Digital Badges in Libraries: Skills-based instruction, code-shifting, and collaboration

Emily Ford, Urban & Public Affairs Librarian, Portland State University
Nicholas Schiller, Systems & Instruction Librarian, Washington State University- Vancouver
Dawn Richardson, Assistant Professor of Community Health, Portland State University


Abstract: Digital badges present librarians with new ways of engaging with patrons including recognizing patron achievement and improved communication. This session will provide an overview of digital badges--including an explanation of underlying pedagogical aims--and will address badging as “code-shifting” or using different communication methods for different audiences. Finally, it will present a major collaboration between Portland State University Library and disciplinary faculty to integrate badges in undergraduate courses, providing librarian and disciplinary faculty perspectives.


In our presentation for Online Northwest we hoped to provide a basic overview of digital badges, discuss theoretical underpinnings of badges that lead to using badges for instruction, to shift “code” (or how we perceive institutional systems and instruction), and to discuss a collaborative project that is currently developing a digital badge curriculum for information literacy and critical thinking in undergraduate Community Health courses at Portland State University.

What are badges and how might they be used?

First off, digital badges stem from the traditional American notion of scouting. In scouting badges represented an achievement, knowledge, or skills gained by an individual. (The First Aid badge is a classic example.) Digital badges are the same; they are visual representations of an achievement, knowledge, or skills gained by an individual. Conversely, this is exactly what a college diploma cannot do. It cannot represent skills such as critical thinking or information literacy. It cannot show that a student is a good writer, information evaluator, leader, etc.

Increasingly students of higher education want to know what they are learning and want to understand the value it will bring them in their future lives. They want to be able to communicate their skills and knowledge gained. Badges can assist in doing just that. Badges can credential achievements at a more granular level than can grades or a diploma. Badges can assist students in becoming more aware about how their learning fits into the outcomes or goals expressed by an instructor. Moreover, badges pose a great opportunity for faculty to better track and assess student achievement. Theoretically, when a student who has earned badges enters a class, an instructor would quickly be able to know what skills that student already has, and where they are lacking.

Where are badges being used?

Much of the work that is currently being done with badges in higher education is due to a MacArthur Foundation funding initiative in partnership with the Mozilla Foundation. Their Digital Media and Learning Competition is administered by HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Sciences, and Technology Alliance Collaboratory) and puts tens of thousands of dollars each year to digital learning projects. Of course badges aren’t necessarily tied to formal education or learning. The location-based social media platform FourSquare offers badges for achievements tied to an individual’s accomplishments within the platform. Similarly, Untappd, a social media platform for beer geeks, credentials individual achievements with badges.

So how can this translate into a changed understanding or approach to higher education?

Shifting “code” or how students and instructors alike see and understand goals of higher education is one theoretical underpinning of badges. Code has many layers in any higher educational institution, from a university’s learning outcomes, to those articulated by the departments, and those by the library. There are also accreditors, provosts, and faculty/librarians represented in code layers. To a student, and sometimes even to the faculty member teaching a course, these layers do not often make sense. Using badges--visual elements-- in a course on its syllabus and lecture materials, and during lectures themselves, can help shift our learning “code.”

The PSU Project

Late in 2012, Portland State University Provost Sona Andrews announced a $3 million internal grant competition called reTHINK PSU. The goal of this process was: “To deliver an education that serves more students with better outcomes, while containing costs through curricular innovation, community engagement, and effective use of technology.” reTHINK PSU offered three levels of grants: Acceleration Challenge--to implement high-impact clusters of online classes; Reframing Challenge--to fund collaborative projects using technology that result in delivery of high-quality, affordable education; and Inspiration Challenge--to fund projects that develop technology-based solutions that improve student success. The Inspiration Challenge category, which funded up to $20,000 for projects, seemed like a perfect opportunity to address address how information literacy instruction was embedded in the Community Health curriculum. As a result, Digital Badges for Creativity and Critical Thinking was born.

The project, Digital Badges for Creativity and Critical Thinking, is at its core a curriculum mapping and instructional design project. Faculty members in the School of Community Health, Library, and Office of Academic Innovation are working together to develop a badge curriculum. The project, which is a “proof-of-concept” project, will launch badges in three undergraduate Community Health courses in Fall 2014. In these courses our hope is that badges will help students better understand their accomplishments and skills gained in critical thinking and information literacy. Moreover, the project is a way for the team to think through how information literacy components are embedded into undergraduate curriculum, and forge pathways for more instructional design work to be accomplished in other courses in the future.