Badges: identify talent and brand by association
Leigh Blackall and Karen Carter. 2016
Badges: identify talent and brand by association
Leigh Blackall and Karen Carter 2016
Abbreviated version available by slides
Audio recorded discussion forthcoming
In 2015 we used RMIT University’s Graduate Futures Careers Fund to pilot badges as a possible way to improve the employment prospects of graduates from the Advertising Degree. Through iterative action research we developed, tested and reviewed: infrastructural support for badges; teacher, student and practitioner understanding of badge concepts and value and; what appropriate and meaningful implementation of badges might look like in the advertising industry. Despite the difficulties that other Australian educational institutions have found when trying to implement badges, we’ve identified three areas of value for badging in the domains of advertising education and practice specifically:
The technology and infrastructure that presently facilitates badging remains precarious, disjointed and competitive. Institutional, teacher/student and industry/practitioner awareness and understanding of the use and value of badges remains low to nonexistent. The developing fields of ‘big data’, ‘artificial intelligence’, ‘blockchain’ and ‘online identity management’ are likely to displace the current value propositions of badges. More consideration around the notion of brand-by-association and identity management is needed - for example, institution-branded badges can highlight a person’s recent-graduate status, possibly at the expense of their work experience or specific skill sets. This can have a negative impact on employability in the advertising sector, where crude levels of professional ability are still used.
We therefore make the general recommendation that RMIT University not move into badges until an open standard format is reliably and more widely supported; until people can effectively incorporate badges into their identity management; and until wider understanding of the value of badges exists - especially in the idea of brand by association. We instead recommend that a range of niche experiments be conducted, each addressing these initial ideas and areas of concern, but from different discipline perspectives. From these experiments, a stronger understanding can be developed in the institution, and across its relevant industry partners, to help ensure better impact at a university wide implementation.
Issues and limitations
Industry and university unfamiliarity with badges
Industry culture around career progression
Limitation on this project’s potential impact
Extra curricular activity is not adequately recognised
Coactional badging - our concept framework
Badging extra curricular activity
Badging as an advertising device
Badge as branding by association
Student as badge designer, teacher as badge broker
Badges have long been used as a form of accreditation and recognition, most commonly associated with scouting and the military. Digital badges became more widely discussed when the Mozilla Foundation developed the Open Badge Infrastructure in 2011. Web startups such as Credly.com adopted the standard and offered web services for people and organsiations wanting to issue, receive and manage Open Badges. Community learning initiatives such as LRNG (formally Cities of Learning) began implementing badge systems, notably more broadly than institutional educational. Early implementation by Australian educational institutions in 2014/15 revealed administrative and managerial difficulties. After beginning this project in 2015, Mozilla’s support for the Open Badge Infrastructure seems to have waned, and some of the discussions around the technical infrastructure for badging have shifted to other infrastructure such as Blockchain. Some suggest that badging is already redundant and the problem it proposed to address is solved through metadata and online identity management.
This project was initiated by Karen Carter through the College of Design and Social Context’s ELearning Innovation Incubator support network. Karen had conceived of a simplified badge system based on the degree program in Advertising, as well as some of the extra curricula activities typically pursued through that program, and the common pathway of a graduate’s early career into professional development - pursued with the Communications Council (an influential peak body in the profession).
Karen had established a positive working relationship with the Communications Council, and needed support from the College (in the form of release from teaching) to continue her investigation toward a possible implementation. It was felt that Karen’s project would be better supported in the Global Learning by Design project (GLbD), where funds for teaching release could be more readily obtained. Leigh Blackall from the College’s Digital Learning Team began supporting Karen in gathering the documentation of the work to date and preparing a pitch to GLbD.
In the later half of 2015 another opportunity for funding emerged when a call for proposals was made for the Graduate Futures Careers fund. The work in preparing a pitch to GLbD was redirected toward the GFC and funding was granted for a project from August to December 2015. Karen and Leigh continued to work together on the project, iteratively developing and testing concepts for implementation.
