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Badges have become a hot topic in higher education over the past few years and are being used in a variety of different ways. Some use badges as an alternative method for credentialing learning, while others use it as a means of gamifying learning. Here are the options for using badges at your institution.

Alternative credentials

Degrees primarily certify knowledge in different subject areas, whether marketing, electrical engineering, or history. While the general education requirements of degree programs should also ensure that students have skills in broad areas such as written or speaking communication, many employers have complained that college graduates often lack these skills (Holland, 2013). For this reason, many colleges have turned to badges to certify employment skills. For instance, the University of South Florida issues badges to students who wish to demonstrate skills that are attractive in the job market, such as professionalism, critical thinking, and career management. Students must complete three tasks to receive each badge. They first go through self-paced learning modules for the “Learn It” task. Many faculty created supplemental work for their classes that students can use for these modules. They then accumulate 45 hours of applied experience for the “Do It” task from work outside of class in internships and the like. Students finish by recording a video of themselves responding to a behavior interview question for the “Show It” task.  All are evaluated by faculty, and if satisfactory the student is awarded a badge. Learn more about that program here.

The development of the open badging project, which created a standard for issuing badges that allows the holder to display them in a public portfolio (sometimes called a “backpack”) they can show to potential employers, has facilitated this badging system. Badgr is one popular site for issuing and hosting badges, and it contains stories from other institutions using badges to recognize achievement in areas such as leadership.

Departments might also consider ways they can certify important learning with badges. For instance, a chemistry department might want to ensure that all graduates have the skills needed to work in a commercial laboratory. Laboratory courses will hopefully teach these skills, but as lab work accounts for only part of the final grade, passing courses does not guarantee all of the requisite skills. Thus, it might want to require that all students attain a laboratory badge that is awarded by instructors who test students’ laboratory skills in some way.

Institutions might also award badges to ensure that new students have the skills needed to succeed at the institution. For one, an institution might require all incoming students to successfully complete online modules on use of the library and online library resources and award a library badge for that achievement. Institutions might also require new students to complete a campus scavenger hunt that requires them to find objects in different buildings, such as the mural in the student union, which ensures that they learn their way around. Plagiarism is also a big issue on campus, with many students running afoul of plagiarism rules because they do not fully understand citation processes and rules. For this reason an institution might require new students to pass a self-paced plagiarism module that ensures they understand how to avoid plagiarism.

Finally, an institution might allow faculty to award badges to students who display exemplary skills in their coursework. Faculty often see examples of student work that stands out from the rest, and often wish that they could recognize it with something more than just an A on the assignment. For example, when a student does a particularly exceptional class presentation the instructor might be able to award a public speaking badge to the student. This could serve as an incentive for students to excel in their work.

Gamified learning

Some faculty also use badges as a means of gamifying learning. Instead of the traditional “subtract for errors” grading methodology, which starts with a perfect score and subtracts points for errors, badges use a video game–style methodology that does the opposite: students start with zero points and then earn points that add up to their grade. The benefit is increased student motivation. Traditional grading is an exercise in telling students about their failures, whereas a badging system credits students with each new success. Students will complain to their instructors when they get a poor grade because it signals failure, but they merely shrug off getting killed in a video game and starting again because there is always another chance for success.

I have applied this concept to noncredit work in my business ethics course. Faculty often assume that all student work must be graded for students to take it seriously, but as Daniel Pink (2009) noted in a famous TED Talk, external rewards, such as money and grades, diminish performance at complex tasks—whether running a company or performing academic work. The pressure of external rewords condenses thinking, creating a narrow focus that prevents people from applying the broad and creative thinking that success at complex tasks requires. In other words, the grading system used by education undermines much of student performance.

To address this problem, I created nongraded self-tests for each of my modules in the course. Self-tests improve student performance by forcing information retrieval, which is critical to learning. Many students mistakenly study for tests by rereading their course material, but a far better method is to test themselves on it with sample questions. These questions force students to retrieve information from their long-term memory, thus reinforcing it there. It also makes students apply the information to new situations, which increases both retention and understanding of the information’s underlying principles. Plus, incorrect answers signal to students that they need to review the topic to learn it better for the graded exam.

I used badges to incentivize students to do the self-tests by setting my LMS to issue a badge for successful completion of a self-test. These badges were given whimsical names (e.g., Astute Avocado and Brainy Broccoli), partly because a little fun seems appropriate for a nongraded activity, partly in hopes that more students would take the self-tests if I injected some humor into the experiment. I created the badge images using a stock badge template that I found for free online and added the food and human features to it with Snagit, an image editing tool from TechSmith. (Canva is another excellent image editing tool for creating badges.)

My LMS, Brightspace, has a built-in badging feature that allows instructors to upload badge images, along with their titles and descriptions, and then program the system to award each badge on the basis of student performance. I decided that students would need to get all questions correct on a self-test to get a badge. I also allowed unlimited attempts at each test. Finally, I created a badge that would be awarded to anyone who collected all badges. I had nearly full participation in the badging project, with all students getting at least a few of them and most getting them all.

There are many uses for badges to improve the student experience and learning. Consider the ways you might use them at your institution.

References

Holland, K. (2013, November 11). Why Johnny can’t write, and why employers are mad. CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2013/11/08/why-johnny-cant-write-and-why-employers-are-mad.html

Pink, D. (2009). The puzzle of motivation [Video]. TED. https://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_the_puzzle_of_motivation?language=en#t-699

John Orlando, PhD, edits articles related to online learning and teaching with technology for The Teaching Professor.


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