Hickey earns grant to study ‘digital badges’

MacArthur foundation funding examination of badge design

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning initiative has granted $400,000 to an associate professor in the Indiana University School of Education's Learning Sciences program to study "digital badges," a Web-based token of accomplishment, success or completion used often in online education.

Through the two-year Digital Badges Design Principles Documentation project, Dan Hickey and his doctoral students will document the design principles that emerge across the 30 awardees in the "Badges for Lifelong Learning" competition funded by MacArthur and Gates foundations.

While relatively new, the idea of using digital badges has gained attention since the foundations opened the competition in fall 2011 at a kickoff event featuring U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the heads of many federal agencies and foundations. The goal is to help create what the foundations call a “significant ecosystem” of badge issuers, seekers and displayers to promote badges as an alternative path to accreditation and credentialing for learners. The competition received extensive coverage in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Digital badges offer an organized way for educators, programs and schools to offer detailed information about what someone has accomplished. Clicking on a badge will reveal information such as the recipient's name, who awarded the badge or what the recipient did to earn the badge. That information can be hyperlinked to more detailed information, such as a course syllabus, peer reviews, videos or digital portfolios.

Hickey’s team will document the design principles for using digital badges to recognize, assess, motivate and evaluate learning. The research is intended to bring new insights about using badges as the project teams put their ideas into practice and revise them.

“These awards went to some of the most creative thinkers in education today,” Hickey said. “But this is entirely new, so some of their ideas are going to work, and some of them won’t. But all of their plans will be changed and refined once they try to put them in place. And we don’t want all of that useful knowledge to evaporate as projects race to meet deadlines and teams break apart and reform.

“Everyone wants ‘proof’ that innovations like digital badges ‘work,’” Hickey said. “The more useful question at this stage is uncovering the principles for using badges that are most appropriate in particular contexts.”

More than 300 proposals were submitted in the competition, and the 30 winners covered a range of uses. Some conventional settings include the National Manufacturing Institute, which is adding badges to an existing vocational curriculum on manufacturing skills. Some traditional organizations are introducing digital badges alongside 21st-century learning such as a new Girl Scouts digital badge for building mobile phone apps and 4-H's new online curriculum in robotics.

But some of the projects are using badges to create entirely new learning ecosystems. For example MOUSE Wins!, a national youth-oriented technology leadership program, is incorporating badges into its program for underserved youths who provide technical support in their schools while connecting with other participants and mentors across the country.

A particularly complex aspect that the project aims to uncover is how the different uses for badges interact with each other. For example, some projects use badges to encourage peer learning and social engagement. But they also want to use badges as formal assessments of individual accomplishment.

“They are likely to find that those two goals are at odds with each other,” Hickey said.

Skeptics of digital badges include noted media scholar Henry Jenkins of the University of Southern California, who has expressed concern that badges will be imposed top-down and used to “gamify” education. Hickey has collaborated with Jenkins on several prior projects and shares many of these concerns, but Hickey suggests that badges may offer some educators and learners a means of “changing the game.”

Hickey has participated in several national meetings directly or indirectly involving badges. In July, he attended a meeting organized by the White House Office of Science and Technology policy titled “Games for Impact” and suggested ways that digital badges might help find ways of funding and expanding the use of educational videogames. On Sept. 5, he participated in a badges panel at the National Science Teachers Association meeting in Washington, D.C., that explored ways of encouraging and rewarding science teachers for completing their online professional development modules. He also participated in two nationwide webinars offered in August as part of the U.S. Department of Education’s Connected Educators month.