Welcome to Digital Badges Discussion. Q1 How are badges different from credentialing methods used in the past?

Welcome to a Week Long Discussion on Digital Badges for Adult Education

Welcome to day one of our week long discussion (December 3-9) on The Potential and Value of Using Digital Badges for Adult Learners, a report recently released for public comment by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education, through a contract with the American Institutes for Research (AIR).

This discussion will be facilitated by Steve Reder (http://www.pdx.edu/profile/meet-professor-steve-reder) and David Wiley (http://davidwiley.org/), two researchers who bring combined knowledge of adult education, technology, and digital badges to our forum.  Please see their bios at the bottom of this post.

Over the week we will explore both the report and the thoughts and knowledge on the use of digital badges in adult education of our facilitators as well as of all the members of this group.  Please share your experiences with digital badges and any question you may have regarding the report.  I will be posing several questions over the next seven days to help us explore the topic and the report.  To kick off the discussion today here is the first question. 

Question 1.  How are badges different from credentialing methods used in the past? Adult education examples may include career pathways, certificates, and stackable credentials.  How are these similar and different from digital badges?


Dr. David Wiley *updated* (http://davidwiley.org/) Co-Founder of Lumen Learning, an organization dedicated to supporting and improving the adoption of open educational resources by middle schools, high schools, community and state colleges, and universities. He is currently on leave from Brigham Young University with the support of a Shuttleworth Fellowship, and is simultaneously serving as Education Fellow at Creative Commons. As an academic, Dr. Wiley has received numerous recognitions for his work, including an NSF CAREER grant and appointments as a Peery Social Entrepreneurship Research Fellow in the BYU Marriott School of Business, and Nonresident Fellow in the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School. As a social entrepreneur, Dr. Wiley has founded or co-founded numerous entities including Lumen Learning, Degreed, and the Open High School of Utah (now Mountain Heights Academy). In 2009, Fast Company named Dr. Wiley one of the 100 Most Creative People in Business.

Dr. Steve Reder (http://www.pdx.edu/profile/meet-professor-steve-reder) earned his Ph.D. from Rockefeller University in 1977, and for the next nearly twenty years he conducted research in West Africa, Alaska and the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory. He joined the faculty of PSU in 1995. His many interests include how adults learn language, literacy skills, language education, and the role of language, literacy and technology in everyday life.  His current research focuses on three projects:  (1) The Longitudinal Study of Adult Learning that followed the learning and progress of 1000 high school drop outs over nearly a 10-year period.  Results from this ground-breaking study 


Hi everyone,

Welcome to the discussion about digital badges and adult learners!  I’m Steve Reder from Portland State University.  Thanks to LINCS and Dahlia Shaewitz of AIR for inviting me and David Wiley to co-facilitate the discussion this week.   I’m really looking forward to our discussion and to learning from everyone about ways that digital badges can contribute to adult education.  As you know, the starting point for our discussion is the interesting paper, “The Potential and Value of Using Digital Badges for Adult Learners” by Jonathan Finkelstein, Erin Knight and Susan Manning.  Let me start my initial comments with a few observations about myself, my questions about digital badges, and my hopes for the discussion.

First, a bit about me.  I’m a faculty member of the Department of Applied Linguistics at Portland State.  We train adult ESL teachers and award certificates and degrees but no digital badges yet!  I think of myself as a lifelong learner and an adult educator.  As a researcher, I’m always on the lookout for new insights and approaches to adult education and lifelong learning. So I bring a well developed curiosity to this discussion about digital badges in adult education.  I am keenly interested in – actually, quite excited about – the potential benefits of using digital badges with adult learners.  Unlike my esteemed co-facilitator David Wiley, I don’t have a lot of experience and expertise with digital badges. But I have worked with many adult learners and have studied their use of new technologies.  Let me share two lessons I’ve learned that may be helpful in discussing the new technology of digital badges.

One lesson is that new technologies are usually most effective in environments where everyone – students, teachers, tutors, administrators -- are positioned as learners with respect to the new technology.  Not everyone starts from the same point with a new technology, of course, but most people have something important to learn about its use.  A shared  openness to and empathy for the learning others must do around a new technology helps people work together to find the best ways to use the technology and successfully incorporate it into their daily lives and educational practices.  This relates to something I especially appreciated in the report, its consideration of digital badges not only for adult learners but also for adult education teachers and for programs themselves. 

