Badges. It’s a word that just about everyone recognizes. Maybe you earned badges when you were in scouts as a youngster, or maybe you think of a detective’s badge. Badges are also awarded by governments and militaries for heroism and other great achievements. Increasingly, badges modeled after those given in scouting are being used in a variety of places on the Internet. With the advent of Mozilla’s Open Badge Infrastructure (OBI), many great organizations are incorporating badges into the structure of their websites. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this exciting project, I’ll discuss this particular type of badges; what are Open Badges, and how they can be used, and perhaps most importantly, why they should be used.

Merriam-Webster gives one of the definitions of badge as “an emblem awarded for a particular accomplishment.” It is in this sense that online badges have been developed. They are one means to provide the user with a semi-tangible means of demonstrating an achievement. Some readers might be familiar with the use of badges and achievement systems used in video games or on popular apps like Foursquare. Often a profile provides the space to display a particular user’s achievements, thus illustrating their skill. The same idea lies behind the use of badges in an education context.

Today, education is located in a rapidly evolving and dynamic environment. Learning happens everywhere – not just in traditional classrooms – and new skills must be gained constantly to keep pace with new developments and discoveries – even long after one has earned a college degree. Badges are a tool that enables lifelong learning and allows for highly customized and individual curricula. One piece of the e-learning puzzle that has often been “missing” was the ability for self-learners to demonstrate proof that they’ve acquired a particular skill. By using badges to reward the completion of certain tasks and accomplishments, learners are empowered to assert their knowledge in more contexts.

To me, one of the most exciting things about badges online is just that: it provides a way for people to display proof of their accomplishments. Facilitated by Mozilla’s OBI, badges earned within the system are located centrally in a user’s “backpack.” Each badge is packed with metadata that gives information about who issued the badge and why it was given, as well as to ensure the badge is authentic. After that, it becomes simple to display those badges on a Facebook page, ePortfolio, blog, personal website, or any other digital space!

For now, badges are still a developing technology but with the help of organizations like the MacArthur Foundation, who recently partnered with HASTAC and Duke University to award more than $1 million in grants through the Badges for Lifelong Learning Competition, there is the promise of great things in the very near future. We, at the Saylor Foundation, are keeping a close eye on all developments with Open Badges – and aim to become both a badge issuer and displayer in the future.


The image “My old Boy Scout merit badges”  came from Flickr user dmuth and is licensed under a Creative Commons CC BY-SA license.