Blog Post

Building the Badges for Lifelong Learning Movement

Building the Badges for Lifelong Learning Movement

By any measure, the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Badges for Lifelong Learning Competition--our fourth Digital Media and Learning Competition--has been our most ambitious and most potentially transformative initiative.

Collectively, we took an idea as old as badging, layered it on top of learning, and plugged it into the Web. And by collective, I mean "standing on the shoulders of giants" kind of collective. It’s taken a lot of people, a lot of organizations, and a lot of giants to get here.

And most importantly, it's taken Connie Yowell, Director of Education at the MacArthur Foundation, to be the bold thinker mapping the way for us. To get a sense of Connie's vision, check our her remarks in the clip below, (a clip that also features Cathy Davidson discussing the real and tranformative purpose behind badges) during the Redesigning Learning for Democracy panel at the Digital Media and Learning Conference in 2013. 

It's taken Mozilla's Open Badges team to architect the Open Badges Infrastructure so badges can move around the Web. And of course, it's taken HASTAC co-founders Cathy Davidson and David Theo Goldberg, who were thinking about the future of learning and learning institutions way back, when they created HASTAC for exactly this kind of purpose.  

But first. I’m about to write a long post, so here are the two main take-aways if you like your information in short bursts:

1. All 30 of our Badges for Lifelong Learning projects discuss how they built their badge systems. This is where the rubber meets the road and it's a Big Deal. Recommended reading for anyone serious about building a badge system, especially at this early adopter stage. 

2. People want to know how Badges for Lifelong Learning happened. This blog post describes why we did this, who we are, and what the projects have been doing for the past year or so. It’s two parts history and one part homage, and it's intended to answer some of the most common questions we get. 


An idea like Badges for Learning builds on the ideas of many people. It gets carried forward until it finds the right moment, the right conditions, and the right influencers who can give an idea traction. We can see flickers of the idea in Eva Baker’s End of Testing, and a case for badges in Philipp Schmidt’s peer to peer recognition. Paul Resnick was hinting at the need for portability of reputation in 2000, and of course Xbox launched achievements in 2002. James Gee and the MacArthur Foundation were talking about badges back in 2007, and Mozilla got interested in the badge portability piece in 2010. Not quite enough to launch badges into the stratosphere, but an auspicious start to a good idea.

Along came the Badges for Lifelong Learning initiative in 2011, which, thanks to the MacArthur Foundation, made the Badges for Lifelong Learning Competition possible, and funded Mozilla to roll out its Open Badges Infrastructure. Our early collaborators included NASA, 4-H, Girl Scouts, Microsoft, Intel, Motorola, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, UC Davis, Department of Education, National Manufacturing Institute, Disney, the Smithsonian, the American Library Association and other big organizations that helped create an early badge ecosystem. 

All this got people talking. We’ve heard some healthy skepticism and no small amount of badge euphoria. We collected research about badges, talked about the validity of badges, and asked why people laugh at badges. The idea of badges in higher ed really caught fire. Some super important people got interested in badges, we hosted a lot of webinars and workshops about badges, and we thought about the history of assessment to help frame the sea change in play.

But until now, we haven’t talked about what it takes to build a badge system. And not just a badge system, but one designed for and by institutions who plan to implement them alongside learning. So we thought, Why not ask our own badge builders what it takes? The result is 30 responses from the Badges for Lifelong Learning projects. Those project Q&As are some of the richest, most insightful lessons learned about what it takes to design, develop, and deploy badge systems.

Their work is instrumental in changing the conversation on assessment. By offering a viable, workable alternative to present models, our Badges for Lifelong Learning initiative has had the desired effect of getting even those who most object to badging to articulate quite eloquently the shortcomings of other traditional credentialing systems--and that alone is significant.  Badging may not be embraced by all, but its concreteness as a workable system gives even antagonists hope that something better (even if something imperfect) will be found.   

A word about this work: Collaborating without a blueprint is messy. Designing a sociotechnical system that impacts organizations at so many touchpoints is tough work. HASTAC is no stranger to those challenges, and we could not be more impressed by the work the Badges for Lifelong Learning grantees have accomplished in such a short period of time.

HASTAC, co-located at University of California-Irvine and Duke University, is a nonprofit with a small core team of the grittiest, most creative, dedicated, skilled, talented, and adaptable people I’ve ever worked with. Never been done before? Dive in. Something doesn’t work? Try a different way. Need something? Find a partner. Have an idea? Build it. What I’ve come to learn over the past 5 years is that all innovators have these qualities in common, plus a certain fearlessness about taking risks. That, and the ability to collaborate.