Another lesson I’ve learned is to try to avoid technological determinism, that is, assumptions that the technical features of a new technology – no matter how innovative and attractive they may seem – will determine the ways in which it will be used, the benefits that will derive from its use, and so on.  The history of technology, going all the way back to print literacy, teaches us that it is the people, organizations and cultures who use a new technology who shape its applications and impacts.  So it’s important, as we look at the new technology of digital badges, to differentiate between its potential uses and impacts and the reality that may be experienced by the individuals and organizations that actually use the badges.  The report describes a rich range of uses and positive impacts of digital badging with adult learners.  Although I too see great potential here, I also see some subtle dangers with some uses of digital badges.  Maybe some of these will come up during the course of our discussion this week.

Enough of these preliminaries.   Let’s move on to our first question: How are badges different from credentialing methods used in the past?  Adult education examples may include career pathways, certificates, and stackable credentials.  How are these similar and different from digital badges? 

The report contains an important section devoted to “What Makes Digital Badges Different”.  This section emphasizes digital badges’ unprecedented granularity, portability, searchability and applicability to a wide range of knowledge, learning and accomplishment.  I found myself wondering, as I read through this material, how all these innovations will become possible simply by using digital badges.  Are we slipping back into technological determinism here?  Could these badges really lead to new kinds of content, certification mechanisms and learning trajectories that don’t already exist in adult education?  I’ve been around long enough to remember the ascendancy of competency-based education in the 1970s and 1980s. I wonder if digital badging is merely a high tech version of this.  What do you think?  What about career pathways and stackable credentials?  Do you think these will be fundamentally changed by operating in a digital badging environment?

The report offers very enthusiastic support for the use of digital badges with adult learners.  What issues do we see, as experienced adult educators, in realizing this vision with our learners and in our adult education system?  Let me mention a couple issues as examples.  Example one:  the report suggests that a digital badge system be developed for adult education teachers (and tutors) to certify what they’ve learned and the successful practices they utilize.  In many states, certification of adult education teachers is an idea that has been talked about for decades but is still not widely implemented.  What have been the barriers to implementing this?  Do you think that the digital badging of teachers will be able to overcome these barriers?  Why or why not?  Second example:  The report concludes that the most important element to consider for using digital badges in the field of adult education is trust.  If digital badges are to be used in hiring, promotion and compensation decisions (whether for adult education teachers or for learners in a variety of occupations), will our students and teachers, indeed, “trust” the badging system?  Will badges wind up being trusted because they are perceived as instruments of social justice and desired social change?  Or will badges lose their trustworthiness because they are perceived as instruments of the status quo?  What can we reasonably infer from what has happened with other kinds of high stakes assessments in our field?

I am really looking forward to a rich discussion of these and many other questions this week.


Steve, David, Nell, Michael and others,

I have lots of thoughts to share about digital badges, but I'll start with just a few:

Some things I like about digital badges:

  • Granularity -- ability to measure small pieces of learning
  • Based on demonstration of learning, the performance of skills learned
  • Ability to be blended with certificates, diplomas, and employer-recognized credentials
  • A refreshing way to document what learners can do, instead of or in addition to seat time in class, learning levels, or attainment of academic certificates, diplomas or degrees that might not reflect application of knowledge in work environments

Some challenges to overcome before digital badges could be accepted in and widely adopted by our field:

  • The name "badges" will probably not work for adult learners or adult educators seeking professional development. As Nell mentioned, the first association is scouting -- children's or youth, not adult, activities. Another association may be the badges worn by the law that some adult learners may not have positive associations with. Competencies, competences or some other adult-oriented or at least neutral name that also suggests demonstration of learning may be more welcome in our field.
  • I wonder how granularity -- whose goal would be to enable measurement and recognition of small pieces of learning and would, I assume, produce large numbers badges if successful, would mesh with another important need -- having these small pieces add up to larger, credentialed learning that employers, postsecondary education and advanced training admissions officers, and the military would recognize. I am not suggesting this couldn't be done, but I am not sure how easy it would be. David Wiley, Steve and others, any thoughts on how that might be done?
  • For important change to be effective in any education field there needs to be strong will at every level: federal, state, and local program, by policy makers, administrators, teachers and other practitioners. I see digital badges as a tool or system of tools to facilitate or enable change, but I don't know if there is some political or policy-making oomph behind this. Is there? Can anyone comment on that here. Can someone speak for the U.S. Department of Education about this? Why has OVAE decided to invest in this paper on digital badges? Is there policy being advanced by the Department of which this is a part? To understand the significance of digital badges it would help me (and perhaps others in the field) to know what policy makers and administrators are thinking. What is the problem that they think needs to be solved? What brought this about? What problem(s) do policy makers think digital badges will solve in adult basic/literacy/ESOL education?
  • As an employer, Michael Ormbsy understands the value of a system that measures what potential employees can do, and I think other employers -- if they understood the intent of this system -- might also be supportive, especially if it weren't a lot more work for them. Moreover, unless employers (and higher education and the military) buy into a system like this, it will not be taken seriously by adult learners. For the majority of adult learners, the demonstration of learning has to add up to more education, job or career advancement opportunity.  As I mentioned earlier, however, I don't see employers taking this system seriously, no matter how logical, well articulated and useful it may be, if it is named "digital badges".

