Education and Information Technologies

, Volume 22, Issue 4, pp 1817–1824 | Cite as

Digital badges – rewards for learning?



Digital badges are quickly becoming an appropriate, easy and efficient way for educators, community groups and other professional organisations, to exhibit and reward participants for skills obtained in professional development or formal and informal learning. This paper offers an account of digital badges, how they work and the underlying benefits for learners and educational institutions. It also evaluates the use of digital badges to engage and motivate learners. It is this engagement and motivation strategy that a short non-award course for high school students seeks to replicate through many different learning strategies, one of those being the use of digital badges. A digital badging model has been proposed, which shows the four stages educators go through in their decision to use digital badges. Finally, a double-loop learning process has been suggested that could help educators in the implementation of digital badges.


Digital badges Education Motivation Intrinsic motivation Extrinsic motivation Engagement Learning Learners Skills Credentials 

1 What are digital badges, how do they work?

Physical badges have been around for quite some time and have been used as a means to display an accomplishment or achievement. Digital badges are akin to the physical scout badges that scouts earn to express their competency, except that digital badges relate to an online environment. Essentially, digital badges are an image or an icon that is embedded with information or metadata; more precisely, the information that the digital badge contains is who has been issued the badge, what that person had to do to obtain the badge, information about the issuer of the badge and sometimes links to the assessment that the badge recipient completed as part of receiving the badge (Bowen and Thomas 2014). Digital badges help to represent skills and achievements of a person. Digital badges can be used to visually symbolise a skill, an accomplishment, an educational qualification, an interest or a certification. Digital badges can be used to recognise accomplishments in a variety of contexts such as in a learning environment, gaming, sales and marketing initiatives, employees’ recognition and association with professional bodies. Digital badges can then be displayed by the user if they choose, on e-portfolios, digital badge backpacks or online social platforms such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter (Bixler and Layng 2013).

As digital badges display a plethora of information with granularity, they make the represented credentials more transparent. The information on a digital badge is stored electronically, therefore providing a much easier mechanism to search for the information and verify that it is correct and accurate. Grant (2014) explains the importance of credentials in badges,

We use credentials as a proxy to signal information about our qualities, abilities, skills, and achievements to others. Badges function the same way, except that they are information rich, transparent, and “interoperable” or portable across many different systems and platforms on the web (p.10).

Digital badges offer learners the ability to display often-overlooked transferable micro-skills such as problem solving, learning and professional development in an online, transparent and ubiquitous environment. Employers, community organisations and other educational institutions can view not only the credential or micro-skill obtained, they can also display who issued it and their credentials, what it was issued for and what the participant had to do in order to receive the badge (Educause 2014). Displaying all of this information leads to a much greater transparency of the credentials as well as what one would need to do to achieve this badge and the credentials associated with it (Grant 2014). Digital badges can therefore provide an easier instrument for people to verify not only formal qualifications, but also a series of sub-skills or micro-skills that may be overlooked or lost in a testamur or certificate of a formal qualification. It is considered hard to prove that a student has demonstrated learning to gain credit for university courses. Badging at micro level would allow institutions to cross map accurately and provide credibility. Badging might also take the human dimension, i.e. our natural judgement and generosity, out of the equation in assessing prior learning. Hence, badging could also reduce the problems in crediting of prior learning because of its very exactness.

Another equally relevant benefit of digital badges is their ability to engage learners. Although the motivation for learning is not explicitly through the ability to receive a badge, nor should it be touted as a motivator, many suggest that digital badges operate under the same motivating factors as gaming (Grant 2014; McDaniel and Fanfarelli 2016). Finkelstein et al. (2013) make the assertion that badges in and of themselves are not a motivator to learn, however they can be used in conjunction with effective course design and learning theories to help maintain engagement, and reinforce beneficial learning opportunities that come from them.

The question of how to get effective engagement and participation in online learning and gaming has been asked time and time again (Chugh 2010; Laskowski and Badurowicz 2014; Toven-Lindsey et al. 2015; Cassells et al. 2016). Grant (2014) asserts that, “designers have therefore experimented with different features to encourage high-quality engagement, including the use of badges, completion certificates, and a variety of socio-technical and game-based features” (p. 35). It is important to highlight that badges used as rewards or as the sole motivator to engage with and complete learning may not be effective, and that the issue of motivation to learn and engagement is more complex than simply offering someone a reward. As such, the Open Badging Infrastructure, “a standard technical specification for badges that makes it possible for anyone to develop digital badges and tools across the web” (Grant 2014, p.12) created by Mozilla, is moving more towards the idea of badges displaying credentials as opposed to them being rewards for learning.

