Blog Post

Questions about badges in higher ed

Questions about badges in higher ed

Amy McQuigge’s prompt How can colleges and universities use badges? is a lot more slope of enlightenment and a little less peak of inflated expectations when it comes to badges in higher ed (Looking at you, major media sources.)

The disruptive potential of badges in higher ed makes for compelling headlines, but the real nuts-and-bolts innovation is happening at ground level. I thought I would contribute something to Amy’s question by taking a look at the variety of badge systems being designed for colleges and universities. I started with HASTAC's higher ed tag in the Badges for Lifelong Learning topic on, but please add others I may have missed in the comments section below.

By higher ed, I mean universities and colleges as institutions, not only a place where students learn, but where everyone learns. In the major news articles, badges are often tossed in the ring with grades, degrees, and credentials, but there are multiple layers of learning going on in higher ed, and that makes universities an interesting sandbox for innovative badge systems. (Cathy Davidson’s Fast Company series on Changing Higher Education to Change the World is a good primer to learn more about innovative ways to think about learning, teaching, and assessment in higher ed.)

How are badges being used in colleges and universities? Starting with classroom learning:

At the classroom level, we know one professor used badges in his calculus course. Others are proposing subject-based badge systems, including Rey Junco’s idea for integrating a badge system into a large lecture course. Alex Halavais has used badges to replace grading in his class, and Dan Hickey writes about using badges in a hybrid course context with doctoral students at Indiana University. David Wiley, an early adopter and implementer of badges, was issuing badges to his students at Brigham Young University back when we were still recovering from the Badges for Lifelong Learning finals at DML2012 last March.

Moving to campus-level badge systems, Jamie Mahoney writes here and here about the process of designing a badge system for the University of Lincoln, and Purdue University has created a buzz with their recently launched (beta version) of the Passport badge and portfolio platform.

Capilano College in Canada implemented a system that awards badges for participation in Culture and Technology events. Along those lines, incoming freshmen at Seton Hall University earned badges for participation in the school’s Pirate Patch program. Open.Michigan at the University of Michigan designed a badge system to recognize those who advocate sharing of open scholarly material. There is also ReadMedia, a software platform that, according to US News, “vouches for students’ educational status and achievements” through a students’ profile, and is apparently offered at 400 universities. That platform may not win awards for disruptive potential, but it does point to other uses for badges that make sense for students.

Not all higher ed badge programs are student-centered, however. WCET, a US-based think tank for higher education, designed a social game that awarded badges to members for engagement and contributions. Academic librarians are proposing badge systems that could complement Information Literacy Certificates. And don't forget conferences, a big part of scholarly life for graduate students, faculty, and life-long learners. 

At UC Davis, keep an eye on the award-winning SA&FS badge system, an undergraduate, peer-based system designed to work across universities. See the SA&FS proposed badge system here and here (you can join their SA&FS group here on HASTAC to follow updates). Design for America, another Badges for Lifelong Learning grantee project, describes their badge system here and here (join Design for America’s HASTAC group here), and will also work across universities, putting students at the center of their learning pathways. 

Fans of Moodle, a Learning Management System (LMS) that has a deep and wide user base at universities around the world, will be happy to hear that Richard Wyles is integrating a badge system into the platform. Read about Richard’s proposed system here, as well as on-going thoughts and ideas about implementation here. Here’s the main discussion thread about Moodle’s open badges, and for those who want to join the Moodle group on HASTAC, it’s here.

No conversation about badges in higher ed would be complete without mentioning Peer to Peer University (P2PU), another Badges for Lifelong Learning grantee project building a platform. Philipp Schmidt has been thinking about alternative assessment for years and has been a key contributor to the badges movement. Check out Schmidt et al.’s Peer to Peer Recognition of Learning in Open Education here. (P2PU is here on HASTAC, or follow the P2PU blog here where you can also find Vanessa Genarelli’s work).

