The History of Using Badges in the Classroom


A badge- or micro credential, as it is sometimes called-is a digital certification which is awarded to indicate an individual’s competence or mastery in a particular skill set. It is an online record of achievements that displays records of both the credential issuer, as well as the work that was actually completed to get them. As a progress tracking and signaling system, micro-credentials are gaining traction in education since they offer a promising approach to personalized, competency-based learning. More schools are beginning to see the bright side in assessing students based on achievements in specific tasks instead of the traditional grades awarded generally. But where did the concept of badging come from? 

The badging system has its historical foundations in various symbols dating as far as humans have existed. This can be seen from many of the paintings and carvings discovered in the caves of early men. The hieroglyphics of Egypt are also examples of how symbols have been used to express certain accomplishments, events, milestones, etc in times past. This would later metamorphose into physical badges, a concept that is used by many groups across the world. Military forces of various countries communicate rank and position by awarding badges to deserving officers. The boys’ scout and girls’ scouts also use merit badges in pretty much the same way.

The idea of micro-credentials grew out of the “digital badging” movement led primarily by the Mozilla and MacArthur foundations. But the badging system has come a long way from its humble beginnings. Thanks to technology, the use of badges have become digital and now cover a wider spectrum. Today, digital badges are also called micro credentials, but, even in their digital form, they have gone through series of metamorphosis.

Badges, as they are today, can be said to have been inspired by game trends. They started out as a major component of most games, awarded to players on completion of certain tasks or levels. A vivid depiction of this is when Microsoft, in 2005, introduced the Xbox 360 Gamerscore system. It was widely accepted as the original implementation of an achievement system. Since then, other organizations have continued to appreciate the importance and benefits of the badging system. For instance, Foursquare and Huffington post use badges to reward users for accomplishing certain tasks. Educators, community groups, corporations, and other professional organisations have started implementing the badging system. Badges are fast evolving into the go-to assessment technique, seeing that they provide an easier, reliable and more efficient way of rewarding participants for mastered skills and milestones.

One sector that has had a lot of discussions concerning the badging system is the education sector. From the k-12 to higher educational institutions, stakeholders are becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of squeezing a particular student into the grades box of A or B or C. More stakeholders are recognizing the benefits of implementing the badging system where a student is recognized for each skill, ability, and interest.

This is a reflection of the position adopted by a large number of education experts.

In 2007, Eva Baker, the President of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), gave the presidential address at their annual conference on the need to develop merit-badge-like “qualifications” that certify accomplishments, not through standardized tests, but as “an integrated experience with performance requirements.” Such a system would apply to learning both in and out of school and support youth to develop and pursue passionate interests. Baker envisioned youth assembling “their unique qualifications to show to their families, to adults in university and workforce, and to themselves.” Ultimately, baker believed “the path of qualifications shifts attention from schoolwork to usable and compelling skills, from school life to real life.”

The cumulative strength of these and similar positions helped to promote the awareness and acceptance of badging. One of the events that revolutionized badging was championed by Basno, a digital badge service provider. In 2010, they launched a platform which made it possible for users to create and collect badges for a wide range of individual accomplishments. The response to this was so phenomenal that it marked a departure from the existing perception of badges as mere game features. It shed light on the learning benefits of creating and collecting badges and before long, many instructional sites incorporated it into their learning programs.

By September of 2011, Arne Duncan, who was Secretary of Education at the time, announced the launch of the HASTAC/MacArthur foundation badges for lifelong learning competition. According to him, badging had immense potential for learning as it “can help engage students in learning and broaden the avenues for all learners or all ages, to acquire and to demonstrate as well as document and display their skills. Badges can help speed the shift from credentials that simply measure seat time to ones that more accurately measure competency, and we must do everything we can to accelerate that transition. It can also help to account for both formal and informal learning and in a variety of different settings.” The initiative received funding from the MacArthur foundation and the Gates foundation, and was administered by HASTAC. In March of 2012, it awarded funds to thirty organisations.

The Mozilla foundation became a key player in the promotion of badging when, in 2011, they published a report highlighting the strong points of the system and advocating for an open badge system framework. In the same year, that framework was created in conjunction with the MacArthur foundation. The result is what is known today as the Open Badges project ( The initiative was focused on promoting “informal learning, breaking down education monopolies and fuelling individual motivation”, a departure from the traditional grades system practiced in schools. By 2012, acceptance had increased yet again, with the Mozilla foundation partnering with the City of Chicago to launch the Chicago Summer Of Learning (CSOL), an initiative aimed at engaging young people during the summer break. That initiative would later go from being state-wide to becoming nationwide.

By 2013, over 1,450 organizations were issuing open badges, with locations beyond the United States such as, Australia, United Kingdom, China, and Italy.

In 2014, a network of organizations and individuals, brought together by Mozilla, was called the Badge Alliance. Their goal was to build the open badging ecosystem and advance the open badges specification. This network included over 650 organizations from six continents. Fast forward to 2015 and the badge alliance had expanded to become a part of collective shift, a non-profit devoted to redesigning social systems for a connected world. In the same year, IMS global learning consortium announced plans to adopt open badges as an interoperable standard for credentials. In other words, it would create validity for each badge across multiple platforms. This would in turn encourage widespread adoption of badges in education specifically. On the 1st of January, 2017, open badges transitioned officially to the IMS global learning consortium.

The badging movement continues to gather momentum, generating steady conversation among various professional groups. Today, hundreds of educational institutions, programs and organizations (such as Digital Promise) have started to issue open badges, representing the breadth and variety of the ecosystem. 

WORKING on their Robotics 1 badge.  

WORKING on their Robotics 1 badge.