Project Q&A With: 4-H/USDA Robotics Digital Badges

Project Q&A With: 4-H/USDA Robotics Digital Badges

4-H enters the world of electronic credentials with the development and introduction of digital badges in robotics. As part of an e-portfolio of learning, youth will be able to add digital badges that document knowledge, skills, and competencies attained in robotics competitions, platforms, movement, and mechtronics. Robotics badges are the beginning of a new tradition in 4-H.


An interagency committee directs the 4-H Robotics Digital Badges project with members from the 4-H National Headquarters, USDA, National 4-H Council, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Auburn University. Auburn University is the lead institution working on the technical aspects of the project while the University of Nebraska-Lincoln team has developed and field-tested criteria and assessment tools based on their previously developed suite of robotics curriculum. We have created an electronic system that includes assessment to award an initial set of 5 robotics badges with a vision for building a larger and broader digital badging system for 4-H nationwide. 4-H Headquarters is the national partner in the project, and an interface with other federal agencies and the Land-Grant University (LGU) System through which 4-H, and its 6 million youth participants, is conducted. Following results from field testing of the initial working version of the badge system, plans are to begin large-scale implementation amongst LGUs throughout the country. 4-H will implement badges for youth in anticipation that it will help enable them to compete for academic pursuits and employment.


What are the 3 most important things about building a badge system you would share with another organization just getting started?

  1. Gain a thorough understanding of the digital badges concept from the digital badges community and all that it has learned collectively over the last couple of years.

  2. Understand the potential, challenges, and opportunities that may be encountered with the organizations and support for and integration of the badging system itself.

  3. Begin with a solid plan for development of and support for the digital platform but also focus on what the organization is about and how it might utilize digital badges in advancing the mission, vision and direction of learning through what the organization does.

Who were you addressing with your badge system design?

The initial set of five robotics badges are targeted at middle school youth that have or are participating in STEM-based robotics learning initiatives with the involvement of adults. Other badges under development in relation to this project include two for adult volunteer leaders in 4-H on the concepts of experiential and inquiry-based learning.

Ultimately, the target audience includes youth under 19 in two categories, youth 12 and under and those from 13 to 18. In addition, adult users include parents or guardians, club or group volunteer leaders, county level paid staff, state level paid staff, and system managers. All 4-H participants and their adult parents or guardians will have access to the system.

The 4-H badging system may also accommodate “general adults users” who would be people older than 18 years of age who are interested in earning badges and who may want to facilitate learning with young people and other adults in 4-H.

What were your initial goals for the badges? Did those goals change at all throughout the design process?

The 4-H digital badging system will promote learning across many content areas in 4-H and across other communities and institutions. Badges may extend the 4-H youth development program to youth who are not currently reached. In addition, badges permit sharing with potential employers and post-secondary institutions to showcase competencies obtained and awarded through the 4-H learning experience. Badges will also become an additional construct in the existing 4-H recognition model.

What types of badges are you using (participation, skill, certification, etc.)? Are there levels or pathways represented in your badges?

4-H badges are based on the attainment of pre-determined skills and competencies by youth who have or are participating in 4-H STEM-based robotic programs. Eventually, a directory will show badges submitted into the 4-H badging system across many subject areas including youth badges and those related to 4-H for adult earners. Directory information for any given badge will include badge details (metadata, except for “Issued to” and “Evidence URL”) that are OBI compliant. Pending availability of resources and further development of the concept in 4-H, badges may be national, state, or locally (county, region or district) approved which would be shown in the metadata for any given badge. In addition, and because 4-H is administered through every Land-Grant University in all states and territories, part of the long-term vision for the 4-H badging system is to offer badges with the rigor necessary for recognition as college credit. Various approaches will be taken with badges in 4-H as the system evolves.

How was the criteria for the badges determined. What pedagogies (if any) informed the learning and badge system design?

