A recent ‘Insight’ article in Future Campus by Stephen Matchett examines the use of using digital badges in universities. However, his article cautions that they complement but do not replace marks. This article has been drawn on extensively here.

The article draws on a paper in Higher Education Research and Development authored by Golding, Sharp and Twining and entitled ‘Awarding digital badges: research from a first-year university course.’ It was published online in March this year.

What is a digital badge?

Digital badges are a type of digital credential and are an evolution of our traditional physical credentials. Digital badges are one type of digital credentials alongside digital certificates. They are pictorial and use shapes, colours, banners, icons and fonts to represent the credential award. They also serve as digital proof of an individual’s competences. As such, they offer easy and instant verification from the dedicated digital credential page through which third-parties such as potential employers and recruiters can verify someone’s abilities and gain a deeper understanding of what they know and can do. The accompanying metadata of a digital badge enables issuers to use them for both formal and informal purposes. Often they are used as records of attainment for short courses or micro credentials, or to maybe to certify significant elements of a larger course.

For universities it’s been argued in the paper “that moving away from awarding marks and towards competency-based digital badges had the potential to enhance the student experience with respect to both motivation and engagement with feedback.”

What Stephen’s article talks about

Heather Sharp and her colleagues from the University of Newcastle found that while digital badges had considerable potential to improve the student experience in terms of engagement with feedback, motivation and reducing ‘grade anxiety’, delaying the awarding of marks caused significant student anxiety. The study found good reasons to award digital badges in the initial teacher education course they researched. The authors awarded multiple badges for each of three assessments in a course and tested awarding badges with and without marks.

On the positive side, they found that badges improved student engagement with feedback. In addition, they found digital badges “contribute to a more comprehensive and fine-grained record of students’ achievements … that summarises the competencies that have been achieved …and the context in which they have been demonstrated.” The badges also helped promote a more constructive alignment between university-based assessment tasks and external professional standards frameworks.

There are negatives, though. They found that “delaying the awarding of marks caused significant student anxiety” and no marks made students unsure about performance. On balance, therefore, the study found that the intervention had more perceived negative than positive effects on students.

What they learnt from the process

Stephen’s article, and the research, report that:

  1. If you use badges on assignments drop marks altogether, but
  2. Explain to students what the badges are for.
  3. Badges are not a substitute for written feedback.
  4. A badge framework can align assessments and are important for both students and staff, and
  5. Having a map of badges or badge tree is valuable so students are able to track their progress, reflect on their performance, and contextualise the various assessments.

The key takeout is that you need to do it right or not at all. It’s noted that the benefits of using digital badges “can be eclipsed by student anxiety and dissatisfaction if the badging system is not optimally conceptualised and executed, especially given the constraints associated with traditional assessment modes.”