For the Badges for Lifelong Learning Competition, we worked collaboratively with three major foundations, multiple government agencies, major non-profit and for-profit organizations, and the White House. The more massive, innovative, and collaborative it is, the more we feel right at home.

This blog post is an homage to the amazing work we have done together over the past year, building a Badges for Lifelong Learning movement one step, one conversation, one lesson learned at a time. 

Why Badges for Lifelong Learning?

We knew that the success of badges as an alternative path to accreditation and credentialing for learners relied on a significant “ecosystem” of badge issuers, badge seekers, and badge displayers. The Badges for Lifelong Learning initiative aimed to spur the development of that ecosystem through the creation of high quality, valuable individual badges and sets of badges. Our 30 grantees, funded by both the MacArthur Foundation and the Gates Foundation, are among the first major badge systems to do this.

We knew that it was not enough to have 30 separate, siloed digital badge systems, and for that reason, the Open Badges Infrastructure is of critical importance to the longevity and adoption of the work our grantees have accomplished thus far.  So a major shout-out to our friends at Mozilla, who, with support from the MacArthur Foundation, built the Open Badge Infrastructure to enable the interoperability of badges. The infrastructure will support badges from any issuer across the Internet. It will allow learners to collect, carry, and display their badges across websites and experiences from youth through adulthood. All badges and sets of badges developed through Badges for Lifelong Learning Competition have been designed to plug into the Open Badges Infrastructure—which will contribute, in turn, to the development of the larger badge ecosystem.

Time out for a short history lesson

The Badges for Lifelong Learning Competition was publicly announced at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. on September 15, 2011 by Julie Stasch, Vice President of U.S. Programs of the MacArthur Foundation. You can view the broadcast online, read a transcript of Arne Duncan’s announcement, and read our Overview of Badges for Lifelong Learning primer. What happened next is the stuff of legend. People started talking about assessment. With great passion and interest. Ordinary people started to have conversations about what it means to learn. People started to talk about their own learning, and whether or not tests, and degrees, and resumes told the whole story. Then we started talking about credentials, opportunity, and equity. We talked about jobs and the workforce, and veterans transitioning to civilian jobs. And not just here at home. Badges for learning went global. 

It helped that we had some well-known, highly regarded collaborators who jumped at the chance to build badges for their organizations. Leading into the Competition, HASTAC, Mozilla, and MacArthur Foundation sought out these innovative leaders of industry, government, and education and invited them to join in a collaborative effort to design and evaluate the concepts and implementation of an open digital badge system. Collaborators like:

  • 4-H Council
  • American Library Association
  • Disney-Pixar
  • Corporation for Public Broadcasting
  • Inside Jobs
  • Intel
  • Microsoft & Microsoft Partners in Learning
  • Motorola
  • NASA
  • The National Association of Manufacturers
  • The Manufacturing Institute
  • U.S. Department of Education
  • U.S. Department of Energy
  • U.S. Department of Labor
  • U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Next, we kind of got into the business of match-making, and brought together 94 finalist teams at the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate park in February of 2012 where over 250 people gathered together to develop their projects and pitch them to 8 panels of expert judges. The 30 funded projects were announced at the Digital Media and Learning Conference in San Francisco a day after the Finals pitch, and that’s when the real work began.

Ready, Set, Go

Given the scope and importance of the Badges for Lifelong Learning initiative, and the potential impact for badging across multiple domains (K-12, higher education, and employment), we knew how important it was to give our teams the maximum opportunity to collaborate, both in person and virtually. So we hosted workshops and webinars, and where possible, we have made available the digital traces of those conversations so that others can learn too, including the Badges: Lessons Learned reports from each of the 30 badge system projects, dozens of webinars, and blog posts captured in our Badges Collection and Digital Badges page.

A word about what this entailed: Collaborating inside an organization presents challenges. Collaborating across institutions is a degree more complex. Collaborating virtually, with matched teams, on something no one has ever done, is a massive undertaking. Our role was to identify the core issues, questions, values, and design across all 30 badge systems and help map this knowledge to the broader badge ecosystem. We did a lot of personalized outreach, and created a ton of Google docs, plus some impressive spreadsheets to keep track of the more than 150 grantees working on the badge systems at any given time. We developed an encyclopedic knowledge of the badge systems and created continuous feedback loops so we had a real-time, running sense of what people were doing at any given moment.