I wonder what others like about a digital badges system, what they might not like, and what they see as challenges that digital badges would need to overcome to be effective in adult literacy/basic/secondary and English language education. I also wonder what others think about some of the things I have mentiioned.

David J. Rosen




Thanks for these thoughts and questions. 

I've address your comment about smaller credentials at some length in my response to question 2, so I'll skip readdressing that topic here.

I do want to suggest that there's an internal contradiction between your third and fourth bullets:

  • "for important change to be effective in any education field there needs to be strong will at every level: federal, state, and local program, by policy makers, administrators, teachers and other practitioners"
  • "unless employers (and higher education and the military) buy into a system like this, it will not be taken seriously"

Adult learners take the formal education pathway to employment becasue formal higher education has a monopoly on providing the credentials that are accepted by employers. However, this monopoly is not controlled by federal or state policy makers, administrators, or teachers. The monopoly is controlled entirely by employers. If employers begin accepting smaller, competency-linked credentials like badges in addition to the larger credentials provided by formal education, the monopoly ends. Entirely. Once employers begin accepting alternative credentials like badges, people have legitimate alternative pathways to employment. Once employers demonstrate that they're willing to hire people who walk these alternative pathways, some adult learners will migrate toward these alternate pathways. And there's nothing policy makers or teachers can do about it.

As employers begin accepting non-formal credentials, many adult learners will simply route around formal institutions they interpret as being overly expensive, overly bureaucratic, and making unrealistic demands on their time and finances (60 hours of general education). In this way, large scale change in education doesn't require any exertion of will by people within formal education. 

Hello David Wiley,

Thanks for your fascinating response to question two.  I look forward to looking into Google's Page Rank and the Open Directory Project. The "badgerank" idea is interesting to me, too.

In the field of adult education at least, I don't agree that it's entirely up to employers whether or not digital badges will succeed. Some would argue that adult literacy education is not part of any formal education system now, that it is the equivalent of what in some other countries is referred to as nonformal education. However, since much of adult literacy education is funded by state and federal dollars, and controlled by federal and state agency mandates, if federal and state education and workforce development agencies don't take digital badges seriously, don't provide (at least modest) financial incentives, or mandates, for programs to use such a system, then the system will be slow to catch on even if employers do recognize and use digital badges. Of course, adult literacy programs that already offer workplace basic skills or workplace English language programs, or who work with employers through workforce development projects in which employers are fully involved, will take notice sooner if employers recognize digital badges, and will probably be early adopters of them. However, I am not sure how many adult literacy programs, have these deep relationships with employers. So for digital badges to succeed in our field, both the public and private sector must be on board.

I wonder, David, if you can give us some examples of early adopter employers who are on board with digital badges, who recognize them and employ people pecause they have these badges. If it is too early in the digital badges adoption process for that, perhaps instead you could explain how an adult literacy workplace education or workforce development program that was interested might persuade potential employers of their students to use their home grown or other digital badges, what you believe that employers would be looking for.

For many years, organized labor has worked with employers to offer apprenticeships. These are sometimes not controlled by academic institutions but rather by labor unions working with employers. In the building trades, for example, apprenticeship credentials are accepted by employers. Are you aware of any efforts to work with labor unions to have digital badges as part of apprenticeship programs? Do you see anything that a digital badges system might learn from looking at how apprenticeships, one kind of performance-based alternative credentialling system, are accepted by employers?

I am also interested in your answer to Nell's question about CEUs, a widely-used but generally not a performance-based system of recognizing small increments of professional learning. I hope that if digital badges were adopted as a system for professional development it would be a big improvement on CEUs. Perhaps you could address how it would be.


