4 Valid Concerns of Digital Badge Skeptics

There are a lot of folks who are skeptical of Digital Badges. As a vocal proponent of their value, I get frequent pushback from education, industry and policy stakeholders. In most cases, their skepticism is warranted and welcome. The following are the four most frequently voiced concerns they share:

“Digital Badges are meaningless.”

I’ve had many conversations during which someone equates Digital Badges with stickers or gold stars. If that’s all they are, the thinking goes, isn’t collecting evidence and issuing a Digital Badge a lot of extra work? This is a valid concern! If a Badge is meaningless, skeptics are right to wonder: What’s the point?

Let’s say I pay a conference registration fee and receive the conference’s Digital Badge. The logo may look nice and even important on my CV but what does it really communicate about me? It doesn’t convey anything about my learning or achievement. It doesn’t provide a potential employer with insights into my skill set. It doesn’t even validate that I made it beyond the bar in the hotel lobby! The sole meaning is that I paid a registration fee and what’s the point in that? Skeptics 1, Badges 0.

But, Digital Badges are not inherently meaningless. They can and will serve a point when they function as a micro credential. This necessitates that they align with knowledge, skills and achievements that are valued by Badge Consumers (such as colleges and employers). To this point, those issuing Digital Badges are wise to follow the Best Practices of publishing the criteria for earning Badges as well as the evidence that is provided in order prove that the criteria has been met.

2. “Digital Badges serve as extrinsic rewards.”

This is very common critique. If someone believes that extrinsic rewards have no place in education, work and life, then this statement goes much deeper than Digital Badges and there is probably little space for productive discussion. In my experience however, the friction is usually more about extrinsic rewards that fail to align with the credential.

Restorative Justice offers a good analogy as it seeks to repair an injustice with a restorative act/punishment that fits the offense. If I get caught littering at school, I may have to apologize to my community for the damage I’ve done and do a trash pickup around the school grounds. This may be instructive to how we design extrinsic rewards for Digital Badges. Awarding a student with extra recess time when she earns her Analysis Badge would be like putting a student in public stockades as punishment for littering; it just doesn’t fit.

Imagine instead that a student who earns her Analysis Badge is offered the opportunity to use it in order to do a job shadow with someone who works as a Data Analyst. Is it an extrensic reward? Yes. Does it align with her achievement? Yes. Is offering opportunities like this to deserving students good for kids? Absolutely!

3. “How can I trust that someone’s Digital Badges are valid?”

Colleges and employers have a problem: many of the skills they seek are not represented on transcripts and difficult or impossible to verify on resumes. Digital Badges offer a potential solution. Making a bad hire is expensive on many levels for employers and micro credentials that communicate information about an applicant’s skills may help employers make better informed hiring decisions.

This sounds great for all involved. There’s a big assumption at play here however: the credential must be trusted. When someone displays her Digital Badge, will the audience be able to trust it? Badge skeptics are right to be concerned about this.

Unless and until a tool is developed that is able to validate that Digital Badges are trustworthy, these waters will remain murky. But there is one encouraging and powerful mechanism at work to support Badges: evidence. Because both the criteria required to earn a Badge and the artifact(s) that prove someone met that criteria are “baked” into the Badge, discriminating consumers can (and should!) click to view the evidence and decide for themselves whether it is valid.

4. “Most people are doing it wrong.”

While I’m not aware of any published data that supports this, I think it’s a reasonable assertion. I also think there are few people with 10,000 hours of badging experience. There are more and more people every day who are diving into this nascent space and getting muddy but expertise is still scarce. This means that as easy as it is to identify wrong practices, statements about the right way are probably dubious. I believe it’s simply too early to go there and that it is perilous to do so.

The risk factor here is that someone who is excited use Digital Badges will get discouraged and quit before they’ve had a chance to do something that might be good for their students. This is not to say that we should avoid criticism and asking hard questions because these are important. Rather, the key is to approach the critique with a growth mindset.

When I think to my first years of teaching, I cringe at what I thought was good instruction back then. My hindsight tells me that I was struggling, at best. Lucky for me and my students, nobody told me, “Wrong! Stop what you’re doing because you’re doing it wrong!” Mentors and colleagues encouraged my risk-taking and innovation and worked with me to develop into a better professional. We all start somewhere and it’s rarely at the All Star Game. It is unfair and unrealistic to expect a Digital Badge novice to be a model of Best Practices on her first attempts. It is also irresponsible to discourage her efforts before she’s had a chance to reflect and retry. When a teacher issuing Digital Badges “is doing it wrong,” we owe it to her and her students to encourage her growth and help her improve. When she is given the space and support she needs, she may go on to become one of the experts we desperately need.