Designing Digital Badges

The idea of designing a digital badge should be daunting. Much like how there’s a lot of discussion that web design is too complicated now (with front-end specialists. back-end specialists, UI, UX, branding, Javascript rockstars, and so on), designing a badge is a complex task. With a learning outcome, it’s fairly straight forward, you gather together a couple of sentences that express what you hope the learner to accomplish in a period of time. I’m drastically simplifying the writing of a learning outcome, because there’s great nuance in a truly well-written one. And there’s lots of ambiguity in poorly written ones…

With that said, badges are much like a learning outcome, plus all these other, sometimes complex, visual ideas that can entirely sabotage your badge before anyone has earned it. Is the badge ugly to the one who might earn it? They’re unlikely to be motivated and it could turn them off learning in your context.

With all that said I’m not a design expert, but I have bookmarked quite a few sites that give differing opinions on what a shape, color, design or visual idea might mean. If you’ve studies semiotics, you’ll fully understand that this is really a brief and cursory view of a deep and nuanced subject. If you’re a visual designer, you’ll really understand that there’s a lot for people to dig into with building a badge. This is just a taste to get your palate satiated, just a start to get the creative ideas flowing…

Understanding Shapes Better

Understanding Colour Better

Online Badge Design Kits

Badge Design Worksheets

Free Icons



2016 Horizon Report for Higher Education

So I seem to only write about the Horizon report in even numbered years – for other looks what I’ve thought here’s 2014’s Horizon Report and 2012’s Horizon Report. For the record, I’ve though this report missed a lot because it looked solely at trends without a passing nod to history, how technology has impacted education (especially systematic education like higher education) or even a passing wink at the fundamental challenges for technology in education.

This year, they did actually change the structure of the report a bit, and it now factors in some challenges. That’s a positive change.

One of the challenges that they think is solvable is the blending of formal and informal learning (I guess one could distill that down to “learning”, but that might be a tad reductionist). I’ve written before about the challenges of institutionalizing informal learning (and thus changing it to formally accepted learning, which changes the nature of the thing), but we’ve seen some interesting developments on this front – especially when you consider how open badges can play in this realm, where groups who value prior learning can award a digital badge based on whatever criteria they set. Sheesh, that sounds like a learning outcome or something. It’s too bad that the Horizon Report totally glossed over that fact (even though one of their case studies, for Deakin Digital  does exactly that.

Also under solvable challenges is Improving Digital Literacy… which I think is actually a difficult problem to solve as you’re going to be “teaching” this as a moving target. What literacies in a broad sense encapsulate are useful as guideposts, but do jack squat for the translation of those literacies to skills (with specific tools) that is the real thing that can be measured. Never mind that tied into this context of improving digital literacy is also improving access for all (not just white North American and European folks, who are disproportionately active online when compared with worldwide access), and not access in a Facebook-preferred context either. The bigger issue that gets uncovered with digital literacy is much like literacy in the recent past. Literacy has a color, and a privilege that we cannot ignore. Except this time, I don’t see any Great Awakening.

So, in my opinion to solve digital literacy, you have to solve some of the inequalities in society, which are built upon the hypercapitalist notion that people have a monetary value, and once society has spent more on the person than they’re worth, there’s no use for them. So social handouts, programs and the like get cut. OK, off the soapbox.

I also really wonder about the personalized learning entry under challenges – because we barely understand what people need to learn (and don’t get me started about how best to help people learn). How can we truly personalize learning if the person doesn’t necessarily know what they need to know? So I have concerns about the idea of personalized learning, but I’m very interested in helping people figure that one out. Really, personalization is an engagement strategy that almost always works. We know that making something relevant to a student will get them engaged, hell, even excited to participate. So maybe we’re not looking for personalization, but relevance?

D2L Badging

So, I’ve been poking around with D2L’s badging/certificate since it was unveiled in September (and actually writing this blog post since then!) on our test instance and it’s been a fun thing actually thinking about and configuring a new tool. It’s been so long since I’ve actually spun something new up – that I had to really work the part of my brain that frankly hasn’t been worked in a long time – the “what if?” part. What really stinks is that with badging we actually don’t want to have every instructor available to create badges. That simply means controlling access to the tool via Navigation Bars (which we don’t allow our instructors to change) or creating a new role. Either way is a bunch of manual work for me.

