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Step Learning in informal contexts: some lessons on digital badges

Summary of the lab on digital badges’ implications in informal contexts. Much of the work done in the lab dealt with the connections between educational institutions and broader circles. This English-language version of “Apprentissages en contextes informels : quelques leçons des badges numériques” was made possible with funding provided under the Canada-Québec Agreement on Minority-Language Education and Second-Language Instruction.

Between October and December 2014, Vitrine technologie-éducation (VTÉ) was the driving force behind two labs on digital badges. In another article of this issue of Clic, Christophe Reverd describes the lab he gave (in French) on digital badges in formal contexts. This article is on the second lab, given (in English) by Alex Enkerli, which focused on the contribution of digital badges in more informal contexts. Much of the work done in the lab dealt with the connections between educational institutions and broader circles.

The lab texts and videos are available on the VTÉ Web site. In addition to the video recordings of the online meetings, descriptive documents, a collaborative document, and summaries of the various sessions can be used by anyone wishing to deepen their knowledge about the badging phenomenon. As mentioned, the lab was primarily intended for an English-speaking audience and this is the translation of the original French Clic article that attempted to convey to a French-speaking audience some of the more insightful conclusions of the work done in the English lab.

This English-language version of “Apprentissages en contextes informels : quelques leçons des badges numériques” was made possible with funding provided under the Canada-Québec Agreement on Minority-Language Education and Second-Language Instruction.

Knowledge and recognition

In the previous issue of Clic, Isabelle Delisle shared aspects of the expertise on badges acquired by the Cégep à distance team. Delisle defined a badge as follows:

A badge is a digital device for recognizing knowledge, competencies, or achievements. It consists of an image and a series of metadata identifying the issuer of the badge, its recipient, and the conditions for obtaining it. The badges are designed to make up a form of portfolio—like the Mozilla Backpack, Mozilla being a pioneer and leader in the field. Digital badges can also be shared on social media such as LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.

Badges thus promote learning in a unique process that combines some of the benefits of other methods of recognition of prior learning (including grades, degrees, and letters of recommendation). Like grades or a degree, badges have the ability to indicate how the value of one contributes to the learning of another. While a grade, by its very nature, reduces a complex phenomenon into a linear measurement, badges can draw an elaborate portrait of the learning process.

Varied approaches

The diversity of stakeholder perspectives favourably characterizes the VTÉ lab on badges in informal learning. In addition to participants from several English-speaking colleges, experts from numerous areas attended the lab, all working together to build unique expertise on badges at the heart of the Quebec college environment. These included an education consultant with experience in Africa, a former school principal now in charge of educational programs for her school board, a social innovation specialist, and university researchers in learning assessment—a cross-section as broad as the territory covering badges.

For example, a French teacher at Vanier College was able to describe the impact of badges in serious games he developed in parallel with his teaching, the co-lead of badging projects at the University of British Columbia shared some data on the impact of her projects on student participation. The private and public sectors were represented by concrete experiences that mark the importance of collaboration across a vast ecosystem.

The great number of concrete cases cited in the lab gives an idea of the scope of the phenomenon. The fact that a badge can be granted by both a Recognition of Acquired Competencies (RAC) program at Champlain College and by Natural Resources Canada or even Adobe shows that the badges are able to open wide the doors of learning.

Converging trends

In its study report, Perspectives sur l’utilisation des TI en éducation au Québec, published last summer, the Groupe de travail québécois sur les normes et standards en TI pour l’apprentissage, l’éducation et la formation (GTN-Québec) listed several trends connected to the pedagogical implications of technology. Many of them combine to provide fertile ground for badges. Of these, let us mention identity management, the recognition of acquired competencies, personalized learning ecosystems, and open education. Together, these elements depict the field of education in Quebec in a very special way. Learners are placed at the centre of the process of acquiring knowledge, competencies, and other tools. The badges allow for marking out such a process.


As described by GTN-Québec, “the ePortfolio is an evolving issue that brings together digital documents detailing the path, experience, and competencies of the learner.”

An ePortfolio thus represents a broad portrait of individual learning processes. Like a degree displayed on a wall, it represents a set of significant achievements. A trophy would probably have the same effect. Where the portfolio surpasses the trophy or the degree is in giving access to the concrete results of the process it celebrates, by revealing the contents of individual work. Just as computer scientists can get job offers through the source code they display publicly, learners can work with various people by making public some parts of their portfolio.

In recent years, the ePortfolio has captured the imagination of many people, in Quebec and elsewhere. As is often the case with major innovations, some initiatives have made it possible to experiment with certain platforms (Mahara, for example, and its college version, Sherpa). Some are right to ask whether the popularity of the ePortfolio has truly led to its appropriation in the Quebec college environment. Can the full potential of the ePortfolio be realized?

Before the VTÉ labs, some participants took part in ePIC 2014, the 12th international ePortfolio and identity conference. What is more, in our lab, a learning technologies expert explained his interest in open badges through his work on ePortfolios with a tongue-in-cheek description of the open badge as an “entry drug” to ePortfolios. Interestingly, the title of the 2015 edition of the ePIC conference now includes Open Badges, giving weight to the concept. 

