Blog Post

Investigating Digital Badges in Afterschool Settings | Katie Davis

Investigating Digital Badges in Afterschool Settings | Katie Davis

This study will investigate the Providence After School Alliance’s use of digital badges to motivate, recognize, and assess learning among the high school students it serves in its Expanded Learning Opportunity (ELO) classes. Researchers will examine how students and educators engage with and experience digital badges, looking in particular at motivation levels, learning pathways, the availability of novice to expert trajectories, and any implementation challenges faced. They will also consider how badges fit into the broader public school framework, with specific attention given to how the Common Core standards are integrated and assessed.

Background and Rationale

Engagement is central to learning (Marks, 2000; Skinner & Belmont, 1993). It sustains attention in an activity so that learners can gain mastery in a particular domain or endeavor. Though there has been much research around ways to engage learners, far too many students—particularly high school students—remain disengaged from the educational activities they are asked to complete at school (Busteed, 2013). This disengagement stands in stark contrast to the deep engagement evident in young people’s use of entertainment and social media outside of school (Ito et al., 2009). In recent years, education scholars and designers of learning environments have begun exploring ways to make learning environments feel more like these informal activities (Ito et al., 2013).

Within this context, digital badges and badging systems have emerged as one potential way to motivate, recognize, and assess learning across domains, both inside and outside of formal educational contexts. Badges represent an alternative credentialing system aimed at recognizing and rewarding a variety of skills and interests. They might be thought of as a digital version of Boy or Girl Scout badges. Digital badges can be issued (by educational institutions, companies, or other organization type) for a range of skills and abilities, such as learning a programming language, digital video editing, and group collaboration.

Badges aim to empower and motivate students by drawing on their personal interests and existing skills, and by encouraging them to assume responsibility for their own learning. Though the theory of change sounds promising, its real-world application remains untested. The proposed study will investigate and document the processes by which badging systems support—or fail to support—learning and engagement. We anticipate that the findings from this study will pave the way for a systematic and effective approach to incorporating badging systems into public school education in the United States.

Project Scope and Guiding Questions

The Providence After School Alliance (PASA) and Providence Public School District (PPSD) have begun using digital badges to provide recognition and the possibility of formal credit to high school students who successfully complete certain afterschool programs. Through in-depth interviews, surveys, and participant observation, we will examine students’ and teachers’ experiences with and perceptions of PASA’s digital badge system over the course of the 2013-2014 academic year.

The research questions guiding this study are:

·      How do students and teachers engage with and experience badges in PASA’s expanded learning opportunities (ELOs)?

·      How do badges fit in with the academic and peer cultures within ELOs?

·      What role do badges play in students’ motivation levels and academic achievement in the ELOs?

·      How, if at all, do badges earned in ELOs connect to students’ experiences in school?


PASA’s mission is to provide Providence students with high quality afterschool educational experiences that will ultimately support their learning in school. The introduction of digital badges into PASA’s programming is part of the organization’s effort to document and recognize the learning that takes place in its ELOs and connect it to the learning that takes place in school. The findings from this study will provide both PASA and the PPSD with insight into whether—and, if so, how—digital badges achieve these goals. More broadly, the study will provide evidence regarding the use and perceived value of digital badges by teens and the adults who interact with them in afterschool settings.


Busteed, B. (January 7, 2013). The school cliff: Student engagement drops with each school year. The Gallup Blog. Available at:

Ito, M., Baumer, S., Bittanti, M., boyd, d., Cody, R., Herr-Stephenson, B., et al. (2009). Hanging out, messing around, and geeking out: Kids living and learning with new media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Ito, M., Gutiérrez, K., Livingstone, S., Penuel, B., Rhodes, J., Salen, K., Schor, J., Sefton-Green, J., & Watkins, S.C. (2013). Connected learning: An agenda for research and design. Irvine, CA: Digital Media and Learning Research Hub.

Marks, H. (2000). Student engagement in instructional activity: Patterns in the elementary, middle, and high school years. American Educational Research Journal, 37, 153– 184.

Skinner, E., & Belmont, M. (1993). Motivation in the classroom: Reciprocal effects of teacher behavior and student engagement across the school year. Journal of Educational Psychology, 85, 571– 581.


Katie Davis is Assistant Professor at The University of Washington Information School, and a a Digital Media and Learning Research Competition on Badging and Badge Systems Development grantee based on her winning proposal Investigating Digital Badges in Afterschool Settings. The Research Competition was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and administered by HASTAC, in collaboration with Mozilla. 


Research Competition applicants were asked to submit proposals for empirical and theoretical research that support and inform the design, development, and deployment of digital badges and badge systems across a diverse range of learning content, institutions, and approaches, including the Gates Foundation supported Project Mastery Sites, as well as research focused on the efficacy of Teacher Mastery badging projects. 

No comments