Join us for a Badges 101 webinar!

September 30, 2011

The Badges for Lifelong Learning Competition has launched a broad, open, critical, and constructive conversation about digital badges, visual representations of 21st century skills and achievements. We invite you to learn more about open badges and this Competition during a series of interactive webinars hosted by the Mozilla Foundation and the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media & Learning Competition.

During our first Badges 101 webinar, we will address questions about the basics of badges: What are badges? What are open badges? How can badges work for learners? We will also address additional questions about badges as submitted by webinar participants. Questions can be submitted in advance by emailing and including “webinar question” in the subject line.

Badges 101 takes place Thursday, October 6, 2011 at 3pm EST / 12pm PST 
  • Time: 3pm EST / 12pm PST
  • Duration: 50 minutes
  • Location: GoToWebinar at
    Advanced registration recommended, but not required. Webinar will open at 2:45 PM EST to allow registrants time to establish access to the webinar.
  • Hosted By:
    • Cathy Davidson, Duke University Professor  and HASTAC Co-Founder;
    • Sheryl Grant, Director of Social Networking, HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competition;
    • Erin Knight,  Assessment and Badge Project Lead, Mozilla and P2PU;
    • Matt Thompson, Education Lead, Mozilla Foundation;
    • Carla Casilli, Project Manager, Open Badges, Mozilla Foundation.
An archived version of this event will be available at Stay tuned for more information on upcoming webinars.

Unpacking Badges for Lifelong Learning

September 25, 2011

Badges are complex. Nothing functions quite the way they do, and at the same time, badges function like a lot of other things. They’re versatile, which makes them interesting. And probably powerful.

In the past week since Badges for Lifelong Learning launched, people have written critical, constructive, and positive things about badges, but I haven’t come across anything that really unpacks what badges are. I’ve read that badges are like credentials, related in ways to diplomas and degrees. Grades are sort of like badges, but worse. Badges can function like currency. The word badge tends to elicit memories of Boy Scouts for guys. Badges are shorthand for skills achieved, and can convey rank and reputation. Badges can be completely silly and extremely serious. Gaming is having a good run with badges, and that bugs some people. People like to collect badges. Marketers are getting drunk on badges and should probably chill. Is there some core definition or badge-ness to explain what makes badges unique?


Being a nerd, I did a word look-up in the Oxford English Dictionary (sorry, Wikipedia), which says badges were a device to signal membership and rank within a group (1400s). But badges also signaled immaterial things like love and virtue (1500s) and knowledge (1600s). By the 1800s, one writer says degrees had “become social badges.” So badges have been around a while, doing some different things for sure, but mostly not causing a lot of trouble. When someone likes or doesn’t like badges in 2011, I’m curious what it is about them that triggers strong emotions.

If badges are like degrees, diplomas, grades, or currency — which many of us have collected and displayed and benefited from — what’s wrong with them? Why are badges worse or better? If badges are visual signs of rank, reputation, membership, and identity, and are just another way to show affiliation, why are they different than, say, titles, clothing, hair, language, accents, bumper stickers, friends, or an alma mater?

On Planet OpenBadges, Erin Knight invites people to talk through similar questions. In her helpful summary of four themes driving the badges conversation, it’s the assumptions about motivation mentioned in theme #3 and the latter part of theme #2 — that badges “will ruin our motivations for the things we love to do just because we love to do them” — that seem to deliver a punch.

Why? Because badges hinge on motivation. Most of the energy in the badges conversation seems to have roots in the different ways people think about motivation, and more specifically about motivation and learning. What motivates learners to learn? What de-motivates them?  If you work with youth or have your own, chances are you have some ideas about motivation and what works and why. If you motivate learners, what if it’s at the expense of something else? What if learners are motivated by the wrong reasons? What if we mess up what learners naturally love doing and blow it for everyone? Where’s the line between motivating a learner and manipulating them?

Motivation as a modern construct dates back to Darwin and Freud, just to underscore how colorful the conversation around desire, goal-setting, and achievement can be. In my own research, I’ve been reading about motivation (around participation in online communities), and it seems to me that diverse disciplines each have their own horse in this race. HASTAC exists for this kind of collaboration-by-difference conversation. Maybe we need a HASTAC Scholars’ forum to help talk through what we know about motivation and participation. Media studies, humanities, sociology, information science, education, social psychology, economics, who am I missing? Bring out your motivational theories. Discuss.

