Girl and Boy Scouts demonstrate life skills and perform service activities in pursuit of merit badges. Military personnel earn badges of honor with acts of valor. Employees may receive ID badges with additional privileges or access when they are promoted. Even today’s fitness trackers provide badges for steps taken and miles logged.
But what about badges earned for training? Do they really encourage learning?
The popular consensus among both experts and corporate organizations these days seems to be, “Yes,” but they also offer a few caveats, along with a plethora of suggested best practices (see sidebar on p. 23).
“When used effectively in conjunction with other content elements, badging can encourage learning through sparking interest and motivating or engaging learners,” says Chrys Ennis, senior manager, New Technology, Learning & Development, Training Top 10 Hall of Famer Verizon Wireless. “To be effective, badging strategies need to have meaning and fit within the context of and framework of the learning experience.”
Dr. Ginger Malin, founder and EVP of Business Development at BadgeCert, points to several things badging does that encourages learning:
It helps provide feedback to learners that they have completed the work necessary to pass to the next level.
It helps learners visually and conceptually see the goal they want to attain.
It provides a meaningful “carrot” that acknowledges current accomplishments and incentivizes future accomplishments.
It provides a vehicle for learners to display their accomplishment for their social community/network to see and, thus, encourages the desire to accomplish more.
It helps learners to visually see how they may compare to others in a common learning environment.
Furthermore, notes Jonathan Finkelstein, founder and CEO of Credly, badging encourages learning “by mapping a clear pathway for students, members, and employees to understand where they have been and where they are headed on their lifelong learning journey. Badges enable learners to better articulate what it is they are learning by providing precise information—in the form of badge metadata— related to the skill demonstrated or knowledge acquired. In doing so, digital badges empower individuals with language to better advocate for themselves.”
Finally, Finkelstein says, badges operationalize skills by making learners discoverable and promotable. “As individuals notice that their opportunities increase with each earned badge, they are motivated to earn more. Badges that unlock new and better opportunities are inherently motivational.”
Badging in Action
More and more organizations these days are incorporating badges into their training programs.
Training Top 10 Hall of Famer IBM issues digital badges in every area of its business through about 1,000 activities, according to David Leaser, senior program executive, Innovation and Growth Initiatives, IBM Support Transformation, Skills and Globalization. “We have issued badges to nearly half a million people in 178 countries, which has allowed us to create a consolidated global skills registry,” he says. “In the past, separate silos of data resided in learning management system (LMS) databases; now we can create a single learning record for an individual, regardless of where he or she received the learning. Our digital badges have generated nearly 100 million social media impressions as digital badges trickle into LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter every hour of every day.”
In addition, Leaser says, “we have seen significant increases in online learning from Open Badges. In our Big Data University, student enrollments increased by 129 percent, and our end-of-course assessments increased by 694 percent. One year into the program, students attending our online Big Data University had returned to earn an average of three digital badges.”
Samsung Electronics UK & Ireland managed to boost its course completions by 181 percent using the badge system built into a version of Totara LMS provided by City & Guilds Kineo (https://www.totaralms.com/case-studies/samsung-electronics-uk-ireland), according to Doug Belshaw, Open Badges specialist at Totara. “This rewards users for their engagement by emphasizing product knowledge and unlocking access to competitions,” he notes. “Open Badges are issued for completing learning modules and passing quizzes, as well as other actions such as users completing their learner profile.”
A learner’s most recent badge is displayed on his or her homepage, with the full haul of badges available just a click away in the person’s personalized learning space. In addition to significantly improved course completions, the new site saw a 35 percent increase in page views, and an 85 percent increase in pages viewed per visit, Belshaw says.
Training Top 10 Hall of Famer Jiffy Lube International is tying electronic certificates/badges in line with the American Council on Education (ACE) college credits for training milestones in Jiffy Lube University (JLU). “Once learners reach a level, they receive the e-mail with congratulations and the electronic badge, which they can save or share on social media platforms with family, friends, or even prospective employers,” says Learning and Development Manager Kenneth Barber. “In our case, they also receive a link to ACE, where they can go to secure a college transcript reflecting the college credits they have earned, along with information about other milestones where credits can be earned. We believe this adds to the positive feedback with tangible ways to use the electronic certificate or to secure ACE credits for their work.”
