The myth of the lightweight badge

The development of the open badge ecosystem is at the heart of all of the work that I do. I am deeply invested in ensuring that the ecosystem grows and thrives. During the time I’ve been focused on this work, folks have repeatedly declared deep concern about badge rigor, usually expressed as an underlying fear of the ecosystem-imperiling power of the “lightweight” badge. I’d like for us as a community to investigate and dispel the myth of the meaningless, lightweight badge before it becomes ingrained into the ecosystem as an alleged truth.

First let’s begin by discussing badge types. Certainly there is a lot to be said about proposed and future badge typologies and I’m hoping that we can engage on them here at a later date. For now, though, let’s talk about the much maligned “participation” type badge. Participation badges are typically earned through a simple act of attendance. They usually have no associated criteria aside from physical or virtual attendance. Mozilla has issued MozFest Reveler badges for exactly this type of interaction. Considered by many in the badge community to be throwaway badges with little to no social meaning, in fact participation badges are markers and data points in the larger, more complex concept of self.

Am I who you say I am or am I who I say I am?
During the process of badge system development, implementation, or interpretation, certain types of badges like participation badges may appear to be devoid of much or any value. Let me say that again with emphasis: may appear to be so. They are not. All badges have some value. Badges layer upon each other: no badge is entirely independent of any other badge—at least not to the badge earner. Just as all badges operate in contextual ways, participation badges live alongside other badge types. They can and do interconnect in ways that may be far outside of their issuer’s original intent. This is one of an open badge’s best features—they act as connectors! Perhaps even better, all badges act as touchstones for the earners.

Value accretion
The concept of accretion will be readily understood by the scientists, accountants and financial thinkers among us. Here I’m using it to indicate the continued layering effect of badges being earned throughout a length of time. Earn a badge. Earn a badge. Earn three badges. Earn another badge. Accretion operates on a meta, ecosystem level as well as a smaller system wide level, and its power should not be underestimated. Why? Because the continued layering of earned badges from many different issuing organizations and experiences—the accretion—means that value arises in unexpected and emergent ways.

The multiplication factor
For example, while it may be possible to know how one badge is perceived by its earner in its original context, it is not possible to estimate how three badges from three different organizations may be perceived by an earner. Consequently, that “lightweight” badge that Josefina earned while attending The Museum of Natural History during a class trip may become a connector to an online natural sciences webinar may become a connector to a robotics class held at the local library. Combined, these “lightweight” badges begin to highlight potential pathways and future area of interest.

Weak signals, strong network effects
Interest-driven participation badges communicate in subtler ways than skill or competency badges do but they are sending signals to the earner as well as the larger social structure. They act as windows into alternate interpretations of self. Not only do they work to represent past experiences but also possible future selves. They accumulate and in their accumulation they tell different stories to both the earner as well as the public.

So, the next time you hear someone note a concern about “lightweight” or meaningless badges, think about Tennyson’s “Ulysses” quote below. Ask yourself if you’re not the composite of everything that you have experienced, large and small.

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.

Et voilà. The myth of lightweight badges is dispelled.

More soon.

Tennyson, Alfred Lord. (n.d.) Ulysses. Retrieved from

15 thoughts on “The myth of the lightweight badge

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  2. emgollie (@emgollie)

    In working with teams that are just beginning to roll out badges to their communities, this particularly resonated with me: “…in fact, participation badges are markers and data points in the larger, more complex concept of self.” I think it’s valuable to think of these types of badges as entry points and important components to a system (not to be poo-poo’ed).

  3. Brett Bixler

    At PSU, we are (at least in discussions) differentiating between assessed and non-assessed badges. Let’s start with non-assessed badges. Attend a seminar, receive a badge. The criteria to earn it is proof of attendance. This info. will be in the badge, so anyone viewing it will know there is no proof of competency. Some folks here are pondering if a non-assessed badge should look different from an assessed one.

    The value of a non-assessed badge is in value accreditation, as you write. Earn one, so what? Earn 10, and have a way to show the connections between them (a nomological network), and then you have some value attached. (Hmm. Maybe a concept map of earned badges is a way to demonstrate this? If it is created by the earner over time, it demonstrates reflection and metacognitive processes for their badges as a whole that are not evident otherwise!)

