Badges of honour

“Will I get a certificate for this?”

No matter how much we try to cultivate an informal learning culture within our organisations, this question pops up time and again. It’s a symptom of the way workplace education (and education more generally) has been administered over the years, and while I don’t blame people for thinking this way, I confess to being frustrated by the redundancy of it all. It reminds me of that episode of Peep Show in which Mark presents Jeremy with a life coaching certificate, replete with 4 stars.

The fact remains: people love recognition for what they do. Mozilla’s Open Badges initiative leverages this phenomenon by gamifying the learning experience. The initiative allows training providers to issue digital “badges” to the participants in their courses, who thereby earn online representations of their newly acquired skills. Each learner can earn badges from all manner of verified issuers, collect them in their online “backpack”, and show them off by plugging them into their website or blog.

Open badge

And you know what, it works. When self-confessed cynic Mark Smithers earned his first badge after completing a jQuery course, he was chuffed:

“I have to say that my feelings were of enormous pleasure at finishing my course and being able to display that quickly and easily. It also made me very eager to get another badge to add to my collection. If feelings like this can be engendered in someone as notoriously cynical as me then that’s a pretty powerful reaction.”

Powerful indeed. And yet I suggest that open badges have more powerful potential still.

To put this into context, let me first explain that Australia is one of the most regulated nations on earth. And that, of course, includes our financial services industry.

Partly credited with shielding our economy from the worst of the GFC, the flipside of our regulation is that it is widely considered to hamper productivity, agility and innovation. Moreover, mandatory compliance training is universally disdained and dreaded in equal measure.

There are reasons for this – and in Take the law out of compliance training I argue that it shouldn’t be so – but the point I wish to make here is: how do we know the training is legally sufficient? Of course we draw the content from SMEs and run it by Legal, but at the end of that long and winding road, we effectively roll the dice and hope it never gets tested in court. I personally believe it would stand up nonetheless, but without going to such extremes, how else could we ever truly know…?


In a conversation I had with a friend the other day, I suggested one solution might be for the various regulatory agencies to develop their own training courses for their minions in Workland to complete. But I have since realised this is a terrible idea. Not only would it put a lot of e-learning developers out of business (compliance being their bread and butter) but government is in the business of governing, not training.

This is where I think open badges can play a role. Instead of a badge representing the provision of training by a particular organisation, it can represent the endorsement of the training by the organisation. It is a subtle difference but an important one. It means training providers such as employers can continue to endorse their own courses (naturally) but so too can other organisations such as ASIC, APRA and Standards Australia. The latter don’t produce the content, but rather review it and stamp it with their seal of approval if it meets their exacting requirements. All for a fee, no doubt.

This slightly modified approach to open badging promises significant benefits for the stakeholders:

  • For the regulatory agency, it weaves its governance more tightly into the workplace, not to mention generating a new revenue stream.
  • For the employer, it instills a sense of confidence in their training program, not to mention a legal defence.
  • For the employees, it gives them the shiny recognition they crave, not to mention better protection of their and their customers’ safety and security – which of course is the whole point of compliance.

And that’s not all: open badges can also facilitate the portability of employee training records. Currently, if you complete your training at one organisation and then leave to join another, you leave your training records behind and thus have to do your compliance all over again. What a laughable and desperately inefficient proposition.

If, however, you earned ASIC- and APRA-endorsed badges from your previous compliance training, all you would need to do is authorise the connection of your backpack to your new employer’s LMS.

Yellow backpack with five assorted stickers on grey metal stairway rail

In other words, you wear your badges wherever you go.

They are, after all, badges of honour.

22 thoughts on “Badges of honour

  1. Going back to your original question, I agree that people love recognition and many are competitive and so the desire for badges, certificates, or whatever form of tangible or virtual indicator will continue to be expected. Unfortunately many workers don’t receive adequate personal feedback from bosses or peers and so it is important for them to have some form of recognition. I think these also serve as markers of progress for people. We like to see milestones we’ve achieved and have them celebrated. During economic times where achievements are not as often precursors to promotions or raises, visual achievement markers may also serve as ways to set oneself apart from the pack. Of course, some just like the badges because they are cool. :P

  2. @ Beverley Oliver – Good stuff, Beverley. I’ll promote the MOOC to my network.

