Keeping Up With... Digital Badges for Instruction

Digital Badges

This edition of Keeping Up With... was written by Nicole Pagowsky.

Nicole Pagowsky is an Instructional Services Librarian at the University of Arizona and can be reached at

Keeping up with Digital Badges for Instruction by Nicole Pagowsky is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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What are Digital Badges?

A digital badge is a visual representation that signifies a specific achievement with detailed metadata attached. A popular comparison relates digital badges to their precursors in videogames or to their analog Girl/Boy Scout counterparts. In this sense, completing tasks, being recognized for accomplishments, collecting badges, and cooperation or competition adds a game-based layer to this method of visually tracking progress. Using digital badges in higher education can map student learning to course outcomes, program requirements, or institution-wide curriculum initiatives (possibly accreditation). This is of significance to academic libraries for teaching information literacy and explicitly integrating it throughout the curriculum.

Although it is generally clear what earning a college degree or a certificate “means,” the details of how a student achieved the credential are often left out, including typically untrackable skills like information literacy. Additionally, learning gained in soft skills and real-world experience is often not accounted for. Digital credentialing can help represent a more granular level of learning and tells a story both about the earner and issuer. Academic libraries in this sense could also have a greater opportunity for measuring instruction-related value. Badges are a hot topic right now and many are exploring how this platform could transcend current education models.

How Do Badges Work?

Understanding how visual design, metadata, and standards play a role in depicting the story badges can tell is essential when planning out a badging structure; there are a lot of questions to consider.

Dan Hickey, Associate Professor of Learning Sciences and Research Scientist at Indiana University, highlights initial questions to ask when considering the use of a digital badging structure:[1]

  1. What sorts of claims will your badges make about the earners and what evidence will your badges contain to support those claims?
  2. What assumptions about learning will frame your consideration and implementation of badges?
  3. How will your badges program be introduced? Will it be a centralized effort or pockets of innovation?

When designing an individual badge, the issuer will need to consider if it is based on participation or achievement, what kind of evidence will be required to earn the badge, and if this is something students would want to share: what meaning is ascribed to the badge within the system and outside of the system? In using game mechanics, an issuer should consider if scaffolding will be used to encourage mastery (leveling up), how points could be implemented for competition/cooperation, and what other motivational tools could be incorporated (leaderboard, Easter eggs).

Jonathan Finkelstein of Credly points out questions to consider when determining if using a badge is appropriate: does the skill have transferrable value beyond the context of the issue; is there at least one entity that might care about the achievement represented; and are there any other options for mechanisms that mark achievement?[2]

Why Bother with Badges?

Student Motivation

Digital badges can enhance student learning and motivation. Badges provide an opportunity for students to chart their goals and visualize their progress with incorporated feedback from faculty and peers.[3] When students have the ability to customize their learning experience, it can amplify motivation by allowing for more autonomy over their educational path. According to Barry Joseph, Associate Director for Digital Learning Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History, “A really robust badging system should be able to provide such a ‘just-in-time’ scaffolding to guide [the student] along [their] emergent learning trajectory.”[4] This idea for the structure of a badging system coincides with competency-based education, which is a shift from measuring seat hours to assessment of skills and progress.[5]

Instructional Design and Assessment

Following the idea of badges creating meaning for students, this model can also provide more meaning for instructors. An important consideration when implementing badges is in tying them to learning outcomes or standards. The significance lies in opportunities for higher quality assessment, which can provide the ability to enact critical decisions at the institution level, within instruction, and in supporting students. Dan Hickey states that integrating badges into curriculum can be a “design implication” and it’s important to note, “When badges are being added to a pre-existing curriculum, the curriculum will constrain the way learning is recognized.”[6] This is difficult for libraries when trying to align with campus curriculum, particularly if information literacy is not formally integrated. However, this could present an opportunity rather than a problem by allowing a means to explicitly map library instruction to campus goals, track progress, and activate clear assessment.


