Online Courses Experiment With Digital Badges

When 48-year-old Reginald Nichols of Reading, Massachusetts, took a free massive open online course in leadership last year, he wasn’t expecting to earn credit for a certificate or degree.

Instead, after turning in several assignments and receiving positive peer reviews from other students, he earned what looked like an image of a badge – a blue one with a green border and, written across the bottom, the name of the course and the year: LeaderMOOC 2013. It indicates his successful completion of the program, offered by the Center for Creative Leadership, a nonprofit specializing in executive education.

“It was my first digital badge,” says Nichols, an academic counselor at Middlesex Community College in Massachusetts who pursued the badge for both personal fulfillment and professional knowledge. “It’s something I’m definitely proud of.”

Digital badges, which recognize achievement on a smaller scale than typical academic credentials, have gained some momentum in online learning in the past couple of years, though online instructors are still trying to figure out the best ways to use them in their teaching, experts say.

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Many badges do more than just represent a new skill: They serve as a link, directing people to data and information on how and when the badge was earned. This was the case for Nichols, whose badge links to a page that describes the course and states when it was issued, among other pieces of information.

Some students display badges on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn and can include them in their online portfolios. Mozilla, the company that launched Firefox in 2004, has developed ways to produce, issue and verify these badges, and students can privately collect them in a Mozilla digital “backpack,” then share their badges with schools or potential employers.

Bill Wisser, senior director of learning technologies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, says that among the earlier adopters of digital badges was Peer 2 Peer University, an online platform allowing learners around the world to participate in open, peer-led courses.

Now, within academia, badges are being awarded in MOOCs open to students and to the public in addition to hybrid and more traditional online courses.

Earlier this month, George Washington University began offering badges through an Open edX MOOC open to the public, says Lorena Barba, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the school. Barba has started using them in her MOOC, Practical Numerical Methods with Python, which GW students also enroll in if they take the on-campus course at the school.

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“We know that most learners in the MOOC environment are already well educated and from developed countries,” Wisser said via email. “Hence, they are looking to further their education for personal benefit or to move ahead in their careers. Since MOOCs aren’t providing degrees, digital badges can showcase skills.”

Not many students who enroll in MOOCs end up finishing the course; one 2013 research project found that number to be less than 7 percent. ​With the implementation of digital badges, students can potentially choose different parts of the course they wish to complete and then earn a credential for each, says Daniel Hickey, an associate professor in the Indiana University School of Education and program coordinator of the Learning Sciences Program.

In an ​open online course on educational assessment he taught for academic credit and for the public, many of his students were educators themselves and were able to earn badges in more specific subject areas of the class.

“Most students are, by definition, busy,” says Hickey. “So, there’s a recognition that we should go off and find specific chunks of what they need to master to succeed.”