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Digital Badges: Do They Help or Hurt Your Online Reputation?

Digital badges are a fairly new phenomenon on the Internet. Educators (especially online universities), companies (particularly online companies) and people who work in Internet-based fields award and post digital badges as a form of accreditation in a particular specialty. When posted on a website, a digital badge attests to an individual’s skills or mastery of a subject through training, without necessarily a formal diploma or certificate. A badge on a university site signifies that the school teaches that subject. Organizations post badges to establish themselves in a niche market.

Badges and Gamification

Digital badges are a gamification idea; they originated in the video game world, where they are used to promote participation, acknowledge skill level and push collaboration. They are one of the methods used within the gaming community to encourage involvement and competition. Per Wikipedia: “Gamification uses an empathy-based approach…for introducing, transforming and operating a service system that allows players to enter a gameful experience to support value creation for the players and other stakeholders.” When you adapt this view of badges to the business world, each person or organization that posts a badge therefore does so ostensibly to be a contributing member of that community.

The problem with gamification, however, is that unless everyone signs up and badges become a universally recognized credit, they will be ignored or be seen as silly and frivolous (an association with video games). Foursquare and Huffington Post use digital badges to reward users for completing certain tasks. But how many others do you notice using badges? Well-known blue chip companies like NBC or Exxon have not yet adopted the use of badges. Digital badges might go the way of QR codes; some people might use them for amusement, but few are using them as a serious source of information.

The Case for Badges

Back in June 2013, “The New York Times” Education Section reported that President Bill Clinton, in association with the internet company Mozilla and the MacArthur Foundation, announced a project that promotes virtual learning. The goal is to expand the use of badges and online credentials. The MacArthur website states, “Digital Badges are an assessment and credentialing mechanism…to make visible and validate learning in both formal and informal settings…and hold the potential to help transform where and how learning is valued.” Any organization can create, issue and verify digital badges, so how are they regulated and how are they different from current acknowledgements like LinkedIn endorsements and Klout scores? We haven’t really heard much about digital badges since that article.

Karen Solomon of the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association, commenting on badges says, “Students earn degrees once they demonstrate mastery of competencies….Each institution is expected to have policies and processes to evaluate the quality of credits it transcripts, and we review how the institution follows its own processes. The same expectations would be in place if an institution were to award badges based on credits or competencies.”

The badge itself is not just an icon or a picture. Each badge is an active, clickable graphic with metadata attached to it. According to openbadges.org, the information behind each badge reduces the risk of cheating the system and provides justification and validation that includes:

  • The issuer of the badge
  • How the badge was earned and when
  • Links back to artifacts, documents or testimonials demonstrating the work that lead to earning the badge
  • Authentication back to the issuer and relevant standards organizations
Who is Using Digital Badges?

So, who really uses digital badges? Technology companies that work mostly in the virtual world and try to be anti-establishment are using them; these companies tend to care more about proven results and talent and not as much about official degrees. Also, as college costs go through the roof, online institutions like Phoenix and Capella are becoming more popular, and traditional institutions are adding e-learning options. The online education world is slowly gaining popularity and legitimacy, and some participants offer digital badges.

But, overall, badges are not making much of an impression. There is not a lot of buzz and not many articles have been written about them. It couldn’t hurt to add a digital badge to a website but, until more of the general public learns what badges are and how they are used, there may not be much of an effect.