Open Badge Opticks : The prismatic value of badges

During a recent Twitter foray, I jumped into an ongoing conversation about where education is headed and the role that badges might play in where education is headed. The discussion stemmed from Kevin Carey‘s insightful and provocative NYTimes article, “Here’s What Will Truly Change Higher Education: Online Degrees That Are Seen As Official” (based on an excerpt from The End of College.) During that Twitter exchange, Anya Kamenetz (who has recently written The Test) was commenting on Carey’s book and mentioned that she felt that badges have been operating in—and will continue to operate in—perpetual beta. When I asked her why she felt this to be true, she tweeted, “I don’t see the value.” I tweeted back saying that badge value was prismatic. This post is an exploration of that position.


Traveling around the world over the last four years, introducing people to open badges and helping them to understand their possible and actual uses, I’ve had quite a bit of time to listen to questions about badge value. Followers of my blog know that I’ve written about value before here and here, and no doubt will again, but as for my thoughts on that subject right now, in Q1 2015, here’s where I am.

Value can mean so many things to so many people. Of course a generic dictionary definition exists but what does value mean in action? Exactly where does value lie? Just so we’re all on the same page here, here’s my view: value is a thing’s capacity to be perceived and interpreted as having some resonant meaning that translates into a degree of assumed importance. Still, that’s pretty fuzzy, right? That definition is somewhat academic and perhaps still difficult to apply. So let’s take this thing apart to see where the values (plural!) of badges reside.

My primary assertion: badge value is prismatic.
We can’t talk about badge value without talking about a badge’s audience because that’s where the possibility of value is first perceived and then created. Maybe wherever we see the word “value” we can just pop in the word “audience” right before it. That will help to remind us that value is derived by audience interpretation and therefore it is always contextual and situated.

Now, let’s make like Isaac Newton and compose an Open Badge Opticks so as to identify and demarcate the spectral components of badge value.

1. Personal value
First, and I would suggest foremost, badge value is initiated by the earner. This value, the one most often dismissed by critics, is perhaps the most important value of all. Badges represent skills, competencies, activities, and achievements but they also represent the person who has earned them. If by earning a badge, an individual gains greater insight into themselves and their abilities, then the value of the badge is extremely high. This consideration turns traditional learning / achievement on its head because it recognizes that the process of earning a badge can be construed as an intrinsically rewarding effort. So, one form of value is entirely dependent upon the perception of the earner.

2. Institutional value
Institutions that go to the trouble of issuing badges are betting that their badges have value. Another way to think of this type of value is as intended value. Indeed, badge issuing organizations seek to impart their values through their badges. It takes a commitment of time, money, and resources to develop and issue a badge, even more to develop a badge system, so issuing a badge that carries no institutional value is an exercise in waste. The vast majority of the badges currently in circulation have been designed to impart values representative of the issuing organizations.

3. Social value
The social value of a badge is complex. There are a number of ways that badges contain and contribute to social value, including: academic value; professional value; cultural value; and group value. I could probably write a few long paragraphs about each of these types of value but in the interests of brevity and because you’re smart, try thinking through those on your own. I will note, however, that somewhat perversely, the group value of badges appears to be the most under-appreciated of all of the possible values. Considering that society is predicated on the concept of in-groupness and out-groupness, this under-appreciation always strikes me as odd. Badges are indicators of community and consequently carry the values that are related to the communities in which they circulate.

4. Consumer value
We might consider the consumer value the strongest representation of exchange value for open badges. Consumer value might also be thought of as market value. We might ask ourselves, in what way does a badge, or a series of badges, enter the marketplace of conceptual exchange? Is it the same way that we understand the value of a service or good? In the past I have referred to badges as having different levels of currency: some badges might be considered the equivalent of a silver while other badges might attain the lofty levels of high-value paper currency. We’ve long argued that a freely operating badge marketplace will define consumer values over the long haul.

5. Generic value
Generic value is rooted in the desire for a standard exchange rate. Because of that it is the trickiest value of all to imagine and to calculate: within a shifting marketplace where exchange rates vary over time, it’s a challenge to define a firm basic unit of value. This is not unusual: our own monetary system is in constant flux—and our socially constructed understandings of degrees and certificates are as well. A BS from one college is not always equivalent to a BS from another college. Nonetheless, the public perception of badges and their value ultimately will be equated as a generic or system wide value.

Conclusion: a spectrum of value
So here are 5+ areas supporting the idea of prismatic representation of badge value. I sincerely hope that you can now feel comfortable in saying that badges have different perceptual values across their many audiences.

One last note, though, related to my first assertion. Here is its corollary: just as light has a spectrum that includes both visible and invisible properties, so does badge value. More on this in a future post addressing emergent value in and across badge systems.

Much more soon.

