Digital badging has increased exponentially at universities across the nation. In a recent survey of 190 institutions conducted by UPCEA and Pearson, results showed that one in five colleges have issued digital badges. Even though there is a significant increase in digital badges, there is not an agreed upon definition of a digital badge. Defining a digital badge is still a work in progress.


What is a digital badge?

According to Hastac, “A digital badge is a validated indicator of accomplishment, skill, quality, or interest that can be earned in many learning environments.” Educause cites that “Badges are digital tokens that appear as icons or logos on a web page or other online venue. Awarded by institutions, organizations, groups, or individuals, badges signify accomplishments such as completion of a project, mastery of a skill, or marks of experience.” In short, digital badges are visual representations representing verifiable knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) issued by an institution. It is a new form of currency of learning assured by the guarantor, is a permanent record, and can be shared via social networks. Digital badges represent smaller and more targeted composites of learning than a degree, allowing students to better position themselves to prospective employers, existing employers for promotion, and schools.

Elements of a digital badge should encompass clear, measurable learning outcomes, assessments aligned to the outcomes, and evidence of student mastery of the outcomes through reliable and valid assessments by trained evaluators.


Brandman University: Journey from Competency-Based Education to Digital Badging

Established in 1958, Brandman University is a private, non-profit, Hispanic-serving institution and a member of the Chapman University System. Steeped in academic tradition, Brandman University provides quality education to primarily non-traditional students and adult learners who demand the same high academic standards as a traditional university, but whose needs require greater flexibility and relevance in program delivery and learning assessment.

For the last several years, there has been mounting pressure to reduce the cost of a degree while increasing completion rates and broadening the accessibility of higher education to non-traditional students and adult learners. To address these issues of affordability, access, and quality, Brandman University implemented “Brandman MyPath”, a fully online competency-based education (CBE) modality that allows students to learn at their pace. Currently, Brandman University offers two undergraduate degree programs under this modality – a Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) and a Bachelor of Science in Information Technology (BSIT).

As a natural progression in enhancing an innovative, fully online learning experience, Brandman University began exploring a badging system for its undergraduate MyPath programs. As the first phase of this badging system, Brandman faculty chose to first utilize its undergraduate Institutional Learning Outcomes (ILOs): 1) Applied Learning; 2) Innovation and Creativity; 3) Civic Engagement; 4) Global Cultures; and, 5) Integrated Learning. The foundation of these ILOs are the frameworks defined below, and these frameworks provide Brandman with a basis for establishing 21st-century competencies for all of its baccalaureate students. As a result, the mastery and achievement of the five ILOs and the corresponding badges are integrated throughout each Brandman MyPath program.

For example, the ILO Applied Learning is defined as “Design a project, paper, performance, or other appropriate task linking knowledge skills from work, experiential learning, or community activities with knowledge acquired in academic disciplines.” An example of applicable artifacts could be something as simple as a photographic record of work at a homeless shelter, or as complex as a recorded interview with a community or business leader. The unique nature of the artifact is what makes the presentation of evidence valuable and interesting to employers and other stakeholders. To receive the ILO Applied Learning badge within the BSIT program, students must master these competencies in sequential order: 1) Interpersonal Communications; 2) Methods and Applications; 3) Creative and Critical Thinking; 4) Social Systems; 5) Organizational Dynamics, and, 6) Information Technology Capstone. After achieving mastery of these six competencies, which is an integrated and scaffolded educational journey, BSIT students will earn the ILO Applied Learning badge.


How are digital badges designed?

Creating a badging ecosystem is a complex undertaking that requires cross-departmental resources with regard to research, design, and user experience. Users are not only the student earning the badge, but stakeholders who will rely on the badge in order to verify the individual’s skill set. Universities can choose a variety of approaches in designing digital badges through frameworks, targeted KSAs in a specific area or discipline, and/or based on specific employer needs.

