The Value Problem in Digital Badging

Notice: This piece was co-authored with Mike Goudzwaard and originally published on January 5, 2015 as a guest post in Joshua Kim’s Technology and Learning series at Inside Higher Ed.

Digital badges are gaining traction in higher education. A learner might earn one badge in a traditional university classroom, another for participating in a MOOC, and yet another from a professional organization for completing a training course.

But now what?

In theory, badging empowers learners to self-direct their lifelong learning by combining badges from different sources and exchanging them for more advanced badges, credentials, certifications, or degrees.

In practice, this rarely happens. Most of the effort in badge ecosystems involves issuing and collecting, and most of the issuing happens within institutions like universities, museums, and professional organizations. The current situation is that digital badges are relatively easy to collect and display, but relatively difficult to assess and exchange, especially across different organizations and institutions.

The core problem is what we call the “value problem” in badging. Which badges are valuable? Who recognizes and accepts them in exchange for more advanced badges, credentials, certifications, or degrees? What badges will actually help you progress toward lifelong learning goals? How can one organization determine the value of a badge issued by a different organization?

The typical response to the value problem is that badges, unlike grades or other traditional credentials, carry metadata that links to evidence of the underlying accomplishments and skills. You can value a badge by looking at the attached evidence.

Badges do carry evidence. But in practical terms, evidence takes time to assess, and time does not scale. Few evaluators, whether they are employers making a decision about accepting a credential, organizations making a decision about issuing a more advanced certification, or learners seeking to find the right path to advance their learning goals, will be able to spend additional time on badge assessment without significant extra cost.

Evaluators need a better, faster way to value digital badges. Until this value problem is solved, the potential for digital badging in higher education will be limited.

To address the value problem, we recently started a project called Open Badge Exchange designed to provide a public, distributed, and shared badge transaction ledger. When badges are successfully exchanged for other badges or digital credentials, a transaction record is written to the shared ledger. Anyone can look up successful transactions for a given badge in the shared ledger, drastically reducing the evaluation time required for digital badges that have previously been exchanged.

Say, for example, that a university accepts a badge in partial exchange for a certification credential. Learners seeking that certification credential can see the successful transaction and choose to pursue the badge that is consistent with their learning goals. Likewise, peer institutions can see the successful transaction and choose to accept the badge into their own credential program with confidence that it has value.

Making transactions visible also creates entrepreneurial opportunities in the assessment of badges. The recent explosion of MOOCs, the rising cost of traditional degrees, and the need to build skills in a rapidly changing workplace challenges universities to “unbundle” the degree into agile learning experiences. But bite-sized learning on its own lacks the narrative of a traditional degree program. Opportunities exist for a trusted institution to bundle and credential a learner-driven, synthesized narrative of lifelong learning achievements. (See, for example, the “credentials for your career” offered by Deakin University sponsored startup DeakinDigital.)

Digital badges can empower lifelong learners, but they are most powerful when they connect learning opportunities to valued recognition. Open Badge Exchange seeks to address the value problem by opening up the badge economy, connecting learning opportunities to the assessment of digital badges, and supporting issuing of credentials based on actual exchanges. Whatever the ultimate solution looks like, solving the value problem requires connecting the learners and institutions that give digital badges their value, allowing all participants to collaborate based on real-world information.

What do you think about the idea of Open Badge Exchange?

How is your institution addressing the value problem in digital badging?

Would you participate in Open Badge Exchange?

What do you think is the right way to value digital badges?

How might badge value rankings help learners to set and achieve their learning goals?

Michael S. Evans and Mike Goudzwaard

© Michael S. Evans 2008-2017