The Potential and Value of Using Digital Badges for Adult Learners

This report examines the nature, value, and potential impact of digital badges, an emerging electronic form of recognition of an individual’s knowledge and skills.

Jonathan Finkelstein, Credly
Erin Knight, Mozilla Foundation
Susan Manning, University of Wisconsin
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
American Institutes for Research
Publication Year
Resource Type
Informational Material
Number of Pages
Product Type

At their most basic level, digital badges are a new way to capture and communicate what an individual knows and can demonstrate. This report examines the nature, value, and potential impact of digital badges, an emerging electronic form of recognition of an individual’s knowledge and skills. Badges can represent different levels of work and engagement, including more granular skills or achievements, marking in some cases small and/or very specific abilities. For this reason badges hold particular promise for certifying the skills of adult learners in basic education programs, many of whom have few, if any, formal credentials (such as diplomas), but who are obtaining functional skills that would be valued in a workplace setting if a mechanism for certifying those skills and knowledge was available. This report, funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE), explores the potential and opportunities for developing and implementing a system of digital badges for adult learners. 

Benefits and Uses

Value, Impact, and Potential of Digital Badges

Digital badges can be offered more often and for more granular purposes or topics than material badges or certificates. Moreover, the technology for issuing badges is available to anyone with access to the Web, increasing the likelihood that traditionally non-degree-granting groups will give credit to those who meet their standards. Badges are also a way to look at achievement from a multidimensional, metadata-driven perspective; they easily mark progress that otherwise goes unacknowledged when there are more ways than ever for people to learn and share. They connect to or reinforce learner engagement, motivation, and progress, and they display evidence of learning objectives.

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. Individuals or organizations with expertise and a willingness to put their reputation or brand on the line, for example, can give badges to those who obtain skills, knowledge, or achievements that they value. Additionally, a wider variety of activities and demonstrations of ability become the subjects of recognition. The visual nature of badges also enhances the ability to see progress; they are motivational and engaging. Consequently, badges can improve learner retention and reduce attrition by encouraging learners along the way and rewarding previous learning.

Many of the concrete characteristics that define digital badges and badge systems make them well suited to foster the pursuit of individualized pathways for learning. Badges serve all three parties to a badge transaction—the earner, issuer, and observer—by encouraging a sense of trust in the process. Digital badges are a portable way to recognize achievement; any organization, application, or platform can easily issue and display them. And organizations that issue digital badges increase their potential impact by reaching new audiences and providing learning opportunities that can be recognized.

Digital Badges and Adult Learners

Several features of digital badges align well with trends in adult education. Given the presence virtually everywhere of cell phones and Internet connectivity, there are more opportunities to observe, record, and note achievements and milestones. The “big data” that are captured as we leave traces of ourselves on different sites and platforms create the potential to convey a bigger picture about identity, knowledge, capacity, and achievement, making digital badges a potentially powerful and efficient tool to bring meaning to datasets that reflect individuals and their achievements. Learning service providers are increasingly investing in ways to depict progress and data in more visually efficient and appealing ways, and badges play right into this trend. 

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