The ultimate goal has been to deliver badging systems that are not only well-conceived and well-designed, but well networked to each other, so that each project had access to the body of collective knowledge about badge system design. Our role was to build a matrix of conversations that strengthened the cohort so that everyone knew what other projects were doing relative to each other, relative to the evolution of the Open Badges Infrastructure, and relative to their own trajectories. Where possible, we have made this collective knowledge available here on HASTAC so other badge pioneers can benefit.  

Chattering Class

The purpose of Badges for Lifelong Learning was designed to encourage individuals and organizations to create badges – digital tools that support, surface, identify, recognize, measure, account for, assess, and accredit new skills, competencies, knowledge, and achievements for 21st century learners regardless of where and when learning takes place.

The conversation around badges has grown dramatically in the past two years, in no small part due to the Badges for Lifelong Learning Competition. At the outset of the Competition, badges and the design of badge systems for learning was a relatively new concept to the public at large, and a challenging one even for those who were familiar with their potential and immersed in the field.

Launching the Badges for Lifelong Learning movement started a conversation about badges, so we rolled out our curation tools and built the largest and more referred to collection about digital badges on the web, located at A small sample of the more high-profile articles from the collection include:

Think Different? Not on College Campuses
By Jeff Selingo
Huffington Post
September 22, 2011

Credentials, The Next Generation
By Sam Kilb
New York Times
November 4, 2011

For Job Hunters, Digital Merit Badges
By Anne Eisenberg
New York Times
November 19, 2011

Merit Badges for the Job Market
By Jeffrey R. Young
Wall Street Journal
January 21, 2012

Why Get a Pricey Diploma When a Bleepin’ Badge Will Do?
By James Marshall Crotty
January 26, 2012

Badges: A Solution to Our Teacher Evaluation Disaster?
By Cathy Davidson
Washington Post
February 7, 2012

Beyond the College Degree, Online Educational Badges
By Tamar Lewin
New York Times
March 4, 2012

National Competition Promotes Digital Badges for DIY Learning
By Liz Dwyer
GOOD Magazine
March 6, 2012

Digital Badges Would Represent Student Skills’ Acquisition
By Katie Ash
Education Week
June 13, 2012

Colleges Use ‘Digital Badges’ to Replace Traditional Grading
By Katie Ash
Education Week
June 13, 2012

From Angry Birds to multi-player video games, NASA ramps up investment in educational technology
By Abha Bhattarai
Washington Post
September 2, 2012

Show Me Your Badge
By Kevin Carey
New York Times
November 2, 2012

Four Innovation Trends to Watch in 2013
By Michael Schrage
Harvard Business Review
December 28, 2012

Rhode Island Students Gaining Badges Credits Outside School
By Nora Fleming
Education Week
February 5, 2013

Ditch the Resume and Pick Up a Badge, They’re Not Just for Boy Scouts
By Brent Herbert-Copley
The Globe and Mail
May 1, 2013

Questions about badges

In the wake of the winners announcement at the Digital Media and Learning Conference in 2012, HASTAC co-founders Cathy Davidson and David Goldberg engaged in an online discussion about badges and motivation, based on posts by Henry Jenkins and Mitch Resnick.

Can Badging Be the Zipcar of Testing and Assessment?

By Cathy Davidson
DML Central
February 21, 2012

Still a Badge Skeptic
By Mitch Resnick
February 27, 2012

How to Earn Your Skeptic Badge
By Henry Jenkins
March 5, 2012

David Theo Goldberg's response:

Threading the Needle Between Skepticism and Evangelism
David Theo Goldberg
DML Central
March 6, 2012

More Badges

You can see in these conversations that just the idea of badges touches a nerve. They get to the fundamental concerns and questions we have about learning, assessment, and credentials, but they also speak to identity, agency, and opportunity. They speak to equity. President Clinton said it best at Clinton Global Initiative America, when he recognized the potential for digital badges to create "better futures" for veterans

If you've read this far, perhaps there is something about badges that resonates with you, or that resonates with the work you do. If you want to contribute to the conversation, or just want to lurk, feel free to join the Badges for Lifelong Learning group to get notifications when others contribute to the conversation. It's friendly here on HASTAC, and free to join. 

In the next post, I'll look at some of the conversations and comments emerging among scholars studying badges for lifelong learning, and what we expect to learn from the Badging and Badge Systems Development Research Competition grantees and others studying badges for lifelong learning





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