Badges, Portfolios, and Blending Formal and Informal Learning

10 min read

Over the last few weeks, as part of our work on portfolios and open content, I've been digging into Mozilla's Open Badge Infrastructure.

From the project description page:

Learning today happens everywhere, not just in the classroom. But it's often difficult to get recognition for skills and achievements that happen outside of school.

Coming up with a way that allows people to display informal learning in a way that makes sense to people not actively involved in the communities where the learning occurred is critical to ensuring that, as learning and scholarship evolve, new means of acquiring and demonstrating knowledge are recognized as valid.

The challenge here - and badges as defined by Mozilla have a role to play in overcoming this challenge - is to help create an environment where the assessment of informal learning is easier to do, is more comprehensive, and does not detract from or shape the experience of the learner. The following thoughts lay out some ideas on a system that helps address this larger issue.

Badges, Portfolios, and Blending Formal and Informal Learning

The components of the above diagram are explained in more detail below. Or, just tl;dr the pesky details, and jump straight to the end. Or, leave while you can and check out the kittens.


Things start with the learner because, like Aristotle's prime mover, we need to start somewhere.

While a complete breakdown of the various means by which learning occurs is both outside the scope of this document and firmly outside my areas of expertise, we will allow the following general definition to suffice:

Learning occurs through a series of activities and/or questions. As a result of these activities and questions, the learner gains new knowledge, and grows. This growth funnels back to the learner, allowing for additional questions and activities leading to more learning and growth.

Self Documented: Blog, Film, Publication, etc

Documenting knowledge is pretty straightforward. People can make videos, create blogs, use tools like VoiceThread or Sliderocket, and publish their work on the open web. One form of documenting learning could also be a working portfolio (a fairly comprehensive collection of the pieces that are used/created during the learning process, which starts to run into the concept of the presentation portfolio, described below. In practice, a working portfolio could be nearly identical to a blog.

More traditional ways of documenting expertise include publishing via print.

Blog, YouTube, Magazine, Resume, CV

As has been covered in countless other places, publishing to the web is easy. Any standard publishing tool (like Google Sites, Blogger, Wordpress, Drupal, YouTube, etc, etc) can be used as a platform for an individual learner to document and reflect on their learning.

More traditional documentation includes a résumé or a CV.

Regardless of the means, in any of these scenarios the learner assembles the different components that represent his or her learning, growth, and knowledge. For example, a CV includes a list of publications, but not the actual publications. In this way, self documented learning is a collection of fragmented artifacts that require additional research (usually for both the learner and for anyone evaluating the learning) to accurately assess the breadth of the work over time, and the relative value and merit of the work for a specific context.

Badge Issuer

The Badge Issuer is a central part of Mozilla's Open Badge Infrastructure; the issuer (as the name implies) is the organization that supports learners as they address challenges and earn badges. A key element of the learning ecosystem around badges is that the means to earning badges is intentionally left open:

Issuer badge systems are independent of the Infrastructure - how you assess work, decide who earns badges, issue badges within your site, display badges within your site, etc. - that's all up to each Issuer.

This means that the central part of the learning experience has the potential to be defined within the relationship between the learner and the organization that helps structure the learning. One of the things that is attractive about the badge architecture is that, within this open structure, a learner can present self documented learning to a Badge Issuer as part of their work.

Because the criteria for determining how badges are earned is left to the discretion of the badge issuer, a broad array of learning experiences have the potential to be supported by the badge issuer.

Backpack, Display Site

Backpacks and Display Sites are two components of the Open Badge Infrastructure.

Backpacks are used by individuals to store and organize their earned badges. Display Sites can run the gamut from social sites that support user profiles (where people presumably would add their badges to their profiles) to job hunting sites.

The learning that is represented in both a Backpack and a Display Site provides a clear picture of what a person has been learning, and how they have been learning it. Additionally, because each badge contains information that points back to more documentation about how the badge was earned, people interested in learning more about the skills implied by the badge will still need to do some additional legwork to learn more about the relative importance of the badges.

LMS, School, or some other Structured Setting

This is learning as currently experienced by most of us, through school, college, university, a professional training course, a LMS delivering courses within any one of these settings, or as part of ongoing training in the workplace.

