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Are Digital Badges a New Measurement of Mastery?

Thursday, May 7, 2015
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Across the globe, higher ed institutions and professional organizations are harnessing the power of digital badges to motivate, demonstrate, and validate learning and development (L&D). Digital badges are currently in use at postsecondary institutions such as MIT and Yale University and organizations such as NASA, the U.S. Department of Education, and the Smithsonian.

Our modern era is characterized by a rapidly changing economy that requires members of the workforce to continuously seek L&D opportunities. Earning a certificate or degree from a postsecondary institution is only the beginning of a lifelong learning process that includes recertification and professional development. Digital badges can measure what skills and competencies a learner has acquired from professional development opportunities in addition to providing evidence of memberships with professional organizations.

In an L&D setting, digital badges represent that a learner has demonstrated mastery of specific, granular skills and competencies that are expected to improve future performance. The demonstration of mastery can be measured in a variety of ways, for example, via scenario-based assessment items that represent real-world experiences. Badges can represent incremental learning and progress, and they can also represent larger, more comprehensive capstone achievements. As such, badges are becoming an increasingly popular way for L&D to more fully document the breadth and depth of a learner’s achievements.

Members of professional organizations may present at conferences about the work they're doing, attend breakout sessions and workshops on specific topics to hone a skill relevant to their position, or serve on various boards or committees. With the emergence of digital badges, there is a mechanism to verify or authenticate those experiences. Just some of the outcomes that can be verified include the development of knowledge, skills, and abilities that results from participation in professional conferences, workshops, and conventions. The assessment and verification process should be through an independent third-party that can create additional layers of reliability and validity to the badge.

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These days, most career-minded individuals have profiles on social and professional networks such as LinkedIn, which they use to nurture and generate strategic relationships. Digital badges help individuals display their knowledge, skills, and competencies to the members of their online professional communities. Digital badges serve as symbols of job-specific achievements that solidify an individual’s membership in their professional community. They also afford individuals the opportunity to demonstrate incremental growth along a lifelong learning path that can lead to advancement and promotion.

The digital component of digital badges is what gives the badge its authenticity and ease of use. There are several digital badge providers out there, and the badges they store are typically accessed electronically via a link. In other words, it’s not so much the image of the badge that counts as it is that the image is tied to an electronic record. Additionally, in most cases the badge issuer is separate from the badge provider, and it is this badge issuer that usually controls badge expiration, so a link will only work as long as the badge is “viable.”  So, as long as badges are verified electronically, they can be trusted as authentic. These controls are what make badges more reliable and easier to verify than traditional credentials such as official transcripts or letters of recommendation.

In addition to recognition of achievements and memberships, digital badges also motivate learning and development by providing concrete rewards for the learner and by fostering healthy competition among individuals who qualify for the same types of badges.

To learn more about the usefulness of badging and how digital badges work, the following resources may be helpful:

Is your organization using badges? Please share your experience in the Comments. 

About the Author
Amanda Opperman, Institutional and Program Effectiveness Specialist at Wonderlic, is a veteran higher education professional with vast experience in and out of the classroom. She leads initiatives to help institutions with the achievement and measurement of outcomes, including assessment implementation and effectiveness planning. She began her career in the field of higher education as a Rhetoric & Writing Studies professor at San Diego State University. Most recently, she served as the Program Director at California University of Management and Sciences. She has also served as Vice Chancellor at Southern States University and Academic Director at Hancock International College. She is currently writing her dissertation about the effects of cognition on the attainment of learning outcomes as part of her doctoral studies in the San Diego State University/Claremont Graduate University joint-PhD in Education. She also holds a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature.
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