Using Digital Badges for Learning

Last week I touched on gaming for learning, and this week I’m going to split off and focus on a specific element of gamification. Gaming and gamification are often confused, as my colleague David Wentworth asserts. Gaming is using actual games to engage employees in an activity. Gamification is not about playing a game, but rather about taking gaming mechanics (achievements, rewards, leveling) and applying them to learning activities.

digital badgingBadging is an element of gamification, and that is what I want to explore today. Badging (in particular) and gamification (in general) are still relatively new concepts to learning. At the same time, we’re definitely seeing more mentions of it, both by vendors and companies looking for the benefits that digital badges have to offer.

In addition, as today’s work environment is increasingly influenced by social learning, having something to focus on as a differentiator helps to quickly weed through a population of seemingly similar people. That’s another key use of badges, with people being able to earn them for professional certifications, specific job skills, mastery of technology applications, etc.

Corporate Use of Badging

In the past year we have published some excellent case studies that focus on digital badges and their usage within learning programs. Someone asked me about the purpose recently, and I tried to illustrate it in a way that we are all familiar with.

Think about an old Western film you might have viewed in the past. When you see the guy walk out with a tin star on his chest, you immediately have a sense of who he is, what he does, and what he stands for, right? These badges work in much the same way. The theme is demonstrating competency and providing a method to verify that in a visible way.

One example comes from Salesforce. The $4 billion software company used badges to drive interest in its blended learning program and to help demonstrate competency for workers completing the associated tasks.

An experiential learning approach was setup for individuals in sales. Sales employees had to give a mock presentation and practice a customer pitch on the value of Salesforce1 to their colleagues. The presentation was either delivered in person or virtually through a recorded mobile video and then was shared with peers for feedback and with managers for coaching and final scoring, using a rubric for consistent scoring globally. Based on feedback from their colleagues and managers, employees could then earn a badge verifying their ability to provide the Salesforce1 value proposition and demo to customers.

However, we all know that it’s tough to get people to focus on training when they have a full workload. Here’s how Salesforce was able to overcome that obstacle:

Training badges were designed to motivate employees to fully participate in the learning activities and acknowledge their successful completion of the learning program. The coveted Salesforce1 badges were posted to employees’ user profiles for companywide display once they had fully achieved all the learning goals associated with the program.  The badges also used gamification to inspire healthy competition among business units to be the first to achieve 100% badging across their organizations.

That last sentence is the most intriguing, because it opens up the concept of interdepartmental competition as another avenue to drive learning and performance. The gamification can also extend beyond the organization to industry peers, as the following example demonstrates.

Use of Badging in Associations

I recently received a press release about an association that was switching to a digital badging solution. It helps to illustrate how gamification is not just for internal corporate use.

The Association of Enterprise Architects (AEA), the leading professional organization for Enterprise Architects… [will] provide its members with verifiable digital representations of their accomplishments – AEA Open Badges.

These web-enabled badges will empower Enterprise Architecture professionals, and especially the Association’s members, to clearly and consistently promote their professional accomplishments online. These accomplishments will be represented with a digital image which contains verified metadata that describes an individual’s qualifications and the process required to earn them.

In a crowded market, we need ways to differentiate between those that are qualified and those that are not. This organization is offering individual members a way to set themselves apart with open badges that display on social networking profiles, email signatures, and other Websites. It is still tied to learning—the people have to earn the credentials through specific learning activities—but the badges go with them beyond the walls of the current employer.

The Future of Badging

Many organizations are using a competency-based approach to guide hiring, learning, and performance decisions. Badging is simply a way to make those existing competencies visible to others. Assuming a rigorous vetting process is in place, this could help companies to move more quickly and rely on proven expertise. For instance, if a manager is putting together a product launch team for marketing, she can call up the pool of internal candidates to select from, choosing the ones with specific expertise for the campaign—search engine optimization, email marketing, and so on.

Companies could ultimately derive higher performance and better results from that approach. Digital badges can support the process by helping organizations target the right people with the right skills at the right time.

Ben Eubanks, Learning Analyst, Brandon Hall Group

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