Award, share, verify: Why ‘edubadges’ are the future of certification in online education

by Mindel van de Laar

I’m involved in an exciting pilot project on ‘Open Educational Badging’ – and I must admit that it’s scary because I barely understand ICT, especially coding. Still, the participants in the ‘Evidence-Based Research Methods’ (EPRM) programme that I direct will be awarded online badges that can be linked to their social network profiles, and show that they successfully completed the courses.

You may wonder how an ICT-averse person like me ends up in an ICT-innovative educational pilot programme. I guess it’s my drive to innovate within educational programmes that made that happen, rather than the ICT element per se. Innovation aimed to be beneficial for my students, mainly because EPRM is a programme designed for mid-career professionals that does not fit a regular format. We realise that those professionals cannot easily quit their jobs for three months to join a training course abroad, so we developed the programme in a blended format, with two modules in Maastricht and three modules online. For these programmes to work well, we need to stay on the frontline of development, including online learning development. When the question came if I wanted to join the pilot, run by SURF – the Dutch organisation for ICT cooperation in Education and Research – and see if we can grant badges to our EPRM participants, I didn’t hesitate. If there’s value for students, that’s all that matters.

But why should students care at all about ‘edubadges’? After all, we already offer them paper certificates upon completion, so what’s the added value of an online edubadge? It turns out there are several advantages of digital badges compared to paper certificates. First of all, badges allow participants to communicate their completion in a way that’s verifiable on their social network, without having to share papers. Each open badge contains all the metadata about a student’s achievement within the badge itself. Open badges can be shared between online portfolios, and if students earn badges from more than one place, they can keep them all together.

Translating to our specific EPRM pilot project, EPRM accounts for five modules. All can be obtained within one cycle of the programme, but participants can choose to spread the workload over three years. If each module is awarded with a badge, the profile of the participant will display their advancement within EPRM without having to complete the whole course. In addition, open badges are more transparent than paper certificates, as they link back more easily to the issuer of the credential (our institute) and to any relevant standards. Papers can be printed, copied or falsified; the ‘valorisation’ of the badge is built within the badge-issuing software. And although educational organisations do not issue the badge themselves, they certainly endorse the knowledge and skills represented by the badge. In future that could mean that all employers that found our EPRM programme useful can endorse our EPRM badges, and participants aiming to work at one of those places would know that there is value for them in enrolling.

Moving beyond the benefits for our own institutional participants, the value of edubadges could be even greater for students who are unable to pay for our programmes. Dutch universities generally support open access because science is not a luxury good and should not be available only to those studying at well-endowed schools. As per the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right… to share in scientific advancement and its benefits”. With open access journals, open access repositories, open access software, and now edubadges, educators and researchers can make the output of higher education much more accessible to a much wider audience. It’s not hard to imagine that open badges have a more important use for students who are unable to pay for certified courses and still need accreditation/acknowledgement for their online learning activities and the skills they’ve mastered. From another angle, sending paper certificates to less developed regions can be both time-consuming and costly, as these certificates do not always reach their intended recipient. Extending online badge provision to our open access education could be a great way to increase the use of edubadges; in fact, we’re working on a project to integrate badges in our open access ‘Community of Learning for African’ PhD students.

Early on, inspired by the drive and enthusiasm of Ilse Sistermans at Maastricht University library, I was ready to go full speed ahead. But in a pilot, this is easier said than done. Institutions had to be aligned, we had to learn how to create and provide badges, and we had to think about all the administrative steps to ensure the badges create and maintain their value. We also know that within government ICT activities, most projects tend to take longer than planned, and costs are often higher than anticipated (Niels Groen, 2015). A small-scale pilot serves us well as it informs us on all the hurdles there are to clear (and there have been several already). But we are moving forward towards the milestone of issuing our first badge. At this point we designed online, open badges (both the visual, as well as descriptive backend of the badge) and we got the design approved by both Maastricht University and United Nations University. Our next step is to offer these badges to our online course participants, in particular the group that completed their courses in the period January-April 2019. On 18 July 2019, we successfully awarded the first badges to our pilot participant Agata Petrelli. This took us about four hours and a lot of patience from both Agata, the SURF support team and the EPRM team. And now we will roll out to all participants, slotted to take place this summer. With a bit of perseverance this should be feasible. Once that milestone is reached, all participants in EPRM will be offered the option of a badge for every module they complete.

Apply for our next Evidence-Based Research Methods course by 15 August 2019.

More information about our Community of Learning for Africa (CoLA) can be found here.

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