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Unpicking the thread of digital badges in assessment

In this article, Peter Twining, Heather Sharp and James Goulding of the University of Newcastle (Australia) discuss the benefits of integrating digital badges into higher education assessment after reflecting on their findings from a recent pilot study, which was funded by educational charity NCFE’s Assessment Innovation Fund.

The impact of assessment, as an important record of student learning, cannot be understated.

Assessment can be an emotional experience for educators and learners alike, with students sometimes perceiving results as a personal reflection of themselves.

To encourage deep learning, students need to be provided with opportunities to demonstrate learning outcomes; assessment tasks, criteria, and feedback need to be aligned.

New technologies, innovation and assessment

Just as assessment is important, innovations in education are continuing to increase with the release of new technologies. Some, such as ChatGPT, are causing anxiety amongst educators who are concerned with ensuring students submit authentic work.

Other forms of technology, such as online marking rubrics and learning management systems that collect and collate student assignment submissions are also topics of concern and interest for students and educators.

Originality reports provided by text-matching software program Turnitin, which garnered much alarm about privacy and collection and storage of student data, seem quite pedestrian now in relation to the panic caused in some corners of the field of education—whether in schools, universities, or vocational based institutions.

Alongside the new technologies, students have changed expectations of how they learn, with increasing demands for assessment to be online, able to be completed at the student’s individual timeframe, and for assessment to be shorter and sharper with corresponding feedback and marks provided in a timely manner.

Digital badges in Initial Teacher Education

The digital badges project, funded by the educational charity NCFE’s Assessment Innovation Fund, afforded an opportunity for researchers at the University of Newcastle to trial awarding micro-credentials to students.

These were based on assessment rubrics where the criteria linked directly to the professional standards that all graduating initial teacher education students are expected to meet on graduating from their four year Bachelor’s degree or two year Master’s degree.

We wanted to explore the impacts (positive and negative) of replacing marks with digital badges on courses within a first-year course in the Bachelor of Education.

Awarding digital badges was designed to encourage students to focus on their written feedback—the qualitative aspect of their assessment output – rather than simply look at their raw mark and move on to the next assessment task. To avoid a type of ‘set and forget’ approach to student assessment outcomes.

The project enabled us to combine effective assessment practices (linked to professional standards) with digital communication in the form of digital badges.

Project Design

Selecting a large (850+ students) first-year course to undertake this experimental project was deliberate.

This is the first year of university study for the students, they have no prior experience learning at university (in the main), and, although they may have preconceptions about what university work will entail, this is not based on the experience of having completed course work. Therefore, we expected less resistance to trialling a new way of communicating assessment results.

Our project design encouraged deep learning in students via the connection of digital badges to the assessment rubric (criteria sheet) which was linked directly to the Australian Professional Standards for Teaching. Research participants (tutors and students) participated in a survey and optional interview.

Key findings

Results from the pilot showed that, for students:

  • Digital badges led to greater engagement with the rubric and marker feedback.
  • Using digital badges in place of grades led to less stress and anxiety around the receiving of grades – an unexpected finding.
  • High-performing students generally liked the digital badges more as they were not stressed about marks for individual assignments.
  • Replacing marks with digital badges increased uncertainty about their progress in the course and for some students this was anxiety-provoking.
  • Some students found the badges difficult to interpret – the badges were issued in a software system (My eQuals) rather than the LMS (Canvas) used in the course.

Results for participating staff found that:

  • The enhancement of rubrics to ensure that course outcomes were closely linked to the professional standards was well received.
  • Additional workload was created for course coordinators in terms of explaining the purpose of digital badges to staff and students.
  • Markers had added complexity in manually entering marks and recording digital badges in separate spreadsheets to meet University requirements – this was difficult as the LMS and digital badges software did not align.

Results for the University highlighted:

  • The need to put in place governance structures to manage the use of digital badges.
  • Increased understanding of the technical issues associated with issuing digital badges.

While the rollout of digital badges at the University of Newcastle Australia had some clear benefits, such as increased student engagement with feedback, increased student motivation, and promoting constructive alignment between teaching and assessment, there were also some limitations. These included increasing student uncertainty about their progress and increased staff workload.

On balance, we believe that the advantages of integrating digital badges into our units outweigh the limitations, and NCFE’s Assessment Innovation Fund pilot was a fantastic opportunity for us to engage with, and reflect upon, how this can be best done in both our specific context, and in higher education more broadly.

By Heather Sharp, James Goulding and Peter Twining

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(Left) Peter Twining is Professor of Education (Innovation in Schooling and Educational Technology) at the University of Newcastle (Australia). Prior to that he was Professor of Education (Futures) at the Open University (UK).

(Middle) Heather Sharp is an Associate Professor of Education (Curriculum and History Education) at the University of Newcastle (Australia). Prior to this she was an academic at the Centre for Teaching and Learning, a role that saw her support academic staff meet their teaching and learning goals, including supporting them in designing assessment tasks.

(Right) James Goulding is a researcher at the University of Newcastle. Prior to this he was a Lecturer in Education at the University of Sydney, where he coordinated courses on Educational Psychology and History Curriculum.

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