Booz Allen Hamilton, another Training Top 10 Hall of Famer, incorporated badging into its Tech Tank program. “The badging/gamification component incentivized and motivated participants to take additional training on their own time,” says Elise Alexo, Functional Learning specialist, Booz Allen Hamilton. “Additionally, badging incorporated a competitive spirit into the program as participants of the Tech Tank program were in teams against each other to earn the most badges/points. Incorporating badging into an overall program (combined with mentoring, certification, social networking, functional activities, etc.) helped to make the program, and the training within, effective. It encouraged staff to go above and beyond with their learning, rather than just completing the mandatory requirements.”
For organizations looking to add badging to their training repertoire, there are some questions to be asked and technology decisions to be made.
Totara’s Belshaw notes, “Although a plethora of terms such as digital credentials, microcredentials, and digital badges are used almost interchangeably, those that have real currency are based on the Open Badges specification. This originally was developed by Mozilla, best known for the Firefox Web browser. Recently, this work has been handed over to IMS Global Learning Consortium to steward.”
When getting started with badging, he says, organizations should look for solutions that tie in with this open, interoperable solution. “One option is to develop an entirely bespoke approach that ties in with your existing systems,” he explains. “This is a good approach for those who have an army of developers on-hand.”
A second option, he says, is to use plug-ins that are available for a range of open-source platforms such as WordPress, Drupal, Moodle, Joomla, and Totara Learn.
BadgeCert’s Malin offers some questions an organization will want to consider when choosing a badging platform:
- Does the platform include a badge creation and authoring tool?
- Does the platform include open interfaces that can be readily integrated w ith existing credentialing processes?
- Do the digital badges include underlying data describing the accomplishment, or are they easily reproducible static images?
- Can the embedded data fields encapsulate the organization’s requirements and can they be customized to meet other objectives?
- Does the platform track and communicate expiration, as well as cluster continuing education courses that can be leveled up into a certification?
- Does the workflow align with the organization’s volume and frequency requirements?
- How is the digital badge profile to be shared and communicated to both the issuer and the industry?
- Does the platform track badge analytics such as “clicks” and sharing?
Many badging systems have additional features such as leveling, points and leaderboards, notes Verizon Wireless’ Ennis. Each of these gaming mechanics has its own set of best practices. Layering them on top of badging brings in a significant level of complexity. “If you do use a technology solution, be sure you devote as much effort to getting those elements right as you do to the badging itself,” she says.
Last but not least, “I cannot overstate the value of doing your research and having a trial or pilot to determine if a technology solution is a good fit,” Ennis stresses. “Focus on the level of effort to implement and maintain your badging strategy, as well as the scalability of any tool you’re considering.”
Clearly, just implementing badging is not enough. Organizations need to evaluate whether badging has an impact on training effectiveness and/or employee behavior. But what should they be measuring?
Totara Solutions Consultant Meredith Henson says that by undertaking benchmarking before initiating badges, an organization should be able to measure effectiveness following implementation by tracking items such as:
- Number of optional enrollments (versus non-compulsory training)
- Rate of completions (for non-compulsory training)
- Average course grade/score
- Levels of engagement within social and collaborative activities (number of replies, comments, knowledge sharing, etc.)
- Learner satisfaction rating within course evaluations
Credly’s Finkelstein points out that digital badges generate real-time data for the issuer. “More data means better measurement of performance by training organizations, enabling transparency, accountability, and meritocracy, and provide more visibility into what skills and competencies their employees possess,” he explains. “By virtue of being able to track how the badges are being earned and then used, issuers get feedback about which of their training programs are most in demand, creating a competitive marketplace that enables trainers to focus their efforts where they will be most impactful.”
