Open badges are already in use by many educational institutes, not-for-profits and companies as a way of visually communicating skills and achievements (Mozilla, 2017). These are a branch of digital badges, differing because they are built from a shared technical framework that allows any organisation, commercial/education or otherwise to issue open badges with consistent attributes.
Digital badges are used in education in several prominent ways (Gibson, 2012; Jovanovic, 2015). Firstly, as a way of motivating students to progress in their learning journey. Secondly, as an alternative assessment medium. Thirdly, as a pedagogical tool to signpost learning journeys. Finally, digital badges are increasingly used as a method for credentialing a learner’s achievements.
To evaluate the value of open badges in education, we must consider each of the ways in which open badges are used, with an eye on the benefit to the different stakeholders interacting with them. We must also consider the specific affordances of open badges compared with non-complex digital badges too.
Open badges as a motivational tool
Gibson (2015) highlights the use of badges as a tool to use as a gamification method, alongside other options such as points and leaderboards.
While “meaningful gamification” (Nicholson, 2012) may be seen as a way of building intrinsic motivation, gamification as a whole is not without its critics (Bogost, 2011), and there are views that empirical evidence to date is yet to yield strong evidence of its impact (Hung, 2017), largely due to the broad definition of the terminology and how it is used in practice.
For teachers and educators considering using digital badges in their course design as a motivational tool, they should consider that “motivation is affected by context” (Hartnett, 2016). Like any educational tool, a strong understanding of the student and their motivations to learn will impact on what and how they deploy this.
Abramovich (2013) highlights how differing levels of prior knowledge, as well as the type of badge used, can affect the usefulness of badges as a motivational tool. It’s perhaps also pertinent to consider the notion of sacrifice (Halavais, 2012) in helping to avoid the undesirable outcome of a badge actually becoming demotivating. This could happen if the way to acquire a badge becomes too easy to attain (and therefore cheapening their value) or on the flip side being too difficult to acquire.
Educators should also be wary of the risk that the acquisition of badges may come at the expense of the learning activity required to achieve them (Jovanovic, 2015).
While there is considerable discourse about the value of digital badges as a motivational tool, there seems to limited insight or evidence about the how the unique attributes of open badges contribute in this area. However, there are examples (Badgecraft, 2015) of how the technical nature of open badges has been thought to encourage participation amongst groups of learners, which in turn may influence the depth, volume and nature of learning. Given this, it is useful to consider the role of community (Halavais, 2012) and “symbolic capital” has within the value of portability of open badges.
Open badges as an alternative source of assessment
Jovanovic (2015) highlights the opportunity open badges present as a new device for assessment, for instance, peer assessment and the recognition of soft skills.
There are advocates for open badges as a tool in this way (Strunk, 2017). Using open badges in this way perhaps inevitably intertwines into their use as a credential, but as an assessment tool, the metadata underpinning the open badge can help provide a verifiable depth to a learner’s progress. This in turn can be used to understand a “transparent narrative of a learner’s knowledge” (Strunk, 2017).
It’s important to note here that open badges have a distinct advantage over standard badges – the use of metadata makes the use here more appropriate. It could be argued however that as open badges have not yet been tested in this area with any great scope, any challenges may not yet be on the radar.
Open badges as a pedagogical tool
Jovanovic (2015) introduces digital badges as a way to “scaffold” a learning experience. As teachers and students, this is particularly pertinent given the understanding of how autonomy can aid student motivation (Hartnett, 2016). As such badges could be seen as a useful instrument to help explore the sweet-spot between choice and guidance. There’s a natural link here into motivation, as badges as signposts may “focus student attention”, and “nudge student exploration” (Rughiniş, 2013).
Again the research into how the specific aspects of open badges factor into this usage seems limited. However to speculate, the common framework could allow institutes to collaborate and signpost other ‘tracks’ that travel out of their own institutional boundaries. This could also widen to incorporate learning analytics, and provide increased understanding of how open badges can influence learning pathways (Strunk, 2017).
Open badges as a credential
While it could be argued there is value in the use of badges in the contexts discussed so far, the evidence for the enhanced value open badges provide seems limited. This criticism could be judged as unfair, as the most “obvious use” (Glover, 2013) for open badges is as a method in credentialing achievements in learning. The focus on this use is perhaps due to the metadata attached to open badges. This provides insight into the “context, meaning, process and result of an activity” (Gibson, 2015), distinguishing them from simple badges. Despite this leaning towards open badges been most akin to being used as a credential, there is considerable discourse in the weaknesses.
There are three perspectives to consider (Kerver, 2016) when judging the value of open badges as a credential. These are the badge holder (or student), the badge issuer (e.g. educational institute) and the badge enquirer (a different educational institute or employer). I will primarily focus on the badge enquirer, as ultimately as a credential, the badge holder wishes to display it for inquiry and it is the enquirer’s viewpoints which are of concern to the student.
