Digital Badges: What They Are and Why Funders Should Pay Attention (Part 2)

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

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

What are digital badges, and why should we use them? In my last post, I explained the basic badging concepts shared during a Philanthropy New York briefing on the subject. Here are some thoughts that came up at the briefing about the benefits of badges for youth, educators, and employers.

By creating a map of kids’ interests and accomplishments, badges can help educators understand students’ needs. And by providing a network of linked educational experiences, badges can help young people immerse themselves deeply in hobbies or discover new ones.

Badges are seen as tools for increasing equitable access to higher education and job opportunities. Bill Clinton, for instance, has recognized the potential for digital badging to help underserved youth and veterans fill gaps in their educational backgrounds, and the Clinton Global Initiative has partnered with institutions including the John T. and Catherine MacArthur Foundation, the Mozilla Foundation, and the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Alliance to build out badging.

Mozilla, supported by MacArthur, has also been instrumental in ensuring that badges remain universally available and interoperable, establishing Mozilla Open Badges, a common, open-source system for the issuance, collection, and display of digital badges.

Local governments, eager to increase jobs, are also embracing this movement. In 2013, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel helped launch the Chicago Summer of Learning, a citywide digital badging initiative that has engaged more than 100 agencies and issued more than 100,000 badges to youth. Panelist Tawa Mitchell, who oversaw the roll-out of the Summer of Learning in Chicago for the Mayor and is now a program officer at the MacArthur Foundation, said the effort is going national. This summer “Cities of Learning” are popping up in Los Angeles, Columbus, Dallas, Pittsburgh, and Washington, D.C. And the New York City Department of Education’s Digital Ready network of schools has been working with the Hive NYC Learning Network to give kids opportunities to explore their interests through the creative application of digital and technology, and recognize their achievements through badging.

A strong case for badges can be made from the work of the Hive Digital Media Learning Fund, a collaborative of grantmakers seeded by the MacArthur Foundation and The New York Community Trust. We’ve helped nurture badging initiatives through grants to Hive members including Reel Works Teen Filmmaking, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, and the YMCA of Greater New York.  

Funders attending the briefing asked about the potential and the pitfalls of ramping up digital badging activity in New York. They were assured that while the badging landscape is evolving quickly and sometimes “messily,” it is rife with possibility. Jennifer Humke, Program Officer for Digital Media and Learning at the MacArthur Foundation, said it is not a matter of “if, but when” badging takes hold.

Thanks to New York’s robust arts and technology sectors and the Department of Education’s pioneering work with digital media learning, the city may be uniquely poised to benefit from badging. And investments by the Hive Digital Media Learning Fund and other funders are introducing students, instructors, and employers to its practical benefits. In the words of one panelist, “now is the time to jump in.”