Through this project we realised that the original badge system design would not work across the institution and industry, largely due to time, resources and the commitment of the peak industry body being targeted. We began engaging in methods of action research to find an alternative approach. We developed and tested three concepts for implementation, resolving on a final concept that focuses on the innate value of badges and badge-like behaviors. We proposed that badging should be included in teaching about branding, co-branding and brand equity with assessment encouraging the conceptual use of badges to demonstrate these ideas. The student work that would emerge from this would be shown to industry through the program’s industry events and student internships. This exposure would generate a range of approaches and understandings to the value of badging and badge-like behaviours, and possibly prepare industry for valuing such methods and seeking it out through employment strategies.
Unfortunately, in the time that this project was given, we’ve been unable to suitably test this final concept - having shown that earlier concepts also would not work. We have however obtained agreement-in-principle with a teacher in the program, to look into ways of implementing some or all of the idea in 2016/17. It is anticipated that some level of testing of this concept will be undertaken, probably resulting in a followup paper in 2017.
As a pilot development project in a research institution, we attempted to use recognisable research methods to inform the conceptualisation of badging and help ensure what was being developed was as appropriate as could be within our context and limitations. We generally used a participatory action research method to review, develop and test concepts in the project. This method tended to following a sequence of conceptualisation meetings, that lead to consultation with students, teachers, practitioners and experts, that would lead to problemisation that would test and adjust the original concept and return us to conceptualisation. Eventually we would begin to form concepts that were resilient to the problematisation and lead to some level of testing.
Conceptualisation > consultation > problemisation > reconceptualisation > testing
Over several iterations, this process has helped us resolve on a concept that we are satisfied is an appropriate way for RMIT’s Advertising degree program to implement badging within the advertising education and practitioner domain.
Discussions were held with people in the target groups (teachers, students and industry), as well as innovators in the advertising profession, experts in badging and learning development, and people known to us who could help conceptualise approaches. We audio recorded these discussions and then annotated them to send to the people we talked with. This tended to sustain some of the discussion online and help clarify points. We tested our ideas, took critical feedback, and sometimes developed new conceptual frameworks through these talks. Reviewing the audio for annotation was a very valuable activity as it helped us pick up on things that were missed at the time, and gave us prolonged opportunity to reflect on and test the ideas in our conceptual development.
Throughout the project time we shared links to readings and discussed their implications to our concepts. Several of those readings were critical to our concept development and problematisation exercises. It was often surprising what particular readings triggered what discussion points for us.
When we had a forming conceptual framework, or ideas and issues raised in our discussions, we would test our concept with students, teachers, practitioners and known experts in the field. As the concepts took shape, we would update our documents that communicated the project - feeling out how we might implement the concept and communicate it to all stakeholders. We would give a copy of this document to the people we were consulting, and record and annotate their responses, following up on any leads to readings. While the consultations were generally very helpful, our efforts to communicate through a written document were not. Often the complexity of the concept was made too visible in the document, limiting discussion too early, and clouding possible visioning. Probably better would have been if we had used a graphic designer to visualise conceptual thinking as we progressed. Such a professional is sometimes referred to as a graphic facilitator.
From the outset concepts were written up, continuously challenged and problematised, and then pivoted depending on the resilience or not of the concept to the problematisation. Persistent problems were noted in the section Issues and Limitations.
We feel that this process of problematisation was valuable in developing a framework that was most appropriate, resilient and useful in the context. However, as a method it was a risk to the timeline of the project, and to what are normally expected as outcomes. Our project’s initial plan, timeline and budget turned out to be not of much use. Our problematisation even lead us to conclude that badging in the advertising degree (as was being initially conceived) was an inappropriate thing to do (given the time and resources we had to work with). While this realisation would have been a “success” in terms of a pilot project, it caused us some measure of anxiety given the normally expected measures of “success” in this type of project work.
Throughout the project we paid attention to any persistent issues and limitations that would arise out of our problematisation sessions. It was important to us to find a conceptual approach to badging that would be resilient to, or appropriately bypass these issues. Below are our notes on some of the more significant issues and limitations that confronted the project.
In the time we had for the project, we moved through three main conceptual frameworks, testing them in consultations and problematization sessions, and moving on to new frameworks if problems could not be resolved.