Talk to me at cmcasilli [at] gmail [dot] com

7 thoughts on “Open Badge Opticks : The prismatic value of badges

  1. drabiv

    Carla, I like this dissection of badge values.
    I think what most people mean when they say they do not see value in badges is that they do not see consumer/market badge value, moreover generic (standard exchange rate) value. Personal, institutional and social values (though potentially more impactful then market and generic values) are not obvious and not enticing enough to start using badges for a usual person. When consumer/market and generic badge values become visible, badges will go mainstream. After that people will be able to unlock for themselves the other values that badges provide and start virtuous cycle.
    The most interesting questions are: If or rather when consumer and generic badge values are going to become visible? What should be done or achieved to make market and generic values become visible (size, liquidity of badge ecosystem; new badge tools or features – endorsements, directory; something else;)? What hinders potential participants of badge ecosystem to see consumer/market, generic badge values?
    I guess some people see no possibility for badges to be able to show their consumer/market, generic values in any foreseeable future. That is why there is a notion that badges are going to be in beta forever.

    Let’s see. I am actually optimistic about the future of badges and other micro-credentials. It is clear to me from this post and from others that there is enourmous value in the badges.
    The badge value in general and the specific values are definitely there. For now, it is just not clear how to extract and show that value. Metaphorically speaking, the challenge is to distil and enrich badge value from a massive amount of information ore. Badge value should make clear sense for all consumers in all situations in any context.

  2. ottonomy

    I can completely understand where the perpetual beta comment came from, and it is frustrating to work so long on a problem for only small gains, but I think there are some strong positive signs that the beta will come to an end soon.

    The first is that we have a community of people who are all asking this question about value, and not only about badges, but about all credentials. The recent Carnegie report on the Carnegie Unit (credit hour) and public reactions to it included a healthy dose of skepticism about the usefulness of the CU. To paraphrase the report: “the credit hour doesn’t show much value, but we don’t have a better alternative”. Building a currency is hard, and it takes a large number of entities trusting it to reach a critical mass and profit from network effects. We clearly aren’t there yet with badges, but having so many people investigating what makes a credential trusted and trustworthy is a great start. From specification editors, software developers implementing the spec, to issuers who want to work together to define, assess for, and issue high quality badges that speak directly to well-defined audiences, we have the right people on the same page to make some progress. As Kevin Carey says, we need a better (more descriptive, more stackable, more understandable) credential for higher education, and we need it to count. We’ve got some of the building blocks in Open Badges, and we have some people who are interested in building tools that help view apply these different value lenses to the badges they issue, earn, see in their social networks, and are presented.

    I think the easiest way to decide whether to trust a credential, or any currency, is to see how it is trusted already. There, we have difficulty with badges, because each individual issuer and each of their different defined badges is its own entity in seeking trust. Because there’s no gatekeeper to issuing Open Badges, nobody should ever trust the quality of a badge just because it’s an Open Badge. The other main reason I have hope for the near term is that we will be able to start to answer this question better, finding out who trusts better-known badges by learning about the organizations that endorse them through the really-soon-to-be-released endorsement technique and accompanying tools (watch for software announcements this spring!). The point these tools are leading to is to be able to answer the question, “who in my networks trusts these credentials?” about a specific set of badges.

    Thanks, Carla, for breaking apart several different lenses that let us get different perspectives on how badges have value. I hadn’t really given enough thought to how coming across a badge in a social space is different from acting as a consumer for that badge. Value is both additive (& prismatic), but it also often happens that at a given moment in time, the value that is needed is precisely one of these facets. We’ve got to consider all of the ways badge value can be constructed so that when it’s time to decide on that one facet, it has been built up with all the others enough to stand on its own.

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  4. das engzig (@Engzig)

    Very interesting read. My conclusion might upset you somewhat in that I think your analysis shows that badges, as a concept, are still very much in ‘beta’. ‘Joe the Plumber’ doesn’t much care about the 5 aspects of value that pertain to Open Badges as you describe here, whereas if you give him a Bitcoin he’ll probably know that it’s at least worth something.

    I think a lot of the problem is that badges are being implemented by academics and forward-thinking management consultants in a top-down approach. This is problematic as you can’t really dictate engagement.

    Bitcoin was different in that it’s adopted followed a classical French System D approach ( and was readily adopted by black market and forward-thinking Vaishyas and fundamentalist crypto-punks who, regardless of the tastelessness of the whole thing, built the foundation for mainstream adoption.

    What Badges lack is what Bitcoin had to bring it over the threshold from intellectual novelty to mainstream financial instrument is engagement from the Vaishya classes. People who trade their skills for a living have to have a clear, direct and perhaps even ‘binary’ value proposition. The value proposition to a Chinese counterfeit goods seller to use Bitcoin was a very easy sell: use Bitcoin and don’t get caught or pay taxes.

    The value proposition here runs to hundreds of words. It needs to be clearer. Which means that badges as a concept still need more work.

  5. Pingback: Open Badges in HE | Technology Enhanced Learning Blog

  6. Debbaff

    Reblogged this on Debs OER Journey and commented:
    Brilliant brilliant article by the fabulous Carla Casilli – love this quote so much ‘Badges represent skills, competencies, activities, and achievements but they also represent the person who has earned them.’


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