Verizon Wireless has badging integrated in the classroom and post-class performance, Ennis says. “Our measurement efforts have focused on in-job performance missions as those are both easier to measure and more correlative to operating cost. For these measurements, we focus on measuring groups who have the option to earn a badge vs. those who didn’t during the same time period. We compare the month prior to offering a badge with a coaching intervention to the month when the badge is on offer when coaching on the same behavior also is offered. We quantify the change between before and after, then compare groups with a badge offered vs. the same data for groups with no badge offered.”
Whether or not a team embraces a badging program has as much to do with whether or not their leadership teams actually care about badging and look to it for noting progress and performance, Ennis says. “We saw a 25 percent up tick in utilization of voluntary-use badging tools in our customer service channel when leaders started talking about and recognizing people and teams who earned badges. We’ve since seen similar trends in business sales teams, a group we previously perceived as rejecting badging strategies altogether.”
Leaser says IBM also has seen measurable results from badging in many areas outside training, including:
- Certification: IBM’s Cloud certification rate increased by 67 percent for candidates who finished the recommended badge track to prepare for the certification.
- Product Trials: Product downloads on Big Data University increased by 64 percent.
- Engagement: 87 percent of badge earners say they want a deeper engagement with IBM.
- Employability: 92 percent say badges are valuable to verify job skills.
- Branding: Social media impressions from shared badges have generated millions of dollars in free marketing and publicity for IBM
How Much Is Too Much?
While badging typically is a good thing, most experts agree that organizations need to avoid “overbadging.” Acclaim, for example specifically focuses on professional recognition of achievements valued by employers. From that perspective, it is possible to overbadge, says E. Clarke Porter, vice president of Pearson VUE, which owns Acclaim. “The most claimed and shared badges on our platform are for certifications and learning outcomes that require effort to earn. Less rigorous badges are not valued as highly, either by employers or the badge earners themselves.”
Just like any sought-after reward, badges should offer some form of challenge, says Totara’s Henson. “There isn’t a magic figure for the ideal number of badges as it will depend on the length and structure of each course,” she says. “Remember, there could be a large number of badges even within a short course, but learners may not have the opportunity to earn each of them as a course might have conditional or branching activities, with learners working through an entirely different learning pathway.”
At IBM, Leaser says, “we only badge resume-worthy activities that require an assessment to earn the credential.”
Verizon Wireless’ Ennis agrees that the right fit will be highly variable given the content, delivery method, and culture of the target audience. She recommends basing the number and frequency of badges on the learner experience rather than the importance of a particular piece of content or number of objectives. “Consider how badging will feel within the context of your program,” she says. “Also, make your badging strategy adaptable, get feedback regularly, and iterate until you find the sweet spot.”
Credly’s Finkelstein takes a slightly different stance on overbadging, saying he believes rumors of badge pollution are likely exaggerated. “At their core, digital badges are simply repositories for data, and more data is rarely a problem if we have tools to process it,” he notes. “Badges—like the achievements they represent—do not all carry the same value. Some will be more impactful than others. As organizations are beginning to badge in the first instance, they should be careful to emphasize achievements that themselves carry inherent value first and foremost. Badges are best understood as a technology that unleashes the value of worthy accomplishments.”
More Badge Don’ts
The worst examples of badges are those that are done to learners, says Totara’s Belshaw. Instead of involving them in the design and testing experience, the badge system is created and rolled out without consultation. These badge systems often fail, and, invariably, the organizations blame the technology instead of their lack of research and effort.
Another approach to avoid is the “build it and they will come” mentality, Belshaw says. “Badge systems have to be woven into learning experiences rather than being a bolton or afterthought. The best way to do this is to interview those who have just completed your training or learning experience and ask for their suggestions.”
A third don’t when it comes to badging is to avoid what Belshaw calls “credential apartheid.” This happens when a certain type of credential (e.g., a certificate) is issued for one type of learning or training, and another (e.g., a badge) is issued for another. This leads to devaluing one as a form of “currency,” Belshaw says. “There’s no reason certificates shouldn’t be the offline version of an online badge.”