For me, the most interesting intersection of the Badges for Lifelong Learning conversation is where learning theories overlap with research into virtual communities, new collectives, commons-based peer production — whatever you want to call what we do online. A good deal of Internet research is about participation and motivation. If anything connects the badges community, it’s seems to be the belief that more participation is better. Collaboration is better still. Making and doing is best. Isn’t that what binds all these diverse disciplines and backgrounds engaged in this conversation? In the virtual community research I’m familiar with, it seemed to take a long time to recognize that lurking was a form of listening. We’ve finally begun to call it reading. And I’m willing to bet that the Badges for Lifelong Learning competition will get us closer to calling it learning. That makes it 15+ years to go from lurking to learning, which is slo-mo in Internet years, and super speed IRL.

We’ve only begun to get our heads around the shiny new Internet, and that goes for social participation and motivation, and in particular for learning. Human-computer interaction and social computing research and design tells us that big and small tweaks in socio-technical structure cause all kinds of interesting things to happen, changing how people participate and contribute online. Different groups, group size, kinds of individuals, individual skills, technical affordances, type of content, no policies, lots of policies, participation over time — changes in each of these areas causes changes in motivation and social participation. Can’t the same be said for motivation and learning online?

(If you do research in this area, maybe you feel flush with answers, but hello. It’s 2011 and the Digital Promise just got funded. ARPA-Ed is still in limbo. Funding for research and development of 21st century digital media and learning is a drop in the bucket compared to investments in other sectors. For now, we need to share what we already know and borrow as much research as we can from better funded areas.)

The communities of practice research links new collectives like Wikipedia with learning and identity, and authenticity is thought to affect people’s motivation to learn and participate and reach goals. Authenticity seems like a rich area when it comes to motivation and badges. Because of Mozilla’s Open Badges and the Badges competition, we’re playing in a bigger badge and learning sandbox than we’ve ever had, with the potential to acknowledge open learning on a scale that’s never been connected quite like this before. We’re entering territory where the 1 percent rule, Pareto’s principle ( the 80/20 rule) and other power laws are usually applied. I might need statistics friends to check my thinking here, but I’m curious: if the 1 percent rule (which some call the Internet rule) of the people contribute content online, 9 percent edit it, and 90 percent don’t contribute at all, how might an open badges system affect that rule, especially if we redefine participation and contribution in terms of reading and learning?

Not to get too nerdy here, but I hear there hasn’t been much research on collectors and collecting behavior. There’s this obscure ID Compensation theory that isn’t even on Wikipedia! yet! — a theory that suggests there is very little objective feedback in people’s lives to tell them if they’re doing well, which leads many people to seek out experiences or situations that offer frequent feedback. What if badges are just one more way to represent feedback? What if they’re the best, most versatile way to provide feedback, whether that feedback is many-to-one, one-to-one, or many-to-many?

I get that some people are down on badges in terms of game-based learning, and no doubt there’s research to show that extrinsic rewards like badges can demotivate learners and mess with what’s to love about informal learning. But frankly, many examples of extrinsic rewards and motivation to participate or contribute seem highly contextual. Research on incentives and participation in virtual communities tells us that small tweaks in design influences extrinsic motivation in surprising ways. When it comes to motivation, extrinsic rewards, authenticity, scale, group dynamics, new collectives, individual or social behavior and technical design, there’s so much we still don’t know. And that doesn’t include what learners have yet to tell us about reading, participating, contributing, collaborating, making, doing, learning, reaching goals and achieving skills on the Internet. And what if those learners were invited to design their own badge systems in their own communities of practice? We need to be thinking: When is a badge system good? When is it not? The critical, constructive, and positive comments on badges for learning have been so valuable (I’ve been collecting badge posts on HASTAC’s topic, Badges for Lifelong Learning, for those who want to read through the collection, plus there’s #dmlbadges and #openbadges on Twitter), but this is a conversation for the big tent. Badges for learning is an undertaking that’s ripe for sharing knowledge.

No doubt there will be Badges for Lifelong Learning applicants who present game-based systems proposals. Perhaps that’s an obvious fall-back, especially given that games for learning are having a moment. But badges were here before games, and I have no doubt there are bigger badge ideas out there, ones that have nothing to do with the G-ification word. If we’re fortunate, those bigger ideas will be inspired by the Badges for Lifelong Learning competition. Or they’ll emerge naturally once Mozilla’s Open Badge infrastructure launches and people start to imagine possibilities and build on early innovations.

Whatever you think about badges, I’m all for Erin’s approach: join the conversation, join the competition. Explore this with us.

