Digital Badges Are Clearing the Final Hurdles for Disruption

April 8, 2014 Bob Nilsson

If you have been following our blog series on digital badges you are familiar with the concept of digital badges and how they are beginning to realize their potential in education. Badges have gained acceptance in professional development, specialized training, and certain areas of higher education, but there remain several obstacles to widespread adoption. As the issues of verification, credibility, and overlooked possibilities are solved, digital badges will become truly disruptive in education and throughout the training industry.

Verifying student identity during in-person exams was simpler than verifying the identity of remote exam takers, but new verification methods have emerged.

Verifying student identity during in-person exams was simpler than verifying the identity of remote exam takers, but new verification methods have emerged.

The issue of student identity verification is not new to education, but has become more important with the advent of online learning. Think back to life before the digital revolution. Back when all students had to be physically present in the classroom. Almost all students were required to take formal exams and evaluations (that is, assessments) in person. They interacted face-to-face with the evaluators. In that environment, the evaluators had a relatively easy, although not fool-proof, means to verify the student’s identity and to guard against cheating.

Fast forward to the digital web-based world, with online courses, virtual classroom presence, and remote online testing. To be credible, digital badge systems must verify the badge recipient’s identity and the fact that they completed the course, with the same or better degree of certainty as with traditional in-classroom courses and exams. Similarly, the hiring manager at a restaurant must be sure that Susan’s French Gourmet Cooking Badge required more than middle school Home-Ec experience. The university admissions board must be certain that John’s Philanthropic Leadership badge was based on John’s performance, unaided by his twin brother Tom. The criteria for each badge and the identity of every badge recipient must be absolutely verifiable.

Insuring Badge Validity and Verifying Badge Holder Identity

New techniques are emerging to insure that digital badges are even more accurate and secure than traditional resumes and degrees in reflecting achievement. David Geffen had notoriously lied about graduating from UCLA to get his first job. More recently, South Florida rescinded their offer to college basketball coach Steve Masiello, when they learned he lied on his resume about a college degree that was never earned. Today, Digital badges have the potential to simplify the verification process and eliminate these sorts of transgressions.

Mozilla’s Open Badge Infrastructure (OBI) has emerged as the online standard for recognizing and verifying learning. With OBI, the explicit criteria necessary to earn the badge is provided by the badge issuer and readily displayed to anyone viewing the badge. This makes it clear exactly what the badge represents and defines the skills and knowledge necessary to achieve the badge.

As mentioned in Digital Badges Finding Use in Education and Across Industries, companies like Pearson have created credentialing applications that validate badge achievements and verify the identity of both badge earners and issuers. Credly, a web application and digital badge service, requires issuers to provide all the information necessary to ensure trust in their badges. The company designates validated accounts with a visible verified issuer designation.

Minimizing Cheating

ProctorU is a vendor offering an anti-cheating system.

ProctorU is a vendor offering an anti-cheating system.

Cheating is another obstacle to accurately measuring student achievement, not just with online courses, but with in-classroom learning as well. Accepting a student’s transcript or a digital badge requires the trust that the student submitted original papers, actually took the exams, and individually earned the final grade. Universities have made significant progress in dealing with this concern by: proctoring exams both in-person and via webcam, monitoring student computers during exams, requiring honor code commitments, and even by tracking typing patterns. New statistical and psychometric methods have been developed that can prevent and detect cheating. ProctorU claims to have seen it all and believes they can detect even the most ingenious attempts at cheating.

July 25, 2020 Emma feels she has reached a plateau in her job as an admin at the Creative Artists Agency, so has enrolled in an online course to earn a digital badge in music royalty administration. Last week she noticed several tweets in her timeline that announced job openings required that badge. Now as she logs in for the first class, Emma sees that her tablet is ready to snap her picture. The online system will verify her identity before each class and each exam. She reads the succinct terms for the class that explicitly state that cheating will not be tolerated and she agrees to be monitored during the course’s online interactions and exams. What she doesn’t realize is that her class-related papers and exams will be analyzed, not just for content, but for statistical and psychometric indicators of cheating.

When Emma later completes the course and passes the final exam, she will receive her Music Royalty Administration digital badge, which will go into her Mozilla Backpack, along with all the badges she received during her undergraduate and graduate music education. She’ll add a link to the backpack to her LinkedIn profile, but more importantly, she will tweet the backpack link, along with a personal introduction, to the companies that have an opening for her new skills. 

Will Digital Badges Be Broadly Embraced by Industry?

The remaining obstacle for digital badges, beyond establishing credibility, is overcoming the perception that badges are primarily or exclusively for gaming and marketing. This sort of narrow positioning is a common challenge for disruptive technologies. Clay Christensen describes how the personal computer, another disruptive innovation, did not immediately displace minicomputers for business applications. Rather, the first PCs were used as toys or hobbyist devices, but over time came to dominate the computer market (and are now are being displaced by mobile devices).  Similarly, digital badges can be viewed as one of the components of the blended learning disruption now underway within education.

The disruptive path for digital badges began with their large-scale adoption in games and marketing rewards programs. During this phase, the general concept and basic mechanisms of validation and verification were established. The next step toward disruption has come with broadening use in professional development and continuing education. Since this broader industry usage has required improved validation and security, a suitable standard and technology was developed: Mozilla’s Open Badge Infrastructure.

Over the past year, MOOCs and online courses in general have grown explosively, creating the need for a dynamic new system to recognize course completion and achievement. The capabilities of digital badges have grown and adapted to satisfy this need, bringing the digital badge concept onto the college campus where it now mingles with transcripts and resumes in the emerging hybrid learning environment.

Regarding the future, there are two possible scenarios for digital badges to come into dominance. Perhaps badges will simply replace traditional college diplomas over time. More likely, colleges themselves will evolve to include a hybrid of online and on-campus courses and activities, and digital badge systems will continue to evolve to meet the needs of the emerging hybrid university.

October 9, 2020 Emma’s mobile phone vibrates with an incoming high-priority tweet. Warner Music Group (WMG) has matched her digital badges, including the newly added badge for music royalty administration, with their requirements and is asking her to release her job performance metrics. With international licensing laws changing this year, WMG has added the requirement that applicants commit to earning a badge on International Music Licensing Amendments for 2021. Emma looks up the badge and finds it can be earned at any of 12 online schools around the world. The courses are not all in English, but her tablet provides automatic language translation. With that scheduling flexibility, Emma commits to take the required course.


As the concepts and benefits of digital badges become better understood throughout industry, their usage will grow in both expected and unexpected ways. For example, who would have anticipated that the Boston Athletic Association would use a digital badge system to enable runners to virtually participate in this year’s Boston Marathon? Thanks to badge technology, those runners will earn recognition for completed training runs, receive tips from professionals, and get a taste of the Marathon. Next year, as digital badges continue to expand beyond education and into new real and virtual activities, there may be similarly massive participation in events like the Masters Golf Tournament and US Open Tennis, and in 2016 the Rio Olympics.


This blog is part of a series on Digital Badges written by Bob Nilsson with help from SarahJane Walshe. See also Will Digital Badges Replace Resumes… and Diplomas? and Digital Badges Finding Use in Education and Across Industries.

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The post Digital Badges Are Clearing the Final Hurdles for Disruption appeared first on Extreme Networks.

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