What Digital Badging Teaches About Consistent Standards

There are a lot of pitfalls when trying to get new technologies to work together under the umbrella of a single standard. But as the momentum behind digital badging proves, when there's a clear mission and vision, the value speaks for itself.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about an odd situation in the “internet of things” (IoT) space. Short version: There are a lot of organizations, each with different corporate backers, vying to become the standards body to govern the space.

It’s a common situation with new technologies and the kind of “format war” that’s common with media devices—remember VHS versus Betamax? But for newer technologies, these battles can be problematic or even dangerous to a new technology’s adoption.

Open-source concepts have done a lot to alleviate these issues, in terms of shepherding an idea and giving it a singular focus. But it doesn’t always work. A few examples of things that can go wrong with standards:

A major player won’t join in. Apple is a notable example of this, passing on Blu-ray entirely and using proprietary technology for its cables, even in the face of widespread support of a universal standard.

It can lake longer for the technology to reach consumers. A good example is wireless charging—a technology that, based on the number of charging stations located throughout the expo hall at the ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition in Nashville this week, can’t come soon enough. Standards have been in the works for a while, but wildly varying approaches have made reaching a consensus a challenge. Eventually, two standards bodies joined forces.

A group in the standards-creation process gets unhappy with the direction things are moving, then quits and goes their own way, upending the process. A couple of examples: Facebook ditching OpenID support for its proprietary Facebook Connect and the Digital Advertising Alliance getting cold feet on “Do Not Track” standards.

Seeing the Potential

Obviously, it’d be nicer if we all got on the same page. At the ASAE Annual Meeting on Sunday and Monday, Learning Lab attendees got a good reminder of what the potential could be for a standard when there’s a clear sense of purpose and a wide-ranging vision.

Mickie Rops, CAE, a consultant and compliance guru, made a case for the importance of a single digital badging process that works across the online landscape, noting that the potential could be huge if all the pieces worked together.

A couple of ways she suggested this could be useful to associations: First, it could give additional weight to credentials and added value to continuing education programs. Second, it could break huge educational processes, like receiving a degree or an accreditation, into reasonably sized pieces.

What if, instead of simply earning accreditation, we could tell people through a digital badge exactly what that credential denotes? It could make continuing education more tangible if value gathered from one association or university were easily transferable to another.

Digital badging is one of those things that could work well enough at a single organization or school, but it would be significantly more valuable if it could fully detail a person’s experience and skills in depth, no matter where a badge was earned. It says a lot more about your skills than an accreditation or even a degree.

“Recognizing learning and successes from any part of an individual’s life—including achievements in both formal and informal settings not traditionally assessed or recognized—opens up possibilities for people of all ages to share a more complete narrative of their personal identity,” notes a 2013 report, “The Potential and Value of Using Digital Badges for Adult Learners” [PDF], released by the American Institutes for Research.

As EDUCAUSE Chief Learning Officer Tracy Petrillo, CAE, put it on Monday morning, it’s “new professional development currency.” Petrillo’s organization uses digital badges heavily. It has handed out more than 1,300 so far—drawing 173,000 impressions in the process, many from LinkedIn. The IT education group’s experience speaks to badging’s potential both to expand the organization’s reach and to add value for its own members.

Standard’s Bearing

But the big question is, how do you keep this consistent across the board?

A technology aimed at answering that, the Mozilla Foundation’s Open Badges project, is already in the works and could prove hugely influential in the future, along with a number of proprietary solutions (though the long-term value would definitely be higher with an open solution). There are certainly challenges—including how to quantify a badge’s value, ensure its security, establish credibility, and even make sure people take the idea seriously.

“You need the badge to be meaningful, or else the badge could be considered useless,” Petrillo noted during her session.

(Petrillo wrote a great article on the topic last month. It’s for ASAE members only, though.)

Rops’ and Petrillo’s sessions offered good reminders of digital badging’s potential and also highlighted the technology’s relative youth. Rops is working with the group ASTM International to help codify standards for micro-credentialing, which in many ways works as the logic behind digital badging in the education field.

Other organizations, such as the American Alliance of Museums, are piloting programs, too. It would be a real shame if digital badging’s potential was held back by a lack of consistent standards.

A lot can go wrong in turning this idea into a mainstream standard. But the vision is exciting—and a reminder that a lot more can go right.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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