Think Different? Not in Higher Ed

September 23, 2011

***”Think Different? Not in Higher Ed” originally appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education and the The Huffington Post on September 22, 2011.   It is reblogged here with Jeffrey Selingo’s permission.***

Think Different? Not in Higher Ed

September 22, 2011, 8:34 pm

By Jeffrey Selingo

When Steve Jobs introduced the “Think Different” advertising campaign on his return to the helm of Apple, in 1997, the slogan was not just aimed at consumers. It was also meant to inspire those inside the struggling company to innovate for the future.

Of course, what followed is now the story of one of the most successful companies in American history: a decade when Apple transformed the music industry with the iPod, the mobile-phone industry with the iPhone, and now the publishing industry with the iPad.

Apple succeed partly because it decided to take a different path than its competitors in the tech industry, and consumers followed. The history of business is filled with similar tales. Just look at what happened to Detroit’s Big Three after the arrival of Japanese automakers in the United States.

Many in higher ed believe the analogy with businesses doesn’t apply to them. They think they have a corner on the credential business and right now a credential is the ticket to most good jobs.

Whenever a new competitor enters the higher-education market and tries something different, those at traditional colleges criticize the newcomers as not understanding pedagogy. Just see the negative comments on recent Chronicle articles about online education or StraighterLine, which offers self-paced introductory courses but not degrees.

But what if higher ed lost its grip on the credential business? Perhaps then administrators and professors would be forced to think that there is more than one way to provide a college education.

The day when other organizations besides colleges provide a nondegree credential to signify learning might not be as far off as we think. One interesting project on this front is an effort to create “digital badges,” which would allow people to demonstrate their skills and knowledge to prospective employers without necessarily having a degree.

Badges could recognize, for example, informal learning that happens outside the classroom; “soft skills,” such as critical thinking and communication; and new literacies, such as aggregating information from various sources and judging its quality. And in a digital age, the badge could include links back to documents and other artifacts demonstrating the work that led to earning the stamp of approval.

Until now an interesting-but-somewhat-fringe idea, digital badges received a big boost last week, when the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced a $2-million competition to create and develop badges and a badge system. (The contest is also supported by Mozilla and the Humanities, Arts, Sciences, and Technology Advance Collaboratory, otherwise known as Hastac.)

At the announcement in Washington, the U.S. secretary of education, Arne Duncan, called badges a “game-changing strategy” and said his agency would join with the Department of Veterans Affairs to award $25,000 for the best badge prototype that serves veterans looking for well-paying jobs.

Under a badge system, colleges would no longer be the sole providers of a credential. While badges could be awarded by traditional colleges, they could also be given out by professional organizations, online and open-courseware providers, companies, or community groups.

Of course, each of those groups would need to earn the trust of employers who would be asked to hire prospective employees with the badges and perhaps not a college degree. But we’re already hearing complaints from employers about the quality of graduates being turned out by some colleges. So it’s not a stretch to imagine some employers taking a chance on people with a different kind of credential.

Once that trust was earned, suddenly the competition in the credential market would get much more crowded. And for colleges charging $50,000 a year, it would become a lot more difficult to persuade parents and students looking solely for a career credential to spend four years on campus.

From then on, colleges would have little choice but to “Think Different.”

In the 21st Century, How Do You Show What You Know?

September 16, 2011


New Competition to Develop Digital Badges Prompts Conversation About How to Assess, Demonstrate Skills Acquired Across the Lifespan

September 15, 2011, Washington, D.C. – Learning happens everywhere and at every age. Traditional measures of achievement, like high school diplomas, GEDs and college degrees, cannot convey the full range of knowledge and skills that students and workers master. To address this issue, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, HASTAC and Mozilla today announced a $2 million Digital Media and Learning Competition for leading organizations, learning and assessment specialists, designers and technologists to create and test badges and badge systems. The Competition will explore ways digital badges can be used to help people learn; demonstrate their skills and knowledge; unlock job, educational and civic opportunities; and open new pipelines to talent.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and high-level business, technology, civic engagement, philanthropic and other leaders participated in the announcement at the Hirshhorn Museum this morning. “I’m excited to be here to celebrate the launch of the 2011 Competition, and its potential to propel a quantum leap forward in education reform,” Secretary Duncan said. “Badges can help engage students in learning, and broaden the avenues for learners of all ages to acquire and demonstrate — as well as document and display — their skills. By promoting badges and the open education infrastructure that supports them, the federal government can contribute to the climate of change that the education, business and foundation sectors are generating. We can build new avenues for entrepreneurship and collaboration, and spark economic development at home and around the world.”

