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September 1, 2020
Vol. 78
No. 1

The Power of Digital Badges

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Digital badges can provide a clearer view of student learning than traditional grades.

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Classroom ManagementInstructional Strategies
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No two students are the same. In any given class, students begin the year at different points, and at the end of the year, each student will have reached a different level of achievement. Good teachers have long recognized this reality and can describe the twists and turns in each student's growth. They can tell how one student picked up decimals and fractions from the very first assignment, while another one struggled with the concept—until the class did an activity involving money for a class party, and that's where the student could suddenly show that he understood.
Therefore, report card grades are not great for capturing growth. A "passing" grade does not always translate into mastery of the covered topics. In normal times, a B on a final report card is only a vague indicator; in 2020, when students spent up to a third of the last school year in distance learning, last year's final grades might indicate even less. An average grade of 71 flattens an individual student's strengths and weaknesses and doesn't reflect how much the student has grown.
To better represent student achievement, schools are creating digital badges. When students earn a badge, it means that they have achieved a milestone. Most students are familiar with the concept of earning badges from activities outside of school, from scouting to video games to martial arts. When a student, say, wants to move from an orange belt to blue belt in karate, the student needs to complete a set of requirements, demonstrating specific skills and knowledge. In the same way, students earn a digital badge in school by demonstrating certain skills and knowledge. For example, to earn a writing badge, a student might need to compile a portfolio containing examples of multiple genres: a persuasive essay, a short story, a report, and a response to literature. But school badges do not have to be strictly academic; students can earn badges for extracurricular activities, community service, or work habits.
While badges could potentially replace grades, most schools use them in tandem. The badges provide a more detailed view of a student's learning journey. Badges visually represent a student's achievements; because they are digital, badges can link to the specific tasks that a student completed to earn the badge. This helps to personalize the assessments: Each student is creating a body of evidence that he or she feels is their best work.

What Do Badges Look Like?

A badge can be designed in any form, as long as the requirements to earn that badge are clearly defined. Let's look at an example of a badge that my organization, Ideas Consulting, has developed through a badge program called Richer Picture. Figure 1 shows a set of digital badges for a single student. Note that the top row shows the set of required badges—the badges that all students of the school should complete prior to graduating. (This image is for a high school; the same district might have different badges for elementary or middle school students). The second row shows badges that reflect the student's personal interests.

Figure 1. A Student's Set of Badges

Source: Copyright © 2020 Ideas Consulting, Inc. Used with permission.
The badges are shaded in like pie charts to indicate student progress. In Figure 1, for example, you can see that this student has completed most of the badges, but the Writing and Habits of Minds badges are still only partially filled. To check what requirements they have left to complete, students can click on the badge to see the details, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Badge Details

When a student or teacher clicks on the badge image in a student's profile, a table appears, which lists the specific requirements that the student needs to submit to complete the badge. In Figure 2, for example, the student can see that four of the five requirements are complete, so the writing badge is 80 percent filled in. For each requirement, the table also lists the entry that the student has submitted; click on the name of that entry, and the student or teacher can view the actual evidence (such as a written document, a photo of artwork, an audio or video clip, or a link to an online project).
In this format, a digital badge provides a visual image of student progress; at a glance, a student can see what portfolio items he needs to complete the badge and how close to completion he is. It is also helpful to the teacher, who can see which students are close to completion. When she wants to help a particular student, she can click through to see the evidence of that student's accomplishments. This type of progress gauge could be particularly helpful this school year, since students will start the year with widely varying degrees of readiness.
Now might be the perfect time for schools to implement digital badges and portfolios. Administrators can start with a three-step strategy that includes how schools define a vision for what badges will be developed, how students collect evidence of their success, and how teachers evaluate that evidence.

Defining the Badges

Digital badges are a declaration of purpose. They represent what schools want students to achieve and, in turn, what should take priority in the classroom. Schools can use two different types of badges: course badges, which focus on the key milestones within a single class, and schoolwide badges, which can focus on broader learning goals. As a first step, schools can start by thinking about end goals. What should every student know and be able to do? What habits and dispositions do they expect of their students?
Individual teachers can start by creating course badges, listing the key takeaways or competencies they want each student to have in their courses or subjects. What does it mean to complete 9th grade English or 4th grade science? To answer this question, teachers can look at the assignments that students complete during the year. (Curriculum maps can be very helpful here.) In English class, for example, the teacher's list of assignments might include an autobiographical essay, a description of summer reading, a debate presentation, an essay on a hero's journey, and an analysis of the play Our Town.
From that list, the teacher can organize the assignments by skill. Across the set of assignments, what skills are students demonstrating? In this case, we see examples of writing a narrative, oral presentations, and responses to literature.
Teachers can then use this organized list to define a badge. Figure 3 shows an example where a student can earn a badge for 9th grade English Language Arts by demonstrating the skills on the left side of the table. Students will often have multiple opportunities to demonstrate each skill; students can select the work they believe is their best demonstration. Note that the badge requirements can also include important habits or dispositions. In this example, students need to demonstrate how they work cooperatively. A student could submit the same evidence in more than one requirement; for example, the debate could fulfill both the "oral presentation" and "cooperative work" requirements. Overall, the portfolio for a full-year course (or one subject in elementary school) will contain three to five student work samples.