    For assessed badges, perceived value gets a bit tricky. Example: I have two badges. One was earned by taking a multiple-choice quiz. The other by providing portfolio-type evidence. Which of the two is more valued? Will viewers be able to tell the difference, or even care? MC tests can be poor or great, depending on how rigorously the reliability and validity of the test was assessed, how many revisions to the test were made based on that assessment, etc. Most people use MC tests to assess low-level cognitive skill gains (recognition, recall), but it is possible (though difficult) to create a MC test that assesses higher-level knowledge, such as analysis and problem-solving. It’s unlikely that many badge viewers have the background knowledge to consider all this.

    So, one thing we might recommend to badge issuers is to include validity and reliability assessments of any MC test used to earn a badge, perhaps as part of the criteria? I’m not sure exactly where this fits in the current badge architecture – but it should be included somewhere. We also might recommend that badge issuers include what cognitive level the MC test assesses.

    All the above would really help improve the veracity of MC tests used in badges.

    Competency-based badges are fairly well covered in the current badge criteria and evidence architecture. My question here? Even if a badge issuer does all of the above for a MC badge, will badge viewers see a competency-based type of assessed badge as superior? Are they?

    Yikes! Lots to ponder!

  4. Joe Dillon


    Thanks for the great post, though I worry there is still work to be done to dispel this myth. ;)

    To the instruction provider who hopes to support a learner, participation badges note the learner’s interests and experiences. As an educator myself, those are data points that have value for me as I attempt to connect with learners and support their interest-driven pursuits.

  5. Simon Grant (@asimong)

    Hi Carla

    We’ve had just a little of this conversation before, and maybe we can pick it up? How you see a possible accretion process depends partly on how you see the relationships of badges being represented. Brett, above, rightly signals the scale of the issue in mentioning concept maps as a possible representation.

    Now, if someone’s badge compilation is going to be expressed, and read, just by people (not machines) you really can stop there, satisfied. Great! You explain the relationships to other people. The challenge comes, I think, where someone wants to build automated processes around the badges.

    Recruitment is the example that springs to mind, but it surely isn’t the only situation in which one might want “semantic badges” with a common semantics. If we did have a common semantics, it would not be impossible to answer Brett’s questions above. It would not be impossible to do computer-aided searches for the kinds of things that we might want.

    Question: what does that common semantics need to cover? How could it be done? For example? These are questions that would be really interesting to look into.

    Equally, if we had an effective common badge semantic framework, the question of badge weight melts away — by being included in the semantics itself. You want only “heavyweight” badges? No problem, just specify that in your search. You want to specify a method for accretion? No problem (in principle), just specify an accretion mechanism. Etc.

    Does this make sense to people enough to join a conversation to take it further?


  6. Serge

    I’ve absolutely no problem with assigning a value to “lightweight badges”, I simply think that they shouldn’t be called “badges”, but what for they are: “events”. In fact, even an “heavyweight Badge” could be described as an event, the event where the badge issuer recognised the achievements (or participation, contribution etc.) of a person.
    If we were able to merge xAPI with OBI, then we would have a continuum to record all the events of our life, not just those labelled “learning events;” Meaning would be created through ‘accretion’ ;-)
    Some years ago I proposed to the idea of EventFolio, a portfolio based on the collection of all the events of our life tagged with a Unique ID that would be shared by all the people attending an event, a place the ideas discussed, publications, etc. Using a UID to connect people, places, ideas and other artefacts created the conditions for reconstructing meaning through connections. No need for semantic data, the simple connection generated by the use of UIDs was sufficient. A meaningless metadata generating meaning!
    In a sense the UID of EventFolio was a kind of faceless badge connecting an unlimited number of data together. So you can understand why I do appreciate the true value of a “lightweight badges.” Yet, I am not sure that the ‘thing’ delivered for attending an event should be called a badge. Let’s call a spade a spade and the artefact generated by participating to an event a “ticket.” The proof I have from a plane trip is called a “boarding pass.” I’m worried that there will be soon a zealot who will decide that we should call it a Badge…

    1. enkerli

      From Serge’s comment, we can link badges to Learning Analytics. A major advantage of badges, here, is the degree of control earners have over them. Also, the “common currency” perspective on badges is nothing to sneeze at. Though Tin Can may be fully interoperable, it uses a different model, which leaves less room for the social negotiation of the value of an event.

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