Verses Education
Published in

Verses Education

Digital Badges Turn 10. So What?

Sheryl Grant asked, I tried to answer

Photo by Melinda Martin-Khan on Unsplash

Open digital badges are now entering their second decade. Wow.

To recognize and reflect on the moment, the great Connie Yowell and Sheryl Grant are collaborating on a panel at an upcoming conference. In preparation, Sheryl put out a survey inviting digital badge practitioners to respond. After typing enough to cause actual suffering to her Google Form, I decided to copy my own replies to two of her questions into this post:

Question 1

Tackle any dimension of this question that matters to you: What kind of impact have open digital badges had? Consider focusing on dimensions like: What aspects of open digital badges were important to you 10 years ago? How did you envision open digital badges would be integrated into people’s lives by now? Any gaps or surprises in what you noticed between then and now?

To date, open digital badges’ largest achievement might be staying power.

In this regard, the impacts could be viewed in 1) how they have shaped today’s opinions; and 2) the extent to which they have secured a role(s) in our future world.

Most trends don’t last.

Digital Badges emerged largely in the Education space, where we frequently witness excitement and enthusiasm around innovations that end up filed under “flavor of the week” and unceremoniously buried before having a chance to be meaningfully implemented.

This fate has become so familiar that for many, it is the expected outcome for anything new. And expectations can morph into assumptions.

I fail to see what villainous superpower of low quality exploitation digital badge credentials possess that will allow the existence of mediocre badges to be the facilitators of their own undoing.

This is all to say that ten years ago, digital badges were received by an audience that largely assumed they would fail. But after a decade, they have not failed. Not by a long shot.

For those of us who have been champions of the movement, it would be disingenuous to claim that digital badges have come anywhere close to fulfilling the lofty goals we hold for them. But we’ve also been dreaming very big since the beginning, so rather than observe today’s landscape and conclude digital badges have come up short, I believe they have not yet achieved what I hope they one day will.

The fact is, in defying dominant flavor of the week assumptions, digital badges have done a lot better than simply not fail. They have had impact:

  • Recognition of Recognition. Ten years ago (heck, even 5 years ago), few people had heard of digital badges. Today, more people have heard the term. Many know a little bit about what these tools for recognition are all about, and increasing numbers of people believe they are worth pursuing.
  • Proliferation. There have been over 1,000,000 open badges created and there are multiple organizations that have issued over 1,000,000 open badges. And the earning experience is de-compartmentalized from specific sectors, with earning from within tech companies and education settings, to pharmacy cashiers and hardwood flooring association members.
  • Competition. In the Education market alone, there are now over two dozen vendors. In a space that once relied on grants for funding, we’ve entered a period of demonstrable consumer demand.

There’s something to be said for the accomplishment of persevering. Succeeding in sticking around has allowed for digital badges to impact conversations and opinions about things like the function of Recognition, and the importance of Storytelling in learning data. There is even growing acceptance that improving equitable access to opportunities based on merit is not just an imperative that we should do, but that it’s something we actually can do.

Digital badges have had impact on reshaping these opinions. And in doing so, they have also solidified their standing as one of the right answers to the question about how we solve these problems for a better future.

Question 2:

If you had to speculate, what changes do you expect to see in the next 10 years when it comes to open digital badges or badging-adjacent innovations? What about changes in individual and institutional or systemic changes? What will be entirely new? What will evolve? What new rules, laws, or innovations would have to happen for these changes to occur? What does the future look like for badges?

There’s been a cautious skepticism in the air about the benefits of badge proliferation being outweighed by the cost of an ecosystem filled with credentials of unquestionably dubious quality.

I speculate we will move beyond this.

The concern makes sense to me, in that it’s reasonable and predictable. But it also confuses me because it seemingly assumes the manifestation of an unlikely worst case scenario. The quality issue isn’t unique to badges:

There are millions of songs that are unlistenable, many of which enjoy a platform like Spotify, yet good music thrives and the platform meets various stakeholders’ needs.

Many (perhaps most!) podcasts get published that aren’t worth the carbon footprint it takes to power the cloud servers storing them, yet the space is booming. Consumers themselves help filter the best content (for their needs) to the top.

From Doctor Hunter S. Thompson’s mail order doctorate in the 1960s, to for-profit colleges branded by reality tv personalities, suspect credentials have already been flooding the education space for decades without harming very many virtuous signals with their noise. I fail to see what villainous superpower of low quality exploitation digital badge credentials possess that will allow the existence of mediocre badges to be the facilitators of their own undoing.

At both human and machine-readable levels, badges aim to communicate a deep, rich narrative about who people are as learners and achievers. That is their superpower.

Chicken and Egg… by Visual Thinkery is licenced under CC-BY-ND

That said, the quality conversation won’t be pivoting because those predicting badgepocalypse tire of waiting for the Four HRsmen to ride in and trumpet the end of the Backpack.

I’m optimistic, not unrealistic.

The reason I foresee the quality conversation going away is that a critical mass of high quality, trusted, and verifiable digital badge credentials will enter the ecosystem and start to validate the assumptions that have driven this movement since it began ten years ago.

It will start with the big one:

College admissions counselors and job hiring managers have toiled under a historical burden of the not-so-secret knowledge that people are not that good at connecting humans who are right for opportunities with those opportunities. It’s a big, society scale problem. It’s also a very expensive problem, especially when factoring in the (financial and other) costs of mismatching people to the wrong opportunities.

At their core, Digital badge credentials strive to be devices for recognition and storytelling. At both human and machine-readable levels, badges aim to communicate a deep, rich narrative about who people are as learners and achievers. That is their superpower.

And like a mythical sword in the stone, digital badges have just been waiting for the right hands to let them do their magic. Those of us in gatekeeping positions need to do only slightly more than stay out of the way and let badges get to work making the world a better place, where opportunities are more often matched to people based on the needs of all stakeholders, and in ways that are blind to factors such as race, gender, and last name.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store