The project began with the concept that RMIT issue badges reflective of the Graduate and Post Graduate Degree programs as well as graduate professional development programs offered through the Communications Council. The alignment with a peak industry body was of particular interest to the experts we consulted at the time, but the reinforcement of existing RMIT certification was considered unnecessary and a potential hazard to the project’s objectives, timeliness and impact. A review of badge projects at 2 other Australian universities confirmed that this concept could not be adequately accommodated within the existing university administration systems and culture. Furthermore, a badge that carries an overt university brand can bring unnecessary attention to a candidate's recent graduate status, triggering industry preconceptions around skill and experience that can adversely impact that graduate’s employability. We decided that a much more subtle and nuanced association to the university brand was needed, and a stronger association to industry was needed.
We referred to the peak industry body in the UK for their structuring of professional development system called, The PD Wheel. We saw that this system was ready-made for a badging system overlay, and that awarding badges that aligned with that structure would help address the known issue and limitation to the project around industry culture around career progression. But the Communications Council in Australia was only in the very early stages of adopting this structure, and was very unsure of how it would be adopted in Australia or where recent graduates would situate in it. A badging system aligned to this structure would have to assume a successful implementation of the structure in Australia, and that it would recognise recent graduates within it.
We decided to focus on the co and extra curricular work that students do in the program, and consider how badges could highlight the legitimate value of these experiences to industry and any future professional development structures.
Frustrated by the lack of resilience that our earlier concepts had against our problematisation exercises, we began interrogating badges more deeply. What was their value really and how were the apparent needs for them being met otherwise?
Through this approach we were able to momentarily dispense with the somewhat distracting terms like “badging” and talk in more recognisable terms based on what people were already doing. We were able to say,
“You know when you’re building a portfolio you tend to cite the company names you’ve worked with and what you did with them - well, that’s a kind of badging and we think what you’re doing there can be enhanced by badges”.
We called this approach Coactional badging, where we were able to focus on the co branding relationship of badging and badge-like behaviours, and see how extra curricular activity being done by students in the program could use the concept.
Coactional Badging is made up of four main areas of consideration.
The industry representatives we spoke with seemed to under appreciate graduate skills and experience generally, even when holding the RMIT program in relatively high esteem. This suggested to us that recent graduates are at a potential disadvantage if their status as recent graduate is made too apparent when seeking employment.
So we set about thinking about a badging system that would authentically highlight valued and industry relevant experience, and play down the association of that work being part of an educational program. Our concept started looking at how we might emphasis the real and legitimate work done by people in their studies, especially in their extra curricular work, and how badges might coach people to de-emphasis their recent graduate status and emphasise more of their actual work skills and experiences in their own right - ie, not as student work, but real work, wherever it could be said to be.
We realised that a badge carries an advertising message, whether it be for the badge itself; the company, event or other activity that is issuing the badge; for the role, skill or attribute it represents; and/or for the individual who is awarded and displays it. This advertising message is both a visual and linked to further content for human review, as well as visible and responsive to networking software - where some software is programed to notice the badge and make linkages and recommendations to users who are interested in it and any related information. On this basis we formed the opinion that badges may well be a new content domain for students studying advertising, and wanted to test their responsiveness to the idea. If we could be successful in explaining this to the students undertaking extra curricular activities, we would be able to test the idea’s validity by asking the students to try and deploy a badge as a device in their own advertising campaigns.
We came to realise that badges are complementary to the advertising practice of “brand extension”, “brand equity” and “co branding”. We tended to call this, “brand by association”. Our concept started to shape itself around this idea and to think about how we might design a badge system that draws on the established brands of industry, to highlight the value and legitimacy of a graduate's experience.
For example, a LinkedIn profile that displays work experience will automatically display the logo of a company that is known to the system. These tend to be large organisations however, and smaller, more local firms may not get picked up. This can result in a profile that has little to no visual signals in their experience, a signal that call brand-by-association.
This brand association may not always be positive however. As we discovered, industry representatives tended to under appreciated graduate skills and experience generally, and so a badge that used an educational institution’s brand would likely reinforce this prejudice, whereas using the recognised brand of an agency in which the graduate undertook work experience with, would likely dispel this prejudice.