The one big problem, and this isn’t by any means a knock against us, is that I haven’t had time to properly configure this on test in a way that makes testing easy – I’ve just been too busy working with ePortfolios and PebblePad to take the time. Thankfully there’s documents like the Assessments Administrator Guide on the Brightspace Community that help a lot when working through the user permissions (which frankly are poorly documented) and what used to be called DOME variables (now Config Variable Browser). So we’ve slowly got the technical side working and we’ve run into a huge issue that could conceivably cripple the whole damn thing. Issuing a certificate or award (or digital badge) means that we’re giving power to instructors that Registrar’s previously held very closely to themselves. So, we’ve devised a way to do this without ruffling institutional feathers – and with a way to control how the badges are used.

We really want to avoid badging as another way to give grades or learning outcomes. There is already a wealth of tools in the LMS that do this (uhhh, Grades and Competencies/Outcomes) so do not recreate what you already do and add a pretty picture to it. That is useless, and students will inevitably find badges useless in that context. More importantly, external parties will find badges useless, which if you really want badges to hold some value, then you will need external people to value them. Giving a badge that says you got an A in a course, is frankly useless (as useless as the A is in determining what a person is capable of or knows).

So as an institution we are looking at ways that we can ensure that people using badges are using them in ways that actually contribute to the student experience, by either awarding badges that have no representation elsewhere (like experiences that could make up a part of a co-curricular record) or awarding badges for skills that are not explicitly found within the core curriculum. Students already have a transcript that uses grades as a way of communication ideas about broad topics. Students should have learning outcomes that syllabi tell them are the important aspects of those courses. Don’t bother recreating the wheel – higher education already has a few that work well enough. Focus on what doesn’t get communicated already.

Our initial plan was to have training help people through this process and when they complete the training, they can then issue badges within their courses context. We’re still doing that – but with an added wrinkle. By the end of the workshop, instructors have designed at least one badge, thinking through the visual design (and sketching it out), the implications of what a digital badge means, how this badge might connect to external groups, what criteria or release condition will issue the badge and finally, how they might value badges coming into the course from other sources.

All of this on paper. Then people can have a serious thought about how it’s technically going to happen. Essentially it’s a two hour enforced planning session.

What will inevitably come up is that some forward thinking instructor will ask “what if we want to have students give each other badges?” and the answer will be “they can’t (providing that the student role is configured in a typical way that controls access to courses)”. It’s a huge gap that’s not a problem with the tool, but with the design of the LMS.


AAEEBL Conference Notes – Day Two

Day two started as a sleepy morning in Boston – coffee and a bagel helped a fair bit. I was still jazzed over some of the ideas shared the previous day so that excitement began to sink into where my brain goes next, which is how to do this badging server at my place. Trent Batson said at one of the breaks, ” The beauty of badges is the metadata behind the badge.” Now a recap of the sessions I attended.

Lessons Learned – Mobilizing an Institution to Embrace ePortfolios to Measure Essential Learning Outcomes

Before this session even started, I was skeptical. We all know that marking using ePortfolios take longer, so how does one actually get the entire institution to take on that extra work. I mean, there’s a reason faculty use multiple choice, scantron style assessment methods right? It’s faster to mark. Well, this session didn’t totally answer the question, but it did mention two key concepts that the entire conference revolved around – learning outcomes (competencies or objectives depending on your local syntax) and curriculum change from teacher focused to student focused. Faculty and students were looking for a better experience, and the only way to do it was through curriculum change. Stockton College took four years to identify the correct outcomes (at the institutional level), gain consensus, map out the connections to the institution level and the course and program level, create an assessment plan and select an ePortfolio platform (Blackboard and Digication).

Digital Connections: From College to Career

This presentation was about a ePortfolio use in Business Administration program at Tunxis Community College – many of the same lessons we’ve learned in the first year; you need to make it worth something, and you need to integrate other elements of academic life into the ePortfolio process. It’s also nice to see that students there resist the ePortfolio stuff but recognize the value at the end when they see their own growth.

