Mouse | Why We Badge: The Potential for Digital Credentials, EdDigest

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January 30, 2016

Why We Badge: The Potential for Digital Credentials, EdDigest

by Marc Lesser, Senior Director of Learning Design, Mouse

A national conversation on the topic of alternative digital credentials has received some coverage for the past couple of years. Most often, the trade news orgs, social media, and members of the education community are using the shorthand “badges” to talk about graphic representations of skills earned through a learning experience that are awarded and shared over the web. But the term can be a bit of a hindrance, especially if you have some personal experience with, say, Brownies or Boy Scouts, if your goal is to understand the more serious potential of new credentials, beyond cute graphics.

Badges can have all kinds of uses and instantiations on the web. A year after we started issuing our first badges at Mouse, I came home to my then 3-year old son angry over a software glitch on the iPad that was keeping him from seeing a Chugginton Badge on his profile in a popular Disney app. In that instance, badges appeared like gold stars, a mere indicator that a task or level of the app, in this case had been completed. You couldn’t use that badge to look back on his performance, it didn’t carry metadata to help understand more about the context in which it was earned, and importantly, he had no agency to curate the badges in a shareable way that might help him demonstrate what he knows to others.

At Mouse, I lead a team committed to helping schools and educators empower their students to use technology as a force for good. I’ve been deeply involved in the discussion, and early efforts to implement digital badges, through the field’s ebb and flowing interest over the last six years or so.
In 2010, Mouse issued its first digital badge, and to many outside the small community of early pioneers who we’ve grown close with over time, we’re still explaining why. The potential of digital badges often eludes funders, K-12 administrators, other non-profit partners, and the educators, learners, and staff supporting our program sites. Our own team, even those designing the system itself, asks the question, “why badge?” to ourselves pretty regularly. (Part of doing any work well is to remind yourself why you do it, so we see asking as part of the job.)

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.
In 2009, almost a year before there was a wider community of practice, we began a series of design experiments on our web-based learning platform with these five major factors in mind:


Scaling Culture 

We sought ways of leveraging the web to build community across what was now a national program network. We looked to mirror the most contemporary norms for the web developers, engineers, technicians, and designers that many of our participants were setting off to become. We envisioned a currency that connected participants through their skills and experience, and allowed us to force-amplify a participatory network ethos the way we saw platforms like Stack Overflow, whose users receive peer votes for quality participation that lead to increased status and ownership, do it so well.


Curating Experience 

For too long, learners have traversed learning ecosystems with way more dimension than traditional transcripts are capable of capturing. Imagine a teenager in an afterschool program who spends a year prototyping a new technology for the hearing impaired, but with no formal way to demonstrate the experience back at school, or to a future admissions counselor. It’s not about some learning environments having the ability to prove worth, it’s about empowering educators and learners by enriching the tools that help each curate the past, navigate the present, and support a promising future. Using traditional transcripts to that end poses two significant (among several) issues: 1) it’s not enough data to capture human potential even before considering race, class, and gender (all learners deserve better), and 2) the system isn’t “open” for learners in a way that helps them cultivate an ability to orienteer in an increasingly complex landscape for achieving success in life and work.

Darlynn Alfalla, a technology educator and longtime Mouse Coordinator at Robert F. Wagner Middle School in Manhattan, says it well when she reflects on her students’ interactions:

“They love when I show their progress up on the SMART Board to see how they are doing. It allows them the feedback they need on their progress and also gives them a sense of pride. As an educator, what I see and value is that students are learning to manage their own learning.”

We saw then (and do even more today) a future where constructivist pedagogies are supported by a complementary infrastructure for capturing outcomes, and where portfolios of navigable evidence help equitably redistribute value across learning organizations and among learners themselves.

Motivation

The issue of motivation has, in some ways, been a strain on the now substantial community pushing to realize the potential of digital credentials. The fear for some is that the community of practitioners utilizing badge-driven content might mistake badges as a panacea for engineering motivation that, we know ultimately, must be intrinsically driven. Will badges, like gold stars, become a superficial carrot for learners?

But our thought at Mouse is that if we’re careful about how digital credentials are introduced as an aspect of a programmatic context that is situated, and focused on cultivating “expert” identities, that credentials can play a vital role (especially for youth from non-dominant backgrounds) in shifting their confidence and owning their pathway. Indeed, we realize the risk of having badges become a kitschy gamification of the learning experience. But if the worst-case scenario is that only a portion of our participants use them to consider their identity-building pathway seriously, it still seems unquestionably worthwhile.

