Digital Merit Badges: Recognition for 21st Century Skills

Digital badges are icons that individuals can display on their website, blog, or social media profile to get recognition for informal and formal learning outside of school. Mozilla's Open Badges Project, in partnership with the MacArthur Foundation, seeks to develop a common standard or protocol for the badges so they will work across the Web in various platforms. In addition, MacArthur has started a “Badges for Lifelong Learning” competition to develop sets of badges.

What’s the point? Why badges?
The Internet provides opportunities for learning that are demand-driven, such as online tutorials, that aren’t recognized in the same way as institutionalized learning. Badges are a way to assess, recognize, and display the learning that happens in non-institutionalized contexts. Mozilla’s project explores questions, such as:

  •     What are the emerging techniques and practices for managing reputation and recognizing learning?
  •     What systems exist for recognizing learning outside of formal degree and training programs?
  •     How do credentials and other displays of achievement operate in the digital and networked world?
  •     What kinds of skills and experiences have not been well captured by existing credentialing and recognition systems?

How do badges work? Metadata.
The real informational value of badges is contained in the associated metadata. Viewers, for example prospective employers, can click on an e-badge and see detailed information, including who issued the badge, the criteria for earning the badge, and samples of the work that led to the achievement.

Who can issue badges?
Mozilla’s Open Badges website states its goal as “making it easy for anyone to issue, earn, and display badges across the web.” If anyone can issue badges, that practice raises questions about the value and authentication of the badges. Mozilla makes recommendations for the types of communities and agencies who might issue badges, including traditional educational institutions, online courses, and employers. However, in an open-source system, these recommendations are not firm rules.

Authentication & Assessment
Mozilla is trying to build authentication into the design of the badges to address this concern. In some ways, the metadata can act as an informal validation system itself. Further, viewers can access an authentication channel to confirm with the issuer whether the badge is valid. Mozilla foresees that some badges “will require distinct predefined assessment exercises and success criteria,” while “others may be loosely defined and require learner reflection or peer recommendations.” The open-source model and wide range of criteria for different badges means that some will be viewed as more legitimate than others.

Further Questions
Though the questions of authentication and equivalency of badges aren’t resolved, we can see from Mozilla’s FAQ page that they are carefully thinking through these issues. Among the questions they are exploring:

  •     Which are the right badges?
  •     What skills should be assessed? Who decides?
  •     Are some skills better left unassessed?
  •     What do we want to encourage? How do we avoid encouraging the "wrong" behavior?

The Open Badges Project has buy-in from big-name collaborators like NASA, Intel, and the Department of Education. However, to gain legitimacy with the public at large, the above considerations are essential. The Open Badges infrastructure is expected to be launched publicly in January 2012.