It is evident that the most wide-spread use of digital badges is in educational and learning contexts. Digital badges have been touted as one way of engaging and motivating learners, although this should not be the sole reason for using badges (Finkelstein et al. 2013). Whilst most of these benefits of digital badges are yet to be methodically validated, experimentation with digital badges is nascent in educational contexts. It is believed that the benefits of digital badges to engage and motivate will appeal to the learners of the short non-award course (subject) discussed in this paper, however it should be noted that the implementation of digital badges within this short non-award course has yet to be conducted.

2 Non-award, short course and digital badging – setting the scene

The question remains, could digital badges be used in a non-award, short course as one strategy to help engage and motivate learners? Analysis of enrolment and attrition data at a regional Australian university showed high enrolment and attrition rates of 18 to 25 year olds, who were studying in health programs. In response to this data, a short non-award course was put together to help reduce these rates and prepare students prior to their coming to university or technical and further education (TAFE). This course was then offered to high schools close to the regional university. The short course consisted of all the essential skills that academics felt high school students needed when coming to university or TAFE to study health, such as: researching skills, mathematical skills, writing skills, critical thinking skills, careers skills, as well as the ability to use systems a Learning Management System (LMS). Another element of the course was to show high school students an example of a university course through the use of a mock LMS site.

When the short course was piloted in high schools, teachers were informally queried whether their students want to complete this course, and if so would they complete it in their own time without impinging upon school time. The resounding answer from teachers was they felt that their students would benefit from the course, but also that motivating the students to complete the course in their own time would be difficult. The teachers were also concerned whether students would get credits towards a university or TAFE qualification, or simply receive a certificate of participation. The question of motivation, and what was in it for them seemed pertinent to the overall success of the course and also tapped into how it was going to be marketed by schools. This then raised the question of what engagement and motivation strategies could be used other than good curriculum design to market the course, not only to the learners, but the schools, teachers, parents, employers and the wider community.

3 Motivation to learn and digital badging

When looking at the cohort of students that the short course was aimed at, it became apparent that the answer to the above question lay in the age group of students it was being marketed towards. Appel (2012) notes that, “Adolescents spend much of their daily leisure time with the computer. Their favourite computer activities are communicating through online chats and social networking sites, playing video games, and watching videos online” (p.1340). These are activities that capture the audiences’ (adolescents’) attention and keep it. Research around this topic suggests that digital games in particular are, “able to generate an enormous amount of motivation which leads to intensive, sustained and emotional engagement with the game contents and mechanisms” (Hense and Mandl 2012, p. 20). Hense and Mandl (2012) contend that this engagement and motivation is complex and involves multiple learning theories, emotion theories and motivation theories, which could explain the phenomenon surrounding active engagement and motivation in gaming in particular. Ultimately, some of these theories or motivating factors could be linked to digital badges also (Grant 2014), making it a good enabler to the short non-award course.

Motivation theory is complex and not something that can be covered in this paper. However, this paper has already touched on issues of motivation and reward when discussing the use of digital badges, but it was felt necessary to elaborate on these themes for clarity of purpose of digital badges; namely, the concepts of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in relation to learning in adolescents. McGeown et al. (2014) explain the differences between the two types of motivation, “Academic intrinsic motivation refers to engaging in academic activities for their own sake. ... extrinsic motivation refers to engaging in learning due to external factors, such as to gain a reward or recognition” (p. 278). There is contention around whether the use of some extrinsic motivators hinders academic success, and rather purely intrinsic motivation is the key to academic success (Lepper et al. 2005; Soenens and Vansteenkiste 2005; McGeown et al. 2014). Despite this, “a moderate level of extrinsic motivation may not be detrimental to student’s achievement, if coupled with high levels of intrinsic motivation” (Lin et al. 2003 as cited in McGeown et al. 2014, p. 279). Therefore, the short non-award course, uses authentic learning principles, which it is hoped will peak the interest of students studying this course, leading to the possible intrinsic motivation that is so desired, coupled with this, the use of digital badges would add to the overall extrinsic motivation, especially for those students that struggle with finding intrinsic motivation to study and learn.

Gibson et al. (2015) back up the idea of using digital badges for multiple purposes and not just a motivator, stating that, “In education in particular, badges and badging systems are emerging to
  • Incentivize learners to engage in positive learning behaviours

  • Identify progress in learning and content trajectories

  • Signify and credential engagement, learning and achievement” (p. 405).