Taxonomy of Skills

There are a few crippling impediments for all of us determined to improve the education field (K-12 especially) that consistently cause us to churn out only partial solutions to the problem of connecting young learners with the practical skills they truly need for success. Taxonomy is one of those. Too often we default to modeling competencies and skills in a manner that lays out as neatly as the aisles of a supermarket, “hard” and “soft” skills, domain-specific competencies organized by subject, etc., but if the education system was a grocery store, no doubt that when asked by a cashier “did you find everything you need today?” the answer from learners would be “no.” The problem is either that we don’t have the store laid out properly (we’ve spent a lot of time on this already) or, more likely, we need to find a better analogy.

Seymour Papert used bricolage as an analogy to describe a different style by which learners can solve problems by testing and tinkering. In art or literature, it's about constructing or creating from a diverse range of available things.

To redraft learners’ mental model of skills acquisition, we need to give them more flexibility to connect what’s relevant and available for the pathway they’re interested in pursuing.

“As an aspiring artist, Mouse’s design badges really help me towards gaining the education that I need to excel in the arts,” says Caroline, a member of Mouse’s advanced design and technology program. “Being able to validate my skills and having the badges give it worth are very useful when applying to colleges or programs. It's like being able to show them how much effort you put into gaining the skill, what you’re now capable of, and how much interest you have in the skill you were awarded for.”

The supporting individuals, organizations, and platforms issuing badges then need tools that translate the residue of each experience into data that's useful in both marking the path taken (a breadcrumb trail) and informing choices ahead. An “open standard,” like the one The Mozilla Foundation and grantmakers like the MacArthur Foundation helped seed in the past few years will continue to be critical here.

In practical terms, we set out to design a badge system at Mouse that would help learners and educators see typically classified “21st Century Skills” not as a standalone, but as a key to weaving the overall fabric of an expert identity in any century.


Pathways

As an education practitioner you can’t currently sneeze without spraying some reference to “learning pathways.” but whether or not you’re over the jargon already, it serves an important purpose. The days of linear pathways where learners steam along from one stop to the next were over before they started. To my knowledge, we haven’t found a strategy to successfully standardize this type of system in a way that works for all in over a hundred years of honorable attempts. Even the largest K-12 systems in the country, despite being both directions of the grain in difficult ways, are on to a different picture where “personalized” learning is, more often being recognized as key to our progress.

Pathways are a useful analogy because, while they can offer some scale (multiple travelers) over time, the emphasis is on the journey and not solely the destination. Some can be efficient – from A to B – but others can meander, loop, reverse and intersect. It is at those intersections where the potential of digital badges becomes exciting.

A focus on pathways invites all of us to support the necessary infrastructure to help learners beyond a privileged subset achieve their desired expertise. If all “local” program cultures (at school, after school, or at home) can plug credentials into a wider traversable ecosystem, we might actually mobilize the gigantic volume of motivated young citizens that will be required for tackling the problems of their time.

These five ideas are what set us on a course that would eventually propel Mouse into a global effort made up of lots of moving parts (passionate people and innovative institutions) to realize the potential of digital credentials. None of the goals are short of extremely ambitious, but we love that. The stakes are too high in this work to allow the conservation of known practices (that aren’t working well enough) to preclude our ambition.

So, where do we go from here? Over the past year, Mouse has been focused on establishing relationships with college and university partners who will bolster the value and validity of badges when used in the real world. In their case, for things like applying to college. We believe that a big part of realizing a future for badges means creating real process for institutions to collaborate across multiple points in a learners trajectory (in this case between K-12 experiences and higher ed). By involving higher education in the process of endorsement and validation, we also provide colleges and universities new ways to commit to diversifying their student body and, later on, the workforces that they help cultivate.

Veteran players in education are also stepping up to take on leadership and advocacy roles. IMS Global Learning Consortium, Inc., a non-profit agency based in Washington DC announced their commitment to helping realize potential for the interoperability of badges across learning platforms and technologies that incorporate them. Carla Casilli, former lead at Badge Alliance, a non-profit whose work cultivated open badge working groups across sectors and continents in the past year, offers promising perspective about the contribution that IMS can make.

“When IMS announced its interest in partnering on the open badges work, not only were we at the Badge Alliance excited, we were happily surprised with the large number of organizations that expressed their excitement, too. Working alongside a nonprofit organization that’s both deeply committed to improving technical interoperability among learning platforms and tools—and deeply respected among education providers, educational platform providers, and educational institutions opens up a huge number of possible avenues for open badges.”

To realize any of this potential we need the support of all corners of our field, and we need to get past an idea that “badging” is merely the gold star of the web. When you next think “badge,” try training your mind to supplant patches with portfolio data.

For a good overview and substantial list of citations for further reading, visit the Digital Badge page on Wikipedia.Marc Lesser is senior director of learning design for Mouse (www.mouse.org), a national youth development nonprofit that believes in technology as a force for good.

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