Harvard Business Review has identified several key innovation trends to expect in 2013, one of which is awarding learners (mainly those taking online courses as part of university distance courses, MOOCs or job trainings) with digital badges, rather than classic certificates or degrees. These are “a new type of credential being developed by some of the most prominent businesses and learning organizations in the world, including Purdue, Carnegie Mellon, the University of California, the Smithsonian, Intel and Disney-Pixar.” Compared to the rather generic and often inflated grades in certificates, badges identify the specific skills and knowledge of the badge-holder. Moreover, they introduce an element of gaming for the particularly competitive or curious. The New York Times illustrates the example of Carnegie Mellon: “Carnegie Mellon has developed online courses in robotics and computer science in which students are awarded badges as they reach learning milestones — one for teaching robots to move and another for manipulating robot motion sensors — ultimately leading to a final badge certifying their overall robot programming skills. It’s similar to the process used in video games. Players accumulate enough points to achieve higher levels and thus the opportunity to undertake new, more challenging quests. Anyone who has ever seen a teenager glued to a screen for hours playing World of Warcraft can attest to the powerful lure of digital rewards. The buzzword is “gamification” — the use of gaming elements like points, levels and badges to engage with a product or service. Carnegie Mellon researchers are finding that integrating badges into courses motivates students to keep learning. Gamification is even spreading to bricks-and-mortar classes. Some Purdue professors are awarding badges for reaching benchmarks in regular credit-bearing courses, including one in health care communications and another in curriculum and instruction.”
Behind the Badging initiative is the Mozilla Foundation, already recognised for its initiative to invent a free web browser. According to them, “The Mozilla Open Badge Infrastructure is the core underlying technical scaffolding for the badge ecosystem that supports a multitude of issuers conferring badges into the ecosystem, and many displayers or earners using badges to share their competencies and achievements. Any given learner/badge earner can earn badges across many issuers, collect them in one place tied to their identity, and then share them with various websites and audiences including career sites, social networks or personal portfolios. Mozilla is building this infrastructure including the core repositories and management interfaces (each user’s Badge Backpack), as well as specifications required to push badges in (issuers) or pull them out (displayers).”
This trend is strongly associated with MOOCs – massive open online courses, which now have millions of registered students and are a type of online courses aimed at large-scale participation and open access via the web. MOOCs are a recent development in the area of distance education, and a progression of the kind of open education ideals suggested by open educational resources.