Kyle Peck is another important thinker to follow, not only for his ideas about badges, but his work on alternative assessment for ages K-20 and beyond. Also, look forward to the research on lifelong learners that Reginold Royston and Ashley Ferro-Murray are working on, Who's Achievement? Evaluating Self-Constructed and Peer-Evaluated Badges Systems in Online Classrooms

Where will all this innovation take us? Michael Olneck of University of Wisconsin-Madison shared his thoughts in Insurgent Credentials: A Challenge to Established Institutions of Higher Education? And there is no shortage of major news articles on the topic:

  • Beyond the college degree, online educational badges (New York Times)
  • Digital badges threaten colleges’ monopoly on college credentials (US News)
  • Forget the college degree, earn digital badges instead. (CBS Moneywatch)
  • Why get a pricey diploma when badges tell employers more? (Forbes)
  • What if higher ed lost its grip on the credential business? (Huffington Post)

But the answer is: We don't know yet. It's time to tinker, and build, ask questions, and share what we know. Amy McQuigge’s question was followed by others, each one pushing us to think more deeply about how badges could be used in universities and colleges. Feel free to share your thoughts on these questions:

How can badges lead to stackable credentialing? Should badges lead to college credit?  How can badges lead to college credit? Should badges be a part of an academic transcript if earned at a college?  How can badges be displayed? What should be the business/financial model for badging systems? How can an institution get the technological support for a new system? How can an institution get buy in -- from faculty, students, and the administration? How can a college inform the community about badging?

Click here to join the Badges in Higher Ed group. Anyone can join!




This is a spectular summary.  I was just asked to draft a brief on badges in higher education, and you have done a far better job than I could have.  It really says a lot about how far we have come in such a short time that there is this much available content about using badges in one of the many settings where they are being used.  Bravo


Glad it was useful Dan -- and I agree about the pace of change!  I could probably write this post a month from now and there would be dozens of examples to add. 

One of the things I noticed while digging around for this post is the interesting ways people are seeding the badge systems in colleges and universities. It's no small thing to get a badge system up and running with entrenched  stakeholders (and rules or policies), so I was impressed with the different ways people are working within (and around) institutional systems. 


I started to write another reply last week but it morphed into an entire post.

Thanks for such a detailed and thoughtful summary. It is a great resources to refer people to.


Hi, Sheryl (and others).  Good summary of what's going on.  I agree with your perspective, "The disruptive potential of badges in higher ed makes for compelling headlines, but the real nuts-and-bolts innovation is happening at ground level."  It's slow going out there, even in the places with a head start.  The inertia of huge systems is rather spectacular, and I am once again reminded how slowly institutions of higher education change.  Even when we seem to recognize that the landscape is changing, with MOOCs and digital badges and technologies that make it easier for people to learn complex topics and skills without us, I see little traction.  I'm wondering if the use of badges might get a burst of energy if MOOCs adopt badges.  Again, thanks for the fine summary of what's going onwhere and who the movers and shakers are.


Thanks Kyle -- I think potential MOOC badge systems (MOOBS?) might give those sensational headlines (badges replacing credentials) additional weight, but I hope that association doesn't overshadow the more interesting and transformative uses of badge systems in development at smaller scales.

Some of the MOOC-style learning/teaching seems fairly uninspired, at least from what I've experienced so far, and I can imagine an equally uninspired badge system being applied for the sole purpose of applying a credential. That would miss so much of what makes badges interesting. 

In terms of getting traction at the institution level, the administration of Capilano College's badge system is probably a good example of what we can expect, at least initially. Based on how the system is described on Capilano College's CultureNet website, the only people who can earn those badges are learners who are not already pursuing a degree elsewhere through the college:

"Students currently enrolled in formal degree programs or credit courses at Capilano University are not eligible for the CNET “Culture + Technology Event” badge. The Open Badge system recognizes informal learning: it is therefore available to members of the community at large, from current students from the North Vancouver and Vancouver secondary school system, to non-enrolled + non-degree program-affiliated young adults, to adult learners."

Kudos to the badge system developers and the college administrators for finding a way to allow for innovation within institutional constraints, but I expect we'll see this kind of (marginalized?) badge system implementation until there are good working platforms in place first. 



I've reread this post a few times since joining Mozilla--very much appreciate the resource!

We wanted to share a quick note that we have an upcoming Community Call with community member Amy McQuigge from Empire State College to follow up on the topic of higher ed from a month and a half ago. Hope you're able to join this Wednesday:


Thanks Emily! Another resource that might be useful for people on Mozilla's Community Call is Angela Elkordy's: The Future is Now: Unpacking Digital Badging and Micro-credentialing for K-20 Educators

I'm hoping to join the call and hear what others have to say in response to Amy's questions:

How do you think we can continue to get buy-in? 


What terminology is working on your campus? 

Do you have any plans to use badges as stackable credentials? 

If so, how would you have them fit into existing degree programs?  
If not, will they be stand-alone, course-specific badges?
How does this fit into "transcription?" 



For anyone who wants to run through the notes from Wednesday's Open Badges Community Call, here's the link:

We worked through many of the questions that Amy raised (about buy-in, terminology, and stackable credentials) plus other items related to badges in higher ed.