Badges: identify talent and brand by association
Leigh Blackall and Karen Carter. 2016
URL:
https://goo.gl/Oo30G6
DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.13072.20489

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BADGES: IDENTIFY TALENT AND BRAND BY ASSOCIATION

Leigh Blackall *

Karen Carter

RMIT University, Melbourne

leighblackall@gmail.com

karen.carter@rmit.edu.au 

ABSTRACT

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:

  1. 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
  2. Badges carry a form of ‘brand-by-association’ both for the issuer and the receiver, and that value intersects with notions of online identity management
  3. Badges present opportunities for unique methods of advertising, and these methods are potentially new content to be taught in the advertising program

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.

KEYWORDS

badges, online identity management, advertising, branding, informal learning

1. BACKGROUND

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 (Mozilla 2012). 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 (Credly 2012). Community learning initiatives such as LRNG (formally Cities of Learning) began implementing badge systems, notably more broadly than institutional education (LRNG 2015). Early implementation by Australian educational institutions in 2014/15 revealed administrative and managerial difficulties (Mewburn 2015). After beginning this project in 2015, Mozilla’s support for the Open Badge Infrastructure seems to have waned (Lemoie 2015), and some of the discussions around the technical infrastructure for badging have shifted to other infrastructure such as Blockchain (MIT Media Lab 2016). Some suggest that badging is already redundant and the problem it proposed to address is solved through metadata and online identity management (Birch 2014).

This project was initiated through the RMIT University College of Design and Social Context’s ELearning Innovation Incubator support network, 2015. We 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. In the latter half of 2015 funding for the project was granted by RMIT University’s Graduate Futures Careers fund.

Early in the project we realised that the original badge system design would not work across the institution and industry, largely due to time, resources and the level of commitment from 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 behaviours (further detailed in section 4). We proposed that badging should be included in the Advertising courses, where teaching looks at branding, co-branding and brand equity. We proposed that assessment encourage the conceptual use of badges in student advertising campaigns, to demonstrate ideas around badges as branding strategies. We planned to show the student work to industry through the program’s industry events and student internships, anticipating that this would generate interest in badging, and lead to better understandings of the value of badging and badge-like behaviours, and possibly prepare industry for valuing such methods and seeking it out through employment strategies.

2. METHODS

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 (please refer to section 3 for more detail). We generally used iterative action research methods to review, develop and test concepts in the project. These methods tended to follow a sequence of conceptualisation meetings that lead to consultation with students, teachers, practitioners and experts, which lead to problematisation that would test and adjust the original concept and return us to conceptualisation. Eventually we began to form concepts that were resilient to the problematisation and progressed through to some level of testing.

Conceptualisation > consultation > problematisation > reconceptualisation > testing

Over several iterations, this process 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.

2.1 Conceptualisation

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 met 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 and annotation methods. 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 discuss the ideas emerging 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. For example Birch 2014 was an important criticism of badges that helped us to let go of functional preconceptions and begin to think in much broader terms.

2.2. Consultation

When we had a conceptual framework somewhat formed, 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, clouding possible visioning and limiting discussions. 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.

2.3. Problematisation

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 section 3.

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 to RMIT projects. Our project’s initial plan, timeline and budget turned out to be not of much use. Our problematisations 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 (Miles 1979). 

3. ISSUES, LIMITATIONS AND OPPORTUNITIES

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.

  1.  Industry and institution unfamiliarity with badges

  1. The Communications Council was not aware of any implementation of badges in the Australian advertising industry, and remained conservative in their estimations of their usefulness. They saw the value of a badge carrying their brand and their professional development activities, but did not want to take responsibility for the creation, issuing or management of such badges. These perspectives made it difficult for us to test badges in industry, or outside RMIT.
  2. Our access to actual advertising agencies was limited by time. Our desire to resolve an appropriate concept, and demonstrate it in proof form before consulting with agencies limited our ability to connect with an agency in any meaningful way. The agencies that we did approach struggled to comprehend how they would use badges, leading us to want to resolve a proof of concept or minimal viable product to help advance the agency’s recognition of a value sooner.
  3. People in RMIT University who were knowledgeable about badges tended to focus on their use as extensions to existing certification processes, and as devices that carry the university brand. This idea of branding the university then triggers the necessity to consult with university marketing, which risks channelling the potential concept away from more niche or authentic applications. We investigated badge projects at two other Australian universities and discovered that these considerations around administration and branding adversely impacted on the ability of those projects to develop (Mewburn 2015).
  4. Teaching staff in the Advertising Degree or the wider School of Media and Communication had not given badging any deep consideration, making it somewhat difficult to implement a proof of concept within courses. Similar to the delays in involving advertising agencies, there was a need to develop a concept that would be appropriate and useful to teachers and students in the program as it was.
  1.  Industry culture around career progression

  1. We confirmed that the idea of professional progression in the advertising industry still revolves around the rudimentary framework of “Junior, Mid Weight and Senior”. The Communications Council was in the beginning stages of addressing this by testing the introduction of the Institute for Practitioners in Advertising’s Professional Development Wheel (IPA 2014). Unfortunately, the Communications Council was reluctant to consider how badges could assist in the use of that PD Wheel in Australia.
  2. When asked where recent graduates might sit in the IPA’s PD Wheel, the Communications Council did not feel they registered on the wheel at all, or even as “juniors”. When pressed on this perception, it was apparent that the Communications Council was not aware of the work integrated learning that was taking place in the program, or was unwilling to accept that those internships and similar extracurricular activities where notable enough work experience to register on the Wheel. This highlights a lack of recognition or appreciation of the range and quality of works done by people when they are students generally, and is a possible value proposition for badges. But if a badge system was implemented without this issue in mind, it could serve to reinforce industry prejudice toward graduates.
  3. There appeared to be generally little understanding of the entrepreneurial side of professional practice, such as sole practitioners working part or full time in their own businesses, and in practitioner networks outside of firms and agencies, and so we were unable to explore this dimension owing to the lack of accessible representation from this sector of the industry.
  1.  Limitation on this project’s potential impact

