Open Thinkering


The three biggest (perceived) problems with Open Badges

Nerd merit badges

I once again found myself in an Open Badges session with the good people from DigitalMe today. It was a very positive event overall and some exciting stuff will happen as a result.

Attendees were given a chance to express the things that made them excited about Open Badges in their organisation. They were also given the opportunity to air their fears – as well as request further information/clarification.

Happily, almost everyone saw how badges could be used in a positive way to engage learners as well as capture knowledge, skills, and behaviours. My reason for writing this post is that the same ‘big three’ issues came up as potential concerns.

  1. Value
  2. Motivation
  3. Quality

For some reason, these seem perennial sticking points. A lot of it has to do with mindset, so I just wanted to spend a little bit of time on my journey home from London explaining why I see these (mostly) as non-issues.

1. Value

There’s several ways this argument is presented, some of which are mutually-contradictory:

  • We’ll never be able to explain the value of badges. Our market/community/stakeholders won’t buy into the concept.
  • What happens when there so many badges that they become meaningless?
  • Who decides whether badges for the same kind of thing are equivalent?
  • Aren’t we happy with certificates? People know what they mean!

The Open Badges Infrastructure (OBI) provides a different way to approach credentialing. One of the things about the OBI that appeals to me most is that there are no gatekeepers. This means that literally anyone can issue a badge for anything.

The value of the badge comes mainly through a couple of things:

  1. The recognition that the badge consumer (e.g. a potential employer) has of the badge – or brand behind the badge.
  2. The ‘rigour’ of the criteria – i.e. was the badge worth earning?

Value is an emergent property of systems. I could write much, much more on this, including discussions of fiat currencies and things that are used in place of currency for trusted exchanges. However, I’ll leave it there for now.

2. Motivation

The argument about motivation is usually poorly-phrased, but goes something along the following lines: some learners are intrinsically-motivated, therefore giving them a badge may lead to that being replaced by extrinsic motivation. In the long term, this is a bad thing.

I have sympathy with this argument, as I’ve seen it in action. However, more often than not it’s a result of poor learning design. If badges are aspirational, if they recognise things that the learner feels proud of, and if they are part of a non-linear pathway, then I don’t think there’s a problem.

Do ill-defined and poorly thought-out badges exist? Of course they do! But that’s equally true of existing qualifications and credentials. Don’t blame the technology/ecosystem for poor learning design.

The OBI is a method for issuing, exchanging, and displaying metadata-infused credentials. How you choose to use that is up to you.

3. Quality

The argument here is that badges won’t/can’t/are unlikely to have the same ‘quality’ as traditional credentials.

I think ‘quality’ is an odd term. If you pick it apart it doesn’t really mean much at all. In fact, it can be a bit of a problematic term for those trying to do something entirely new. I find it especially pernicious when it comes to defining new processes.

Dave Wiley nails this in a recent post. He’s talking about Open Educational Resources, but it’s equally applicable to badges:

To be clear, my first issue is with the way “high quality” is often equated with the traditional process and that process only. According to this usage, if you don’t follow the traditional authoring process it is literally impossible for you to create “high quality” materials. This restrictive usage serves to lock out alternative processes from competing in the marketplace.

I want to help organisations create high-quality, value-laden badges that help earners progress in life. However, the issue that I often bump up against is that ‘quality’ is defined in such a way as to (in effect) describe the status quo.

It takes a leap of faith to apply Open Badges to your core business. You’ll never be at 100% certainty that it will be a complete success. But I think that’s true of any innovation project or change management initiative.


I greatly enjoy seeing the lights going on when explaining the possibilities of badges. They’re not a cure-all, and there’s issues to iron out – both technical, social, and pedagogical. However, the above three arguments don’t cut it for me.

Badges are a ‘trojan horse’ technology. They get people talking about things that usually remain latent within their organisation. Badges are also something into which people project their hopes, fears, and dreams. This makes exploring things, as we did today, is always a fascinating process!

As I said, today was almost entirely positive. I just thought it odd that, four years later, we’re having the same kinds of conversations.

If you need help with Open Badges, get in touch with DigitalMe or my consultancy, Dynamic Skillset.

Image CC BY hyperdashery badges

23 thoughts on “The three biggest (perceived) problems with Open Badges

  1. This is a really interesting post. I’ve really noticed the difference going from working in an FE college, where plenty of people were talking about Open/Digital Badges and experimenting with them in their own (albeit small) way to a big Russell Group institution where I’ve not heard anybody mention them at all, or if they have it’s only to rubbish them as a fad.

    I can’t agree enough with your sentiment that ‘quality’ in certain organisations is synonymous with the status quo. It can be incredibly frustrating at times. Do you think it’s an education thing?

