In a few recent talks (for example, TASLA and ALA), I’ve been floating the idea of digital badges as indicators of learning. There has been a lot of talk in higher education about this, but less in K-12. In many ways, the digital badging movement builds on scouts’ historic use of badges. The badge represents that a scout has achieved an articulated set of skills.
At its best, badges are a digital spin on Wiggins and McTighe’s backwards design as discussed in Understanding by Design. A badge maker asks three questions:
- What do I want the badge-earner to know or be able to do? (Objective)
- How will I know that the badge-earner knows it or can do it? (Evidence)
- What kinds of learning activities (face-to-face, virtual, formal, informal, self-paced, teacher-paced, etc.) does the badge-earner need in order to achieve the knowledge or skill? (Learning activities)
In some ways, badging is a brother to the standards-based grading system that is gaining a toehold. In standards-based grading, the focus is on noting when students have mastered certain standards or skills, not on how they perform on individual tasks on a teacher-driven timeline. What complicates the badging discussion is how to keep badging intrinsically motivating or appealing rather than extrinsically driven or a top-down renaming for existing assessment practices.
Today, Education Week is making one of its articles available without subscription, and it gives the finest overview of the badging movement and its pros and cons I’ve seen. I’ve taken the liberty of excerpting some of the opening texts to whet your appetite:
[E]lectronic images could be earned for a wide variety of reasons in multiple learning spaces, including after-school programs, summer workshops, K-12 classrooms, and universities. And once earned, the badges could follow students throughout their lifetimes, being displayed on websites or blogs and included in college applications and résumés …
Advocates of this vision for K-12 contend that such badges could help bridge educational experiences that happen in and out of school, as well as provide a way to recognize “soft skills” such as leadership and collaboration. Badges could paint a more granular and meaningful picture of what a student actually knows than a standardized-test score or a letter grade, they say.
But not all educators are convinced of the merits of the idea. Because badges are still being developed and have not yet been introduced into classrooms, how they would fit into the structure of K-12 education and whether they could actually fulfill the goals that proponents have described are still up for debate.
Other skeptics argue that introducing digital badges into informal education settings—where most agree they would have the greatest impact initially—could bring too much structure and hierarchy to the very places students go to seek refuge from formal achievement tracking. And many point to research that suggests rewarding students, with a badge for instance, for activities they would have otherwise completed out of personal interest or intellectual curiosity actually decreases their motivation to do those tasks …
Among the strongest proponents of [badges] is the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which has spearheaded the digital-badges movement for lifelong learning by launching a competition for badge proposals in partnership with Mozilla, a nonprofit Web organization best known for its open-source browser Firefox, and HASTAC, or Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory, a network of individuals promoting new technologies for learning.
“Kids are learning in their peer group. They’re learning online. They’re learning in interest groups and after-school programs,” says Constance M. Yowell, the director of education for U.S. programs at the MacArthur Foundation. “One of the things that is abundantly clear to us is that learning is incredibly fragmented, and there’s nobody that’s helping the learning that’s happening across those connections.”
Helping to string together learning achievements across informal and formal education, as well as at transitional education points, such as from precollegiate to higher education and from formal education into the workplace, is one of the main goals of badge advocates.
For example, K-12 students could earn badges for mastering certain content, such as physics or trigonometry, or for soft skills acquired in afterschool settings, such as leadership or environmental stewardship, that could paint a clearer picture of themselves for college admissions officers.
“How do you make visible what kids are learning, and how do you help them get credit for it?” says Yowell. “How do you build bridges across the multiple places that kids are learning so they can see the connections between what they’re learning inside of school and outside of school?”
That’s just a snippet. There’s much more in the article — please give it a read.
I am working with a team to explore badging for learning with students in a project next year, and I’ve been privileged to have many great conversations as a result. g
If you would like to take badging for a spin after reading the article or to talk privately about badging, please contact me at kmfont [at] gmail [dot] com or leave a comment below — I can give you a sample badge for an open-source badging system that is eager to see how and why you might use badges (and, of course, why you wouldn’t).
As part of that effort, we’ve also bundled some links to other articles that may be of interest. We want to pool a set of great ideas. After all, if badges are the future of education, shouldn’t we see some K-12 educators in the mix discussing them?
Whether badges appeal to you or not, I think badges are going to be big once those MacArthur/HASTAC/DML grants come of age in Spring/Summer 2013.
So let’s get ahead of the curve and learn together!
Image: Eagle Scout Badge by Rennett Stowe on Flickr. Used with a CC BY 2.0 license.