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October 14, 2016

Improving the Way Education Supports Learner Identity: Digital Badges & The Information Age

by Marc Lesser

I cringe when I hear people say things like, “I’m not a math person.” I hear it a lot as a parent. Usually, this involves other parents being cute when their child asks a question that even vaguely involves numbers. “Ask your mom, I’m not a math person.” I hate it, because I could easily be one of those people. My first and only letter grade of “D” was in seventh-grade math, and while I found a way to jump the necessary hoops after that, I never really recovered.

That “D” became a badge that mattered. In high school, having yet to encounter the right math teacher for me, or a system that would help me to see math for all of its wonder and creative potential, I opted out of of the subject entirely after fulfilling what was required.

Not a math person is a deficit identity. It’s a self-deprecating way to opt out of a whole category of competencies that, in too many ways, is not the fault of the learner at all but the fault of an entire system. My kids are still building skills like counting by 10, so I have a while before they realize how quickly they’ll surpass my own competence, but I think a lot about how I’ll respond when they ask math questions that I can’t answer. “I’m still looking for the right way to learn that myself” is my favorite so far. I won’t treat it like it’s a disorder or a genetic trait, when I know that it’s not, and I fear that it’s the attitude that we pass down when we apply bad archetypes to ourselves, not any inherent inability to comprehend the subject.

By the time that I get there with my own kids, I’m hopeful that learning systems will have undergone enough full-scale change toward embracing personalized and competency-based approaches that the educational “it” factor of yore — the got-it-or-you-don’t understanding about the human capacity to learn — is well on its way out. In the meantime, the shifting paradigm of the information age is our opportunity to realize new systems for supporting learner identity that move us a step toward that ideal.

As Senior Director of Learning Design at Mouse, I lead a team that’s committed to helping schools, informal learning spaces, and educators to empower their students to use technology as a force for good. We’re a STEM-support organization, focused closely on narrowing the opportunity gap that currently determines too much about who gets to participate in shaping the country’s creative, scientific, and technical future. Through one aspect of my work, I’ve been deeply involved in the national discussion, and early efforts to implement digital badges, through the field’s ebb-and-flowing interest in the topic over the last six years or so. To me, digital badges aren’t nearly the whole entree in realizing competency-based changes in K-12, but if that solution is some kind of gumbo, I think that badges can be one-half of the roux that holds it together.

A “badge,” in this context, is a graphic representation of a skill or competency that is displayed and accessed online, earned through a specific criteria, and links to “evidence” or portfolio data that can be reviewed by stakeholders. Badges are not — at least to the community of researchers, practitioners, and policy people who believe in their potential — merely gold stars for the web. And if the language “badge” is a barrier that keeps you from realizing them for anything but, try “digital” or “alternative credential,” and imagine them as graphical doorways to rich demonstrations of learning.

Before connecting digital badges to the types of systemic change that I think can help to solve the not a math person identity problem, it’s important to first acknowledge what’s already changing about our ideals. I love this comparison by Dr. William Watson at Purdue, who studies systemic change in education. It describes the paradigm shift from Industrial to Information Age principles in specific terms.


If we can agree on at least a majority of these shifts, then we can also agree that an Information Age infrastructure is needed to realize systems of practice that match the zeitgeist.

If digital badges are a doorway linking outside stakeholders to data about the person who displays them, let’s consider their practical potential as a tool that affords us progress toward the ideals above. We’ll add a column to Dr. Watson’s comparison to detail some of what my seventh-grade self might have gained had I grown up in what I hope is my children’s future.

Another aspect of what we have yet to discover about digital credentials is how effectively they can support the habits that we develop as young people to be thoughtful about our own learning. For example, what if we can help young people to know more about who, in their future, might value experiences that they’ve drawn from classes, clubs, camps, afterschool programs, or one-on-one work with a mentor? What if we can make those value relationships more explicit through badges?

In Mouse’s Design League, cohorts of about 30 youth per year amass well over 100 hours of experience learning the process of human-centered design, and applying that learning. Most leave with a design portfolio documenting their work toward the development of novel technology prototypes that address the needs of an end-user, applying their skills to generate tangible social impact.

Over the years, too many of those youth left our programs without understanding the value of those portfolios. Admittedly, many didn’t know that it was a “portfolio” they were creating all along, and none of them had formal support from Mouse and our partners to parlay their work into applications for college-level programs that, in many cases, share our goals and intended outcomes.

So Mouse, along with university partners at Parsons School of Design, are working to change that through formal endorsement processes, new infrastructure made practical through badged credentials, that we hope will serve as one illustration of how competency-driven systems are not only better for learning but also strengthen the pathways for young people from one stage to the next.

Design League alum, Zainab, a college sophomore, emphasizes the role that badges can play for learners beyond high school:

“Receiving digital badges through Mouse is what helped me to create my digital footprint. Recognizing the skills and accomplishments that I have developed with digital badges has validated these skills, which was especially important when I started applying to college and summer internships.”

Digital credentials are not a panacea, but they deserve the patience, rigor, and persistence that innovation requires. My colleague and our Executive Director at Mouse, Daniel Rabuzzi, is a historian, and he often reminds me that our future is not so different from our past. I liked one of his recent analogies so much that I think it’s worth leaving as food for thought. Despite the rise of automobiles near the end of the 19th century, it took nearly 80 years before our country became a car culture. In addition to the car, we needed more sophisticated roadways, new policies, fuel stations, and more. Transportation is not learning, but if we agree that a competency-based culture is what’s right for education in the coming decades, we all need to be open to the potential of new tools for getting there. We need to destroy the poisonous parts of our system that leave many of us thinking that we’re one kind of smart and not another, and build the infrastructure that we need to help every learner achieve and express their fullest potential.

View a full webinar from Purdue University’s Dr. William Watson to learn more about his badges work in higher education, or the full set of slides from which inspiration was drawn for this article.

Marc Lesser is Senior Director of Learning Design at Mouse, a youth development nonprofit that empowers students to use technology as a force for good.

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