledesma, 2011). The conversation regarding teaching, learning and assessing new skill sets and competencies is by no means “new”; however, the digital badges concept provides a nexus around which meaningful discourse on these problems of both theory and practice can occur.
          A digital badge ecosystem may provide a flexible, inclusive system to bridge the gap between formal and informal learning to effectively create learners identity through skills, competencies and abilities.  At the very least, the digital badge discourse compels us to reevaluate the content, context and assessment of learning. Educational administration faculty, visionaries in learning, have unique opportunities and challenges to become leaders in these crucial conversations, or  to watch and follow as new paradigms of learning emerge.
Comments, questions and responses welcomed and encouraged!

DML Competition 4, (2011).Badges 101 webinar (Video file). Retrieved October 10, 2012 from:

DML Competition (Curators), (2012).Badges for Lifelong Learning. Retrieved September 22, 2012 from:

HASTAC, (2011). Digital badges for lifelong learning: An open conversation (Video file).Retrieved October 2, 2012 from:

MozillaWiki, (2012). Badge FAQ’s. Retrieved October 5, 2012 from: NASA and NSTA (2012). Teacher Learning Journeys

Peck, Kyle (2012). Teacher Learning Journeys v3.0: Prezi presentation. Retrieved September 29, 2012 from:
Cited works:
Duncan, A. (2011). Digital badges for learning: Remarks by Secretary Duncan at 4th annual launch of the MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Lifelong Learning Competition. Retrieved April 10, 2012 from:
Goldberg, D. T. (2012). Badges for learning: Threading the needle between skepticism and evangelism. Retrieved April 10, 2012, from
Grant, S. (2012). Questions about badges in higher ed. Retrieved October 15, 2012 from:
Halavais, A. (2012). Badges: The skeptical evangelist. Retrieved April 10, 2012, from
Hickey, D,. (2012). Incorporating Open Badges into a hybrid course context. Retrieved October 16, 2012 from:
Ledesma, P. (2011). Can badges offer viable alternatives to standardized tests for school evaluation? Retrieved September 25, 2012 from:
Olneck, M.(2012). Insurgent Credentials: A Challenge to Established Institutions of Higher Education. Paper presented to "Education in a New Society: The Growing Interpenetration of Education in Modern Life"  at Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, April 26-27, 2012. Available from:


Thank you for your really informed discussion of digital badges. I'd have to say that it's probably the first indepth discussion of them where I've finished the piece thinking, "ok, I now know what exactly these things achieve, why they were developed and what their uses might be". I say this since I find it immensely frustrating when people who generally use digital badges refer to them and presume that their readers know their development, their history and that they're essentially indicating some of credential in a educational system. But I do fear that more emphasis is placed on getting the badge (in the same way that people joke about having done a woodcraft bady in guides but are unable to do anything in reality in the bush) and being capable of applying the digital skills supposedly learned to obtain the badge in the workplace.



This is a great outline of the current work towards badges and badge design.  I have heard tales of the motivational effect it is having on teenagers taking summer math classes using the Khan Academy system.  Apparently they worked hard in their summer, because they wanted to get more badges than their peers.  That's pretty powerful stuff.  


Hi Angela,

Agreed with above commenters that this is a great, informative post. I wanted to make one point of clarification, and it may simply be semantics, related to the below sentence.

"The OBI currently being developed by Mozilla provides an important centralized collection and distribution point for badge authorizers and developers, permitting them to “register” digital qualifications."

The Open Badges initiative actually does not intend to be the centralized repository of all badges of the world. We are building a reference implementation of what we're calling the backpack, which currently carries all badges. But on the roadmap is the concept of federating the backpack such that various communities and learning environments can stand up their own instance of the backpack if they so desire. The backpacks will be a node in a network of distributed backpacks.

In addition, we do not require badge issuers to "register" to align with the Open Badges open standard and infrastructure. The standard is open such that any issuer interested in making their badges align with the open standard we are promoting may do so.

I'd be happy to clarify further if there are additional questions. 

Thank you again!



Hi Angela,

Thank you for sharing this in-depth and informative post on digital badges.  I’ve been reading about badges for a while now, but your post finally answered some of those lurking questions I’ve had about what badges can potentially do, how to design them, and educational settings where they might be most useful. 

I also appreciate you sharing resources like the MozillaWiki and Dr. Hickey’s post on Remediating Assessment.  I look forward to reviewing these sources more carefully in the days to come.