To earn a robotics badge youth must provide evidence of progress in four main areas (science abilities, workforce skills, science knowledge, and engineering performance). Science abilities include skills like observation of a phenomenon, prediction, and redesign. Secondly, youth will display improvements in 21st Century Workforce Skills including critical thinking and problem solving skills. Third, youth will provide evidence of gains in science knowledge and big ideas related to the projects including friction, balance, circuits, and electricity. Finally, youth will be assessed on the completion of program benchmarks like construction and functioning of the robotic system or subcomponents. It is anticipated that this approach will help determine how future badges across multiple content areas will be designed.

4-H is known for its slogan of “learning by doing” which is a focus on experiential learning and affects the development of curriculum and other learning experiences and resources accordingly. More recently, there has been significant effort in the 4-H community to incorporate inquiry-based learning in its programming and development of learning resources. It is anticipated that digital badges will integrate well as more learning resources are developed and integrated with digital technologies.

What are three things you learned about badge system design? What would you do differently if you were to start over?

  1. Many youth and adults in our system are not familiar with the concept of badging, the value they have, and how they can be used. We would start the educational process of our system sooner so that when the badge system was ready for deployment more people would be in a state of readiness to start earning badges.

  2. Finding the appropriate level of assessment rigor for youth badges has been a challenge and will continue to evolve as the 4-H badging system evolves.

  3. Development and implementation of the overall system including a closed OBI for youth under 13 has been a technical challenge and may have been improved by contracting with seasoned programmers rather than utilizing graduate student programmers.

What is left to do? What is left unanswered?

The cyber-infrastructure and evaluation system process need to be completed and piloted. We need to determine if the evaluation system has an appropriate amount of rigor especially when considering the use of engineering notebooks as a learning artifact that will be evaluated by adult volunteers.


What are the 3 main challenges to widespread adoption of your badge system for your organization?

  1. Once the system is in place and ready for widespread adoption the first challenge will be to provide professional development for front-line staff in charge of issuance and to help them see that the badging system is not an “add on” but rather integral to our existing work especially in light of evolving digital technologies in relation to learning.

  2. Convincing 4-H and Land Grant Universities that the concept of digital badges can represent non-formal learning as comparable to what takes place in formal settings and assuring youth and adults of the meaning of badges in regard to purpose, value, relevance and usefulness of badges in general.

  3. Making sure the badge system is flexible so that LGUs can implement digital badges in a way that adheres to their local program implementation protocols.

What is your badge system testing strategy? How have you or will you be testing your badge system prior to deployment?

A survey instrument was field tested with 30 youth ranging in age from 9 to 15 in two US states. In addition, 15 adult facilitators took part in the piloting of the instrument. The goals of the piloting process were twofold. Goal one was to introduce the digital badges issuance and assessment framework to youth that had recently completed one of the five robotic projects. The second goal of the pilot was to test each survey question with respondents thereby reducing the overall measurement error. Next will be field testing of the actual badging system and then a final system development phase to prepare for introducing to the 4-H community nationwide.

What are the top 3 factors that the success of your badge system are contingent upon?

  1. Widespread adoption by the 4-H and Land Grant University system.

  2. Additional funding to grow the system and develop a sustainable system.

  3. Developing a flexible issuance process to accommodate multiple badges in multiple 4-H programs at multiple levels: national, state, and local.

What have you done, or do you plan to do, to evaluate your badge earner community?

The badging process was piloted with youth and adult facilitators in the states of Washington and Idaho. In total, 30 youth ages 9 to 15 and 12 adults participated in the pilots. To begin the pilot sessions the participants were given a brief introduction via PowerPoint on the concepts of digital badges, the process of issuing badges, and how badges would be used in 4-H. Next, youth were given the paper-based survey instruments. Students were given instructions to answer the first 6 questions by circling the corresponding number in the 4-point Likert-scale. The researchers read each question with the youth and asked their level of understanding of the questions and what could be done to improve the questions. This was done for all 22 questions and 4 open-ended questions. Results of the pilot showed that some questions needed to be reworded with simpler words like substituting “autonomous” with “runs by itself.” The next steps include revising the survey instruments and moving them to an electronic form. Once revisions are completed, additional pilots will be conducted for the user interface, the submission process for youth, and the issuance process for the adult leaders.