David J. Rosen


Hi David R and everyone, In response to your question to OVAE: This paper and discussion represent an investment from OVAE in what we often call a "get smart" exercise, an investment in thought leaders to help us think about emerging innovations or reforms in education and the world of work and what they may mean for adult education. As you know, we are a vastly under-resourced field, so searching out innovations, efficiencies, and new ways of creating value and extending access is a must.
In this case, the paper, authored by some of the country's leading thought leaders on the potential of badges, is one level of input. This discussion on LINCS is another level of input from the field, an effort to hear how practitioners may see the potential and value of digital badges. We are delighted with the discussion, greatly appreciate the guest facilitators' thoughtful questions and the comments from all who have weighed in, and look forward to even more practitioner input in the coming weeks. 

Best, Heidi


Badges are different from the credentialing methods used in the past in almost exactly the same way that email is different from letters of the past. Because they're digital and can live on the network, emails and badges can both be created, sent, received, managed, and searched with degrees of convenience and efficiency unthinkable for paper letters or certificates.

While it may seem simply incremental, this increased level of convenience and efficiency enables qualitatively different behaviors. Because emails are so easy to create and essentially free to send, as a society we now send emails far more frequently, and about far less significant subjects, than we ever did with the paper letters of the past. It's also become increasingly common for people to save every single email they ever receive, and simply use a computer search interface to find the email with that relevant bit of information from four years ago. This task would be essentially impossible with a closet full of 10,000 paper letters.

Likewise, the simplicity of creating and issuing digital badges creates similarly qualitatively different behaviors. We now award credentials to individuals for far smaller accomplishments (e.g., mastering the operation of a given piece of equipment) than we did in the past with paper certificates (e.g., for entire degrees). And just like everyday email overload issues, receiving smaller credentials much more frequently creates badge management issues. As with emails, many people simply hold on to every badge they ever receive, building up increasingly large collections of recognitions of increasingly smaller accomlishments. Software like the Mozilla Open Badges Backpack allows us to store, manage, and find the badges we need just when we need them.

Because the digital affordances of badges can result in a far larger collection of far more granular accomplishments, they can provide third parties interested in your accomplishments (e.g., a potential employer or graduate school) a much more detailed, fine-grained look into your capabilities. For example, knowing that you have a BS in computer science tells a potential employer one thing; knowing the specific network intrusion techniques you can successfully guard against tells them much more. 

And while the affordances of badges enable qualitatively different behaviors, they do not enforce them. There is absolutely nothing preventing formal educational institutions from augmenting their traditional credentialing approaches with badges. For example, in addition to a paper diploma and paper transcript, students could be awarded one badge per course they complete. This action, while continuing to award recognitions at the course level as the institution currently does, disaggregates the monolithic transcript into smaller credentials that allow learners to present employers with a much more detailed and nuanced view of their capabilities. And it does it without changing the way in which colleges and universities recognize student achievement.

At a high level, badges are not functionally different from previous credentials - they provide a signal to a third party that an individual has mastered some set of knowledge or skills. At a lower level, badges differ from previous credentials in the types of social behaviors they facilitate due to their digital nature.

I'm looking forward to participating in this discussion, and hope we can all gain additional insight and clarity togetherabout badges.

Hi all,

I've been hearing bits and pieces about digital badges but mostly related to P-12 education, so it's exciting to see this publication (The Potential and Value of Using Digital Badges for Adult Learnerscome out relating them to adult education.  I think of digital badges as akin to the badges awarded for specific skill attainment in the girl scouts or boy scouts.  As David Wiley mentioned, badges tend to be awarded for smaller accomplishments which can make long term goals easier to get to in a step  by step manner.

In my role as a director of professional development for adult educators, it has been hard to know quite how to organize the workshops we provide and I've been drawn to a competency model which seems like it could work well with digital badges.  I'm imagining having a pre-survey in technology skills that teachers could take to determine for each individual the technology competencies they need to develop, aligning our workshops and the competencies laid out in the pre-survey , then teachers can then take the workshops that leads to the competencies they want to attain.  Up to now one of the challenges I've been thinking through is how to track the competency attainment.  A post survey is one tool and also creating some sort of transcript for each teacher, but I'm now thinking  digital badge could be the tool used to show mastery of each competency and the teachers could gather the badges in a Mozilla backpack or some other online space . 