Much of the criticism surrounding badges is concern over intrinsic motivation being depleted by using badges as a controlling form of extrinsic motivation: if students feel controlled by the badges, it could create an adverse reaction. Scott Nicholson argues for meaningful “badgification” to avoid conflict between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. He suggests badges be used to guide learners in finding a meaningful connection to course material rather than using badges as non-negotiable requirements.[7] Erin Knight references the concept of “crowding out” to describe when intrinsic motivation gets crowded out by extrinsic, and highlights a common problem of over-simplifying the relationship between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in badges as binary.[8] Dan Hickey notes that the problem lies more in feedback and opportunity for improvement in traditional classrooms rather than just rewards and competition, advocating for an “agnostic stance towards incentives.”[9]


There are a number of things to think about when using badges for learning, particularly: what badges mean and how to ascribe value to them, student motivation, and buy-in throughout the library and potentially campus. Badges can be mapped to standards or learning outcomes for higher quality assessment, but can also be used to influence behavior for stronger soft-skills and community engagement. Libraries can use badges to integrate information literacy at the campus level or influence student motivation in these skills in the course-level. Regardless of how the badging structure is implemented, one’s own environment will need to be examined for best fit. Badges are a fairly new concept in higher education and a number of librarians are planning and piloting badge programs this coming academic year, so there should be new research and findings presented as these first trials unfold.


1. Dan Hickey in David Raths, “How Badges Really Work in Higher Education,” Campus Technology, June 20, 2013,

2. Jonathan Finkelstein, “Digging into Badges: Designing and Developing Digital Credentials,” (presentation, ELI Short Course Session 2, online, August 20, 2013).

3. Kevin Carey, “A Future Full of Badges,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 8, 2012,

4. Barry Joseph, “Blending Digital Media, Badging, and Museum-based Learning,” DML Research Hub, n.d.,

5. Knowledge Works, “Competency Education Series: Policy Brief One: An Emerging Role for Competency Education,” Knowledge Works, April 25, 2013,

6. Andi Rehak and Daniel Hickey, “Digital Badge Design Principles for Recognized Learning,” HASTAC, May 20, 2013,

7. Scott Nicholson, “Meaningful Badgification,” Because Play Matters, March 1, 2012,

8. Erin Knight, “Reflections on Reflections on Badges,” World of E’s, April 2, 2012,

9. Dan Hickey, “Open Badges and the Future of Assessment,” Remediating Assessment, March 1, 2012,

Who is Using Badges?

Some examples of how badges are being currently used in libraries:

Resources for Getting Started with Badges

Learn More About Digital Badges

Abramovich, Samuel, Christian Schunn, and Ross Mitsuo Higashi. "Are Badges Useful in Education?: It Depends upon the Type of Badge and Expertise of Learner." Educational Technology Research and Development. 61, no. 2 (2013): 217-232.

Bell, Steven, John Shank, and Jonathan Finkelstein. “Digital Badges for Learning: Exploring the Possible Impact on Higher Education and Libraries.” Blended Librarian, December 14, 2012,

Deci, Edward L., and Richard M. Ryan. Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum, 1985.

Deterding, Sebastian. "Gamification: Designing for Motivation". Interactions – New York. 19, no. 4 (2012): 14-17.

Ferrari, Ahniwa. “Badging the Library: Part 1.” WebJunction. February 21, 2013,

Hammond, Neil. “Using Open Badges to Give Focus and Meaning to Descriptor-based Assessment.” Education Thinking. December 19, 2012,

Hickey, Dan. “The Transcendent Potential of Digital Badges and Paradigm Shifts in Education.” HASTAC. July 28, 2013,

Katz, Idit, and Avi Assor. "When Choice Motivates and When It Does Not.” Educational Psychology Review. 19, no. 4 (2007): 429-442.

Kim, Bohyun. “Keeping Up with Gamification.” ACRL. May 1, 2013,

Kohn, Alfie. Punished by rewards: the trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A's, praise, and other bribes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1993.

Marquis, Justin. “Five Easy Steps to Gamifying HigherEd.” Classroom Aid. August 16, 2013,

Penn State Educational Gaming Commons. “Digital Badges.” Penn State. n.d.,

Rawsthorne, Peter. “Implementing a Really Simple Badge System.” Critical Technology. December 5, 2012,