    @ Doug Belshaw – Thanks Doug. You aren’t the first to suggest this! Check out Joyce’s comment at the end of this post: “Adventures in credentialling: OpenBadges, Open Badges and un-gamification” :0)

    @ Valary Oleinik – I agree, Valery. As time goes on, employees are becoming increasingly responsible for their own development. But that doesn’t let their managers and peers off the hook. I agree that feedback is incredibly important, and suspect that most people could do a better job of it.

    I also agree with your idea of badges marking milestones. I commented on Mark’s post – “The penny drops with open badges” – suggesting that universities should award badges for passing individual subjects, to keep the student motivated during a multi-year program. This concept would be just as powerful (if not more so) in the corporate sector where education is typically less structured.

  3. Hi Ryan,
    Thanks for a good thought provoking post. I also work in the financial services industry and like your idea of regulator-recognised courses. However, I have found that whilst the regulators are happy to discuss compliance requirements, they are unwilling to provide any endorsement of training. (The exception is ASIC’s register of RG146 providers as this is linked into the AQTF).

    I think that the main reason for their unwillingness is the responsibility that comes with an endorsement. Does the regulation of financial services training then become part of their brief? Do they perform supervisory visits or audits? What is the framework that they use to evaluate and endorse training materials?

    As a L&D professional, I believe that training is a critical part of compliance, however I don’t think that the financial services regulators will get involved in ‘licencing’ specific courseware. What do you think – I’m interested in your thoughts…..

  4. There was talk at iMoot about Badges and I’ve been introducing it in Moodle Admin courses. Initially, most people are put off and think of frivolous uses for the badges, but there are some great ideas coming out to validate the use of badges beyond ‘intracourse gaming’. (yes, I’m just about to read the articles you’ve linked to in comments!)

    I believe badges will become more valid and useful then certificates – Open Badges always contain that link to the issuing authority, and I believe that that alone should be enough to bring them into serious contention with both formal and informal learning.

    I’m excited! Big Kev excited!

  5. Hey Ryan, great post! Your idea of portability via the badges is great especially in large industries such as financial services. I also think the idea of a stamp of approval from the regulators is a good one.
    In your previous post you said that people don’t really like compliance training because:
    1. It’s usually drop-dead boring, and
    2. People don’t like being told what to do.
    In Mark Smithers post, while he got a lot of pleasure from receiving his badge he said “this course was one of the best pieces of online learning that I have ever undertaken”.
    This got me thinking, would earning a badge (even a regulator-approved one) make compliance training any more enjoyable/interesting/motivating/engaging? Probably for some but maybe not for most.
    You also said that “our gripe shouldn’t be about doing compliance training – it should be about doing it better.” I wholeheartedly agree with this but if we are to do it better, I believe that our focus needs to be on the mechanics of the course itself. If we are going to use gamification we should look at challenge, learner control, goals and interaction with others as our main game elements.
    As someone who works in financial services you probably know about Building Societies and how in the early days people came together and pooled their money and helped each other to build a home, hence the name. Well, what if we did a similar thing with compliance course development? What if L&D professionals came together, pooled their ideas and experience, and helped each other build interesting and engaging courses that learners complete to earn their badges?
    Compliance training is certainly an ongoing challenge!

  6. @ Cathy – Quite right, Cathy, no surprises there! I think this kind of reticence from our government will change over time, though, as it must. It is their chance to become more involved in the compliance of our industry, and to be seen to be doing so.

    I don’t think audits and the like would be necessary. All I expect they would need to do is review the content that is submitted to them, and endorse it on the proviso that it is delivered “as is”. Any deviation from that would have to be explained by the employer.

    The RG146 example that you cite is a good one. Unfortunately the provision of financial advice had to reach crisis point before the regulator did anything about it. Let’s hope it doesn’t get to that again.

  7. @ Soozie Bea – It’s funny how badges are guilty by association with gamification, or perhaps pointless gamification.

