Value, Cognitive Authority, and Digital Badges

Value, Cognitive Authority, and Digital Badges

TL;DR version: Drawing on work from critical evaluation and new literacies theory and research I posit the challenges and design opportunities that arise while considering cognitive authority and where you host your badges when developing your open badge initiative. Warning...what follows is somewhat theoretical...and bit academic. ;)

I’ve been detailing the development of our own open badging initiative here on this blog. Yesterday I had the privilege of speaking on the Mozilla Open Badges Community Call sharing our work to this point…and more importantly the “next questions” that I have. These questions focus on elements of a digital badging infrastructure and possible next steps for education and research involving open badges. The major question that I have had since I’ve started exploring new hosting opportunities for our ORMS badges involves aspects of value, credibility, and “sincerity” of design involved in our badging infrastructure. Put simply, I believe that people will make judgments about the believability, credibility, and relevance of the digital badges based on elements of the metadata, the images used, and where the badge is hosted.

What motivated this thinking?

My thinking on this has been motivated by lessons learned as our badges on were deleted, and then the subsequent dialogue and communications with members of the badging community. One of the reasons why I initially hosted my badges at badges.mozilla, and my biggest consideration in finding a new place to host the badging system revolves around the thinking and evaluation that will (should) take place as participants view, pledge, and earn our badges. I initially wanted Mozilla to host the badges because they have a certain level of credence or inherent value since they’ve been leading the charge for digital badges. Now that I’m looking for a new home for our badging system, I want to make sure this veneer of authenticity and sincerity of online information is still viewed as credible and reputable as before. In a later blog post I’ll discuss the next steps for where we’ll host our badging system…and more importantly the why associated with this. This blog post is focused on the value and cognitive authority associated with digital badges…or at least how I see it.

What is cognitive authority?

My thinking about credibility, value, critical evaluation, and online information is informed by work conducted in my dissertation. In my dissertation I focused on critical evaluation of online information and how I could scaffold this type of healthy skepticism in adolescents. In the literature review of the critical evaluation research I was struck by this idea of “cognitive authority” and I think it plays a role in how individuals view badging systems. As individuals evaluate and judge information they make decisions about the quality and cognitive authority apparent in the information they’re viewing (Metzger, 2007). The reason I’m saying “apparent” is that in online information sources this veneer of authenticity and sincerity is sometimes murky. Quality is defined as “a user criterion, which has to do with excellence or in some cases truthfulness in labeling” (Taylor, 1986, p. 62). This definition of quality postulates that systems of information, and information itself has specific intrinsic values that are tangible and can be seen (Taylor, 1986), however not all elements of this valuation can be overtly seen. Cognitive authority is the premise that individuals either construct knowledge based on first-hand experiences or from what they have learned from second-hand form others (Wilson, 1983). Cognitive authority can be viewed as a determination made by individuals based on their thoughts about how “proper” the information is that they are learning, or beliefs about the author of the information (Wilson, 1983).

What does this mean for open badge initiatives?

In online spaces this means that individuals consider elements of multimodal information (images, video, audio, and text), markers of credibility and relevance, other websites or information found online…along with prior knowledge about the author or institution to determine “value” and “authority” in what they’re reading, using, or learning. In the world of digital badges I believe these considerations of value and cognitive authority are hugely important. There is still a certain amount of reticence, skepticism, and confusion involved as individuals consider and cognitively “grasp” digital badging systems. Participants (those that earn the badge, and reviewers of these credentials) will evaluate the value of the badge based on the metadata, the image for the badge (how professional/appropriate it is), where the badge is hosted, and what other badges are hosted there.

To me this adds another layer to the complexity associated with launching and hosting an open badge initiative. Put simply, as developers of open badging systems we need to consider how we contextualize our badges. What does the URL, the website design, and the other badges hosted on the site “say” about the badge you’re pledging for? What is the difference between a badge that I host on my WordPress blog…or my university website…or a third-party site like Credly? What value judgments do people pledging or reviewing these credential assign when my badge is on the same website as the “You Mad Bro?” badge? As we develop our own badges we need to consider not only badge design and metadata…but also selection, development, and support of badge infrastructure and communities.


Image CC by wikimedia



Metzger, M. (2007). Making sense of credibility on the web: Models for evaluating online information and recommendations for future research. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 58(13), 2078–2091. doi:10.1002/asi.20672

Taylor, R. S. (1986). Value-added processes in information systems. Norwood, NJ: AblexPublishing

Wilson, P. (1983). Second-hand knowledge: An inquiry into cognitive authority (p. 15). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. Chicago

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