Beyond the Grade: Digital Badges to Certify Learning

badge-316805_1280Grades are not the only way of assessing student work. There are a number of colleges and universities that have experimented with alternative approaches to the traditional letter grade. One such college, Reed College in Oregon, provides students with more detailed feedback and assessment in addition to grades. As stated in their Guidebook, “Students’ work is closely observed and frequently evaluated by instructors; the student and adviser then discuss these evaluations in individual conferences” (Reed College, n.d., para 2). Grades are de-emphasized. More qualitative, active feedback and discussion is promoted. As the College (n.d.) further states in it’s Guidebook, “The College does not wish to divide students by labels of achievement. A conventional letter grade for each course is recorded for every student, but the registrar’s office does not distribute grades to students” (para 1).

screen-shot-2011-09-14-at-6-37-31-pmThe Reed College model does not get of grades entirely, but there are movements towards replacing the traditional system with an alternative model. Given that the system is so entrenched in American higher education, meaningful change must come from a system-wide level. One such model is the creation of digital “badges” which function as “a validated indicator of accomplishment, skill, quality or interest” (Digital Media and Learning Competition, 2011, para 3). Rather than assigning a letter grade for a monolithic course, badges are a means of certification that indicate competency in a variety of individual skills. They can also span a variety of contexts, which may include education received at a traditional college or outside of it.

Backpack_welcomeThe benefit of badges is that they are universal and portable. They also allow for the certification of additional skills without the requirement of completing an entire degree. A number of organizations have supported this effort including the MacArthur Foundation, the Mozilla Foundation, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The United States Department of Education has also pledged support with the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, describing it as a “quantum leap forward in educational reform” and that “Badges can help engage students in learning, and broaden the avenues for learners of all ages to acquire and demonstrate—as well as document and display—their skills” (MacArthur Foundation, 2011, para 1). Badges represent a new way of certifying student learning that is more responsive and in keeping with the new digital age.

How might you utilize the concept of the digital badge in advancing your student learning efforts?



Digital Media and Learning Competition (2011, September 15). Badges for learning info and press release. Retrieved from

MacArthur Foundation. (2011, September 15). Digital media and learning competition provides $2 million for innovations in digital badges [Press Release]. Retrieved from

Reed College. (n.d.) Guidebook: Evaluation of students. Retrieved from

4 thoughts on “Beyond the Grade: Digital Badges to Certify Learning

  1. We’re in the early stages of partnering with Academic Affairs on this.
    It’s a complicated thing to measure and validate… but worthwhile in the end.

  2. I’m interested to hear what folks in student affairs think about this process. One of the professors here does badges for the students in his class, but they’re not universally recognizable (i.e. do they matter to anyone else?). Those badges are offered through Credly, which looks like it has a number of reputable organizations connected to it as well. Part of me feels really excited about the opportunity to show learning in different areas (i.e. things that aren’t necessarily in my job requirements, but that I’m interested in and learning about), but the other part of me wonders how this may connect to student affairs as a field wanting to credential all learning. What does it mean if we start earning badges at conferences? Where is the assurance that those skills are actually learned? In the examples you shared, the classroom setting seems to indicate a close partnership with the teacher and learner – what does that look like outside the traditional classroom? One possible idea: Residential curricula programs could use badges to indicate learning progression. I have so many thoughts 🙂

    1. I think this opens up great opportunities for SA… Leadership programs for example? Excellent for this. As professionals, I think what ACPA is doing with credentialing and the MyPROfolio platform are moving us in this direction. They are working on the “validity” issue you mention. It’s not easy.

    2. Great topic. I think Erica makes a great point that the objective of working toward universal or widespread recognition of badges makes validity a point of contention. Eventually I guess there’s going to be some risk of dilution by so many people issuing their own badges. But within SA, you’re absolutely right – tons of potential. I’m interested in how departments, divisions or even institutions can use these for documenting co-curricular involvement and development through student employment (my area), community involvement, etc. I am not a member of ACPA but I’m also going to read more about MyPROfolio. Thanks for this post, Paul.

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