Figure 1 presents a digital badging model, which highlights some of the key benefits (shown in the ovals) of digital badging and stages of adoption (horizontal lines). As with any decision journey, this model also shows how educators can be influenced in their decision to use digital badges. The horizontal lines indicate the stages that educators will go through when they are considering the usage of digital badges – Awareness at the start when they become aware of the different tools for creating digital badges such as Credly, Mozilla Open Badges and HASTAC, leading to Familiarity with a specific tool based on reviews, comparisons and research, transitioning into Consideration of the most likely tool stemming from tool demos and feedback from other users and finally taking the plunge and starting to use the tool in the Usage stage. The digital badges shown in Fig. 1 were created using, providers of an end-to-end credential and badge management system.
Fig. 1

Digital badging model

For the purposes of this paper, as well as the use of digital badges in the short non-award course, digital badges could be one element of an extrinsic motivator to help students to engage in positive learning behaviours as well as to document achieved credentials appropriate to the given assessment and learning tasks.

4 Next steps in the implementation and testing of digital badges

The implementation of digital badges in this short non-award course is yet to be conducted. Therefore, designing and implementing the use of badges in this short course are the next planned stages, which will occur. There are many factors that would need to be considered before digital badges were to be implemented. Some factors that will need to be considered when recognising learning with digital badges would be:
  • Using the badges to show scaffolded learning and awarding badges in stages, to exhibit mastery of skills;

  • Align the badge/s to outcomes or standards;

  • Understand how the students will use the badges as well as knowledge of badges and how they work;

  • Include the teaching of what badges are, how they work and how and where students can use them (Hickey et al. 2014).

The next step in applying digital badges into the short, non-award course would be to test the use and impact of the digital badges on a cohort of students. This would be achieved by implementing the digital badges into the course, then surveying the students post course to gather feedback about whether the awarding of the digital badges led to the students:
  • Using the badges as a mechanism to signal proof of learning and credentials;

  • Being motivated to learn as a result of the implementation of badges into the course;

  • Feeling comfortable using the digital badges as opposed to other paper versions of credentials.

Apart from surveying the students about the usability, functionality and motivating factors to learn with the digital badges, the course designer will also reflect on the implementation process, the awarding process and the usage process of the digital badges. Changes to the implementation of the digital badges will be based on feedback from the students and the course designer using the Double-loop learning process (Tagg 2007). Figure 2 represents a double-loop learning process in action with regards to the implementation of digital badges within the short course and the reflection and re-evaluation process that occurs. As part of this process, the educator makes an assumption or a governing value, plans how to implement this assumption, implements it, assesses to see whether the assumption is working, adjusts as necessary if minor changes are required and implements and assesses again. If however at the checking stage, the implementation is not working, or there is a significant defining factor that changes or challenges the initial assumption, then a revision of the assumption is required, and the process starts again.
Fig. 2

Double-loop learning process with digital badges

5 Conclusion

This paper makes manifold important contributions. Firstly, it is evident that there are a limited number of scholarly articles about digital badges so it contributes to the literature. Secondly, existing articles do not holistically focus on the use of digital badges as an engagement and motivation strategy, hence that gap is plugged. Thirdly, a digital badging model has been outlined that shows the four stages educators go through in their decision to use digital badges. Finally, this paper highlights key issues in implementing and testing of digital badges via a double-loop learning process.

It is evident that badges have multiple benefits and can be utilised to display skills and achievements in multiple contexts, particularly learning. Making micro-skills or credentials visible and portable in an online environment is an added asset of digital badges. Engagement and motivational factors are but one part of digital badging and will become clearer once the implementation in the short non-award course takes place and feedback is sought. Awarding a badge for work or skills that have been exhibited and earned is another enticement to learning, and although it is not the draw card to learn, it does add a small element of motivation to learn the so called skills required. The varied applications of digital badges will require some conversation and ethos before they become an embedded part of future education and learning organisations. There is a growing body of knowledge related to digital badges in the areas of education, motivation, credibility and usage. However, there exists scope for quantitative studies that measure the impact of digital badges, especially over longer periods of time. Studies that investigate learner perceptions in digital badges could also be carried out.

The question then remains, could digital badges be used as an element to engage and motivate students in an online, short non-award course? The answer appears to be yes.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Professional Development, School of Nursing and MidwiferyCentral Queensland University, RockhamptonNorth Rockhampton QLDAustralia
  2. 2.School of Engineering & Technology, Higher Education DivisionCentral Queensland University, MelbourneMelbourneAustralia

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