Don’t expect a miracle, cautions Verizon Wireless’ Ennis. “Badges can motivate and engage, but they aren’t going to magically transform your training program,” she says. “If something is already not working well from a content perspective, badges alone will not solve the problem. They are a strategic tool for a specific purpose: learner engagement and motivation.”
BADGING BEST PRACTICES
David Leaser, senior program executive, Innovation and Growth Initiatives, IBM Support Transformation, Skills and Globalization:
- Develop a solid communication plan with persuasive language.
- Badge issuers must own the relationship with the badge earner in order to communicate the value and increase adoption.
- Build consent (privacy, information sharing) into the activity.
- Provide strong benefits statements (marketing) in the introduction letter to badge earners.
- Follow a template for badge landing pages.
- Add certification/skills paths and recommended next actions into the metadata for all badges.
- Retroactive badging is less successful; limit the time period to 90 days. Make sure badges are delivered immediately after the training event.
- Names are important: Nobody wants a “newbie” badge. “Fundamentals” course badges get better acceptance when they are named “Foundations.”
E. Clarke Porter, vice president, Pearson VUE, which owns Acclaim:
Make sure your badge visual represents your brand and looks great across mobile devices.
While building your badges, keep in mind who the consumer will be and make sure your badges clearly communicate value to that audience. Anyone who views a badge issued by an organization should be able to quickly and easily understand who exactly issued the badge and why the achievement represented by the badge is worthwhile.
It’s also important to clearly communicate the value of claiming and sharing badges to the individuals who will receive them. If your badge earners don’t understand what’s in it for them, they won’t take action and the potential reach of your program—from brand recognition to learning progression—will stop before it really gets started.
Doug Belshaw, Open Badges specialist, Totara:
First, think of the smallest possible badge you can issue that would still have value. People often make learners jump through hoops to claim the smallest of badges.
Second, think about badges in terms of badge pathways. What’s the next step for the learner? What does it lead to?
Finally, think about where badges are going to be displayed. Although badges can be shown off anywhere on the Web and also in apps, there’s usually a “default” display space. How can you help make that a place your learners are proud to link to?
Successful badge systems often include an element of “meta-level” badges, where a certain number of more granular badges roll up into larger ones.
Dr. Ginger Malin, founder and EVP of Business Development, BadgeCert:
- Badging technology works best when the purpose and goals of implementing it are clear, i.e., marketing a program, getting rid of paper, value-add for earners, mitigating risk of expiring certification, etc.
- Appoint an administrator at the organization who is well trained on the system.
- Create clear messaging to earners about why the organization is implementing badging, and clear instructions about how to best utilize the badges.
Chrys Ennis, Senior Manager, New Technology, Learning & Development, Verizon Wireless:
- Most importantly, your badging strategy and the badges themselves must live in your culture. Leaders, trainers, learners, and peers should be talking about them. Badges should be used as a way to show off and a way to ask about progress in conversations.
- Ensure that the badges represent actual achievements that represent real progress within the context of the learner role. If badges are given too often or for trivial or meaningless tasks, then they have no intrinsic meaning.
- Badges should be varied in the level of challenge associated with the knowledge, skills, and abilities required to earn the badge. While some badges may be easy to earn, others should be challenging, and a few should be very difficult. This allows for scarcity and will ensure that learners at all levels are both included and recognized appropriately for their level of mastery.
- Badges should be integrated into the theme or basic structure of your learning event. If they are introduced properly, given at regular intervals, and written into the content in a strategic manner, badges can be seamless rather than distracting.
Jonathan Finkelstein, founder and CEO, Credly:
- Identify your target audience: Trainers should have a clear idea of who will be consuming the credential once it’s earned—that is to say, trainers should ask themselves, “Who cares?” and prioritize the interests of that group or industry in designing the badge itself.
- Work backwards from target audiences and engage stakeholders: Request input from businesses in defining the precise sets of knowledge, skills, and abilities that are most in demand in the given field. Further, seek guaranteed outcomes such as preferential reviews, guaranteed interviews, and even internships and jobs associated with the earning of the credential. Doing so will ensure that the “currency” of the badge has the highest possible exchange rate in the labor market.
