Digital Badging: A New Look on Learning

By Ellen Madden – 10th Grade, Moon Area High School

When most people think of learning, the first thing that comes to mind is school. At school, you learn in classrooms, take tests, and earn grades based on how much you learned. However, educators have created a new way to show proficiency in learning: digital badges, which demonstrate mastery of a skill in an online portfolio.

On July 21, The Sprout Fund hosted the Employer’s Summit on Digital Badging to show employers in Pittsburgh how digital badging could benefit their organizations.

Although digital badges are new to education, the concept of using an online checkpoint has been used in many other forms of media. For example, video games use digital markers to recognize achievement or unlock new features, and websites such as Foursquare use online tools to recognize accomplishments, such as visiting a new location. In 2011, the Mozilla Foundation and Peer2Peer University co-authored a paper on the use of digital badges to recognize learning. This helped widen the possibilities for digital badging.

One program that uses digital badging for education is City of Learning, a nationwide education initiative to connect learning opportunities to interested students. City of Learning grew from the Chicago Summer of Learning initiative in 2013, and just this year, Pittsburgh joined Chicago, Dallas, and Washington, D.C. as a City of Learning.

All the programs in Pittsburgh City of Learning use digital badging as a way of signifying mastery of a skill. For example, Handmade Filmmaking camp participants at Pittsburgh Filmmakers can earn the “Editing Basics” badge. In addition, the Public Art & Renewable Energy Workshop at the Carnegie Library gives students the opportunity to earn the “Designer” badge. All these badges keep track of what students have learned and can be used on college or job applications.

While the digital badging program may seem revolutionary, some employers at the summit had concerns, such as, “How do we know the badges are credible?” Some businesses or colleges may not take the digital badges seriously because they are not familiar with the badging qualifications.

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A group of adults brainstorming ways to get digital badging out into the world and make it more reliable and accessible.

One employer thought it would be a good idea to have bigger non-profit organizations, such as the Red Cross, to give out badges for small community service projects directed toward teens.

Digital badging has a long way to go before it is recognized on a national scale. Last year, about 1,800 badges were earned by youth engaged in Pittsburgh City of Learning, but this summer, youth are predicted to earn even more badges. The Sprout Fund hopes by 2018, summer programs involving digital badges will be in 70 communities and serve 1 million youth.

According to Ryan Coon from the Sprout Fund, who helped to organize this Summit, “The Forum… was the beginning of our efforts to work directly with employers to start figuring out how they can use badges to hire employees.”

There are still some unanswered questions and challenges to the ultimate success of badges as a tool to help young people access real-world opportunities like jobs and college admission, but with the help of local employers, digital badging can spread throughout Pittsburgh and across the nation.


Ellen Madden 1Ellen Madden is a sophomore at Moon Area High School.  She enjoys photography, music, and theatre. She hopes to gain more experience in media and journalism with Pittsburgh Youth Media.

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