New eBook Examines Digital Credentials

What do college degrees, high school diplomas and professional certificates have in common? They usually are fancy sheets of paper, proclaiming accomplishments: John Doe, registered nurse; Jane Doe, bachelor’s degree in history; and so on.

[[{“type”:”media”,”view_mode”:”media_large”,”fid”:”10564″,”attributes”:{“alt”:””,”class”:”media-image”,”height”:”222″,”style”:”margin: 10px; float: right;”,”width”:”250″}}]]Can an employer or educator really know how much a person has learned and what he or she has mastered by glancing at that piece of paper? What if there were some other system that could more accurately reflect credentials, down to what courses were completed, what grades were received, what scores were earned on exams, etc.? Such a system is captured in open digital badges, or “simple tools that have the potential to change our current system of credentialing, creating ways to recognize more diverse learning pathways and opportunities for both learners and institutions for generations to come,” according to “What Counts as Learning: Open Digital Badges for New Opportunities,” the new eBook by Sheryl Grant.

Providing Impact

The director of social networking for HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory)/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competition and a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science, said her book “provides a building block for anyone interested in designing open digital badge systems, and also for educators, policymakers, technologists, humanists, scholars and administrators who have a stake in how badge systems might impact learning, assessment and opportunities for lifelong learners.”


Cathy N. Davidson, a leading figure in educational innovation and HASTAC co-founder notes: “We will never displace the Industrial Age invention of high stakes, multiple choice testing without a feasible alternative. Sheryl Grant helps us to consider realistic, workable options for the future.”

David Theo Goldberg, director of the University of California Humanities Research Institute, co-founder of HASTAC and executive director of UCHRI’s Digital Media and Learning Research Hub, calls “What Counts as Learning” a “must read for anyone wanting to know about the ins and outs of badging, its benefits and challenges.”

Grant, he said, “has been at the center of work around digital badging as a critical technology for assessing, acknowledging and credentialing learning. She has now written a state-of-the-art report on digital badging for learning and on the nascent current research on the topic.”

An Excerpt

From Chapter 5:

[[{“type”:”media”,”view_mode”:”media_large”,”fid”:”10563″,”attributes”:{“alt”:””,”class”:”media-image”,”height”:”323″,”style”:”float: right; margin: 10px;”,”width”:”250″}}]]Predating the Internet, badges were used to signal rank and membership within a group, whether on a uniform or figuratively evoked to symbolize the status, achievement, reputation, or membership within a social class (Simpson & Weiner, 1989). Badges provided social proof for desired attributes, and functioned as both incentive and reward while signaling key information about identity. Physically owning a badge could also indicate whether someone had access to privileges and opportunities. More recently, researchers described the social psychology of badges in social media according to five functions: instruction, reputation, status, group identification, and goal setting (Antin and Churchill, 2011). Instruction-based badges inform others about social norms, displaying the system’s valued activities to newcomers and veterans as they become more familiar with community norms. Badges can also convey attributes of reputation, either by signaling interests and levels of participation, or by symbolizing expertise and skills. Achievement badges that are difficult to attain can function as status symbols to a group, or represent personal affirmation to an individual. Badges also allow community members to identify each other both inside and outside the group. What makes the current generation of badges for learning so versatile is their ability to contain one, some, or all of these functions.

In today’s networked digital environment, badges are common features in peer networks and game-based learning environments that pervade the social Web.

… The openness and portability of digital badges underpins the point that people learn anywhere, anytime, within and beyond traditional schools in a networked society. Until open digital badges, learning happened anywhere, anytime, on multiple devices, in many contexts, but recognition of that learning did not. The learning that happens online, out of school, through professional associations, in peer communities, in museums, libraries and other networks of learning has value, but the knowledge and skills gained through these organizations are rarely or haphazardly recognized with a credential. It follows, then, that the purpose of open digital badges is not only to promote the portability of credentials, but to also shift social norms about what kinds of learning gets counted and who gets to decide whether it is valued.

… While enthusiasm and interest has been widespread, we are still in the earliest stages of development and there are few use cases in which open badges have been recognized by employers or college admissions.

Connected Learning Connection

Chapter 7 looks at ways in which badges make “connected learning” visible for youth, throughout higher education, and for employers. Connected learning is an approach to education in the 21st century that takes advantage of today’s abundance of information and social connection.

“Badges are about making learning that is already there more visible, and connecting that learning across different institutions,” Grant said. “For example, imagine a 7th-grade math teacher looking at a roster of her students the first day of school. She reads down the list and sees that all but six students participated in the city’s Summer of Learning initiative in which hundreds of organizations served high-quality programs to youth. Over the summer, more than half the students earned three or more STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) badges through local museums, libraries and community center camps. When she clicks on the badges, she sees that some programs aligned their content to math standards that her students will be covering during the school year. She takes a closer look at one badge in particular, earned by a student who was in her class last year. The badge links to a video demonstrating the solar-powered car built by the student, including a reflection about the steps followed to figure out how fast and how far her car could travel if she altered different features of the design. In this example, badges made visible learning that took place in another sphere, enriching the teacher’s knowledge about her student.”

“What Counts as Learning” is available for purchase online through various booksellers, including, and is available for free download. It is the latest in a series of reports, supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, published by the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub and by MIT Press, and edited by Ellen Seiter, professor of critical studies at USC School of Cinematic Arts.

Media Contact: Mimi Ko Cruz, 949-824-4587

Banner image: Collection of digital badges awarded through online educational courses.