Increase the Fun in Your Courses with Digital Badges

Intro to Badges
A common concern in university courses is student motivation and engagement. There are many approaches to overcoming these issues, including Problem-Based Learning, Experiential Learning, and Service Learning. Game-Based Learning is also gaining popularity. Game-Based Learning incorporates elements of game design like mastering content or skills, overcoming challenges, earning points, and competing with others, into the learning process. Games are exciting, interesting, and motivating in ways that many courses are not.

Badges Defined

Digital badges, which are similar to Boy or Girl Scout merit badges, are a new way to add game-like elements to your course. Essentially, badges are digital artifacts that recognize an individual for learning or mastering a new skill. This could be the result of a formal learning experience, such as taking a university course, or something more informal, such as taking a community education course or belonging to a club, group, or other organization.

Depending on their implementation, badges can serve one or more of five social psychological functions (Antin & Churchill, 2011): goal setting, instruction, reputation, status/affirmation, and group identification. By defining goals for students, badges can motivate students to achieve the goal. Badges also provide instruction about the types of activities and social norms expected, particularly for students new to a field or system. Badges visually convey a student’s reputation within the system and provide information about their skills and expertise. Because badges also serve as a reminder of achievement, they also serve as a personal affirmation of past success, like a trophy on display. Finally, when badges reward a set of shared activities, badge ownership indicates group membership and can create a sense of solidarity among members.


Merit Badges
Photo courtesy Girl Guides of Canada

Many social websites have made use of badges, including Foursquare, Codecademy, and Khan Academy, to motivate users and increase use of the site. Some MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) use badges for recognition and achievement. In many cases, like the social websites, the badges are contained within the system and can only be viewed or shared internally. However, many systems are adopting the Mozilla Open Badges framework that puts the student in control of the badges. The open framework allows the learner to decide which badges to display and how they want to share them. In this way, badges can supplement a traditional resume or portfolio.

Course Implementation

The first step to implementing badges in a course is to define outcomes, goals, or skills that are significant. Many badge systems reward incremental progress rather than only completion, so it is possible to break large goals into smaller milestones. Based on the five social psychological functions, consider including badges that are not tied to mastering specific knowledge or skills. For instance, students could earn a badge for getting started, like submitting a first assignment or demonstrating knowledge of the syllabus and course structure. Badges could also be effective for encouraging and rewarding contributing to the course community, like taking the lead in a group project or being active on a course discussion board or blog.

Once the outcomes have been identified, create the images for the badges. Generally, badges have to be a .png image file. The image files are usually square and range from 150×150 pixels to 260×260 pixels (the final size will depend on the system used to deploy the badges). Be creative with the badge design. Most badge graphics are round, but other shapes, like shields, stars, and award ribbons are common as well. The image can include shapes, icons, photos, and text. Any graphics editing program can be used to create badges, like Adobe Photoshop, Inkscape, or pixlr. It is even possible to build the image on a PowerPoint slide, then save as an image (by right-clicking).

Finally, decide how to deploy and distribute the badges. One of the easiest systems to use is It is a free service that establishes a redemption code for each badge. Students redeem the code to claim the badge. Purdue University is developing Passport, a learning system that demonstrates academic achievement through customizable badges. At the time of this writing, Passport is in beta but looks promising. It includes a badge-builder to create the graphic as well as student tracking to determine who has earned the badge.

In January, 2012, the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center offered its first badge for participating in the Teaching Effectiveness Institute on Teaching in the Digital Classroom. The response was very positive.

badge for intro to badges
Intro to Badges

Non-traditional credentialing, through MOOCs and other means, is gaining popularity. The digital badge movement is part of the overall trend towards more granular and less formal methods of demonstrating competency. It is easy to get started with awarding badges for courses or organizations, and it may even add some fun to the experience!

Note: You have earned your first badge by reading this article! Click here to redeem your badge: (You will need to create a free account to accept the badge.)

Suggested Readings

Educause. (June 11, 2012). 7 Things you should know about badges. Retrieved from

Hickey, D. (October 30, 2012). Introducing digital badges within and around universities. Retrieved from

Mozilla. (2012). What are open badges? Retrieved from

Young, J. (October 14, 2012). Grades out, badges in. Retrieved from


Antin, J., & Churchill, E. (2011). Badges in social media: A social psychological perspective. Paper presented at the CHI 2011, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Retrieved from

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