Show Me Your Badge: A New Way To Learn

September 19, 2014  |  Online Education | E-Learning  |  Share

Badge-based learning systems are a new innovation in the field of virtual education. The idea behind badges is similar to that of achievements in video games- they are small virtual rewards for accomplishing specific tasks or meeting benchmarks. Badges act as incentives for the learning process- it’s easy to understand the long-term gains from education, but for many people, having a series of short-term goals is a valuable source of motivation to keep going through a long process. That is the objective of badge-based learning systems- to use badges as a way to make sure the learner has an immediate positive signal for their progress, as well as indicate mastery of a certain skill.

The use of badges in learning is both old and new. Groups like the Boy Scouts have used merit badge systems as a way to display particular skills for decades. However, the application of badges to virtual learning is a new phenomenon. The first public step towards badges came in a 2007 speech by Eva Baker, president of the American Educational Research Association. Baker speculated on the potential for “qualifications,” badge-like awards for learning skills, as opposed to the degree and diploma-oriented current educational system. Qualifications would reward learners for specific goals and also act as a signal that the owners had, in fact, mastered a particular skill or ability. Eventually, open-access virtual learning systems turned the idea of qualifications into badge systems.

The idea behind badge systems is simple- learners can show off the skills they have acquired as well as demonstrate proficiency to potential employers. Badges are a more discrete version of diplomas and degrees, which require years of work and occasionally even a time investment into fields in which the learner has no interest. Badges can be specific, focused, and targeted to a given definition of a skill or accomplishment, making them better signals of smaller-scale goals.
Today, many virtual learning systems make use of badges. Perhaps the most well-known example is Khan Academy, the nonprofit virtual learning repository. For users who access Khan Academy through its website and set up a profile, the organization grants the ability to earn many badges. These are arranged in several tiers, starting at “Meteorite” and climbing through “Moon” and “Earth” to reach “Sun” and “Black Hole.” Each tier represents a different level of commitment. For example, the Moon badge “Picking Up Steam” is awarded to members who answer 5 skill problems accurately and quickly. The equivalent Earth-tier badge requires answering 42 questions in a similar manner. There are many different badges in each tier, so every learner has a chance to earn badges, whether they are going for breadth or depth of education. The user can then display these badges in their profile, demonstrating to the world that they have accomplished a known goal.

CodeAcademy is another notable example of a virtual learning system that makes use of badges. CodeAcademy is a free learning system that teaches users a variety of coding languages and techniques with a combination of lessons and exercises. CodeAcademy users can earn badges in a similar manner to the badge system at Khan Academy- by finishing lessons and projects. CodeAcademy badges also have social media connectivity- anyone who earns a badge on CodeAcademy can post it to their Facebook page, letting friends who aren’t CodeAcademy users see the earner’s accomplishment. This strengthens the effect of badges by allowing users to show off in front of a larger audience. Furthermore, these badges have a secondary role as a marketing tool- some people who see a friend post a badge may become curious about CodeAcademy and even begin to use the system. CodeAcademy badges are ranked in levels, such that it is possible to move up the ranks of a certain programming language or project with more success in that area.

The multitude of learning systems that make use of badges, as well as the possibility that people might be users of more than one system simultaneously, inspired the Open Badge project from nonprofit tech giant Mozilla. The Open Badge project is a software solution to the problem of multiple co-existing badge systems. Users can earn badges through any given virtual learning system. Then, they combine the badges into a platform called the “Backpack.” The Backpack allows the user to display any and all of those badges through a variety of contexts, including social media outlets like Facebook and job networking resources like LinkedIn. The Open Badges include metadata that verify where the badge came from and how the owner earned the badge, making the badge systems difficult to fake. Badge winners can combine their badge collections from many different systems into one unified meta-collection. This applies to smaller badges that act principally as motivation for learners as well as serious badges that indicate the earner has mastered a certain skill or set of knowledge. Every element of the Open Badge system is free and open-source, although individual issuers of badges may charge money for the systems that award those badges. The Open Badges Infrastructure is just a software system that allows for the collection of different badges from different sources and the display of that collection.

The advent of badge systems is just another way that virtual learning has changed the way education takes place. The change from degrees, which are not a perfect signal of any particular skillset, to badges, which individually indicate the acquirement of a certain skill, is a shift away from traditional education and toward a personalized learning system. Badges are often free, making them accessible to nearly anyone, and their use as an indicator of mastery means they can act as a way for anyone to pick up some new abilities and credibly demonstrate them. Not everyone has the time or money for a degree- but putting in an hour or so a day at no cost to learn gets a lot more attractive when a badge system is attached.


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