The first challenge for an enquirer is to gauge what the badges represent. Given an open backpack can hold any badge from any issuer (for example the portfolio could hold badges of progress, a micro credential badges or a representation of a more traditional qualification), this may cause challenges due to the conflicting rationale for acquisition, or the “monstrous hybrids” (Halavais, 2012). While the learner may have the flexibility to decide on what, how and where their achievements are displayed, there’s no guarantee that a learner would choose to do this, or indeed know what an enquirer wishes to view from their portfolio. Adding to this, there is also the inevitable aspersions caused by any enquirer viewing badges as a motivational tool and not a credential, thus the risk of cheapening the credential (Bull, 2014).
Given the range of badge visualisations that could be employed by different issuers, at first glance it may be difficult to gauge the ‘sacrifice’ (a key contributor to the perception of badge value identified by Halavais, 2012), and the ranking of sacrifice amongst the portfolio. (In practical terms, it’s quite possible that a badge representing a Ph.D. could be sat alongside a yoga participation badge). Bear in mind that a badge, by its very nature, is intended to be a visual shortcut. It seems that while a badge may have symbolic capital within the community it was created, this may hold little sway outside of that community, and ultimately this is the premise of ‘openness’.
It may also be worth considering the replication issues around badges too. As Halavais (2012) quite rightly points out, something is only as valuable as it is difficult to fake. Given anyone can without barrier issue credentials, and with no constraints around design, it could be easy to falsify, and there is a lure for issuers to piggyback the symbolic capital that may be perceived from other issuers in their visualisation choices.
Given the challenges around the context in which badges can be viewed, the visualisation choices and the ability to fake, it seems a logical suggestion that for an enquirer to gauge the value of an open badge, they have to fall back on the elements of the very guardian classes (Halavais, 2012) that the premise of open badges intends to up-seat. The digital artifact included in this essay attempts to represent this ‘vicious circle’ visually.
It’s important to note that the challenges in understanding the value of an achievement (open badge or otherwise) are not a new thing. Enquirers have always had to make judgments based on what a credential represents, whether this is paper-based, online or otherwise. However it seems the construct of open badges does not resolve this problem, and indeed once scaled up will still struggle to articulate what a learner has accomplished, and what this represents.
Putting the student to one side for a moment, it’s important to acknowledge some of the benefits that open badges do provide institutions. The technical infrastructure permits increased control to manage credentials over time; allows them to digitally sign and verify them; provides the opportunity to tie them into learning analytics to gauge enquirer behaviour; and can provide increased brand awareness opportunities for the institute (Kerver, 2016). However, it could be argued that these benefits can only have a significant impact if open badges become the standard. Without universal adoption (which I’d argue the flaws identified above may prevent) then they could simply become another tool to manage. So rather than saving time, could actually increase overhead.
When we consider the value of open badges, one should also consider the fact that it is still an emerging technology. Digital badges 2.0 has just been released (IMS Global, 2017), however, this seems to be focussed around technical enhancements. At first glance, these seem to do little to counter some of the fundamental issues outlined earlier. There’s also a sense of pragmatic acceptance that badge systems will fail before they succeeded (Carey, 2012), however, five years after this viewpoint “the value of open digital badges has yet to be validated by compelling evidence” (Strunk, 2017).
It’s also possible to challenge the notion that open badges are indeed ‘open’.There are many providers of open badge ‘backpacks’ (Hamson-Utley, 2016), and this requires registration with one of these parties. A single point of registration becomes a potential single point of failure, and in practice has been noted as a barrier, albeit small (Hole, 2014). So while badges are portable, they are only portable to the extent of the technology they are carried in allows them to be. There could be increasing concerns about the openness of the platforms themselves for educational stakeholders, with commercial companies like Pearson (Belshaw, 2017) and Salesforce looking to explore this area (Google Groups, 2017).
It’s difficult to envisage a future for open badges as a meaningful form of credentialing without referencing the hierarchy it is intended to disrupt. There are attempts to bring a sense of hierarchy into the visualisation of badges (Belshaw, 2015), however, this may be little more than skin-deep. Perhaps if open badges were to move towards the proposition that they are intended to be a gateway to a portfolio of accomplishments, rather the end point in themselves, this could encourage adoption.
I propose the notion that the very openness of open badges is the very chink in the armour that makes acceptance as a format by learners and enquirers unlikely, and this acceptance is the critical factor in universal adoption. While open badges do have value in several respects, there does not seem to be clear evidence of the increased value of openness over standard badges in these usages, and arguably their greatest advantage (as a credential) could be seen to be flawed.
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Icons in graphic used courtesy of flaticon.com