Digital media and lifelong learning are transforming the possibilities of how we assess learning.
HASTAC (the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaborative) recently announced its fourth Digital Media Learning grant competition. The competition has been amazing to watch from the sidelines. Each of the three preceding competitions have opened up riveting collaborations between educators, institutions, and companies with a shared interest in exploring opportunities for learning in our new digital era. But not just any type of learning — active, experiential learning — the kind of learning fostered through playing a video game, for example.
The current competition, which rolls out in stages, is focused on Badges for Lifelong Learning … and it excited me so much that it pulled me from the sidelines and into the competition itself!
So, you may be wondering, “What is a badge?” and “How does it related to education?” Well, let’s unpack those questions a bit. A badge, in simplest terms, is a visual mark. It can reside in a number of places but is typically intended to appear on Web pages. It used to be that few people had their own webpage, but now a person engaged in social media typically has several — a Twitter page, a LinkedIn page, a Facebook page, a blog, etc. These all are Web pages that could, potentially, house a badge or a series of badges.
So, why would I place a badge on my website? Well, let’s use my blog as an example. It has a few badges that serve as a good starting point to explain what they are and how work. Under my photo, there is a badge was given to me upon my receipt of a 2009 Edublog Award. I graciously accepted the award and shared it proudly on my site. I also created two badges for myself that appear on my blog to represent teaching awards I received. By using the names of the award-granting associations (Edublog, Sloan-C and NISOD), the badges indicate my proficiency and credibility as an educational blogger and college instructor. Together, they convey meaning to the visitors of my blog and add credibility to my ideas expressed in my posts and shared resources.
That is a simple explanation of a badge and early badge adopters, like myself, began to see the importance of badges in the construction of one’s digital footprint. That is, if you are trying to use new media, like a blog, to construct a digital identity for yourself, then it’s important to convey your credibility to your audience. Really, the concept isn’t much different from a sheriff’s badge!
But badges have evolved! And, with support from the MacArthur Foundation (a generous funder of HASTAC), the Mozilla Open Badge project will transform not only the nature of a badge but open doors for how they are used in formal and informal learning environments.
Mozilla’s project is intended to make it easy to “issue, earn, and display badges across the Web” with the end goal of “helping learners everywhere display 21st-century skills, unlock career and educational opportunities, and level up their life and work.”
Badges can and should be more complex than the simplistic digital image files I have on my blog. When a badge is created with HTML code, for example, complex information can be embedded within it, allowing for a badge issuer to manage many badge characteristics including how long it is valid, if it links back to a particular site, etc. I l-o-v-e that vision!
In fact, I love it so much that, as I noted earlier, I was inspired to write my own badge program concept and submit it to the HASTAC competition. I currently am working for VoiceThread as a consultant and immediately saw an opportunity to create a VoiceThread training program constructed around three levels with the ultimate outcome of becoming a VoiceThread SmartTeacher. VoiceThread SmartTeachers are teachers that have demonstrated their ability to teach with VoiceThread in a way that supports brain research (that is, supports the way a human brain is wired for learning) and applies principles of Universal Design for Learning. You can read the proposal here. Who knows if the proposal will make it to the next level? I, of course, hope it does but feel pretty excited about what I’ve taken away from this process even if it doesn’t!
Now Hiring, Badges Wanted!
Our open, mobile society has endless possibilities for learning. We no longer need to go to college to learn. That’s not an earth-shattering statement. But how this shift will impact the validity and relevance of a college degree to future generations of students and employers remains to be seen. As more formal and organized structures begin to be created around the how badges are issued and used, they will transform and become more meaningful symbols of talent to employers and also validate one’s skills, hobbies, passions, and life experiences in informal social circles.
Ten years from now, could a collection of badges mean more to an employer than a college degree? Three years from now, could we be searching Google with visual icons to connect us with users who share our badge profiles? If a patient was preparing for brain surgery, for example, could he enter the visual icon used to represent a “brain surgery survivor” into a Google search box and find a community of support? This may seem far-fetched, but right now you can search Google with images rather than text. We’re almost there. We just need the back end system of badging to be built — which is the focus of the Mozilla project.
Badges in College
I am also envisioning possibilities for integrating badges into my own college teaching. Although I integrate active learning through emerging tools into my classes, I still rely upon points, percentages, and letter grades to communicate student achievement. That feels like it needs to change to align with the interconnected, spiral web that illustrates participatory learning.
The point-based system we use in formal education to represent progress and learning is flawed. It has always bothered me to see a student deflate and lose hope upon receiving a poor grade. We k-n-o-w that learning doesn’t occur without making mistakes. Go ahead, reflect on any one thing you do well — how did you get so good at it? By doing it and making mistakes. If we can develop an assessment model that focuses on measuring the achievement of proficiencies without punishment for making mistakes, I think we’re really on to something.
Badges could be earned throughout a semester class by creating projects (that involve a series of tasks, each tied to a particular cognitive level) and, in the end, demonstrating proficiency of a skill. Students could collaborate with each other in a social network to discuss and share ideas about projects, for example, that need to be created and shared to earn a badge. This entire system is facilitated by the instructor.
Of course, there are a myriad of hurdles for an instructor who wants to implement this learning model. For example, how on earth I’d cultivate this type of non-linear, collaborative learning experience in a course management system like Blackboard or Moodle is unfathomable to me. But there are other, more social, platforms of CMSs emerging, like GoingOn, that may hold potential. But I’d imagine accreditation standards would need to change and that will take time. We’ll see — but I’m not holding my breath.
21st-Century Faculty Development
And, finally, badges could be a really exciting and manageable way to infuse underfunded faculty development programs at colleges and universities. If credible online training programs are identified, faculty could be encouraged to earn badges and share them on their college webpage. This is a feasible way to begin to integrate digital badges into the tenure process and offer a method for part-time instructors to easily demonstrate how they stand out in a crowd of applicants.
Well, that is if the application is something other than a PDF. We have a ways to go … but the possibilities are dazzling, aren’t they?