Our coactional badging concept meant that students could play a significant role in designing badges in their coursework, learning how to use them to highlight extra curricula activities; as an advertising device generally; and to associate their work with known brands. But given the teacher would continue to be a coordinator of these interrelated ideas, this also positions the course or program manager is the badge issuer and potential broker of talent to industry. Centreing the issuing of student created badges to a talent broker would help bring the potentially eclectic range of badge designs into a single channel, increase the value of the course and program coordination role and help generate a network of practitioners that assists exposure of recent graduates to employing agencies.
With the conceptual framework of Coactional Badging agreed on we looked toward implementing it in a course that undertakes extra curricular activities and work experience in industry. Our goal was to evaluate how recent graduates would respond to our conceptual framework for badging, implementing their own concepts on their internships, and seeing if that in turn has an impact on the industry.
Unfortunately we struggled to reach a broad enough group of students from this course within the time left for the project. A good portion of the blame for this failure was our own inability to clearly and concisely communicate the concept within a normal brief in time. Our hope is we will be able to expose this concept to a larger group of students in future, and that some will grasp the concept and show how it can work, or not.
We propose to the Advertising program at RMIT University that coactional badging be delivered as content in the course, as a suggested exercise in theories of brand extension, brand equity and co branding. We would invite students to design badges for the work they undertake as interns or on other recognised client projects and campaigns, and display those designs in their respective portfolios. We would evaluate the concept by interviewing students and industry on their perceptions of those portfolios in relation to co branding ideas and toward advertised employability.
Badges can highlight an individual’s talent and experience where formal accreditation does not, such as in co and extracurricular activities, work experience and peer relations and esteem;
Badges carry a form of ‘brand-by-association’ both for the issuer and the receiver, that intersects with online identity management.
Badges present opportunities for unique methods of advertising, and these methods are potentially new content to be taught in the advertising program;
The technology that facilitates badging remains precarious, disjointed and competitive. Institutional, teacher/student and industry/practitioner awareness and understanding of the use and value of badges remains low to nonexistent.
The developing fields of ‘big data’, ‘artificial intelligence’, ‘blockchain’ and ‘online identity management’ are likely to displace the current value propositions of badges.
More consideration around the notion of brand-by-association and identity management is needed. For example, institution-branded badges can have a negative impact on employability, by highlighting a person’s recent-graduate status instead of their work experience or specific skill sets.
We therefore make the general recommendations that RMIT University do not move into badges until the current open standard format is reliably and more widely supported; until people can effectively incorporate badges into their identity management; and until wider understanding of the value of badges exists - especially in the idea of brand by association. We instead recommend that a range of niche experiments be conducted, each addressing these initial ideas and areas of concern, but from different discipline perspectives. From these experiments, a stronger understanding can be developed in the institution, and across its relevant industry partners, to help ensure better impact at a university wide implementation.
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 Please refer to the section on limitations within this paper
 (2011). Graphic facilitation - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved December 7, 2015, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graphic_facilitation.
 Mewburn, I. "Badge trouble: piloting open badges at the Australian ... - Ascilite." 2015. <http://ascilite.org/conferences/dunedin2014/files/concisepapers/233-Mewburn.pdf>
 "Mozilla is Doing a Hack Job on Open Badges — Medium." 22 Aug. 2016 <https://medium.com/@kayaelle/mozilla-is-doing-a-hack-job-on-open-badges-80714ba935f5>
 "What we learned from designing an academic certificates system on ..." 22 Aug. 2016 <https://medium.com/mit-media-lab/what-we-learned-from-designing-an-academic-certificates-system-on-the-blockchain-34ba5874f196>
 "Badges? We Don't Need No LinkedIn Badges – HBR." 2014. 22 Aug. 2016 <https://hbr.org/2014/04/badges-we-dont-need-no-linkedin-badges>
 "Branding by Association is the Single Most Powerful Idea in Personal ..." 2009. 22 Aug. 2016 <http://www.personalbrandingblog.com/branding-by-association-is-the-single-most-powerful-idea-in-personal-branding/>