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Are digital badges the new ‘disruptive’ technology?

Movie over, iPads! Digital badges could revolutionize education, thanks to a new standard.

education-badgesOver the last year, the concept of digital badges has been gaining momentum in states and school district initiatives across the country. But thanks to a new standard, emerging technology experts are calling digital badges the next ‘disruptive’ technology—not only for students, but for teachers and administrators, as well.

Digital badges are a digital credential that represents an individual’s skills, interests, and achievements, and can convey academic content knowledge, as well as 21st century competencies that cannot be measured by traditional assessments. They have recently gained traction in state education, educator professional development, and initiatives, thanks to clearer definitions and more companies and nonprofits creating digital badge projects.

But just like completion of an online course once came under intense scrutiny for lack of credentials, those wary of digital badges wonder: Without a uniform standard, how can digital badges be taken seriously?

However, thanks to Mozilla and a few other pioneering organizations, lack of standards may soon be a problem of the past, allowing students, teachers, and administrators to acquire much-needed 21st-century skill credentials.

(Take our poll on Page 2. Next page: The new standard)

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The digital badge infrastructure

“Digital badges are essentially credentials that may be earned by meeting established performance criteria,” said Angela Elkrody, a doctoral fellow at Eastern Michigan University for Leadership and Counseling. “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.”

Elkrody notes that digital badge momentum has occurred due in no small part to 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.

Mozilla’s OBI provides a centralized collection and distribution point for badge authorizers and developers, permitting them to register digital qualifications. A critical design point of the OBI, says Elkrody, is the metadata—descriptive information embedded into the digital badges that provides data describing the badge issuer, date earned, criteria for earning the badge as well as assessments and links to products which demonstrate learning.

For example, one high school (the badge issuer) may decide to provide a badge to high school seniors who demonstrate competency in Advanced Placement (AP) science by completing a series of projects designed by the school and a local business, explains Expanding Education and Workforce Opportunities through Digital Badges, a new report by the Alliance for Excellent Education (AEE) and Mozilla.  The successful completion of each project, based on the assessments predetermined by the school and local business, represents an achievement that can be individually badged and, taken together, demonstrate that the student has acquired a specific competency related to the AP science course.

“It is critical to have an open badge standard that ensures that all badges contain the same information, including criteria and evidence, and allows individuals to earn badges across various issuers, manage them in a collection, and display them across the web,” notes the report. “To this end, the Mozilla Foundation has created the ‘Open Badges’ standard. Badges aligning with this standard go beyond just digital badges, and can operate at an ecosystem level.”

Badges for Lifelong Learning: An Open Conversation

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“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,” explains Elkrody. “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.” (See the Mozilla Wiki Badge FAQS.)

As web-based “open” credentials, Elkrody believes digital badges, “for perhaps the first time,” may provide unique assessments. For Elkrody’s thoughts, see “The Future is Now: Unpacking Digital Badging and Micro-Credentialing for K-20 Educators.”

(Next page: examples of student and educator badge implementation)

Digital badges for students, teachers, and administrators

Already, Mozilla’s OBI and other institutions’ badge initiatives are inciting state departments of education and district superintendents to start digital badge projects of their own.

A digital badge program created by the National Design Museum and the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt integrates badging into a DesignPrep program for underserved New York City high school students.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel also got on the digital badge bandwagon this past summer through the “Summer of Learning,” which allowed student to earn digital badges through Mozilla. Teachers then used student digital badge information to help align coursework around interests and capabilities.

Another example is the Providence School District in Rhode Island, which is piloting a badge program and awarding credit to students who engage in badge-earning learning experiences outside of schools. This digital badge pilot is part of the district’s emphasis on student completion of courses needed for graduation based on credit rather than “seat time.”

Examples of digital badge initiatives in higher education include: The University of California Davis, Arizona State University, and Indiana University.

Examples of current badges programs supported by different organizations include TopCoder, American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen, The Badges Work for Vets program, Planet Stewards, the NASA Content Group, StackOverflow, Khan Academy, and Badgestack.

But digital badges aren’t always student-related–many programs cater to teachers and administrators.

For instance, the 2012 Digital Media and Learning Badges Competition called for “Teacher Mastery” projects, and as part of Connected Educators Month, the U.S. Department of Education’s Connected Educators Initiative solicited additions for a database of developmental opportunities for teachers to earn badges.

An example of Teacher Learning Journeys’ badges.


Teacher Learning Journeys is another program piloting the use of digital badges for PD in the sciences.

(Next page: National initiatives and concerns)

Almost, but not quite

Even with the national movement towards digital badges, some school administrators, such as curriculum directors, say the digital badge may have to wait a bit longer.

“I’m not convinced that it will make the transition [from high school to college and the workforce] occur ‘more easily,’ but I certainly see the value of another measurement of educational achievement, if that measurement is well-defined,” says Joanne Carrillo, curriculum coordinator/instructional coach for St. Joseph’s Academy in Baton Rouge.

Carrillo explains that even though the idea of a standard for digital badges is “critical,” it’s not always up to enthusiasts to see disruptive technologies, like digital badges, implemented.

“As a curriculum coordinator and a proponent of gamification, I personally support the philosophy of badges. As an institution, our school has not considered the use of digital badges… As a teacher, I award badges for unit completion. These badges can be redeemed for bonus points on summative assessments. Our learning management system allows activity completion to be recorded, facilitating a record for earning badges. If this were a nationally supported initiative, our school would be willing to consider it; however, as a private institution, we are limited in resources, so the cost for development and maintenance of a badge system may be prohibitive,” she says.

A “nationally supported initiative” is something U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is currently proposing.

Duncan said that competency-based learning would expand access to affordable higher education, and Obama’s proposed FY 2014 budget includes funding through the First in the World program to develop third-party validation systems, or digital badges. The House-passed SKILLS Act also accepts industry-recognized credentials.

The 2013 Clinton Global Initiative America meeting also discussed digital badges.

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