Digital Badges: Why ?

backpackI attended an interesting session at the ELI conference last week, by Penn State University in the US about the ways in which they had been using digital badges with students and staff.  Digital badges are a way of awarding a digital certificate in the form of a badge to a student or member of staff that they can then add to a CV or digital profile in order to evidence that they have a particular skill set, or have participated in a specific event.  A digital badge contains a range of information aside from the name of the badge including a description of what the badge is awarded for, the criteria, evidence, issuer, as well as any standards or tags.

It struck me during this presentation (not the first I have attended on the merits of digital badges) that in the US they have been adopted in much the same way, and for much the same reasons that eportfolios were adopted in UK HE a few years ago.  The idea being that they provide students with an alternative way, aside from grades, to prove that they have not only the academic skills, but the professional and personal skills to make a good employee.  Penn State have been awarding their students with badges using Mozilla Backpack as a way to capture skills, knowledge, experiences, abilities and competences that aren’t formally assessed.

They have been using these badges as a way to provide students with feedback, for example students have to submit a portfolio of evidence in order to receive a badge.  If this doesn’t meet the criteria then the student receives feedback around why, with advice on what they need to do to meet the requested criteria.  All of this of course takes time and effort on the part of the badge issuer, and have therefore been more popular with library staff for research skills for example, than academics who are already swamped with grades and feedback from formal assessment.

While I can get behind Penn States goal of providing students with a marketable skills that they can evidence, a US National study by Educause, presented in a different session at the same conference, demonstrated that many students do not see the value in digital badges, and would not include them on a job application or CV.  This mirrors employers who reported that they do not understand or value badges at this point in time.  This reminded me of how our students said they wouldn’t use their PebblePad portfolios to provide evidence to employers because they felt that employers placed no value on them, and I think it is fair to assume that digital badges will need to be valued by employers or the world outside of Education before they gain any real engagement from our students.

We haven’t really had much buy-in with eportfolios at City.  Like a lot of other institutions we implemented PebblePad a few years ago, but usage fell until we discontinued the service.  Digital badges might be a more useful way of capturing ungraded skill sets and personal development for students because they are platform agnostic. Students present evidence in a way that suits them, rather than being asked to keep it all on a proprietary system owned by the University, so I can therefore see the benefits of digital badges over eportfolio systems, although I am unsure as to whether City University is ready to go down this road again yet.

Myself I felt that at City University London, our first steps towards using digital badges might be from a gamification standpoint.  Possibly as part of student induction in order to help bring more cohesion and clarity to our students during induction week or the first few weeks of term, for example offering induction badges for attending moodle inductions, library inductions, signing up to a sports club, or perhaps attending research skills sessions in study week, pulling together the different elements of student induction to university in one place, and building a sense of community, with a more formal award at the end for students who complete all their induction badges.

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