Badges & Microcredentials

With the advent of elearning, learning can now take place at anytime, anywhere. There’s just one problem – how can we verify that this learning has taken place?
Badges and micro-credentials

Badges and micro-credentials, a summary and exposition.

With the advent of elearning, learning can now take place at anytime, anywhere. There’s just one problem – how can we verify that this learning has taken place? That’s where badges come in. Just like you would earn a certificate for completing a taught course at learning institution, online badges certify your elearning. Badges then become your micro-credentials, providing proof of your having taken a course, or learned a skill, and thereby help to provide authenticity to the world of elearning.
“Badges are rapidly becoming the currency that provides verified, specific information from trusted sources about the skills, competencies and knowledge each individual possesses.” - Pearson[1]

So, what exactly are badges and where can you get them? We can distinguish between three tiers of badges: open badges, middle-of-the-range badges and closed badges. The tier system is based on specificity: open badges can be earned for taking part in pretty much any activity, so long as a badge has been created for it, and anyone can create, verify and use an open badge; middle-of-the-range badges are curated and verified by a specific organisation, and closed badges are specific to an LMS (Learning Management System) and are awarded for completing activities within that LMS.
Understanding these three tiers of badges may seem daunting at first, but by having a look at specific instances of each type of badge we can shine some light on their differences and understand where these badges come from.

Open Badges
Open badges are a type of badge pioneered by Mozilla (think Mozilla Firefox). They are open source software, meaning that “any organisation can create, issue and verify digital badges, and any user can earn, manage and display these badges all across the web.”[2]

As an open badge can be earned for any activity for which a badge has been created, open badges can be used to paint a digital picture of yourself – your personality as well as your academic and professional achievements. Mozilla provide you with a ‘backpack’ in to which you can put your badges and then display these badges in various places across the web, such as social networking and job-hunting sites.
The features which differentiate open badges from other types of badges are therefore their variety: they can be earned for just about anything, and thereby represent you online in more than just an academic or professional manner.

Middle-of-the-range Badges
Middle-of-the-range badges is a bit of a  contrived term, intended to indicate their place somewhere  between open and closed badges; let’s just call them ‘middle’ badges. Middle badges are offered by specific organisations such as Credly. Whereas with open badges anyone can create and verify a badge, with middle badges an organisation such as Credly “showcase, curate and manage all of the [badges] you receive”. Credly offer a service whereby anyone can create badges (or ‘credit’ as Credly badges), but in order for these badges to be verified, Credly must assess the creator of the badge[3]. Middle badges therefore offer more verification and security than open badges as they are verified by an independent organisation, who then manages and curates those badges.

Closed Badges
Badges can also be attained in an LMS-specific manner. For example the LMS Saba offers, as part of its learning solution, offers badges which certify the achievements of the learner within their LMS. In this case, the badges are created, managed and verified by the LMS provider, and are specific to the content of the LMS. Closed badges are the most specific type of badge – in that they are confined to a specific LMS – but this means that they are the most secure, as they are created by the LMS provider who is in control of the LMS and its content.

Advantages of badges and micro-credentials
The certification of learning is not a new concept, but its application to elearning is slightly more relaxed than in the classic learning institution-context – as we have already seen, badges can be created for any achievement, even social achievements.
Online badges are similar to the badges that Scouts can earn for completing certain activities in that they gamify learning (see the Gamification article in this series for reference). The term gamification denotes the addition of game-like features to learning content in order to incentivise the completion of that content. Badges and micro-credentials recognise, and enable you to display, your achievements and thereby incentivise learning by appealing to our innate desires for achievement, recognition and competition. Learners can now quickly and frequently earn recognition, and a display of this recognition, by completing small achievements and collecting badges. In this way, learners are given an incentive to keep learning in a way which is effective and is appropriate to the busy modern lifestyle. The collection of small badges in turn incentivises the achievement of bigger goals as these smaller badges and the goals for which they are earned all contribute towards the achievement of bigger, more significant goals and bigger, more significant badges. The badges and badge holders can even be ranked in a leaderboard-style table alongside their contemporaries to create further competition and incentive! Badgeville offer a ‘gamification platform’, using badges as a reward and incentive, and are worth a look if you want to learn more about how badges can gamify learning[4].
The incentivisation of learning through the use of badges is something that, as we can see from the Scouts example, is not specific to online badges, although they may take this process a step further. However, online badges do have an advantage which is not seen with classic certification: they provide formal recognition of informal learning activities. As those who are familiar with the 70 20 10 account of learning will know, 70% of learning in the workplace takes place through experiential learning[5], such as watching an informative video or reading a relevant article. Experiential learning is most commonly informal learning. As badges provide a reliable and informative view of a learner’s achievements, and experiential learning constitutes the majority of learning in the workplace, it is extremely valuable to learners and assessors to have some kind of formal certification of informal learning. Badges provide a way to certify informal learning, and are therefore extremely valuable for elearning in the workplace.

Online badges and micro-credentials might be a new phenomenon, but the concept of certified learning is not. However, online badges enable the certification of learning to take new forms, and in those new forms provide new advantages, as well as benefitting for the traditional advantages of classic learning-certification.


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