A Simple, Free, Powerful Badging System

Badges occupy an interesting space in the education sphere. Almost everybody knows what they are, almost everybody has at least one or two (whether or not they show them off is another matter), and most would agree that they hold a lot of promise for developing competency-based systems.

But in spite of this recognition, proliferation, and potential impact, they still aren’t widely used in public K-12 (or even post-secondary) education, and when they are, the purveyors of these badges sometimes struggle to make them seem credible to people outside of their immediate circles.

I recently had a chance to speak with Wayne Skipper, founder of Badgr and one of the leading voices in badging technologies today, about why badges are in this position, where he sees them headed, and what his company is doing to drive progress. Before diving into what he had to say, however, let’s take a moment to examine the badging landscape.

Why Badges? (And When?)

For public education, the biggest attraction to badging is often the ability to manage microcredentials around projects and real-world achievements. For professional development, they can be a great way demonstrate course completion and lifelong learning.

Schools like Del Lago Academy in California have seen success with them, and the Project Management Institute Education Foundation (PMIEF) now offers a Project Management Fundamentals Digital Badge for Students.

They will be pivotal for rethinking diplomas, and are likely to become even more powerful as blockchain technology makes its way further and further into the mainstream.

But any large-scale usage of badges still seems to be on a distant horizon.

The Story So Far:

Badges, as we know them today, were founded by Mozilla (the makers of Firefox), who received funding from the MacArthur Foundation to begin work in the area. Together, they launched Open Badges in 2011. The idea was to develop a technological standard that would put all badges on the same technological platform, so that all badges could be issued, verified, and maintained by anyone, anywhere.

Open Badges 1.0 was released to the public 2013. Unfortunately, it didn’t take off as quickly as its founders had anticipated. “We were pushing on a string,” said Skipper, who joined the Open Badges movement in 2014. “We had solved the tech around issuing badges, but we hadn’t created the demand.”

In 2014, The Summit to Reconnect Learning, organized by the Sprout Fund with funding from the MacArthur Foundation, brought together potential business and education partners to bring Open Badges from the edges of innovation to the mainstream. At the summit, a wave of business and education partners made public pledges committing to help accelerate the spread and scale of digital badges for learning.

Today, millions of Open Badges have been awarded to hundreds of thousands of recipients. Skipper’s Badgr team were the primary authors of the specification for the Open Badges 2.0 standards, which were formally released by IMS Global in 2018.

How it Works:

In the digital age, a simple picture doesn’t suffice as a badge, because everybody knows how to copy and paste pictures (I even, finally, got my mom to remember the process last fall, and I’m inclined to think she may have been the very last straggler).

With Open Badges, the badge’s recipient’s email address and name are stored, encrypted, in the badge, along with a description of what was needed to earn the badge. As it travels through the ecosystem, the encryption allows the badge to remain the property of just one person. Somebody looking to verify the authenticity of a badge need only visit BadgeCheck.io, an open-source platform (developed by the Badgr team) that validates badges and recipients. Badgecheck is also available as an open source library and forms the basis of the official validator used by IMS Global.

Another vision Skipper had for the technology was to allow a learner to show the directionality of their learning journey, not just a snapshot of their current credentials. “There have, for some time, been excellent standards for competencies and for recognizing student accomplishments through systems like digital transcripts,” he says. “But what we needed was a universal language for tracking how badges relate to each other in a way that is navigable and analyzable.”

To address this, Skipper’s team created Open Pathways, an open standard designed to allow badge issuers to create truly stackable credentials and programs, and to help learners discover new learning pathways based on the credentials they already have.

“Some users have even used Badgr to gamify conferences and PD by issuing badges to people who, for example, scan the right QR code at the end of a session,” says Skipper.

What’s Next:

Badgr is open source for use by teams with their own internal software developers and who feel comfortable hosting the Badgr system on their own servers, but Badgr also offers a free version hosted on their own servers. Impressively, this free hosted service doesn’t come with any of the “freemium” limitations you may have come to expect in today’s software market. “Badgr.io offers a free hosted service where schools–and others–can issue thousands of badges a day for free,” says Skipper.

To monetize the platform, the Badgr team offers additional paid services that they can set up for an organization needing additional capabilities. The Open edX server uses Badgr on the backend, for example, and Microsoft uses it similarly. The Badgr team has even worked with international organizations to make sure Badgr can comply with international privacy laws such as GDPR.

Badgr is approaching use with 10,000 organizations around the world, and has reached hundreds of thousands of students. “We’re excited by the levels of growth we’re seeing, particularly internationally. Badgr is rapidly becoming the chosen credentialing solution for a growing list of prominent organizations around the world,” says Skipper.

For those looking to develop a low-cost badging system for PD, for their students, or for just about anything else, Badgr should be high on the list of potential tools.

For more on badging and other innovative credentialing systems, see:

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Erik Day

Erik manages projects for Getting Smart’s strategic advisory partnerships. With a system-oriented outlook and a background in marketing and communication, he oversees the details that ensure our partners’ initiatives are powerful and effective.

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