Digital Badges: What They Are and Why Funders Should Pay Attention (Part 1)

Friday, June 13, 2014

By Leigh Ross, Program Associate for the Hive Digital Media Learning Fund in The New York Community Trust.

Technology has transformed traditional modes of learning—creating a vast online universe of information, and a wide array of new ways to engage with that information. For young people, learning isn’t confined to the hours of the school day—and often, it accelerates when they leave the classroom.

Kids hanging out online are discovering new friends and interests. They’re also leading active extracurricular lives: working, volunteering, and participating in after-school and summer activities at civic and cultural institutions.

So how can we bolster the learning that happens both in and outside of school? At a recent Philanthropy New York briefing, a panel of funders, technologists, and educators proposed using digital badges.

Panelists and participants described badges as “a personal diary,” “evidence-based micro-credentialing,” “a Trojan horse for interest-driven learning,” and “an infrastructure to transform education.” Whatever you call them, digital badges have significant potential to enhance learning and access to professional opportunity.

Put simply, digital badges are online summaries of the knowledge and skills acquired through courses, projects, or other activities. Panelist Carla Casilli, Director of Design and Practice at the Badge Alliance, explained that each badge typically includes a graphic image, a description of the issuing institution, and the criteria for acquisition. It may feature links to work samples created by the earner, and show alignment to national or local educational standards.

A badge can offer a more complete, accurate depiction of an educational experience than a grade or a test score—providing universities, employers, and other badge “consumers” with detailed information about a person’s  competencies—and validate important but difficult-to-measure qualities, like creativity and leadership ability.

Badges can also motivate kids to work harder and learn more. In fact, in an example provided by panelist Halima Johnson, Digital Education Coordinator at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, teens participating in the Museum’s DesignPrep program requested that organizers make their badges more competitive and challenging.

The Cooper-Hewitt Museum is one of 55 members of the Hive NYC Learning Network, a consortium of museums, libraries, and youth-serving nonprofits that work together to help teens discover new interests, develop new skills, and follow their passions using digital media and technology.

These groups are leading an effort to use badging to transform education, youth development, and workforce training. They’re supported by the Hive Digital Media Learning Fund—a donor collaborative seeded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and The New York Community Trust.

To learn more about how Hive NYC and others are using badges to help our city’s young people, see my follow-up post, next week.