- Invest in badge design: Although the badge metadata carries the relevant information related to a particular achievement, the badge image itself makes the first impression and carries the brand of the issuer (or multiple brands in the case of co-branded credentials). An arresting image and a savvy scheme that references a larger program of badges proves more delightful to earners and maximizes marketing impact once shared.
CASE STUDY: VERIZON WIRELESS
By Chrys Ennis, Senior Manager, New Technology, Learning & Development, Verizon Wireless
Verizon Wireless uses badging in our Customer Service New Employee Experience program, a five-week course that starts on the employee’s first day of work and includes periods of integrated call taking. The bulk of the content is instructor-led with an emphasis on hands-on learning and autonomous exploration of tools as a means to successfully complete new processes.
We use the Bunchball Nitro platform augmented with an internal Web app that allows for trainers to award badges in real time. The Web app is a custom API integration we built to augment the marker of completion for badges on the Nitro platform. While trainers have the ability to award badges live, all the accomplishments that have available badges are pre-determined and mapped out in both the trainer’s Web app, and in his or her leader’s materials. This gives trainers control over awarding recognition while ensuring a standardized approach that keeps things true to the badging strategy.
We are currently on our third iteration of the badging strategy. Over time, we have optimized the badging strategy based on feedback from trainers, training content developers, and learners. Some of those optimizations include:
- Refining the tools trainers use to make awarding a badge quicker and more integrated with existing tools.
- Offering fewer badges at less regular intervals. This made the badges more special, less predictable, and more meaningful.
- Integrating the badges awarded with training into the larger culture of badging and recognition that is already in place post-training. This gets the learner’s leadership team more involved, offers real rewards with milestones, and fits into the long-term culture of the company.
When we’ve used badging during our New Employee Experience and Tech New-to-Role training programs, we’ve seen the following learner responses:
- Learners adapt quicker to the idea that not everyone will earn every badge. Failure, coaching, and remediation can be seen as part of the normal learning experience.
- Because badging engages the reward center of the brain, people get interested and sometimes excited about collecting badges or their place on a leaderboard. It can maintain momentum, especially during dry sections of content.
- If badging is part of a highly relatable, novel, or entertaining theme, it can be a source of fun and even bonding for the class. Instead of discussing performance within the serious context of job success, you can discuss performance within the context of climbing a mountain or scoring a goal for your team. A fun, relaxed environment allows our learners to focus on the acquisition of skills without worrying about what it will look like if they fail. This is both more satisfying and motivational for learners.
CASE STUDY: AACEI
The Association for Advancement of Cost Engineering-International (AACEI) is a non-profit association that offers seven certifications, all related to advancement and continued growth in cost management professions. With more than 9,000 worldwide members in 100 countries, AACEI serves total cost management professionals in a variety of disciplines and across all industries.
AACEI faced three significant challenges:
- With a robust international membership base, AACEI needed to reliably mail paper certificates to the intended recipients overseas.
- To maintain its status as the premier professional association in cost engineering, AACEI needed to tap into the power of social networks (i.e., LinkedIn) as a medium for marketing and promoting its credentials and wanted to better understand how its stakeholders used social media to promote themselves.
- AACEI’s key sources of revenue are certification renewals and membership dues, and as such, it needed to find a way to continually engage members and “encourage” them to re-certify in a timely manner.
AACEI worked with BadgeCert to optimize several platform workflows, including a one-click sharing feature to LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter and a customized credential expiration workflow by which badges “gray out” upon expiration and can no longer be shared.
As a result of migrating to digital credentials, AACEI’s certificants now have a reliable way to accept and share their credentials. More than 50 percent of their members chose to opt in to receive a digital credential instead of a paper certificate, says Dr. Ginger Malin, founder and EVP of Business Development at BadgeCert.
Due to the creation of campaigns and videos that help educate its members about the benefits of digital badges and how to appropriately display them on e-mail signatures and LinkedIn, 75 percent of AACEI’s badge earners have shared their badges online.