    1. Hi Rosie, thanks for the comment.

      I *don’t* think it’s a education thing, actually. To my mind it’s a symptom of organisations that rest on their laurels and use the power of their brand in the particular market in which they operate.

      Of course, that’s a dangerous game to play. 😉

  2. Having gone the other way from Scottish HE to FE my observation was that there was general confusion despite there being a primary qualification authority body (SQA); CFE is the latest scheme, but before that there was Access/Intermediate/.. which was preceeded by Standards which was begotten by O grades etc. With incoming students we spent many happy hours explaining that their credentials were not upto what we demanded for such and such course; it was easier for us to do so. With transfers to Uni from College the various “course credit transfer” agreements were almost always broken, in my experience, with students admitted into a lower year than they were promised by the academic PR system.

    Further, I am convinced that employer’s could not tell their PC Passports from their ECDLs (advanced or otherwise) and appreciated that the main way it worked was via work experience programs. Our own HR department seemed confused too, asking for updated qualification listings which like some submitted student work appeared to alternate between different saved versions.

    I do wonder if we had gone down the corporate uniform path, once suggested for our department, would badges sewn on our lapels military style would have given us an air of authority that could have seen us through the late Friday afternoon class from hell.

    1. I think part of the confusion comes when there’s attempts to impose value. This often doesn’t (can’t?) map 1:1 with people’s experiences.

      Increasingly, I’m coming to think of Open Badges as a kind of currency with ‘exchange value’. That can’t be set by someone thinking very hard in a corner office somewhere. 😉

  3. Doug,

    Good post. I think those are three perceived problems among believers.

    The much bigger issue the community faces is fear and mistrust. This is especially true in the Teacher Badge were for some reason I can’t explain badging has been defined as part of the larger corporate accountability based ed rrform movement.

    I have seen many people who fight for public education (at least in the US) bemoan badges at part of a secret plot to destroy schools. Not sure where this misconception developed but we need to face it head on.

    1. Greg,

      Assuming an association between badging and competency-based education, critiques of CBE may explain the anxiety.

      From a revision of a talk I gave at the 2nd International Workshop on Open Badges In Education at Marist College:

      “Moreover, competence-based models used in professional training may prove disempowering by providing means to regulate and deprofessionalize those whose professional knowledge in the past endowed them with a measure of authority and autonomy.

      Researchers in the UK who have looked, for example, at competence-based training for teachers have found that a key change in teacher training associated with a competency approach is that courses in education foundations, like those in philosophy and sociology, have been jettisoned, “arguably,” according to Beck (2013), “cut[ting] students off from forms of understanding that might give them access to competing conceptions of the appropriate character of professions and professionalism.” “For this reason,” Beck (2013) continues, “and because this specific ‘project’ can be plausibly seen as part of a much wider set of policies designed to disempower relatively autonomous workers’ organizations (professions and trade unions) whilst greatly empowering managerial cadres, these initiatives arguably amount to ‘coercive de-professionalization’ …” (Beck, 2013, 181; original emphasis). Under this regime, teachers are subjected to “a technical mode of control over expertise, and… a technician model for the role and status of the practitioner” (Jones & Moore, 1993, 391), that goes along with
      methods for monitoring work and assessing performance in our “audit culture” (Shore & Wright, 2000; Shore, 2008).”


      Beck, John. (2013). “Powerful Knowledge, Esoteric Knowledge, Curriculum Knowledge.” Cambridge Journal of Education, 43, 177-193.

      Jones, Lynn, Rob Moore. (1993). “Education, Competence and the Control of Expertise.” British Journal of Sociology of Education, 14, 385-397.

      Shore, Chris. (2008). “Audit Culture and Illiberal Governance: Universities and the Politics of Accountability.” Anthropological Theory, 8, 278-298.

      Shore, Chris, Susan Wright. (2000). “Coercive Accountability.” Pp. 57-89 in Marilyn Strathern (ed.), Audit Cultures: Anthropological Studies in
      Accountability, Ethics and the Academy. New York: Routledge, 2000.

  4. I was interested by your comments on motivation. Open badges are often presented as a motivator for learning, but I have started to de-emphasise that aspect. In the past I have blogged on this ( ) and I concluded that there is a danger that the badge collecting can overshadow the learning. Some students with a particular mind set become badge collectors rather than learners. IMHO the solution is to construct a badge system which maintains the focus on the learning. I am hoping to achieve this by writing robust criteria (competencies) for the badges and organizing the badges into developmental progressions. If the badges are positioned at zones of proximal development then they should lead the students on a learning path rather than simply cap off an achievement. Keeping the focus on learning.
    Still need to think about this more though.