At Brandman University, the development of the badging ecosystem and underlying model drew from a number of evidence-based frameworks, with the ultimate goal being to provide a verifiable, transparent, universally understood system based on elements that could be replicated through a variety of program modalities and therefore would be program agnostic. The frameworks were specifically chosen as a result of being accepted across institutions, as opposed to being frameworks internally developed and therefore not necessarily recognized as universally valid by others outside of Brandman. Specifically, these frameworks are:

  1. Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP). The DQP was chosen because of its emphasis on 21st-century skills that cut across all disciplines and are in high need by employers. The DQP incorporates levels of learning, citing evidence-based outcomes at the associate, baccalaureate, and master’s degree level.
  2. AAC&U LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes. The design of Brandman University’s digital constellation emphasizes the scaffolding of learning embedded across competencies by permitting the use of “small” digital credentials that accumulate to earn a “large” integrated digital credential. These “large” digital credentials are mapped directly to the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ (AAC&U) Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) Essential Learning Outcomes, which encompass 21st-century liberal education for individual students and for economic creativity and democratic vitality.
  3. AAC&U VALUE Rubrics. The VALUE (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education) assessment initiative sponsored by AAC&U as part of its LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes initiative provides assessment tools designed to measure students’ authentic work. Providing this framework to faculty who design programs allows them to adopt and adapt the VALUE rubrics to assess students’ mastery of targeted knowledge, skills, and abilities in learning outcomes that both employers and faculty consider essential.
  4. Occupational Information Network (O*NET). One benefit of digital credentials is that employers can ascertain the KSAs a prospective employee possesses, regardless of the degree program they graduated from (i.e., graduate’s major); the current education system is lacking this transparency (McKiernan & Birtwistle, 2010). The Brandman University competency-based education program and digital credential constellation was designed to be applied beyond the virtual classroom. The U.S. Department of Labor Occupation Information Network (O*NET) database was used to ensure that both the competency-based education program and the digital badge had utility value to students and is relevant to potential employers. The beauty and richness of using the O*NET database provided the faculty an evidence-based means for including relevant workforce KSAs aligned with employer needs. Again, the O*NET database is program agnostic, providing data applicable to KSA determinations across any program modality.
  5. Advisory Boards. Utilizing advisory boards consisting of employers and other organizations provides third party definition of workplace KSAs. Advisory boards also offer outside validation and verification of appropriate credentialing definition via a common currency that is understood by internal and external stakeholders without regard to degree program modality.


What are the characteristics of the badging ecosystem?

Drawing on these frameworks, Brandman University was able to create a robust badging ecosystem that allowed for the inclusion of specific characteristics. These characteristics include:

  • Stackability. As students progress through their program, they can earn individual badges. These badges show competency at a micro level. However, the Brandman University badging ecosystem is designed so that when a number of specific badges are earned, they can “stack” to become a larger, more meaningful badge. The KSAs that are evidenced at this higher level would likely be more valuable to external viewers of the badge, such as employers and graduate schools.
  • Motivation and Gamification. The Brandman University badging ecosystem is designed to encourage students to participate in scholarly and co-curricular activities, as well as engage in behaviors linked to a positive student experience with regard to both academics and affect. This is achieved by incorporating principles of game design (or gamification) into the user experience of the ecosystem. Behavioral-based badges range from one to five stars, and encourage repeating positive behaviors (i.e., posting on the discussion board, commenting on other students’ posts) in order to “level up.” Gamification, coupled with the ability to award digital badges/credentials often and for non-traditional achievements, allows for a badge ecosystem that encourages specific behaviors linked to learning and persistence.


How can digital badges be utilized?

Through the use of digital badges/credentials, learner behaviors that are not traditionally recognized as academic milestones, but that contribute to a student’s skill set, can be recognized and rewarded. KSAs achieved and developed throughout a student’s academic journey may be highly relevant to external stakeholders, but through traditional academic progress reports, these stakeholders miss the full picture of a student’s capability. Moreover, skills like leadership, teamwork, problem solving, collaboration, and coach-ability, when coupled with traditional student skills and abilities, may demonstrate a highly relevant competence to the employer and stakeholder communities. Competency in these “power skills” is often more attractive than verification of a college degree itself. According to Davidson (2011), “what we do not grade—interpersonal skills, collaborative skills, imagination, innovative, initiative, independence—are most of the things employers most want in future employees”


Applicability Beyond the Brandman University Model

The system and process as explained here are intended to be replicable by other institutions and understood with certainty by those needing to validate KSAs attained through the multitude of modalities resulting in various credentials. As noted above, Brandman had multiple goals vis-a-vis the badging ecosystem:

  • A commonly understood and verifiable language through words and visuals
  • A design applicable across all programs, whether competency-based or credit hour, credit-bearing or noncredit bearing, undergraduate or graduate level, degree or something less than degree

