Badges for learning: a NITLE videoconference discussion

On October 4th a group of teachers, organizers, and researchers discussed the Mozilla badges initiative.  We explored its implications for education, using Google’s Hangout videoconference tool.  It’s a topic we addressed last week, and returned to by popular demand.

School of WebcraftParticipants were drawn from liberal arts campuses, research-I universities, and nonprofits.  Discussion was fast and furious, as before, so these notes are a schematic distillation of concepts and points.

We began by brainstorming how one current teaching project could use idea.  A language teaching Web site could support badges to indicate different levels of language learning.  Outside bodies could help generate authority for such badges, like the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

We then explored a series of concepts in sequence: models for schools engaging with badges; differential learner age issues; the impact of scale; the commodification critique; resistance to badges; sources of authority; macro vs micro badges; a timeline for development.

How should schools approach badges? We discussed two modes or metaphors:

  1. “Spackling the curriculum” – a campus uses badges to cover (up) curricular gaps. Badges for learning elsewhere could fill in for skills or fields not currently (and explicitly) taught.
  2. ethinking assessment – campuses use the example of badges to reconsider how they conduct assessment of learning. What does an eporfolio or transcript express about a student’s learning, and how could it be improved?

Age issues arose, as some saw badges appealing to a wide range of learner demographics. For example, the community college world has a very diverse population; badges could help these colleges recognize diverse work experience and schooling. For another example, job-seekers of all ages often look for recognition of their careers, beyond what current documents show. Mozilla representatives noted that seniors they’ve worked with were looking for new ways to display lifelong knowledge.

In this context badges help build an individual’s online profile, perhaps in terms of a “learner career” or “assessment career”. They could provide a way to track lifelong learning, include informal learning and skills. One useful term: badges “express” experience and skills.

How does institutional scale impact the badge question? It could shape software development, as schools with greater staff resources are sometimes better able to contribute to open source software. Competitions, like the DML badge one, could help attract resources. Creative development work could also make badge development and/or deployment less resource intensive. Scale issues might summon the involvement of non-school actors, such as nonprofits, companies, or governments.

The commodification issue: one critique of badges is that they commodify learning, imposing a market logic on top of learning previously free of costs and rewards. Badges could compress the complexity of learning down into harsh simplicity. Addressing this participants evoked a series of underpinning concerns: academic resistance to gamification or gaming; historical dislike of assessment, most recently seen in opposition to the No Child Left Behind K-12 assessment regime; recession stresses; the old divide between valuing skills-based vs nonskills-based learning; being uncomfortable with social learning.

In response, Hangout participants suggested that badges should be the domain of creativity and imagination. We agreed on the importance of peer learning, which badges could be seen to support. Some saw badges as not really being part of gamification, but instead belonging to something quite different in education: “identity management”. One argued that badges can empower individuals to own more of their online lives, by helping grow or take responsibility for the internet’s growing reputation layer. Badges could be viewed as a form of “social proof” that “you know what you know”, offering another way of proving one has learned. The School of Webcraft was discussed as an example of this kind of thinking.

I raised the question of badge-making authority.  Who will we see becoming the leading badge authorizers?  Participants thought we should expect to see big name entities doing this, including major companies, especially those with a history of issuing skill certifications (i.e., Microsoft).  Others though content producers were likely to win mindshare in education, such as textbook companies.   One participant reminded us that these are still very early days, that badges are still an emergent phenomenon.

Stack Overflow BadgeAnother participant noted that badges could fall out according to scale of topics, as a macro vs micro binary.  Macro-level badges would resemble established certificates, or  degrees awarded by matriculation.  Micro-level badges would, in contrast, describe specific achievements, or the details within a larger program.  As an example we contrasted a computer science degree (macro) with mastering one computer language (micro).  Micro-level badges could connect to portfolios.  Another discussant thought the Stack Overflow community offered good examples of micros (and they already have badges).  Such a micro-based community allows users to build more needed materials into the larger system.  A different example, not based in computer science, was aired: a civic participation badge, which could be valued by many schools.

I had the honor of asking the hour’s last question, a query about badges’ timespan.  “How will badges display obsolescence?”  Participants discussed having badges build in an automatic sunset, so that some topics would be time limited.  Owners/users would need to redo the badge-winning process, or, alternatively, maintain the out-of-date badges as a simple sign of past achievement, rather than current competence.

Here’s a list of some links raised in discussion:

Many thanks to participants for a rich, stimulating conversation!

What should our next videoconference discussion topic be?

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Posted on October 5, 2011 at 10:17 am by Bryan Alexander · Permalink
In: Collaboration · Tagged with: , , ,

One Response

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  1. Written by Jon
    on October 5, 2011 at 10:51 am
    Permalink

    The obsolescence issue could be handled in a manner similar to how achievements are handled in World of Warcraft. To cast things in a more positive light they are referred to as “Feats of Strength.” Some feats are no longer possible to obtain because they were time dependent or the game content for the achievement has been removed. Some are feats because advances in a players gear make the achievement trivial to acquire. Just one way I could see for handling obsolescence.

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