Use Digital Badges to Scaffold and Guide Student Learning

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Traditionally, student learning has been recognized and stored through the official transcript. However, transcripts are limited to credit hour instruction and formal learning. Digital badges are a form of digital credentialing that recognizes learning in a range of learning environments and often smaller increments of learning. They have become increasingly popular as a way of recognizing and displaying learning in all contexts from K-12 to higher education to industry.

Digital badges are being used for learning that does not display on a transcript. Ideally, digital badges are designed using the Open Badges technical standard so that the all systems are able to talk to one another and the badge can be ported between and displayed on different systems. Learners who earn digital badges are more engaged in their learning and have an enhanced portfolio of digital records (Leaser, 2019). There are many benefits to digital badges for students but perhaps the one with the highest potential impact is that the metadata and information linked within the badge helps to provide the assessment and validation of the badge (Abramovich, 2016). Employer acceptance of digital badges is consistently increasing, as they are a way for employers to validate specific skills they may be looking for in applicants (ICDE, 2019).

Digital badges can be used in all learning environments from credit courses to informal learning to student groups or self-directed learning. They are flexible in their implementation, but thinking about the goal of the digital badge and the robust nature of the design is important. There is criticism that exists around the value of a digital badge, but the design and intention can do a lot to mitigate this concern.

Digital badges are a frequent talking point when consulting with other institutions and a brief search will show that many others are thinking about how digital badges are being used. For specific guidance on how others can think about using digital badges in a similar way, a technical report was written by the authors of this repository example.

Briefly, to implement a similar strategy at your institution you need to think about what partners you need to include in the conversation from the very beginning as well as what specific learning models and data points will inform the design of your badges. This teaching model assumes that you have already selected a digital badge platform and are aware of Open Badges requirements. As you begin to implement your designed digital badges, you need to plan for three different levels of adoption: lower than expected, expected, and higher than expected. Considering these levels allows you to think about scale before you need to and prompts you to consider multiple paths to implementation and adoption.

It is a great idea to start small, pilot test, and involve your end learners from the very beginning of badge creation. This will allow you to iterate quickly and launch a badging effort and then improve on your initial launch. When thinking about a pilot, make sure that you consider any necessary assessment or data collection to inform your decisions. If you have more specific questions about launching a badging program, you can always reach out to us directly at and


At Penn State, digital badges are used heavily to engage students in learning information literacy concepts. Emily Rimland and Victoria Raish are the librarians who lead the digital badging effort at Penn State. Students earn the badges as part of their course and instructors can choose from one of fifteen badges to incorporate. There is no required credit instruction course for information literacy at Penn State so using badges allows us to incorporate information literacy instruction in many different class modes.

We use the badges:

  • In face-to-face instruction either to replace a library instruction session or to flip the classroom (students complete the badge before coming to an in-person session).
  • In online instruction to engage with students and provide personalized feedback as they learn about library services as well as information literacy concepts.

We manually evaluate the badges and have trained a group of between 12 and 16 librarians to also evaluate student work with the inclusion of grading rubrics for consistent evaluation. Our badges were designed with Connectivism in mind and we focus heavily on prior knowledge and application of transfer to other contexts.

Since we launched the badging program, we have issued over 4,600 badges to students in over 100 course sections, with over 18,000 steps evaluated by 16 librarians.  Our most recent effort was a pilot with English 015, Rhetoric and Composition which is taken in the first year of undergraduate education, where students in 12 sections of this class earned two badges each. When we tie the badges to a classroom, we create a badging group, provide students with a direct URL, provide a video guide for what to expect, add the badges to the group, and establish communication with the students. Additional instructions are provided through their learning management system. The system we use is open source and you can review our badges by logging in with a Gmail, Facebook, or Twitter account. We have a group that showcases our information literacy badges and a page to describe them in more detail, including our mapping to Bloom’s taxonomy.

Assessment and Feedback

Students and faculty have participated in surveys and focus groups in relation to our digital badges. We have repeat customers and students report learning a fair amount from our digital badges. It is hard to summarize our results as we run different surveys based on the badges that the class selects. In faculty focus groups, comments focus on the improved source selection for student papers and less questions around the need for citations. Below is a description from the instructor focus group:

Overall, the results from the survey were very positive. This is in alignment with an in-person debrief we held with a smaller subset of this faculty. Instructors felt that the badges worked best when they were tied to class work (and thus, selected by the instructor), and the instructors at the debrief expressed that they would like an approach in which the badges were spaced out prior to assignments in a flipped classroom or blended learning model that could include in-person instruction.

Link to example artifact(s)

Link to scholarly reference(s)

ICDE Working Group. (2019). The present and future of alternative digital credentials (ADCs).

Extra Resources

Alexander, J. H., & Neill, S. (2018). The psychosocial impact of NHS digital badges on a  school-aged cohort. Journal of Child Health Care 22(4), 619-630.

Carey, K. L., & Stefaniak, J. E. (2018). An exploration of the utility of digital badging in higher education settings. Educational Technology Research and Development, 66(5), 1211-1229.

Coleman, J. D. (2018). Engaging undergraduate students in a co-curricular digital badging digital badging platform. Education and Information Technologies, 23(1), 211-224.

Mah, D. K. (2016). Learning analytics and digital badges: Potential impact on student retention   in higher education. Technology, Knowledge, & Learning, 21(3), 285-305.

Rodgers, A. R., & Puterbaugh, M. (2017). Digital badges and library instructional programs: Academic library case study. Journal of Electronic Resources Librarianship, 29(4), 236- 244.

Ziegler, A. (2019). Framework + digital badges = online instruction for today. Journal of Library & Information Services in Distance Learning, 13(1-2).


Raish, V., & Rimland, E. (2020). Use digital badges to scaffold and guide student learning. In A. deNoyelles, A. Albrecht, S. Bauer, & S. Wyatt (Eds.), Teaching online pedagogical repository. Orlando, FL: University of Central Florida Center for Distributed Learning.

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