For most of us, this is the piece of the system where we have the most familiarity.

Transcript, Diploma

Transcripts and Diplomas are probably some of the more familiar demonstrations of learning with which we are all familiar, but they can be remarkably imprecise. At their best, they offer evidence of effort over time: a person did this work for this amount of time and earned this degree from this organization. But, what does a MA in Philosophy really mean? What skills does someone have who has earned a B+ in Calculus, and does it matter if that B+ was earned from College A or College B? These are highly subjective evaluations, to the point where they lack any real meaning without some larger context.


A presentation portfolio is a collection of work created and/or referenced by the learner that helps demonstrate the what a person has learned, and how they learned it. Portfolios can serve many purposes, depending on the audience for the portfolio and the reason that the portfolio was created.

For example, one collection of artifacts within a portfolio could be used to show areas where a learner needed to improve. A second collection of artifacts could highlight work that the learner believed exemplified their intellectual growth. These two portfolios could contain some of the same artifacts.

Portfolios can be assembled to address the needs of the learner, or the needs of the organizations within which the learner works. Our preference is for portfolios that leave full control within the hands of the learner, but within a well designed portfolio system there is no compelling technical reason why the needs of the organization should disempower the needs of the learners within the organization. Too frequently, we see portfolio systems designed to meet a narrow set of requirements driven solely by the needs of assessment. This is not necessary, or helpful, in understanding what portfolios can do.

During the process of learning in other places, information should be flowing into the portfolio. As mentioned above, a working portfolio (that contains a running collection of information assembled/created as part of the learning process) could also feed into the cleaner, more polished presentation portfolio.

To emphasize: the system we are discussing requires data portability, under the control of the learner. The learner must be able to move their work where they need to, when they need to.

A full description of portfolios is beyond the scope of this document. For more information on Portfolios, their uses, and some of the things to think about when implementing portfolios, check out Dr. Helen Barret's blog. She has forgotten more about portfolios than most of us will ever know, and is an amazing resource on the subject.

Evaluation, and/or Coherent Presentation of Skills

When evaluating the relative worth of a person's experience and knowledge, we are making a judgment rooted in a context: is a person's knowledge and experience a good fit for a specific situation? This is not an absolute judgment, and once we enter the realm of assessment and evaluation, we are outside the purview of what might matter to a self-directed learner.

Badges go a long way toward solving the problem of how to recognize the value of informal learning, but badges don't solve the issue of how to contextualize that learning to provide a more comprehensive picture of the learner. And, in a fully DIY environment, providing that more comprehensive picture may never be necessary. Providing the more comprehensive picture of what a learner has accomplished only becomes relevant when we get into the realm of assessment or evaluation.

Portfolios, unlike other ways of demonstrating what we have learned, provide a more fully contextualized picture of our intellectual growth. Portfolios also have the added benefit of being both a means of recording what we have learned (in a presentation portfolio) while documenting the process of how we learned (as part of a working portfolio). Using badges as waypoints to help chart this growth seems a natural fit.

Closing Thoughts

It's worth noting that almost none of what I describe here is actually necessary for learning. For learning to happen, all that's really needed is a learner to ask questions, engage in some hands-on activities, and have a space to document and reflect on the process. Everything else isn't really a learning issue; it's an assessment issue. For too long, we have allowed assessment to drive how we define learning, instead of the other way around. The thing that gets me excited about badges is that it has actually put focus on the value of informal learning because Badges have the potential to provide a uniform way for people to understand what occurred within the informal learning process. Badges provide a greater degree of context to the informal learning process, largely by including the organizational reputation of the issuer as part of the value/credibility of the badge.

The Badge Specification is relatively lightweight, and it should remain that way. Badges alongside a portfolio system, however, provide a context that raises the credibility of both the badge and the portfolio. The work highlighted within the portfolio provides additional information about how and why the learner earned the badge. A well designed portfolio system, working alongside a well designed badge system, would collect these pieces as learning occurred, so the accumulation of artifacts for the portfolio is indivisible from the learning itself.

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