The universally recognized frameworks provide a common language as to the KSAs. Starting with this universal language, each institution can map the KSAs to their own institutional learning outcomes as they are embedded within degree programs, certificates, certifications, etc., providing the ecosystem within which individual badges are identified. The frameworks can further support badges for verified co-curricular accomplishments such as the attainment of industry-recognized certifications, apprenticeships, service to the community, etc. The Brandman process utilizes an agnostic set of externally created frameworks and an internal framework set out through institutional learning outcomes. The same process can be applied by any institution with institutional learning outcomes, institutional core values, or a similar set of institutional pillars that map to or through what is to be badged. The externally created frameworks provide the common language defining the KSAs represented in each badge.

The design and implementation of a badging ecosystem continues to be a work in progress at Brandman University as we work with employers, employees, governmental entities, students, faculty and others in order to best understand how to build in a universally understood and accepted manner.




McKiernan, H. H., & Birtwistle, T. (2010). Making the Implicit Explicit: Demonstrating the Value Added of Higher Education by a Qualifications Framework. The Journal of College and University Law, 512-564.



Nancy Salzman is the Dean of the School of Extended Education at Brandman University where she leads and manages the team responsible for development and delivery of programs aligned with the university’s strategic initiatives; developing and nurturing partnerships with the community associations, businesses, and military installations throughout the university’s system of 27 campuses throughout California and Washington; and develops other opportunities through grants and foundation partnerships for revenue and enrollment generation. Since joining Brandman’s team in 2009, Nancy has helped to lead her School to a position that has increased revenue ten to twenty percent year over year, along with an increase in enrollments and programming.

Prior to joining the Brandman University team, Nancy practiced law as a member of two large California law firms, built a solo practice, was the education director for a nonprofit lobbying organization, and taught law and business courses at various educational institutions. Nancy received her undergraduate degree from Tufts University, her law degree from Loyola Marymount, and a teaching credential from California State University, Long Beach.

Sara B. Zaker, Ed.D, is an educational psychologist and instructional designer at Brandman University. She has had over nine years of experience in learner-centered course and training design and development, learning effectiveness research, assessment development, and interactive social simulation development. In her current position, Dr. Zaker works as Brandman University’s lead instructional designer on the development of an innovative competency-based education (CBE) program.
In this role, she has led the overall user experience design and authored/co-authored a number of papers including “A Theoretical and Applied Model for Competency-Based Education at Brandman University” and the “Brandman University Digital Credentials/Badging Whitepaper.”

Dr. Zaker holds her Doctorate in Educational Psychology from the USC Rossier School of Education and was the recipient of the 2012 USC Remarkable Woman Award.

Diane Singer is the associate dean for competency-based education curriculum and assessment and assistant professor of marketing in the School of Business and Professional Studies at Brandman University. Diane leads the development of the competency-based education degree program. A campus leader with proven results developing innovative learning programs, Diane is an award-winning educator recognized for her work to improve outcomes for students underserved by traditional education. She was the recipient of the Corazon Award for Excellence in Public Education and the Women Who Make a Difference in Orange County award.

Diane holds a MBA and Master’s Degree in Educational Technology, and is a doctoral candidate at the Claremont Graduate University where she is researching employer acceptance of digital credentials. She co-authored the paper “Creating a Common Currency for Alternative Credentials” and has served on numerous conference panels on digital credentialing.

Dr. Laurie Dodge is the Vice Chancellor of Institutional Assessment and Planning and Vice Provost at Brandman University. Dr. Dodge is the university’s Accreditation Liaison Officer and a member of the Substantive Change Committee for WASC Senior. At the national level, Dr. Laurie Dodge serves as the chair of the Board of Directors for C-BEN (Competency-Based Education Network), an invited collaborative group of 30 institutions and four public university systems across the nation working together to address design and development of quality CBE programs.

Hadassah Yang M.S. Ed., is the Associate Vice Chancellor for Institutional Research and Planning at Brandman University, part of the Chapman University System. Within this role, she is responsible for all activities involved in the research, analysis, and reporting of data that support Brandman in its institutional decision-making. Hadassah has been involved with the strategic planning and implementation of Brandman’s competency-based education (CBE) initiative from its beginning stages and continues to oversee the market research for new CBE programming and curriculum development. She earned her undergraduate degree at the University of California at Irvine (UCI) and her master’s degree at University of Pennsylvania (UPenn).