Digital Badges Discussion Q3: Where do badges derive their value, what is their value, and how might it evolve?

Hi all,

We are now on day four of our discussion on The Potential and Value of Using Digital Badges for Adult Learners.  So far, we have had some discussion on how badges are different from credentialing methods used in the past and the roles for quality & content standards in awarding badges.  You can continue to discuss those questions in those two threads.

Today we move on to Question 3:  Where do badges derive their value, what is their value, and how might it evolve?

We will hear from David Wiley and Steve Reder as they respond to this question, but we look forward to hearing from you regarding your thoughts on digital badges or questions you have on how they can be used in adult education.  How do you think your students would respond to using digital badges as a way to indicate successful completion learning outcomes?  Have any of you had experience with WorkKeys or Stackable Credentials  Could Digital badges be used similarly?  What have been the challenges to the adoption of WorkKeys and Stackable Credentials?




Where do badges derive their value, what is their value, and how might it evolve?

Like all other things, badges derive their value from people, and their opinions and desires. Reflecting on Christmases past, even vapid items like Tickle Me Elmo dolls can experience brief periods of insanely high value as people's opinions move about. What were people willing to pay for a Tickle Me Elmo at the height of that holiday mania? Clearly, value isn't somehow inherent in a thing, but is subject to shaping by a variety of social forces.

Where do traditional credentials derive their value? What is the value of a college degree? I have a rough idea of what I can get for $20. What can I get for a BA in History? What can I get for a Masters in English? What can I get for a PhD in Ethnomusicology? Clearly, a degree can bring me a fair amount of debt. Can it get me a job? Can it get me a promotion? Can it prevent me from being the one laid off? Can it earn me the respect of my peers? (We'll skip for now questions like, Can it bring me greater fulfillment and joy in living life?)

Like to holiday toy-du-jour, the value of credentials like badges is also shaped entirely by social forces - neither badges, diplomas, nor degrees have inherent value. Will a company recognize your badge during the hiring process? Will a company recognize your badge when they consider promotions? Will they consider it when choosing who to lay off?

In relation to employment, the answer to "where do badges derive their value?" is the HR office, your boss, and your colleagues. In relation to employment, the answer to "what is their value?" is a function of the degree to which HR, your boss, and your colleagues treat you differentially based on your possession of badges. Today, in relation to employment, badges have very little if any value. But, how might our notions of that value evolve and grow?

Why do companies care whether or not you have a college degree, thereby endowing that degree with value to you? This is an interesting topic in and of itself and is probably worth its own week-long discussion. However, some job descriptions already include language next to the college degree requirement that says, "Or equivalent experience." I think the short-term evolutionary pathway for badges runs through this "loophole" in the degree requirement.

The question becomes, then, by what path do employers come to see badges as being roughly "equivalent" to whatever value they expect future employees to have obtained from a college education? (As an aside, yesterday I heard Jim Sphorer say that IBM would rather hire a failed entrepreneur than a graduate from any college, because the first experience is more valuable than the second.)

The Open Education Alliance recently launched by informal learning company Udacity and a number of employers provides an excellent example of how the first set of employers might come to value badges. Companies like AT&T, Google, and Autodesk help design courses that are offered on the Udacity platform. Learners who can earn the badge demonstrating that they have the skills necessary to pass the course in Parallel Programming designed by NVIDIA will definitely get looked at by NVIDIA. Check out the website for more information.


Thanks for such stimulating thinking and examples that are relatable. I am wondering how the adult education field could create value around badges. Would this happen program-by-program and by teacher/classroom? Or would the badge have more value if the state stamped its approval to say, Yes, this badge means something? Adult learners often move from place to place, so the badge not only has to travel with them (making the digital aspect so valuable), but it must also mean something in that new setting.

Susan Manning mentioned in another thread in this discussion that one can search the metadata behind the badge to determine its value, but this takes effort on the part of the employer or HR staff. And that staff or employer must be able to differentiate between badges with value and those without. It sounds a bit messy—at least at first. I like structure, so the idea of categorizing and standardizing badges to some degree is appealing to me. Yet, I have the sense that the badge “movement” is really geared toward democratizing the badge system to the point where it may be impossible to determine a badge’s value without, as noted in these discussions, getting to some general consensus on which issuers are reliable/trustworthy.

E.g., I have a friend who studied architecture informally in another country, but is capable of working in a firm in the US. Without a 5-year architecture degree, he was turned down repeatedly until one firm gave him a chance. They tested him and found that he had all the skills for an entry level position, and he’s been in the field now for 10 years. He may never take the series of exams to become a licensed architect, but looks for other types of certification (LEEDS, other) to build his portfolio. This is a person for whom badges would benefit a career path, as long as the employer recognizes the issuer and the skillset as valuable. For other adult ESL learners, translating their skills to support eployment in their area of interest would benefit from an effective badge system.

