Reflections on badges

I think we’ve all got our own personal history with badges. Somewhere tucked up in the loft is a scouts sweater stitched with a heap of merit badges, and probably in the same box is a Blue Peter badge for a competition entry.

Online, it’s difficult not to notice the Brexit situation creating a plethora of both pro-and anti-EU imagery associated with twitter accounts. A more subtle example may be the triple brackets also appearing around twitter handles. Although these were initially implemented by users looking to subvert a disagreeable Google plug-in, they’ve now become as much a sign of solidarity and defiance as doing anything tangible.

I’ve also encountered badges in my professional life. Several of our clients at Candle are interested in providing students with access to digital badges upon completion, as a way of adding additional value to their training products and to help create unwitting ambassadors for their brands. A few year ago I was also lucky enough to present at an elearning event, where Doug Belshaw, who led the Mozilla Open Badges project, was also speaking.

Alexander M.C. Halavais’ paper on the ‘genealogy of badges’ provides a detailed insight into the history and nature of badges, which should aid the direction of travel in this area. In my experience it’s still quite a woolly topic ‘on the ground’. Many people in my network would have been exposed to the idea, but from my experience I don’t think there’s a consensus on why they should be used, and what they should be used for.

My key takeaways (there’s a few…):

  • The concept of badges goes way back, with many early examples military and religious roots
  • Badges can be used for a variety of purposes. They can:
    • show support for a cause (a ‘button’)
    • Be used as a way of shaping a persona, either intentionally or unintentionally
      display membership of a group (both for positive and negative reasons e.g. star of David)
    • indicate status within a group e.g. moderator, or new member
    • display achievements (and provide a route to more detail on this)
    • display granularity or progression of expertise
    • be used as a motivational tool and incentivise progression
  • Badges can often be a combination of many of these factors. This mix can have positive and negative consequences
  • There are different types of badges
    • Badges of honor, authority and privilege
    • Badges of achievement, qualification, and experience
    • Badges of experience and expression (the most common sort of badge found on the web)
    • Badges of survival
    • Boundary badges and monstrous badges
    • Learning badges
  • Badges can be acquired through different means: a demonstrated skill; experience; upon recognition by peers; awarded by a regulatory body; upon achievement of milestones (e.g. number of posts)
  • Badges could be used as a form of compensation for sacrifice, in lieu of other forms of compensation e.g. monetary
  • Badges have primary value in a community where they are earned and displayed. Transferrable value minimal, although attempts are being made to bridge this gap (e.g. Mozilla).
  • Badges are more than just ‘skin deep’ in terms of the symbolism and the dynamics of symbolism behind them. In a sense badges could be considered to have a constructivist make-up. (There are some echoes here of the ‘Medium is the message’ video referenced earlier in the course.)
  • In an online content, badges have prevalence in communities and environments where flat hierarchy is pursued, yet echo less flat structures. There seems to be a dichotomy at play here, and there are obvious links to the critique of OER in Bayne, Ross, Knox (2015).
  • Trust in the what the badge is conveying is very much at the core of its success as a symbol.
  • The perceived value in a badge is tied into the effort and sacrifice used to attain them.
  • Badges with perceived high value are understandably more likely to be ‘faked’. A clear example of this is knock-off fashion items – it’s not the materials that are important per se, it’s the logo/badge that appears on them.

Obviously this is not a small summary, but I think this reflects the real depth of thought the author has provided. I think the term ‘badge’ is obviously quite a broad term, in that it can they can be applied in a many ways, in many contexts, for many different purposes.

My own reflection is that the paper primarily focusses on badges earned through activity. This may be as a result of the author’s interest, or a reflection of the situation at the time of writing (2011), and I’d say it’s probably the latter given the quote “but so far the mechanisms for verifying such badges do not exist.”

The use of badges has strong links to the that of identity and community, topics discussed early on in IDEL. They are very much a manifestation of aspects of this, and influence the nature of community and the social interactions within this.

Professionally, we’ve started to see increasing demand in the use of badges for digital credentialling. It seems there are plenty of vendors developing solutions for this market, such as credly and accredible. I think the rise in this area taps into increasing demand to build personal brand (and trust/proof in this) and is a viable solution to this as:

  • Meta-data allows increased visibility and depth into the achievement. It can also keep it ‘valid’, in that through some vendors the awarding body had the power to invalidate credentials
  • For the awarding body, it allows them to take advantage of the inherent viral nature of the web, and put their brand in front of the peers of students (e.g. Linkedin connections).

I think for these badges to work, there needs to be a common understanding that this meta data exists, how to access it, what it represents, and wider digital literacy around what makes a digital badge ‘reputable’.

I’ve also seen badges been used as a way of incentivising progression, as the paper highlights. I’ve seen significant levels of cynicism around this – I think as it’s seen as treating students as dumb, and being easy to motivate/manipulate. Perhaps given it’s a concept that’s come over primarily from gaming, it’s seen as applying something from a non-serious situation, to a serious one, particularly when one’s facebook stream seems rampant with easy-to-attain candy crush badges. The paper argues that the social currency of a badge is linked to the sacrifice, which ties in with this.

In the author’s reference to the origins of the ‘badge’, and the uses of these within the military, badges were used as a way of fostering community and establishing commonalities. But alongside this, they were also used as a way of ‘command and control’. They provided an easier way to identify a group of people within battle, and manage them accordingly. Bringing this to the current day, are badges (in their more abstract form) being used in this way now, and are they be exploited? Technology allows aggregation on a mass scale, so there could be ways to scrape the web, and corral groups of badge wearers accordingly. By displaying their ‘values’ through an icon, are badge wearers unknowingly categorising themselves and allowing them to be targetted as part of a group? Given the current prominence of Russian bots in the news, I can’t help but wonder if this self-labelling by web users is being used as a way of both targetting and infiltrating these groups.

One area I haven’t touched on in this post, is the rather intriguing notion of guardian and commercial classes. This seems to have wider repercussions that I’d like to dwell on a little. There’s links here (again) to Biesta’s view on the learnification of education, and the roles teachers play within this. These societal and political influences really penetrates all aspects of education, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to me that this affects the tangible aspects, such as badges, but it does. I need to think this through and follow-up with a more considered post…


  • Alexander M.C. Halavais (2012) A GENEALOGY OF BADGES, Information, Communication & Society, 15:3, 354-373, DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2011.641992
  • Bayne, S., Knox, J., Ross, J. (2015). Open Education: the need for a critical approach.Learning, Media and Technology Special Issue: Critical Approaches to Open Education. 40(3). pp. 247-250.
  • Biesta, G. (2012) Giving teaching back to education: responding to the disappearance of the teacher. Phenomenology & Practice. 6(2), 35-49. journal article