In such circumstances, it is not surprising that work on badges is done parallel to portfolio projects. For some, the badge is an essential component of a new type of portfolio, while for others, a collection of badges can fulfill many of the functions attributed to the ePortfolio.

Acquisition of competencies and microlearning

Every badge highlights a specific achievement. While there can be many types of achievements, a broad concept of “competency” is used to designate the acquired learning, the recognition of which is the purpose of badges. After all, as stated by Raymond-Robert Tremblay in Pédagogie collégiale in 2008, the concept of competency is indeed compatible with a teaching model that promotes knowledge. In other words, the competency can be equally relevant to general education and practical training.

Although it may be the topic of some controversy, the competency-based approach adopted across the college environment aligns perfectly with badges used as microcertificates. When college education is conceived as the acquisition of a large number of competencies, each of these competencies can be certified by the educational institution by means of a badge. In such a context, the diploma or certificate can be a collection of microcertificates.

Personalized learning evokes a modular approach with many marked stages. A concept of unbundling was also discussed during the lab to describe an à la carte learning formula that enables learners to create their own educational programs from a varied offering. If such a model may seem to come into direct conflict with that of the core curriculum, it is interesting to note that the diversity of supply is increasing in keeping with the development of new teaching methods. As Isabelle Delisle noted on the topic of the first massive open online course (MOOC) Un corps en équiliblre, c’est vital! (a balanced body is essential), “achieving a personal learning objective does not necessarily imply completing the entire course.”


In the sociology of education, the trend of requiring increasingly advanced degrees has been the topic of much of the literature, at least in English. Credentialism draws sharp criticism from many levels of education. To researchers such as Randall Collins, credentialism is associated with little-controlled inflation which underlies heavy social stratification. Outside of sociology, many complain about the fact that degrees are gradually losing some of their value.

Although not a solution for credentialism, badges move the focus of attention. At its core, the badge carries an indication of value. Schools that require attestations may increase their requirements, thus causing degrees to lose some value. But the value of a badge can be maintained even when additional competencies are required.

Added value

Report cards and other transcripts play a very important role in formal learning. As noted by several people during the lab, the use of badges must represent added value in relation to existing forms of learning assessment.

Participation in extracurricular activities are a good example of the benefit of the badge. Such activities are usually not evaluated by the teaching staff, but they complement the learners’ profiles. A student whose volunteer work on a student association is a source of admiration and has the right to expect that her efforts will be recognized. Part of this recognition can be in the form of explicit references on the student’s report card. Badges greatly increase the scope of such statements describing the circumstances under which they are granted.

Varied sources of motivation

Like other marks of academic achievement (grades, attestations, degrees, etc.), badges can displace the rewarding aspect of learning to an external purpose. Psychologists have often pointed out the danger of extrinsic motivation that would not give rise to truly acquiring competencies. The carrot and the stick can only maintain its effectiveness through sustained use.

One criticism by Alfie Kohn at the ePIC conference was that open badges can only have mixed results when they focus on arbitrary rewards for achievements without significant consequence. Dan Hickey summed up during our lab that it is the nature of the task that poses a problem, not the use of badges.

Towards an ecosystem

The connection between learning and an active environment was a central theme of VTÉ lab on digital badges in informal settings. Issues relating to the broad educational ecosystem therefore occupied a large part of our work. The concept of a common currency to facilitate passage from one sphere of action to another moreover helped to focus the energies of the lab members.

Employers seeking to hire graduates provides an important scenario for this notion of common currency. Degrees earned by these individuals are recognized as having a certain value and indicate the acquisition of a particular set of competencies. While the attestation of educational programs is subject to a very rigorous process, the result obtained depends on a chain of trust linking all stakeholders. Institutional prestige sometimes replaces effective evidence when organizations receive the records of graduates. Despite the existence of the college performance rating for the pre-university programs (the famous R score) and many other measures of school work, potential employers have only very limited means for estimating the value of various programs taken by their candidates at the college level. Without a reliable form of measurement, some may rely on vague impressions.

In a market economy, the value of a currency fluctuates depending on complex negotiations. By analogy, the badges can harmonize practices. For example, if a degree awarded by a nursing program can benefit from a high level of prestige, it is also due to the quality of the work of nurses from the program that the value of this degree can be maintained. This also implies that external companies can have an influence on the work of a college. For some, such a return can be a form of interference, while for others it would be a process without relevance to the pedagogical context.

What are your learning projects?

At the college level, as elsewhere, the learning process can take many and varied forms. The base model, full semesters of lectures, fulfils many needs, usually grouped in an educational program leading to a degree and a transcript. However, many other types of learning are carried out in colleges, from the most informal socialization to the most structured internships. The concept of learning project can encompass a set of customized trajectories, thus expanding the sphere of action of learners. Whether to obtain the competencies required for admission to a university program or to acquire knowledge essential to the completion of various tasks, college studies help people to achieve a broad variety of objectives.

Like other experts, college teachers are familiar with professional development. After all, professional development days and other events of the same type are intended to give them the tools to do their work better or to facilitate their work. The same logic applies to much learning undertaken by college students, although the links between education and vocational training programs are sometimes very indirect. Pre-university college programs seem at first glance to be quite different from often non-credit practical workshops where employees can acquire up-to-date aptitudes. Badges carry the hope of exploring all learning projects. As some like to repeat, we are all learners.


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