Badges – another take

Badges can be seen as recognisable tokens of status or achievement. But tokens don’t work in a vacuum, they depend on other things to make them work. Perhaps looking at these may help us understand how they might be used, both for portfolios and elsewhere.

Rowin wrote a useful post a few weeks ago, and the topic has retained a buzz. Taking this forward, I’d like to discuss specifically the aspects of badges — and indeed any other certificate — relevant both to portfolio tools and to competence definitions. Because the focus here is on badges, I’ll use the term “badge” occasionally to include what is normally thought of as a certificate.

A badge, by being worn, expresses a claim to something. Some real badges may express the proposition that the wearer is a member of some organisation or club. Anyone can wear an “old school tie”, but how does one judge the truth of the claim to belong to a particular alumni group? Much upset can be caused by the misleading wearing of medals, in the same way as badges.

Badges could often do with a clarification of what is being claimed. (That would be a “better than reality” feature.) Is my wearing a medal a statement that I have been awarded it, or it is just in honour of the dead relative that earned it? Did I earn this badge on my own, was I helped towards it, or am I just wearing it because it looks “cool”? An electronic badge, e.g. on a profile or e-portfolio, can easily link to an explicit claim page including a statement of who was awarded this badge, and when, beyond information about what the badge is awarded for. These days, a physical badge could have a QR code so that people can scan it and be taken to the same claim page.

If the claim is, for example, simply to “be” a particular way, or to adhere to some opinion, or perhaps to support some team (in each case where the natural evidence is just what the wearer says), then probably no more is needed. But most badges, at least those worn with pride, represent something more than that the wearer self-certifies something. Usually, they represent something like a status awarded by some other authority than the wearer, and to be worth wearing, they show something that the wearer has, but might not have had, which is of some significance to the intended observers.

If a badge represents a valued status, then clearly badges may be worn misleadingly. To counter that, there will need to be some system of verification, through which an observer can check on the validity of the implied claim to that status. Fortunately, this is much easier to arrange with an electronic badge than a physical one. Physical badges really need some kind of regulatory social system around them, often largely informal, that deters people from wearing misleading badges. If there is no such social system, we are less in the territory of badges, and more of certificates, where the issues are relatively well known.

When do you wear physical badges? When I do it is usually a conference, visitor or staff badge. Smart badges can be “swiped” in some way, and that could, for instance, lead to a web page on the authority’s web site with a photo of the person. That would be a pretty good quick check that would be difficult to fake effectively. “Swiping” can these days be magnetic, RFID, or QR code.

My suggestion for electronic badges is that the token badge links directly to a claim page. The claim page ideally holds the relevant information in a form that is both machine processable and human readable. But, as a portfolio is typically under the control of the individual, more portfolio pages cannot easily provide any official confirmation. The way to do this within a user-controlled portfolio would be with some kind of electronic signature. But probably much more effective in the long term is for the portfolio claim page to refer to other information held by the awarding authority. This page can either be public or restricted, and could hold varying amounts of information about the person as well as the badge claim.

Here are some first ideas of information that could relate to a badge (or indeed any certificate):

  • what is claimed (competence, membership, permission, values, etc.);
  • identity of the person claiming;
  • what authority is responsible for validating the claim and awarding;
  • when and on what grounds the award was made;
  • how and when any assessment process was done;
  • assurance that the qualifying performance was not by someone else.

But that’s only a quick attempt. A much slower attempt would be helpful.

It’s important to be able to separate out these components. The “what is claimed” part is very closely related to learning outcome and competence definitions, the subject of the InLOC work. All the assessment and validation information is separable, and the information models (along with any interoperability specifications) should be created separately.

Competence and values can be defined independently of any organisation — they attach just to an individual. This is different from membership, permission, and the like, that are essentially tied to systems and organisations, and not as such transferable.

5 thoughts on “Badges – another take

    • Hi John, thanks for the links. You’re right, they have done some work that looks good. I’d still focus on two things that I believe could be real limitations at present, but which are potentially soluble with the right approach.

      1. There is no explicit “claim”, and the claim is a personal thing, because it is so much dependent on individual situation. This may not be a problem in games and other relatively closed worlds, but surely is when what one means by the expressive act of displaying a badge could be so unclear. Solution: think more towards e-portfolio ideas, and build in the idea that it is the badge-holder that is making a claim, and that claim needs to be explicit and able to be nuanced by the holder.

      2. There is no help towards focusing on skills, achievements, etc. that are likely to be of interest to different parties. Without this, the real risk is that there will be so many badges that no one will recognise them. This could well negatively affect several of the explicit aims on the FAQs page. The solution, I believe, could well lie first in having a common infrastructure for expressing learning outcomes, skills and competences, and that should include formal outcomes not just informal learning. That’s exactly what InLOC will be getting together. Then, the way is much more open to sharing definitions instead of them proliferating, and indeed being explicit about the relationships between badges defined in different places and contexts by different bodies.

  1. Simon, surely this brings us into areas of belonging and the importance of belonging for an individual. To have achieved recognition through an awarded badge will bring a sense of self esteem, however even a self awarded badge may bring a sense of belonging to a certain group or cause (and with it a sense of self esteem), regardless of whether the person is actually an official member of that group (assuming they even have official members).

  2. Matt, that’s a really important point: opening up this area means making explicit the possibility of awarding oneself badges, particularly in terms of self-identity and belonging. (While groups are of course allowed to certify membership badges through a group-defined process.)

    By the way, another useful resource I only came across later, as it isn’t immediately obvious on the Mozilla pages, is their discussion paper at

  3. Pingback: Open standards for learning – lots of links! | Think Associates Ltd

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>