The other challenge to programs/teachers is setting up this system of badges (the back end) and making it consistent and easy to access for learners, teachers, employers, etc. The report we are discussing lists these needs for a badge system: 

  • Recipient: exactly who earned the achievement 
  • Issuer: the individual or organization taking responsibility for issuing the badge, usually an entity that has firsthand knowledge or evidence of the earner’s achievement 
  • Criteria and description: what the recipient needed to do or demonstrate to earn the badge 
  • Evidence: an authentic representation or connection to the underlying work performed or contribution made to earn the badge 
  • Date: precisely when the badge was awarded 
  • Expiration: when, if ever, the credential bestowed is no longer valid 
  • Certificate or assertion: a connection to an official form of verification vouching for the validity of the award

It seems that Issuer, Criteria, and Assertion are the key areas to create some kind of standard around, or consensus. That said, which entities do you (and Steve Reder) think would make good partners for adult education programs (at any level) to create badges that are meaningful/of value for adult learners and potential employers?


From a technical perspective, the notions of Issuer, Criteria, and Assertion have already been highly standardized. You can read the standard here

However, knowing technical standards - like the fact that the Issuer's name and URL are mandatory and should be expressed in JSON - doesn't help explicitly with the value issue. When badge issuers follow these technical standards it becomes easier for third parties to aggregate badge information and create automated systems that can estimate their value.

But I should explicitly address your (lightly edited) question - 'which entities do you think would make good partners to create badges that are meaningful/of value for adult learners and potential employers?' I think the answer to this question begins with the entities that are capable of providing any value to adult learners and potential employers. The badge is only a token, and real value must undergird the token. Entities that help potential employers source talent (that's valuable, right?) should be in the conversation. Entities that help adult learners gain skills (that's valuable, right") should be in the conversation. Remember, badges aren't new sources of value, they're simply new and alternative ways to indicate value.

Hello colleagues, Dahlia's story about a friend who studied architecture in another country reminds me of the many highly skilled immigrants who face enormous obstacles to obtaining licensure and meaningful work in their new home country. It would be great if a system could be devised to assess the skills of these individuals so they could more easily work in their fields. If badges could be part of addressing this issue for specific professions that would be fantastic.


Susan Finn Miller

Lancaster, PA


Hello Nell, David, Steve and others,

I wonder if it would be useful to look at existing performance-based assessment alternatives that some uncredentialed adult learners use now, for example the various Microsoft certifications. My understanding of these is that adults can pursue learning to prepare for the certifications on their own or through formal or nonformal, face-to-face, online or blended instruction, and that at least some of these certifications have led to jobs or job advancement for otherwise uncredentialed adults. I wonder if you or others are aware of this certification system, created by a private-sector manufacturer, and used by an employment industry or sector. To my knowledge the certifications are not called badges, but this system seems to have many of the elements of a badge system, and it does seem to work for adults who lack formal education system credentials to enable them to demonstrate what they know and can do and get and advance in technology-related jobs. Do you agree? Are there other asssessment models like this that provide opportunities for adults who have left school without a high school diploma? If so, what are they, how are they similar to or different from badge systems, and what can we learn from these alternative assessment and credentialing systems that might be useful if badge systems were to be developed and used in adult literacy/basic education?

David J. Rosen

Hi David & David, Nell, Dahlia and others --

Thanks for the helpful suggestions and examples related to the potential value of badges for adult education.  In thinking about the sources and development of badges' value, we may want to consider how badges will connect with other credentialing systems that our adult learners encounter.  Here are a few examples of such connections that might be sources of value:

*Credit for prior learning: Colleges, universities and other organizations that grant certificates and degrees are increasingly exploring various ways of granting "credit" for prior learning outside of academic institutions.  This seems like a natural context for badging and could one source of value behind badges.

*Alternative credentials for secondary completion: With alternative tests/credentials coming into this very large adult education credentialing space, what role could an alternative based on badging play?  

*Common Core standards.  Adult education in most states is trying to align with the Common Core standards of K-12.  What role might digital badges play in this alignment for adult learners?  Is this a likely source of value for digital badges?  



Hi, all.

David R's comments here and the mention of WorkKeys in the prompt reminds me of our experience in MN to launch the National Work Readiness Credential.  It is interesting, I think, that the one place it really flew was in Mankato, MN, a small city in southern MN.  It worked there because of the close professional network that existed amongst area employers, ABE programs, and workforce development practitioners. In other words, a certificate recipient could show up with the certificate earned at the workforce center and the employer would believe it represented something valuabe in part (at least initially) because the employer knew the WFC director.  It seems the questions about value and partnerships to support badging can't be answered without considering the implementation context.