Figure 3. Using Assignments to Define a Badge

9th Grade English Language Arts Badge

The Power of Digital Badges - table

Requirements What skills should a student demonstrate to earn the badge?

Evidence What can a student submit to complete the requirements?

Response to Literature (1 sample)Our Town analysis Summer Reading essay
Narrative Essay (1 sample)Autobiography Hero's Journey
Oral Presentation (2 samples)Debate Current Events presentation
Cooperation (1 sample)Any evidence where you collaborated with another person or worked in a group. You may use the same evidence that you submitted for any other requirement.
Each submitted sample must be assessed as "meeting standard" (or higher) on the rubric.Note that students can select other evidence, including home learning activities.
Over the course of the year, students will fulfill these requirements at different times. Some students might reach the level of "meeting standard" when completing their first narrative essay for the year; other students might reach that level on their third or fourth assignment. Either way is fine! With digital badges, students can see their own individual progress, marked not as an average, but as a set of milestones they have achieved. The list of requirements can also help the student and teacher focus on specific needs. A teacher can tell an individual student, "Let's focus on your response to literature" rather than "Let's get your test average up."
The course badges are a quick way to get started for individual classrooms since they build on what is already in place. The true power of digital badges, though, stems from thinking about a student's multi-year journey. With schoolwide badges, schools can look at the skills across multiple years, or at skills that get developed across multiple subjects. A schoolwide Writing Badge, for example, could include evidence from all the key genres of writing and might include writing samples from outside of the English department. When schools are defining the set of required badges, schools can think about the cumulative set of evidence. Does a student's body of work represent all the important skills and knowledge that the school expects?
In addition, going beyond individual classes helps a school think about the whole child. Many schools have defined a "portrait of a graduate," which distills the qualities of a student that extend beyond any one class: the ability to work in a group, show responsible citizenship, or effectively demonstrate habits of mind. These qualities don't always show up in gradebooks, but creating badges for skills like citizenship, community member, or work habits tells students these are qualities that the school values, and that students are expected to demonstrate them through evidence.

Collecting the Evidence

From our first research project on the topic (Niguidula, 1997), and as we have seen in our organization's observations over the years, a portfolio initiative needs to be student driven to be successful. Schools where students are actively engaged in creating and personalizing their own portfolios find it easier to make badges and portfolios a part of the school culture.
The first stage of defining the badges is akin to the faculty creating a chocolate chip cookie recipe. In this next stage, the students are the ones who collect the ingredients, do the mixing and baking, and put the results on a plate.
When students earn badges outside of school, they understand that they need to complete a set of tasks to move onto the next level. What's interesting is that in all these situations, moving up isn't a function of time. It doesn't matter if it takes Alicia one week to earn a badge that Bryan needed a month to complete. Similarly, in school, students need to know that they can complete a badge over time, and there will be multiple opportunities to fulfill each requirement. Students need to know that they can work on each part of the badge when they are ready. Thus badges require a different mindset than calculating an average for a grade—but it's a mindset that students have no problem understanding.
Giving students a level of voice and choice engages them in the process. In the initial outline above, a student fulfills a badge requirement by selecting one of a given set of tasks, which provides some level of choice. To personalize the process even more, teachers can encourage students to think beyond an official list of assignments. It's entirely possible that students might have some artifact from outside of a class that will be the best demonstration of a skill. For example, a student's home gardening project, done while schools were in lockdown, could be their best submission for a science badge. If a student enrolled in a summer learning program, documenting that experience could be the key to showing that the student has picked up some of the critical skills expected from a course.
While students can put together a portfolio with evidence that goes beyond classroom assignments, there still needs to be some criteria about what makes an entry "portfolio-worthy." Portfolio-worthy tasks are those that:
  • Require effort.
  • Allow for some level of student voice and choice.
  • Are authentic to the subject area.
  • Require an application of knowledge.
  • Generate products that students would be proud to display. (Niguidula, 2019)
Connecting these kinds of performance tasks to badges changes the classroom dynamic. For students, the criteria for doing well is demonstrating mastery on a few key tasks, rather than just looking to maintain a passing average on the traditional tests.
One benefit to using digital portfolios is that teachers may be more open to examine project-based learning, using structures such as PBLWorks's "Gold Standard" projects (Larmer, Mergendoller, & Boss 2015), Heidi Hayes Jacobs and Marie Alcock's "Quests" (2017), or other extended learning opportunities and performance assessments, such as Jay McTighe's "cornerstone" tasks (2013). A portfolio might have other types of demonstrations, such as reading logs, documentation from internships or community service efforts, or external certifications. The evidence that the student submits can come from classroom assignments, home learning projects, or any other learning experience.