  1. This project was given a small amount of funding in late August, to be spent by early December, and in that time to have a measurable impact on a graduate’s employability
  2. Industry unfamiliarity with badges limited the project’s ability to influence industry receptiveness to badges within the project timeframe, and therefore any measurable influence badges might have had on the employment activities of those industries.
  3. University and student work rhythms revolve around semester and assessment activities, making it difficult for projects to engage students.
  4. The technology and services that facilitate badge exchange are precarious and underdeveloped. The Mozilla Foundation’s support for the Open Badge Infrastructure has fallen into question (Lemoie 2015); wider service support for Open Badges was frustratingly limited; and there are suggestions that blockchain - a whole other infrastructure, could support badging (MIT Media Lab 2016); or that user infrastructure wasn’t even needed if big data, identity management and artificial intelligence is to develop in expected areas (Birch 2014). For these reasons we could not effectively rely on any one transferable standard technical format for badges.  

4. CONCEPTUAL DEVELOPMENT

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. Here we detail three conceptual frameworks developed in this project.

4.1. RMIT Badges recognised by the Communications Council

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 (Mewburn 2015). 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.

4.2. Using the IPA Professional Development Wheel as a badge system

We referred to the peak industry body in the UK for their structuring of a 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 instead of the RMIT program would help address the known issue and limitations outlined in section 3.1. But the Communications Council in Australia was only in the very early stages of adopting the UK PD Wheel 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.

4.3. Coactional badging

We decided to focus on the co and extracurricular work that students do with industry in the RMIT program, and consider how badges could highlight the legitimate value of these learning experiences.

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 it 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 extracurricular activity being done by students in the program could use the brand of the partner they were working with, to highlight and value their experience and portfolios.

5. COACTIONAL BADGING

Coactional Badging is made up of four main areas of consideration.

5.1. Badging extracurricular activity

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 extracurricular 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. 

5.2. Badging as an advertising device

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 extracurricular 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.

5.3. Badge as branding by association

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” (Schawbel 2009). 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 underappreciated 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.

5.4. Student as badge designer, teacher as badge broker

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 experience in 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 the course where these interrelated ideas are situated, they’re also in a position to be the badge issuer and potential broker of talent to industry. Centring the issuing of student created badges to the course coordinator and talent broker would help bring the potentially eclectic range of badge designs into a single channel, and help increase the value of the course and program coordination role and help generate a network of practitioners that assists in the exposure of recent graduates to employing agencies.

6. EVALUATION

With the conceptual framework of Coactional Badging agreed on we looked toward implementing it in a course that undertakes extracurricular 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 coactional badging concept within normal structure of a brief, in time for students to attempt the work. Our hope is that we will be able to expose this concept to a larger group of students in future instances of the advertising course, 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 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.

7. CONCLUSIONS

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, which 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 currently supports 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 non-existent. The developing fields of ‘big data’, ‘artificial intelligence’, ‘blockchain’ and ‘online identity management’ are likely to displace the current value propositions of badges and the technology that presently supports the idea.

More consideration around the notion of brand-by-association and identity management is needed. For example, do institution-branded badges have a negative impact on employability, such as by highlighting a person’s recent-graduate status instead of their work experience or specific skill sets obtained in co co-curricular activities?

We therefore make the general recommendations that RMIT University do 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.

8. REFERENCES

Birch, D. (2014). Badges? We Don't Need No LinkedIn Badges. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved Aug 25, 2016, from https://hbr.org/2014/04/badges-we-dont-need-no-linkedin-badges

Credly. (2013). Podcast: Under Secretary of Education Joins Credly CEO for Conversation on Digital Badges. Retrieved Aug 22, 2016, from http://blog.credly.com/2012/02/

IPA. (2014). CPD - Career Wheel. Retrieved November 26, 2015, from http://www.ipa.co.uk/cpd/wheel

Lemoie, K. (2015). Mozilla is Doing a Hack Job on Open Badges. Retrieved Aug 25, 2016, from https://medium.com/@kayaelle/mozilla-is-doing-a-hack-job-on-open-badges-80714ba935f5

LRNG. (2015). A Great Idea Sprouts and Grows. Retrieved Aug 22, 2016, from http://about.lrng.org/cities/a-great-idea-sprouts-and-grows/

Miles, M. (1979). Qualitative Data as an Attractive Nuisance: The Problem of Analysis. Retrieved Aug 25, 2016, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/2392365

MIT Media Lab. (2016). What we learned from designing an academic certificates system on the blockchain. Retrieved Aug 25, 2016, from https://medium.com/mit-media-lab/what-we-learned-from-designing-an-academic-certificates-system-on-the-blockchain-34ba5874f196

Mewburn, I. (2015). Badge trouble: piloting open badges at the Australian National University. Ascilite 2015. Retrieved Aug 25, 2016, from http://ascilite.org/conferences/dunedin2014/files/concisepapers/233-Mewburn.pdf

Mozilla. (2012). Mozilla Launches Open Badges Project. Retrieved Aug 22, 2016, from https://blog.mozilla.org/blog/2011/09/15/openbadges/

Schawbel, D. (2009). Branding by Association is the Single Most Powerful Idea in Personal Branding. Retrieved Aug 26, 2016, from http://www.personalbrandingblog.com/branding-by-association-is-the-single-most-powerful-idea-in-personal-branding/