    1. Thanks Grant, definitely agree with your comment that the trick is to construct a badge system that maintains the focus on the learning.

      Your badges will be aces. Not all of them will. But because there’s evidence and criteria built-in, the best ones will float to the top!

  5. Doug,

    Found this really interesting and helpful, as I’m new to badges. I initially stumbled upon them a couple of months ago due to wanting to create something to support school refusers who won’t get the full range of traditional certificates at the end of Year 11- badges and other online learning seem in general to fill a void our current system lacks- especially for those not able or wanting to be taught within the traditional classroom setting.
    Almost everyone I talk to haven’t heard of badges so often the three questions you list are the ones mentioned.
    As I slowly get my head round the concept, I am starting to think- certainly for what I want from them initially anyway, that it’s not about motivation but more recognition for doing something (hopefully positive) and a way to show this off to others just in the way a student might wear a physical badge of their favourite band.

    Doesn’t percieved quality and value stem from the user and or future employer, not the designer/issuer?- if the badge is gained as a result of doing ‘something’ (a new skill, module, volunteering..) the students I have spoken to have said they would value it and see it worth doing.
    Ultimately our current GCSE’s and A Levels seem to come under fire every year with questions over quality and value- is this any different to the questions about badges?

  6. Great post Doug.

    The aspect of quantity and quality often gets raised whenever I talk about badges. The point I make is that for a primary school pupil they will display badges that a high school pupil wouldn’t. Likewise I have badges that I don’t display – I was awarded one for signing up for the Open Badge Passport for example.

    The fact is that, in the same way that someone would not list all their certificates, one would only display relevant and higher quality badges.

    1. Hi Bob, absolutely agree. The fact that the learner has much finer-grained control over what to show should be a gamechanger!

  7. Hi Doug, thanks for this post.

    I really like David Wiley’s points about quality and OERs, and agree they apply equally well to badges. I think Timothy Freeman Cook makes good points about motivation and badges here, where he says “Let us not use badges as a tool for motivation, but as a tool for way-finding and archiving.”


    That leaves value. You say: “Literally anyone can issue a badge for anything.” I’m certainly not an expert on badges and am happy to be corrected; but doesn’t this cause a problem for value? Taking money as an analogy, if you imagine a country where anyone can issue their own new currencies, sellers are going to have a hard time when a buyer approaches them making an offer with a new, unfamiliar currency. We might say the seller would have a problem knowing the value of one of these new currencies.

    As I understand them, Open Badges aren’t a currency, but a way of issuing new currencies. In a corporate environment, I can certainly see how badges issued by corporation X would be valuable within that corporation. There are a few risks for the employee – for example, how can they be sure that their hard-earned badges are going to be valued by the corporation in five years’ time?

    But the bigger problem is when we expect badges earned within corporation X to be valued out in the wider world. This comes into relief when we imagine two job applicants using badges on their CVs. One has a badge for Python which they earned from a training scheme within corporation X. Another has a badge for Python from corporation Y. How does the employer reading these CVs know the value of these badges? Were they easy to get? Difficult?

    The answer I expect an Open Badge proponent to say is “Check the metadata behind the badges – it’s all there.” That’s fine for two applicants, but it’s easy to see this becoming impractical. Say the OBI really takes off and we’ve got 10 applicants, each with 10 badges earned within their respective corporations. A busy employer probably isn’t going to check the metadata for all those badges.

    I’m going to compare apples and oranges here, but indulge me for a minute. Say the 10 candidates all have degrees in Computer Science. The employer can quickly value those degrees based on the degree class, the reputation of the institution, and so on.

    Degree certificates are crude instruments, where badges are fine grained. Both useful in their own way. But badges do have a problem with value, I think, and it’s precisely because anyone can issue them. Not so the Computer Science degrees.

    Thanks again, and if you can point me towards any good responses to this, I’d be interested.

    1. Thanks for the considered reply, Nick. 🙂

      I’d humbly suggest that the transaction you describe is mediated by the community and society in which the organisation and individual are situated.

      If we take the current example of the employer looking at a university degree, part of the value of that certification comes from the class of degree, but also the prestige of the institution. The latter isn’t a straight function of league tables, it’s culturally-situated.

      All credentials are proxies for the messy world of learning that we recognise as educators. My excitement around Open Badges stems from the fact that they better proxies than what we’ve currently got.

      We use “a degree from Oxford Unversity” as a giant proxy for other skills and abilities. In a similar way, a well-designed badge is a proxy for a much smaller and defined range of skills and abilities. Over time, certain badges will carry increased exchange value in particular sectors.

      When you think about it, degree certificates have had centuries to become trusted credentials. We’re doing pretty well with badges after only a few years…

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