In regard to the larger 4-H community, as the digital badging system evolves and young people begin to earn badges, and as the 4-H system utilizes digital technologies in developing learning opportunities for youth, assessment of how badges are perceived and utilized can begin in earnest. At the system development stage there is limited information and data in regard to youth earning badges through 4-H. There is also greater recognition that the world of learning is changing with digital technologies and that means the ways young people learn are changing. 4-H must maintain a level of understanding of where young people are and find ways to assure that its learning resources are developed accordingly.

Please describe any impact your badge system may have already had on your organization and your learners.

The concept of digital badges has begun to be communicated to the 4-H community through a national level 4-H Science Management Team and other committees at the national level. While there is some anticipation of the 4-H Digital Badging System being launched, it is too soon to gauge impact on the organization or its learners. There have been considerations to align digital badges with curriculum as the project moves forward.

How would you characterize the impact your badge system will have on the Open Badges ecosystem?

4-H badges will be an example of skill- and knowledge-based assessment and acknowledgement of the efforts made by youth in 4-H. There will be significant effort to engage youth with adults as badges are earned as adult volunteer leaders will often be the ones to certify work of youth badge earners. Adults as well will be engaged in various professional development opportunities and other trainings that are aligned with badges.

The nature of the badge system under development itself will also affect how badges are utilized in the 4-H community and beyond. For example, the infrastructure of 4-H and how it is organized could result in a chaotic ecosystem of badges so how new badges are created will be critical. The taxonomy of badging and how badges are submitted and approved for acceptance in a badge directory will be a challenge.

What plans do you have to scale your badge system?

4-H is operated through land-grant universities in all 50 states and 6 territories and currently engages approximately 6 million young people, hundreds of thousands of adult volunteer leaders, and thousands of faculty and staff. Plans are to introduce the 4-H Digital Badging System to the 4-H community in the coming months of 2013 and to engage the system nationwide over the next 3 to 4 years. It will have to be a robust system and provide ways to integrate with current and evolving learning systems.

How successfully are you getting institutional buy-in, or adoption from your learners?

Two presentations have been done for the 4-H Science Management Team, composed of 4-H national program leaders, and the national 4-H non-profit partner and regional science program liaisons. Updates are provided on monthly team calls. Badges have also been discussed on calls with the “For Youth For Life” eXtension community of practice. Feedback from these has been supportive, and interest in 4-H and the Extension system is growing.

Recently, the 4-H system identified “skills for work and life” as a system-wide focus. Digital badges fit this well, as they are a more flexible way for youth to develop portfolios that demonstrate their knowledge and skills for education, work and other endeavors.

Once your badge system is built, how self-sustaining will it be?

Current plans are to integrate digital badges into a larger online learning system that is being designed to sustain itself through various nominal fees. While the default position in 4-H is to provide its programs at no cost to young users there are nominal costs at times. It is anticipated that an online learning system will function in a similar manner beginning at no cost to the user moving up to small fees for apps, LMS access, course fees, training fees, potentially fees for college-level credit or equivalent, and other means of generating revenue at the least cost to the user, especially young users. Digital badges themselves will essentially have no direct cost for the user as envisioned and little cost to the system other than the development of the badge and its criteria.

In regard to maintaining the basic system at the minimal level of maintaining the initial set of badges and its website, data system, etc., it is anticipated that as little or as much as 10 to 20 percent of one support person would be needed and little to no server costs if based within a university system. Full system development and deployment would be much more but would also be a part of a larger learning system and platform. In that system, as mentioned previously, the cost of individual badges within the system would be negligible with the real cost coming in the development of the learning experience itself, the criteria that would be aligned with the badge and the assessment mechanism to be used.

For those who want to follow the development, implementation, and adoption of your badge system, what social media sites will you be posting updates to?

There will be a 4-H Digital Badges System website that is designed as a learning community allowing for and encouraging sharing of experiences with badging throughout the 4-H community and beyond. 4-H is part of a very large system which also lends itself to vast communications and sharing of opportunities. In addition, 4-H has a significant presence in the social media realm and will utilize that space accordingly. Websites other than the final version of the 4-H Digital Badges System website that may accommodate postings include,,, state 4-H sites, and many other related sites.

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