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The open badge movement has stemmed from the independent learning and massive open online course (MOOC) frameworks of empowering and motivating learners to complete noncredit academic work, either from a distance or at a self designated pace.

Learners experience instructional content, usually delivered in a module-based format, and are rewarded with a digital image of a “badge” upon completion. These digital badges then can be collected and shared on social media outlets serving as recognizers of certifiable skills. For instance, proficiency in a specific technological tool could be validated with a digital badge, and this badge could then be displayed on a LinkedIn profile, electronic portfolio, and listed on a resume.

Though digital badges usually are associated with MOOC-style courses and distance learning, this achievement-based approach can be integrated into more traditional course formats as well. Using a badge system to recognize student work is a kind of gamification in which learning becomes more concrete and visibly measurable. Early research on this emerging topic acknowledges that badges embed an additional incentive into learning and possess the ability to increase learner motivation and sharpen self-regulatory learning skills. Digital badging is not intended to replace traditional learning formats, nor supplant all other forms of assessment. In the context of this article, digital badges serve as an additional level of scaffolding for learner understanding of critical course material.

At Coastal Carolina University (which approximately 9,000 students attend), we are designing a digital badge program to accompany first-year composition courses.  Our programmatic mission is to support students as they develop their writing, reading, and thinking skills so they can participate effectively in a variety of academic, professional, and public settings.  To extend our current efforts, we are enhancing the curricular structure of our 101 and 102 composition sequence by adding a fourth credit hour to both classes that will take the shape of common digital modules delivered through our LMS. Students will complete assigned modules at the direction of their professors and earn a digital badge for each completed module. The accumulation of these badges will factor into the student’s final course grade, though the professor will determine the percentage and weight that these badges carry. For example, prior to a project that requires writing with sources, a professor might assign the “Research Guru” badge be completed. A more targeted badge could be developed that focuses solely on MLA or APA format.

Figure 1. Badges designed in Credly. Learners can earn these by successfully completing the tasks required for each badge: Reading an instructional text, viewing or listening to a multimedia component such as a video or podcast, and completing an assessment.

Badges can be designed to be course-specific and can be used in a number of ways. The online module could be delivered during class time, as a type of homework lab to reinforce course concepts, or students could be asked to earn the badge prior to arriving to class. Similar to the flipped classroom model, assigning the earning of badges prior to a class meeting presumably would ensure a standard level of prior knowledge about the content being covered that day. Preceding a research-based writing project, a professor might assign the “Library Expert” badge to introduce students to strategies for accessing and navigating library resources. The function, delivery, and objective of digital badges remain flexible, which makes this approach to learning both attractive and effective. The badge-driven approach we are taking is both program specific and flexible, allowing us to create a more unified experience for our composition students while still providing our instructors with flexibility in course design.

A DIY badge program

A do-it-yourself digital badge program is easily within reach for your institution, department or individual course. All you need is a little bit of tech savvy and three key ingredients: Credly, WordPress and the BadgeOS plugin.

The first, Credly, is an online web service where you can design, manage, and share digital badges and credit that has been earned. This site has a social media feel to it and encourages users to network with one another. Learners do not need to create an account with Credly, but the badge designer will use this website to design and house the digital badges he or she wishes to create.

A web domain is needed to house the second requirement: a WordPress site. (It is essential that you use your own domain and develop a website using the web software. A free site is not sufficient). Your institution may host your WordPress site at no charge, but if this is not an option at first, you may choose a reputable web hosting service and pay a nominal fee. Fear not, as building a WordPress site does not require any programming knowledge.

The final component to launching your own digital badge program is the BadgeOS plugin for WordPress. Simply download this free plugin and install it in your WordPress site. Doing so will enable you to customize the types of tasks you would like for your learners to complete. You can specify what you would like for the earner to do in order to receive credit. A typical module will include instructional text, a multimedia component (video, podcast, audio recording, etc.), and some form of assessment. You can easily embed quiz plugins into WordPress that allow you to create multiple choice, short answer, or essay quizzes. Or, you may want your learner to upload a file. The focus of the module can be as targeted or in depth as you like, and the assessment can be as formal or informal as you see fit. The WordPress site tracks the types and number of badges that learners achieve, as well as notifies the student of his or her accomplishments.

Lastly, I encourage you to embed the WordPress site directly into your institution’s LMS. My university uses Moodle, which allows me to embed the WordPress site as an “External Tool” activity. Another option is to link to the URL of the WordPress site. In doing so, the learners never leave the Moodle window.

Certifying and Valuing Digital Badges

Of course, anyone can visit Credly and begin developing digital badges, and this raises the question of validity. Smartly, though, Credly will certify an “issuer” (an individual or institution offering the badge) after a thorough vetting process and an annual fee of $150. This extra layer of authentication is highly recommended.

Students are encouraged to display their earned badges on social media, resumes, and personal blogs and websites. Unlike the endorsements feature in LinkedIn, students must demonstrate their proficiency in certain areas and earn corresponding badges rather than simply be nominated by others as possessing these skills. This accountability is far more meaningful as badges are recognizers of learning and not merely endorsements.

Although digital badging originated from an informal learning philosophy that bucked the traditional university setting, its application is inherent in all of academia; drawing on this open movement technology can help us motivate learners and create memorable experiences for them along the way.

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