Micro-credentials and badges have become popular in education today, but there remains considerable confusion about what they mean due to differences in how the term “badging” is used in education.
One use of badging is as an alternative to traditional A–F grading. The traditional method is negative in that each student begins with a perfect score, usually 100, and their grade is determined by subtracting errors from it. Thus, everything less than an A is essentially a measure of degrees of failure. This demotivates students and leads to grade obsession as many students interpret even a B as a measure of failure.
By contrast, the badging system is positive in that it begins with a zero and rises for each student accomplishment, much like a video game. Instead of an A–F grade on each assignment, assignments are given an all-or-nothing badge or no badge. Once the student has met the standards of an assignment, they receive a badge for it. Importantly, they are normally allowed to revise an assignment as many times as needed to get the badge. The final grade is determined by the number of badges that the student earn—for instance, an A for 10 badges, a B for achieving nine, and so on.
The value of this method is primarily in heightened motivation. Students do not fear failure on a video game because they can always start over. But they learn from each attempt and use that information to do better the next time. Instead of having the poor grade on their first assignment carried through to their final grade, falling short of a badge just means revising work to do better the next time. They can also get the A they desire if they work hard enough. This system fosters student growth in understanding, higher motivation, and greater effort—all the things we want of students.
A second use of badging is to connect them with micro-credentials. A micro-credential is essentially a “mini-certification” that a person can earn by completing a project, a simple course, or a group of modules. It certifies a narrow competency the person has achieved through a program offered by a company or educational institution. The micro-credential contains metadata that can be traced to the issuing authority to authenticate it, such as a school, university, professional organization, or company that develops and approves the criteria for the credential (SUNY, 2022).
Micro-credentials have gained in popularity in the last several years because rapid technological growth and a changing job market have necessitated that employees obtain specific skills or technical knowledge in a short amount of time (Rose, 2021). Whereas a degree certifies a broad area of knowledge that often serves as a baseline condition for employment, a micro-credential certifies a narrow competency that can be beneficial in completing certain types of projects within a job. For example, in the business world, it common for employees to complete training courses about online safety and security. Once they do, they receive a digital badge to showcase that they have successfully completed the course. Many universities and community colleges are now offering micro-credentials that also include earning credits for anyone who wants to boost their resume and refresh their skills. Short courses are offered in just about every field, from business to outdoor recreation. Depending on who designed the credential and the institution’s requirements, a micro-credential could be completed in a few hours to a few weeks.
One reason that micro-credentials are often referred to as “badges” is that when a person completes a micro-credential, a digital badge is issued by the company or school that designed the credential. The badges are meant to be displayed on a personal, educational, or company website that verifies the credential, much like a university transcript. The recipient of the badge can then include it on a resume, e-portfolio, or on a badging website. This allows an employer to immediately verify the credential, rather than having to order a transcript.
In institution that wishes to issue micro-credentials should register them with a website that hosts badges on behalf of individuals. The most popular are Credly, Badgr, Accredible, and Open Badges. This allows individuals to display their badges in a “digital backpack,” a type of e-portfolio that’s visible to employers.
Note that faculty can use badges in either (or both) of the two ways mentioned. They can create a badging system for determining grades without associating them with a micro-credential. They can associate badges with micro-credentials while using a traditional grading system for earning the badges. They can also combine the two by using badges as an alternative grading system and connecting them with micro-credentials. This brings the best of both worlds, providing better motivation in the grading and giving students a token that they can display to potential employers.
One nice feature of badges is that they need not apply only to assignment performance. They can be used to recognize achievements that are hard to quantify in a grading system. You can award badges for anything, from the number of discussion replies and comments students complete on time to demonstrations of professional online classroom etiquette. For instance, someone might receive a badge for leadership in online discussion by their inviting quiet students to participate. Leadership can be hard to assess with an assignment-based A–F grading system, but an instructor who wants student to cultivate leadership qualities can make it into a badge that they award at their discretion.
Students can display their badges in an e-portfolio or a website they create to exhibit their work. I have had great success with students creating e-portfolios for this purpose. They can control the content and design as well as decide whom they would like to share the e-portfolio with. Keep in mind that if you want to award badges, students will need a place to showcase them, either in the LMS or in another digital space.
In a typical semester, I may have students earn four to five badges in a single education course. When I design a badge, I start with my course objectives. I identify specific tasks and projects that I want my students to complete and then break each one down into steps to guide them in completing it. With each micro-credential I usually include three different tasks that follow Bloom’s Taxonomy: explore, apply, and create. I begin each badge by having students explore. In this task, they usually complete reading assignments and watch instructional videos about the topic. They may also consult different websites or resources to help build an understanding of the material. In the next task, students apply what they have learned by completing one or more quizzes, writing a response essay, or participating in an online group discussion. In an online setting, I make sure to have students work in online groups so they can discuss with one another what they are learning or even work on completing badges together. Finally, students must create something on their own. My students’ badging projects have included lessons they created for OER Commons, educational videos, multimedia presentations, websites with educational resources, alternative assessments, essays, podcasts, and infographics. Along with the tasks, I include a rubric so students clearly understand what I expect and how they will be graded.
The aim of every badge is for each student to apply what they have learned to create something that demonstrates their skill(s) and understanding. Once they complete their work, I review it, provide feedback where needed, and award them a digital badge once they have met all the project criteria. By the end of the semester, students have completed their badges and created their e-portfolios, which they submit as one of their final projects. The e-portfolio displays their badges as well as the projects they completed to earn them. Along with each badge and project, I require students to include a short reflection explaining what they learned and how they benefitted from completing each badge. This metacognitive activity is a powerful method for students to self-evaluate their learning as well as for instructors to assess how learning goals were achieved.
Since many university programs use e-portfolios to track students’ progress and show evidence of their learning, the digital badge e-portfolio can be shared with other instructors to determine what work a student has done previously. Students can also continue to build their e-portfolios by adding their best work from each course until graduation. Other instructors can help students to build their e-portfolios by including signature assignments from their courses, even if they are not using digital badges.
I have really enjoyed using digital badges. Although I do not use it in every course, I usually have one class each semester where I use the digital badge framework to organize my curriculum. I like how badging allows me to be innovative with my curriculum in a way that also increases student engagement. I also believe in its value for students: it boosts their confidence and gives them clear evidence of what they have accomplished during the semester.
Rose, E. (2021, November 4). Micro-credentials continue to grow in popularity. Education Dynamics. https://www.educationdynamics.com/demand-for-micro-credentials
SUNY. (2022). Micro-credential definition and terms. https://system.suny.edu/academic-affairs/microcredentials/definitions
Gina L. Solano, PhD, is an assistant professor of educational technology at the State University of New York College at Oneonta.