But as Steve Reder pointed out, a major issues is trust.  In the adult education system in New York State, where I work, we have a variety of folks teaching in adult education.  Some programs require teachers to have p-12 certification, some require a masters in a related field, and some a BA in any field.  There is a general requirement of 12 hours of professional development per year, and some direction on specific workshops like requiring BEST Plus Administrator training  for people who are going to administer the BEST Plus test, but otherwise  I develop a schedule of workshops based on what I know is needed and teachers come to the workshops  they are interested in.  There is no real systematic approach to developing as a professional adult education teacher, it's left up to lots of individual choices.  Teachers definitely learn and some have clear professional paths they have laid out for themselves, but it's up to the individual (and maybe their boss).  The competency model I outlined above would give me more information to plan our workshops with and give teachers a clearer sense of what they have accomplished and want/need to accomplish. When I've imagined this competency model, I've  thought that the pre-survey would be anonymous--that is, I would see the overall percent of teachers who need help in certain areas but I wouldn't know who the specific teachers were.  And this was because I didn't want the pre-survey to be any sort of gotcha game.  To increase the participation in the pre-survey, teachers would need to trust that any competency they were lacking would not be used against them.  Would teachers worry that displaying digital badges of their new accomplishments somehow uncover where they had been weak?  And would Adult Education programs trust that the digital badges signify attainment of competencies and therefore be useful when hiring new teachers?  How would teachers who come from outside New York City, and not have badges, fit into this system?  Could you "test-out" of competencies so that could get the badges for the competencies you arrive with?  And will some teachers and employers think that digital badges are just silly or undignified? 

I'm still moving around all the pieces of this competency model, but I do think digital badges could be a useful component.  Have any of you experienced receiving digital badges or awarding them?




Thanks for your comments, Nell, they're very helpful and got me to thinking about how we might *want* digital badges to work differently in adult ed than other competency-based systems have worked in the past.  As David Wiley pointed out, the small granularity and flexibility that's possible with digital badges allows our learners to experience movement in small steps along pathways to learning goals.  Don't we as adult educators have to help design the badging system so it works they way we want it to with our learners, teachers and programs? I wish I had more first hand experience with digital badges. I'd love to hear from others who have some experience using them.  The closest I've come is awarding certificates for successful completion of modules of digital literacy.  That experience certainly showed how motivating it can be for learners to receive such awards along a learning pathway.  


I’m an employer and here’s why I think badges are a great idea.  When I interview a candidate for employment, my biggest challenge is figuring out what they can actually do.  They may have a Bachelor or even a Masters degree, but that does not help in determining what their competency is in the things I need them to do for the job.  I have hired many people with Masters in education and engineering and rarely have they been able to adapt very well to the needs of the our work environment.  There is obviously a disconnect between the higher ed system and the workplace, or maybe I’m just bad at recruiting.  

If on the other hand, a candidate could show me badges or certificates in actual skills that I can verify on a website, then I have a much greater certainty that the person can meet our job needs.   But as Steve and David have pointed out, credibility is crucial.  If the badge skills cannot be verified, then the badge is not of value to me as an employer.

An interesting movement in this area is Degreed.   It is a way for a person to create a profile of what they have learned from a variety of sources.  As an employer I would be more likely to hire someone who can show me more precisely what they have learned and studied, instead of telling me they have a degree from a 4 year college.  

For the employer a crucial question is how much on-the-job training needs to be done before the employee can do the job they are hired for. This is where badges and portfolios could really help.


Nell, I'd like to offer a couple comments regarding competency and trust. Before I begin, let me say that not only do I advise people on how to design badge systems, but I teach a course for the University Wisconsin at Stout that is completely badge-based.  Competencies are catalogued and at the culmination of the course, the student receives a "sharable" public badge.  

Badges can be competency-based if you ask for some work product or proof of the competency. That evidence can be “baked” into the metadata for the badge so that a reviewer can determine how much work went into earning the badge. It could be a big competency such as mastering universal design for learning, or it could be a small competency such as learning how to upload to YouTube. It all depends on who designs the badge (and I don't mean visually what it looks like).  That said, badges could be issued in the same way as a paper certificate that shows you attended a conference session. But does that signify competence? Probably not. However, it is up to the reviewer to look at the metadata and see how much work went into earning the badge.  A collection of "conference" badges that are publicly displayed still tells a story about one's professional development.

That brings us to trust but in a different context than you were thinking. What institutions are trustworthy? How would an institution earn your trust? If you were one to review a badge, what would make you believe in its strength? I believe it would go back to the evidence and the criteria that are contained in the metadata.

All this is to say that as we develop the ecosystem of badges, we must include helping stakeholders (employers, issuers, recipients) understand how to interpret what went into earning a badge.

Thanks for listening,