Calling badges a “game-changing strategy,” Secretary Duncan announced that the Department of Education is joining the Department of Veterans Affairs Innovation Initiative (VAi2) in making a commitment to award a $25,000 prize for the best badge concept and prototype that serves veterans seeking good-paying jobs in today’s economy. The VA will join Mozilla, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Departments of Education and Labor, he said, to support and sponsor this part of the Digital Media and Lifelong Learning Competition. It will be called the “Badges for Heroes Challenge.”

“Digital technologies are helping to re-imagine learning, and badges are emerging as a new way to both encourage and demonstrate the acquisition of knowledge and skills of all kinds—in formal and informal settings,” said Julia Stasch, Vice President of U.S. Programs at the MacArthur Foundation. “Badges are simple, easy and, if done well, can present a more nuanced picture of what an individual knows and can do. There is much more to learn and we expect that this competition will contribute to developing a badge system that could change the way people share information about themselves, businesses make hiring decisions, and organizations support the acquisition of skills important to their mission or to the larger society.”

Supported by a MacArthur grant to the University of California at Irvine and administered by HASTAC, the Competition will fund designers, inventors, entrepreneurs, researchers and others who develop badges and badging systems. The Competition is part of MacArthur’s Digital Media and Learning initiative that is designed to help determine how digital technologies are changing the way young people learn, play, socialize and participate in civic life. To help advance and encourage this new use of technology, Mozilla is creating an Open Badge Infrastructure — a decentralized online platform that will house digital badges and can be used across operating platforms and by any organization or user. This approach will help to make digital badges a coherent, portable and meaningful way to demonstrate capabilities. It will also encourage the creation of “digital backpacks” of badges that people will carry to showcase the skills, knowledge and competencies they have gained.

“The web is revolutionizing how we learn. But until now, it’s been too difficult to get recognition for the skills and achievements people are getting online or out of school,” said Mozilla’s Executive Director, Mark Surman. “Our Open Badges project is working to solve that problem, giving leaders in informal education a free and open way to recognize new learning and 21st century skills—leading to real world results like jobs or formal credit. Mozilla believes that’s the key to making education work like the web.”

At today’s announcement, Mozilla, Remix Learning and TopCoder demonstrated badge systems that validate skills and competencies gained on-the-job, online, in the classroom and in other settings. Mozilla’s School of Webcraft — an open education provider with free, peer-based courses on web development—is offering badges for hard skills and social skills that people learn and exhibit in their environments, which then could be leveraged for jobs and formal credits. iRemix, a youth development platform, is offering youth badges for digital literacies and 21st century skills cultivated in their after school programs and the youth could carry with them back to schools. Top Coder, a science, math and programming competition website, is offering badges for achievements and skills to competitors to extend the value of their participation and accomplishments.

“This Digital Media and Learning Competition seeks to test the effectiveness of digital badges and badge systems as a fine-grained way for assessing learning pathways and learning outcomes,” said David Theo Goldberg, director of the University of California Humanities Research Institute, who co-administers the Digital Media and Learning Competition with Cathy N. Davidson of Duke University. “We are excited by the collaborative interest this focus has generated across a broad swath of constituencies, and we are looking both to generate creative badging systems and to learn a great deal ourselves about badging as effective assessment tools.”

Since 2007, the Digital Media and Learning Competition has inspired designers, inventors, entrepreneurs, researchers and others to build digital media experiences that advance learning in the U.S. and around the world. More information about the Badges for Lifelong Learning competition, including information on entering the competition, is available at

NOTE: To watch archived video of the event, visit

The MacArthur Foundation supports creative people and effective institutions committed to building a more just, verdant and peaceful world. In addition to selecting the MacArthur Fellows, the foundation works to defend human rights, advance global conservation and security, make cities better places and understand how technology is affecting children and society. More information is at

Mozilla is a global, nonprofit organization dedicated to making the Web better. We emphasize principle over profit, and believe that the Web is a shared public resource to be cared for, not a commodity to be sold. We work with a worldwide community to create open source products like Mozilla Firefox, and to innovate for the benefit of the individual and the betterment of the Web. The result is great products built by passionate people and better choices for everyone.

HASTAC (the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory) is an international network of educators and digital visionaries committed to the creative development and critical understanding of new technologies in life, learning, and society. HASTAC is committed to innovative design, participatory learning, and critical thinking.