How Open Badges Could Really Work In Education

Higher education institutions are abuzz with the concept of Open Badges. Defined as a symbol or indicator of an accomplishment, skill, quality or interest, Open Badges are not only a hot topic as of late, but are also debated by some critics as the latest threat to higher education.

A closer look at this emerging trend reveals benefits for traditional institutions and alternative learning programs alike. Some advocates have suggested that badges representing learning and skills acquired outside the classroom, or even in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), will soon supplant diplomas and course credits.


Badges in Higher Education

For higher education institutions interested in keeping pace, establishing a digital ecosystem around badges to recognize college learning, skill development and achievement is less a threat and more an opportunity. Used properly, Open Badge systems help motivate, connect, articulate and make transparent the learning that happens inside and outside classrooms during a student’s college years.

Badge-based channels must solve issues of identity, verification, validation and ongoing management to enable a secure and trusted ecosystem to emerge around credentials. College-issued badges can respond to the challenges:

Accredited higher education institutions already possess significant advantages. Colleges and universities are in an ideal position to define for the rest of the labor market the difference between serious college achievements and unsubstantiated claims, peer endorsements or gamer achievements acquired elsewhere. Most institutions will use what they already know about accreditation requirements, development and delivery of effective learning design and assessments to establish credibility behind their achievements and build their value to learners and employers.

Learning By Design

Learning by design is the first step. Institutions can begin by applying best practices in learning and assessment design principles to their college courses, or by leveraging the design already present in their curricula. Students, parents and employers can easily connect defined outcomes to job requirements, and institutions can more readily demonstrate the ROI and economic impact of their programs.

Success in College to Careers

Implementing achievement-related badge systems can also present new opportunities for colleges and employers to build new partnerships and streamline communications around higher education outcomes. Students can improve their employment prospects while still in school, and employers can benefit from greater transparency around skills and knowledge acquired from higher education.

Articulating benefits from general education and extracurricular activities. For general education courses, colleges can use learning design principles to define “soft skill” outcomes and then measure competency against these objectives. Students who demonstrate they have acquired these critical job-ready soft skills will earn job-relevant badges in areas like critical thinking, research, oral and written communication, collaboration, leadership and teamwork.

Credit Recognition

Alignment with education reform movements around credit recognition. Educational programs that use learning design to attach badges to educational experiences according to defined outcomes can streamline credit recognition. At the minimum, badged-curricula is transparent in terms of defined learning objectives and outcomes, facilitating easier comparisons between programs.

Putting Learners in Charge

The badge ecosystem isn’t just a web-enabled transcript, CV, and work portfolio rolled together. It’s also a way to structure the process of education itself. Students will be able to customize learning goals within the larger curricular framework, integrate continuing peer and faculty feedback about their progress toward achieving those goals, and tailor the way badges and the metadata within them are displayed to the outside world.

In the larger context of higher education, it will take a concerted effort to create and implement well-designed college learning experiences that are linked to workplace competencies and skills. Many colleges and universities are already taking steps to increase accountability and demonstrate the value of their learning experiences to students, parents, alumni, employers and others.

By Peter Janzow, Pearson Open Badge Lead


  1. Corey Heath

    November 29, 2014 at 5:47 pm

    One of the criticisms against MOOCs is their lack of accreditation. Degrees from higher institutions have merit because their programs have been standardized and the institution ensures the integrity of its assessment. Switching to a badge system would mean that each individual achievement would need enforceable guidelines in order to facilitate confidence that the badge has been earned legitimately and reflects significant mastery of the subject.

    Rather than supplanting a degree, a better system would have higher institutions incorporating a verification system for outside classroom achievements, and provide a medium for displaying earned badges. This would motivate students to participate and take a more active role in their learning.

  2. Pete Janzow

    December 1, 2014 at 11:43 am

    Thanks for your comments, Corey. As you have correctly pointed out, badges can indeed be used to create a digital “migration path” for traditional learning credentials – one that is owned and controlled by the learner.

    I agree with your additional observation that badges have significant potential to extend learning recognition beyond the classroom. In these contexts the assessment process and brand of the institution can be even more important, because there is no existing basis for comparison of these achievements (which are ungraded). I think one of the keys to unlocking the value of badges that recognize college extracurricular or co-curricular achievements is that they can provide a fuller picture of an individual’s capabilities that is more trustworthy because it is backed by the institution.

    As for verification, that is already built into Open Badges, so an employer or other badge viewer can see who “attests” to the achievement a badge represents whenever they click on the badge. The idea of standardizing the measurement or assessment of badged achievements also has a lot of potential, but standardization is often inconsistently applied in higher education settings.