    At the end of the day, though, badges are simply representations of achievement. What’s wrong with that?

    And thanks for making this post even more Aussie. Big Kev excited indeed! :0P

  8. @ learningsnippets – Excellent point, Matt. The instructional design of a course and its credentialing are two very separate concepts. Simply badging a course would not make its content more engaging, though I would argue that regulator review and endorsement would at least make it more relevant.

    I think your idea of the collaborative development of compliance training has legs. If each employer could then customise their own version of the courseware, it could work.

  9. It’s an old-fashioned idea, I know, but I’d like to see the concept of compulsory training for compliance subjects replaced with compulsory competency assessment: people should be able to test their knowledge before doing a course, be referred to only that content where they weren’t able to demonstrate competency, and then repeat the assessment. Much more educationally sound, much more efficient, and much less frustrating.

  10. In general, Anonymous, I couldn’t agree more. Not only might the employee have already done the training elsewhere, but people learn all over the place – not necessarily in the classroom or via an online course. They may read books, talk to experts, participate in discussion forums, you name it. Assessment represents the sum of all that learning for a particular competency.

    In terms of compliance, however, I am a little less inclined. While I believe that compliance training should be competency based, and I very much appreciate the pedagogy of pre-testing, I am also sensitive to the legal need for the employer to have formally stepped the employee through the necessary content.

    Having said that, I urge you to read a couple of my earlier blog posts and tell me what you think:

    • Online courses must die!
    • The future of learning management

  11. Ha! I have been thinking about this all week and my first thought was around badges and compliance and collaboration across the fianance sector (CBA Group Learning chair an industry complaince training group..they may be keen to hear your ideas). We are starting to toy with the idea of badges for our teacher’s PD porfolio..i was wondering if any corporates had ventured into this territory yet..MIT (Melb) seem to be using it..i see potential!

  12. Cheers Deb. I wasn’t aware of the compliance training group chaired by CBA, although (despite this post) I am not deeply entrenched in the compliance space.

    I’m also not aware of big corporates using open badges to recognise their internal training, but I can tell you I’m looking into it :0)

  13. Ryan, I think you are right that we need an easy way to endorse training and this applies in Australia and beyond. Badges could be the way to do this but we have to ensure they are always seen to be credible and carry a high standard of quality. People don’t believe in individual qualifications, they believe in a system. When one part of that system fails it brings down the rest. So badges must be seen as a completely trustworthy system.

  14. I agree, Ara. The badge system is a bit like currency: if everyone trusts that it represents something of value, then we are happy to participate and so the system works. Mozilla must be mindful of verifying only credible issuers of badges, otherwise the bad apples will spoil the barrel.

  15. Badges are cool, and your post is quite timely. We just implemented a badge system on our wordpress LMS at … although I will admit that it isn’t integrated with Open Badges (yet!).

    Personally, I would like to see badges move beyond the “rewards & punishment” model to something a bit more meaningful. Still, the badge system (be it by open badges or something else) is a good way to get basic gamification injected into online learning.

  16. Good question Ryan… I find that the point/badge system is limited by the fact that it is just an operant conditioning model resorting to competition/leaderboards for motivation (in some cases). Hey, if it works, right? I think we could dig deeper though.

    I’m not entirely sure what this could look like yet – but it will do well to play to a persons ego, much like the badge feature does.

  17. Did anyone get stickers for good work/behavior when they were in elementary school? I think the badges are like that. Some people will be motivated by badges others will not. Some people do not need badges to learn and develop themselves. The issue of badges kind of revolves around motivation theory. Then there is the issue of if you start giving someone badges for something they normally do and then stop giving badges the person will most likely cease to do the behavior they were normally doing without an extrinsic reward. So is giving badges for everything a slippery slope?

  18. Quite right, Eric. I certainly don’t advocate giving badges for everything. I think we need to be strategic about what we issue badges for, and ensure that we focus on key competencies.

    The topic of motivation is a murky one, but I am sure of one thing: I would not like to have someone on my payroll who will learn only if they can earn a badge from it.

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