Assessing the Evidence

After the student submits his or her evidence, a teacher needs to determine if the evidence fulfills the requirements to earn the badge. For a course badge, a teacher can approve each piece of evidence as it goes in, ensuring that the student's submission did meet the standard.
For a schoolwide badge, the set of evidence could come from multiple classes; it might be assessed by teachers at the end of a term, or during special review sessions. This does not mean that the reviewing teacher has to reassess all of the entries in the portfolio. The assumption is that a portfolio entry from a class has already been determined to meet standard by the original teacher. Thus, when the student submits work samples to the portfolio, each entry can include the assessment or scoresheet from the original classroom teacher.
To make sure that badges are being awarded consistently, teachers need a consistent scale to determine what makes a piece of evidence meet standards, whether the evidence comes from classroom assignments or from some other learning experience. To do that, schools can use common rubrics. For example, a science department could adopt a common rubric for lab reports, or a schoolwide rubric could be developed for assessing oral presentations. The faculty can agree to use these common rubrics for the badge-designated tasks.
The common rubric can be extended to work outside of the classroom as well. For example, if a music student submits a performance done outside of school, to determine if the entry is acceptable, the music teacher(s) could use the same rubric for "proficient solo performance" as she would for a performance done in school.
Student self-assessment can also help determine if a badge should be awarded. When students submit their portfolios for review, they can include an overall reflection or commentary, describing how the entries in the portfolio fulfill the requirements. The students are reflecting on the body of work as a whole, which lets them make connections across the different tasks and assignments, and articulate their understanding of what the badge represents. This is especially helpful when students are working toward nonacademic badges, such as citizenship or ability to work in a group. In the reflection, students describe how they have applied a skill in multiple scenarios—which is good practice for employment interviews or admissions essays.

Badges in the "Real World"

The use of digital badges is growing outside of schools, which means that students will be able to share their badges with additional audiences. In college admissions, organizations like the Mastery Transcript Consortium and the Coalition for College Access are incorporating badges and portfolios into the application process, thus allowing students to show their evidence to admissions officers. State departments of education are issuing badges called "endorsements," such as the Seal of Biliteracy or career pathway certifications, when students complete a set of tasks. Schools can issue their own endorsements of individual students on career sites, such as LinkedIn; if a student earns a badge in school, that credential can appear in a student's online profile to accompany the student's resume.
Given the major disruption in grading from recent school closures, a student's report card grade may not tell us everything we need to know about that student's performance. Digital badges and portfolios provide a different way of illustrating student growth. Just as important, they can encourage students, teachers, and the school community to focus less on the grade and more on what the student has actually learned.

Jacobs, H. H., & Alcock, M. H. (2017). Bold moves for schools: How we create remarkable learning environments. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Larmer, J., Mergendoller, J. R., & Boss, S. (2015). Setting the standard for project-based learning. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

McTighe, J. (2013). Designing cornerstone tasks. [Workshop materials.] Columbia, MD: McTighe and Associates.

Niguidula, D. (1997). The digital portfolio: A richer picture of student performance [CD-ROM / website]. Providence, RI: Coalition of Essential Schools.

Niguidula, D. (2019). Demonstrating student mastery with digital badges and portfolios. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

David Niguidula is founder of Richer Picture/Ideas Consulting, based in Providence, Rhode Island. His focus is on using technology for transforming school practice. Niguidula assists schools and districts across the country and around the world with creating proficiency-based requirements and implementing new assessment practices.

He is best known for his work on digital portfolios in K-12 schools, leading the first research project on the topic in the 1990s while at Brown University's Coalition of Essential Schools. He provides professional development for schools on various topics including digital badges and portfolios, virtual Lockers for college admissions, data dashboards, and curriculum maps.

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