Learning today happens everywhere – especially on the web and through other new, interactive learning spaces like learning networks, mentorship and peer learning. But there’s been no established credentialing or recognition system to validate and demonstrate skills and achievements acquired outside of conventional academic settings.

Enter the badge, “… a validated indicator of accomplishment, skill, quality or interest…” that can be earned in almost any learning environment. Badges can motivate and support ongoing learning, validate skills and education, help build reputation and confirm knowledge acquisition. What badges to issue and what they will signify will be up to the issuer. Learners and users will decide what badges to accept and share.

The goal of Mozilla’s Open Badges project is to work towards a solution to that problem, by “making it easy to issue, earn and display badges across the web” to help today’s learners expand their career and educational opportunities. Using the Open Badges infrastructure, any organization or community can issue badges backed by their own “seal of approval.”

Learners can then acquire and display badges via the web: on their resume, website, Facebook profile, and so on. Besides making accomplishments visible to employers, teachers and peers, acquiring a sequence of badges can be a challenging motivator towards gaining new competencies, encouraging perseverance and offering reward.

To stimulate creation of “a robust badge ecosystem,” the Digital Media and Learning Competition recently kicked off its Digital Media Learning Competition 4: Badges for Lifelong Learning. Featuring awards from $10,000 to $200,000 with support from the MacArthur Foundation, the Competition is actually two related competitions: a design competition on Badges for Lifelong Learning, and a research competition on Badges, Trophies and Achievements.

The design competition will encourage organizations, learning and assessment specialists, designers and technologists to “create and test working badge systems in the wild.” Collaborators include organizations from NASA to Intel to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, all of which are exploring the potential of badges in their own environments. Badge designers and technologists have an opportunity to work collaboratively with these innovative organizations, or to focus on their own projects. Winners will be announced in January 2012.

The research competition calls for proposals by November 28, 2011 on the topic “Badges, Trophies, and Achievements: Recognition and Accreditation for Informal and Interest-Driven Learning.” More and more learning is taking place in informal and non-institutional contexts like networked knowledge communities, online tutorials and other digital resources. What are the emerging systems, techniques and practices for managing reputation and recognizing learning in these milieus? How do “displays of achievement” in the digital realm look and feel? Both grants and prizes are available.

The Badges for Lifelong Learning blog has a terrific explanation of what badges can represent and how they might function. Blogger Sheryl Grant likes badges to degrees, diplomas, grades, or currency, as well as signaling less quantifiable things like membership, identity and identification, or even love and virtue.

Meanwhile, the blog Planet OpenBadges reports that CBS Moneywatch just called digital badges for learning “a thrilling and much-needed development that could shake up the monopolistic higher-ed world.” If socially recognized as valid, digital badges could undercut colleges by signifying skills and knowledge to employers and others, regardless of whether the holder possesses a college degree.

Whether you’re all for badges or concerned about some of the ramifications, now is the time to join the conversation – if not the competition. Comment and share your impressions, pro and con. Meanwhile, stay tuned for more on badges and their evolving role in education, tutoring and testing. This idea clearly has legs and potential.

Featured image courtesy of Bitcoin.

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