Iterating on the Academic Transcript: Linking Outcomes to ePortfolio Evidence

This session was about working on the lack of information in a traditional transcript. Stanford University has flipped the transcript – it presents information along the outcomes that were in the program. So it would list the outcome (say, something like ethical reasoning) and list the courses that assess that outcome and the result of that course. ePortfolios sit beside this process as an unofficial record of what was achieved. Drexel University is currently in the process of doing this – except they have things called student learning priorities, which are measured from three areas: co-curricular, curricular and co-op. I see a lot of McMaster’s Learning Portfolio initiative in Drexel’s approach.

Cultivating Learning Cultures: Reflective Habits of Mind and the Value of Uncertainty

“I wanted to hijack the eportfolio to be about the learning process.” Kathy Takayama

This keynote was one of those talks that sits with you for a while. I really had to think about this one, so my notes are not that great… but the gist of it was that ePortfolios are learning spaces for metacognition. By using open language (like “so far” and “at this time”) and integrating the language of uncertainty into the course (and obviously the requirements) it allowed Kathy a pathway to allow students to develop the idea of metacognition about one’s own learning.

Design Thinking: Digital Badges and Portfolios

This was a workshop, which engaged us in thinking about developing a series of badges that could be offered at our institutions, and give that framework some thought. We primarily worked with the Jisc Open Badge Design Kit. We did have to consider what goes into a badge to make it powerful – what we came up with was that the criteria is part of the badge, and that students provide evidence of “earning” or achieving that badge. I’ll write something in the near future about this, but we’ll be exploring this area in the next few months as our MacServe program wants to issue badges, and I have to make it happen!


I’ve been involved, somewhat peripherally, with the Open Badging Initiative for the last six months or so. Initially, it was a way to start thinking about breaking the LMS (Integrated Learning Platform? aw, screw it, I don’t know what the thing is called anymore) out of the box it’s in and communicating what the LMS does well with other parties. I thought it could be a way to communicate skills, think about developing a short-hand language through the badge to communicate with other people. It’s really a way to check all the boxes that get me excited currently. Open standards? Yep. Mutating a system to do something other than what was intended? Yep. Visual design an image that communicates a value to another party? Yep. Explore the value of a systematic education? Yep.

The problem is that I essentially stopped programming in 2004 when I really didn’t need it anymore. Sure I’ve done a few things like hack together a PERL script to parse out values in a text file, and dump it into a database, but using badges at this point, or at least at my institution, I need to get up to speed with programming and handling JSON, XML if I’m going to start tinkering with our LMS and implementing badges. Ouch. Thankfully, I’ve got a few friends and colleagues who’ll help me get there.

For those of you who don’t know, badging is a way of giving value to something by awarding an image that represents that value. At it’s simplest, it works like the Scouts – demonstrate something and get a badge for demonstrating that you know something. It’s basically the same proposition as what grades are in higher education. The neat thing is that the badge doesn’t have to be tied to a number that’s arbitrarily set by someone (a teacher) or something (a computer, schooling system…). It can be tied to evidence or not, depending on the issuer of the badge and what they demand for getting the badge. That’s where badging is cool for me.

When you earn a badge that conforms to the Open Badges Standard, it can be pushed to your backpack. This is the central repository of badges for you. I’ve embedded below a portion of my backpack for you to see how one might display achievements.

What makes badges a little better than a grade value is the evidence of learning which is listed as part of the criteria. Now in many cases this is not as transparent as it should be. For instance, I’ve been working through CodeSchool’s Javascript introduction and JQuery courses that issue badges. Their criteria is displaying on a page that “confirms” I completed a module. Wouldn’t this page be much better if it shared exactly what I did to earn the badge? That would be powerful. I realize that there’s all sorts of considerations for student privacy, and ideally they would be able to control what is shared with the badge (maybe an on/off switch with each badge issuer to allow for a simple description of what earned the badge or a more detailed results page). That might lead to badges being more than a symbol of learning that doesn’t communicate clearly to the viewer what was learned.