By Cheryl E. Braxton, Ed.D., Post University          

In part one of this series in the inaugural issue of Digital Life & Learning, you found me steadily emerging from my uncyberShire, on an e-journey of discovery. In this issue my focus shifts to: content learning mastery-and-acknowledgement for non-traditional age learners. 

Continuing my journey, I have discovered another term associated with digital learning – digital badges (also known as digital tokens). Digital badges, or tokens, are icons that appear on web pages or other online learning venues and are used by post-secondary institutions to signify a student’s content mastery via e-portfolios (another e-word!).  These badges can replace traditional grades as a measurement of learning outcomes. When I read the term “digital badges” I wondered if a “smiley face” would replace an “A” and if a “frown” would replace a “B.”  Would non-traditional age students really prefer a symbol, or an icon, rather than a grade?  The grade or digital badges are actually emblem levels from bronze, to silver, to gold, and perhaps platinum. The indication is that platinum is the highest level of content competency; bronze is the lowest level but is still an acceptable indication of knowledge.  Emblems can resemble family crests or coats of arms. A recent article in EDUCAUSE (2012) discussed seven action items regarding badges and noted that:

Badges in higher education have gained currency among early adaptors.  Badges also play a part in edX, an online learning effort sponsored jointly by MIT and Harvard University. Both institutions will offer online courses free via edX with ‘certificates’ (badges) available for a modest fee to those who complete the coursework. (p. 4)

The article further noted that “Badges could represent an opportunity for higher education to rethink what is of value and recognize achievements that could be codified but currently are not” (p. 4).  Casilli (2012) contends that digital badges can be “formalized recognitions of associations, achievements, skills and competencies, endeavors, values, etc.” (para. 3) and that “it’s a rich and varied representation of journeys, experiences and learned processes” (Casilli, 2012, para. 5). Similarly, Hickey (2013) wrote,

Digital badges offer new ways to recognize and support learning. This means that they also offer new ways of attracting students. When used appropriately, digital badges contain and present compelling evidence of learning and accomplishment. Students will naturally want to share their badges and the information they contain with their friends and colleagues via social networks, Twitter, or even email.  When done right, this sharing should help busy adults who are not actively considering further education to see the value of a particular program. (para. 2)

Reid and Paster (2013) reported that the badge effort is the result of Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) frameworks that motivate learners to complete credit-free academic work in a online program or at a pace determined by the learner (“Digital Badges,” para. 2). MOOC content is generally provided in module-based formats similar to the module course format offered at Post University. Reid and Paster (2013) stated that, “Though digital badges usually are associated with MOOC-style courses and distance learning, this achievement-based approach can be integrated into more traditional course formats as well” (para. 3).             While digital badges may offer unique ways to acknowledge an education, it will be interesting to see how digital badges correlate with the growing emphasis on achievement-based or competency-based learning. Recently, State Representatives Jared Polis (D- Colorado) and Matt Salmon (R-Arizona) wrote in The Hill (2013) that:

Programs that have adopted ‘competency-based’ education allow students to work at their own pace and progress by mastering the knowledge and skills required for a particular course, regardless of how long it takes. Today’s students come to college with different backgrounds and learn at different rates. The competency-based education program allows an institution to better tailor programs of study to the individual student. By measuring and assessing ‘competencies,’ students matriculate with the knowledge of the skills they need to master. Likewise, businesses know what to expect upon hiring these students. (para. 7)

            In this context, one can see how digital badges and competency-based learning can support each other and, more importantly, meet the learning needs of non-traditional age students who bring a wealth of experience and information to the classroom. Reid and Paster (2013) contend that:

Although digital badging originated from an informal learning philosophy that bucked the traditional university setting, its application is inherent in all of academia; drawing on this open movement technology can help us motivate learners and create memorable experiences for them along the way. (para. 13)

            Since learning about digital badges, I have been wondering how they will actually be acceptable in the broader academic schema. For instance, while post-secondary institutions want their students (and future graduates) to be inspired and motivated, could digital badges be the next big movement for e-learning? Should more institutions consider using digital badges to acknowledge college-level learning for non-traditional age students that are not interested in earning credit or a degree?  How will institutions overcome the ingrained tradition of awarding “grades” for learning?  How can institutions and instructors help non-traditional age students understand that earning a digital badge is a significant accomplishment? In this age of enlightened or e-learning how and when will we be able to move past traditional achievement-based measures of learning, to a higher level of competency-based learning that is not based on grades but on something equally meaningful to all learners and to post-secondary education?  This is an intriguing issue that promises to elicit much discussion in higher education in the coming months and years as institutions seek new ways to attract and retain students.      


7 things you should know about badges. (2012, June). EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative, Retrieved from

Casilli, C. (2012, April 27). Badge system design: standardization, formalization & uniqueness. Retrieved from

Hickey, D. (2013). Recognizing, supporting, and attracting adult learners with digital badges. The evoLLUtion: Illuminating the Lifelong Learning Environment, Retrieved from

Polis, J., & Salmon, M. (2013). Give competency-based education a chance. The Hill, Retrieved from

Reid, A. & Paster, D. (2013, October 11). Digital badges in the classroom. Inside Higher Ed, Retrieved from