Landing : Athabascau University

Engaging undergraduate students in a co-curricular digital badging platform

The authors suggest digital badges as a means to "enable and reward self-motivated learning." Using action research to guide the process, an experimental co-curricular badging system was developed as a means to encourage students and help them track learning achievements outside of the classroom. In addition to badging directly impacting students, the university viewed the badging system as one tool to help shape the school culture because students would be engaging in desirable activities to achieve these badges (e.g. fine arts, student leadership, community outreach, etc.). Students complete a reflection assessment (more below) as it relates to a certain badge, and these reflective questions align with university outcomes (e.g. leadership principles). The answers are reviewed by a platform and the student is provided formative feedback. This process is interesting because it includes a group that provides helpful feedback, and this intuitively is not part of a digital badging system. Other implementations are bit more binary, either you acquire or fail to acquire a badge. This structure makes me wonder if badges can be used as a conduit or means to connect people/services etc. within settings? In the end, how many touch points could a digital badge have and with which stakeholders?

The definition of co-curricular badging as used in the paper: using digital micro credentials to encourage and reward student engagement in educational activities outside of the classroom. This definition echoes previous ones where a badge is viewed as a micro credential, and the implementation is similar to past badging systems where a badge is linked to supporting data. Where this badging attempt seems to diverge from previous efforts is that the badge is not awarded for simply participating in, or completing something outside of the classroom, instead a badge is given for reflecting on their co-curricular experiences and learning from them. The intention, to maximize the co-curricular experience by including this reflection piece, helps student connect their co-curricular experience to their overall educational development/experience and rewards skills developed during their co-curricular experiences. In this case, badges are being used more as an assessment tool than a final credential. I think this nuance is important to note since it helps us determine where and how badges may be worthwhile in learning environments, because badges are probably not useful everywhere. Also, the consistent definition of a digital badge as a micro credential should be revisited if it is being used more as an assessment tool in some areas. Especially since others have used badges not just for credential or assessment, but also as markers to highlight learning pathways. I think the definition needs some tuning.

Prior to launching the badging system, the team performed preliminary work reaching out to students to understand their perceptions and how they may interact with a co-curricular badging system. I think this is a great step and is something that has been missing in past implementation attempts. Like other systems analysis and design tasks you would engage with the end users (all stakeholders). The working goal was to create a system that provided internal and external motivation to maximize engagement, a reasons and reward to participate in co-curricular digital badging. Three research questions were developed:

1. Do students require a combination of extrinsic and intrinsic motivators for optimal engagement in a co-curricular digital badging environment?

2. Which kind of motivators (extrinsic vs. intrinsic) are more powerful in motivating co-curricular student engagement?

3. What student perceptions or concerns could potentially prevent or limit their voluntary participation in the digital badging program?

Using a mixed methods approach with student focus groups, the findings showed that students had a slight preference for intrinsically motivating activities which aligned with the hypothesis that students need more than extrinsic motivation to participate in a badging system. Although this exercise bears repeating and perhaps on a larger scale, I think this result should inform designers regarding requirements of a digital badging system. Moreover, the results suggest that extrinsic motivators can entice students into participating in a badging system, but intrinsic motivation is what will sustain their interest in engaging with the badging system. Thus, extrinsic and intrinsic motivation must work together to optimize student engagement with the badging system. To me this may suggest that the absence of intrinsic motivation is a reason for badging systems eventually failing or falling out of favour, thus an obstacle to adoption if nothing is done to understand why users have disengaged with a badging system.

The survey of student focus groups revealed several obstacles and drivers to adoption in no particular order.


1. negative “childish” stereotype connected to the term “badges”, students do not need “stickers” and are not in the Boy Scouts rewarding good behaviour.

2.  cheating or falsifying involvement to get a badge.

3. student not participating in co-curricular because it is not a requirement to graduate

4. difficulty for students who are not “tech-savvy”

5. students voiced concern over several challenges to overcome: launching the system, making the student body aware of the badging system, and generating student buy-in.


1. participation is voluntary and flexible

2. motivate to take advantage of self-directed learning opportunities

3. opportunity to get recognition for something already involved in

4. willing to invest additional effort to get a badge for things they are already involved in

5. more likely to get involved in co-curricular

The authors conclude that simply offering digital badges will fail which is a sentiment I completely agree with, and similar failures can be seen in other areas of social computing. For example, just because the blog feature is turned on in an LMS or WordPress site does not mean people will engage with it, or use it in a meaningful way. To realize optimal student engagement in a badging system the environment should be: challenging, useful, flexible, and voluntary.

Challenging means the students should experience growth and feel a sense of accomplishment, not challenging as encountering difficulties using the badging system. Ideally the badge would be offered for something the student is already engaged in or interested and challenge the student to take it to the next level.

Useful here means ensuring the students understand the purpose of the badging system, help them reflect on their goals and connect activities/experiences to them. This is where a badge may be connected to a digital portfolio or other online presence.

Flexible gives students the opportunity to apply their learning to other areas of interest or in other contexts. Multiple pathways to earning badges means it is more likely the case the student will have a meaningful learning experience. To me this sort of challenges the notion of badges to mark the end of a course, provided the course has a fairly linear learning trajectory, which I think many still do.

Voluntary participation is necessary to prevent stifling motivation.

Final Thoughts

This paper was interesting because it echoes some of my previous thoughts around using badges to acknowledge other learning/experiences carried out in formal educational settings. Also, there was systems analysis and design activities which I think is crucial for digital badging since every badge system will likely be different based on the context, audience, purpose, institution, etc. This paper brought out the notion of balancing internal/external motivation which was also interesting and may explain why some badging systems eventually fizzle out.