A “perfect storm” is accelerating the pace of change in education at both the K-12 and higher education levels.

A “perfect storm” is accelerating the pace of change in education at both the K-12 and higher education levels. Stimulated by technologies that are ever more powerful, more available and less expensive, as well as new standards, global competition, increasing costs, more and better data on student learning and other substantial forces, we are now “flipping classrooms,” personalizing instruction based on data, and increasing the use of online courses and open educational resources. Plus, the investments being made in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) with the intent to make high quality learning experiences available to remarkable numbers of students at an incredibly low cost per student promise to create and share new tools to scaffold peer-to-peer support as well as self and peer assessment. Remarkable improvements in how we educate learners of all ages seem inevitable, but we can’t stop there. As we say goodbye to “old school” instructional practices, let’s also reinvent the report card, transform the transcript and “disrupt the diploma” (Hoffman, 2013).

Replacing Obsolete Tools

Let’s face it. The tools we use to describe student learning are obsolete.  Diplomas, transcripts and report cards were all developed when paper and pencil calculations were the norm and before calculators and computers were available. The teacher’s “grade book” kept a list of scores but few assessments that were given due to the time and effort needed to review work and record and summarize the associated scores. These scores were summarized and communicated to parents and other educators, only a few times each year, because great effort was required. Educators dreaded the end of a “reporting period” because of the workload involved in summarizing scores, communicating them to parents and then facing parents who may have been surprised by the grades they saw. We have been providing information, but too little, and often too late.

In Megatrends, John Naisbitt (1982) pointed out that when a new technology emerges it is first used to do a job that already exists better, faster or cheaper, but that after a while people wonder what the new technology makes possible that was not possible before, and begin applying it in a more transformative way. This has been true in education, as computers first were used to deliver instruction and to automate the teacher’s grade book. Now technologies are making new approaches possible, including personalized instruction and better ways to document and display progress. We no longer need to settle for summary “grades” designed to sort the recipients into categories and reported infrequently.

Introducing Digital Badges

When describing learning, grades mask the detail about what students know and don’t know, and can and cannot do. The semester-end grades people care most about are used to describe large bundles of learning outcomes, and anyone viewing a grade doesn’t know what the student whose grade is lower than an “A” is missing. Grades often include factors like attendance or class participation rather than exclusively reflecting the content and/or skill under study, therefore grades often misrepresent a learner’s capabilities. “Grades” are best reserved for finished products, like steaks or eggs (Large, Grade AA). With the technologies now readily available, we can replace grades with “Digital Badges.”

Unlike the badges of the past, today’s digital badges are far more than a pretty picture that represents an accomplishment. Digital badges are “clickable” computer-based images that display lots of important information when clicked.

Digital badges display:

  • the “issuer” (the organization or person who awarded the badge), often with a link back to the issuer’s website
  • the name of the badge
  • a description of the badge
  • the criteria for earning the badge
  • a link to the evidence submitted to earn the badge (optional)
  • a link to the rubric, test or other evaluation methods used (optional)
  • a date issue
  • an expiration date (optional), and
  • a standard to which the badge might be related (i.e. Common Core, ISTE, ABET, etc.) (optional)

What this means is that with a few clicks it is possible to understand what the learner did to earn the badge, to see the work done to earn it and to understand how the work was evaluated.

Assessing the Potential and Challenges

This transparency has the potential to change education in very meaningful ways.

Digital Badges have the potential to:

  • cause educators to think deeply about what they value, what they teach and how they evaluate it, thereby improving the quality of teaching and learning
  • encourage the adoption of competency-based models of education, which generally hold what is learned constant while allowing the time allocated to learn to vary and learners multiple attempts to demonstrate learning
  • promote the adoption of personalized approaches to learning
  • describe learning that takes place both in schools and outside of schools recommendations on what to learn next and perhaps a list of badges recommended to be completed by a certain milestone that have yet to be earned
  • transform the transcript from a cryptic, static document with very little information into a dynamic display of accomplishments that can summarize lifelong learning
  • disrupt the diploma, making it at first less valuable and then ultimately obsolete, and
  • better serve students, educators, parents and employers.

It may help to think of digital badges not as a badges, but as elements of a “micro-certification” approach, since they record and certify levels of accomplishment for each learning outcome deemed important enough to report and make the accomplishment instantly visible to students, educators, parents and potential employers.

The downside is that creating all of the badges needed to describe what we care about in K-12 education or even within a single degree program at a college or university will require a lot of work. For each badge we need to define the criteria for earning the badge and develop good ways of measuring each criterion. It’s a lot of work, but the payoff is huge. Students will know what we expect of them, and experience with well-developed rubrics shows that when educators get specific and share that specificity with learners, learners meet or exceed expectations.

But defining the badges requires up front work, and conducting the numerous assessments might seem like a daunting challenge. Where do we find the time to do all of the assessments, let alone allow students to repeat any assessments they don’t master on the first attempt? Knowledge-level outcomes can often be tested and scored via computer-based tests, and the resulting badges can be automatically stored in a database and communicated to the appropriate parties in meaningful graphical displays that indicate progress made and progress yet to come — without requiring time or energy from the teacher or professor. Higher order outcomes, like the ability to write well and for different purposes, the ability to think critically and creatively, and the ability to serve as a high-functioning member of a team, will need to be assessed by a skilled teacher and/or by peers who are trained and supported in the process by a well-structured rubric.

Re-Placing Teachers

Teachers and professors are likely to spend more time in assessment than they have in the past, but because technologies also are able to deliver recorded lectures, simulations, animated representations of complex concepts and lessons on demand, they can free up the time teachers now spend on presenting information. The “flipped classroom” model in which learners watch lessons at home and engage in discussions, work on exercises, and receive help from peers and teachers while at school is demonstrating how this can work.

Unlike the “stickers” teachers use to motivate students, digital badges signify and describe well-documented accomplishments, which can be revealed, in detail, with the click of a mouse. The information age tools that now are ubiquitous have enabled “micro-certification” or “micro-credentialing,” as opposed to semester based “macro-reporting” of large chunks of learning. This is a sleeping giant in the educational reform movement. The combination of digital badges and open educational resources (free Internet content, like the Khan Academy), emerging tools for scaffolding peer-to-peer support (like Piazza.com) and new tools for scaffolding assessment make me very optimistic about the future of teaching and learning. These technologies will not replace teachers, but they will re-place them (Peck, 2012), elevating them to a role that involves knowing and supporting students, conducting high quality assessments and helping learners develop higher-order skills.



Hoffman, R. (2013, September 16). Disrupting the Diploma

Naisbitt, J. (1982). Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives. New York, NY: Warner Books.

Peck, K. (2012). “Re-placing Educators: How Innovation is Changing the Teaching Role.”

Dr. Kyle L. Peck is a Professor of Education, Principal Investigator for the NASA Aerospace Education Services Project, and Co-Director of the Center for Online Innovation in Learning at Penn State University. He studies and applies innovations in education, and his current interests include Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and digital badges in education. Before coming to Penn State, he taught middle school for seven years and was involved in corporate training for five years. Dr. Peck earned Ph.D. and M.Ed. degrees from the University of Colorado and a bachelor’s degree and teaching credential from Occidental College.