Developing Badge Literacy – an ongoing discussion

Sarah Thorneycroft, (@sthcrft), who I mentioned the other day, has been thinking about where we get started in spreading awareness of the value of digital badges and who some of the key players are when badges get discussed in education.

Her post, Badge Literacy – A field guide, identifies three common camps that people fall into when badges are discussed; the Boyscout camp who see them as digital stickers for children; the fence sitters who tend to be ambivalent at best; and the gamification camp, which often doesn’t find the best fit for use of badges.

This is a decent starting point for a discussion but I think we need to go further. The blessing and curse of badges is that even the most advanced of users (and there are plenty of them out there) are still trying to figure out exactly what badges can do and why we want them.

There is definitely still a big cohort in the boyscout camp – I’m dealing with a few of these human roadblocks myself. While a digital badge and a student’s testamur or transcript might contain exactly the same information (badges arguably more) and in effect be subject to the same degree of rigour in accreditation, this camp seems incapable of making this connection. They don’t get that it’s possible (and necessary) to have a hierarchy of badge types that encompass everything from informal “fun” classroom motivators to micro-credentials. (This is a post for another time soon)

The fence sitters will always be there and they at least have some understandably well-grounded concerns about yet another faddish new technology that should be listened to as we set about making digital badges a sustainable system.

I’m probably more sympathetic to the gamification camp but there are more than enough hucksters and band-wagon jumpers in that bunch that pushed this approach into Gartner’s Trough of Disillusionment in record time and they aren’t helping the idea of badges in the least.

But all of these camps are within the institutions.

When I think about Badge Literacy, I think about the people who will ultimately drive the value of these badges – employers and the learners/badge earners themselves.

It can be satisfying and motivating for a learner to have their achievements and progress recognised – real achievements and the development of real skills and knowledge, not just showing up to every lecture – but I’d argue that the greatest value of digital badges comes from the status that they can give you amongst your peers and prospective employers.

The trick here is that they can’t just replicate the existing system of qualifications and grades and lines on a CV, they need to offer something extra. Otherwise, why bother? Fortunately they do. Digital badges offer easy to read information about the recipient, with rich, validated metadata behind it. Ideally, direct links in this metadata to the evidence used to earn it. This is what can make a digital badge worthwhile.

Firstly though, there needs to be a critical mass of people who understand how they work and why they are better. This can take us to the point where an employer might look for specific badges in your online profile or drill down to see what’s in your ePortfolio and learners can track their learning progress and see at a glance what their knowledge gaps are.

It’s important for us to be working out the myriad of other issues relating to badges but I’d argue that, as with all other media, we have to know who our audience is first of all and if they can’t “read” the badges, what is our purpose?