I started working on open badges as a personal project in April of this year. It being September I thought it would be good to reflect on progress after 6 months. It has continued to be a personal project and although I refer to my school in the title the opinions expressed here are mine and not necessarily those of my employer.
Through that half year my ideas have changed and evolved, and for that reason it is valuable to collect my thoughts and take stock.
I have blogged about how I create and issue badges in the past. To put it simply I have been using a minimal system where I create and issue the badges using http://credly.com. For a single person working with badges this has been adequate.
Initially I developed badges for staff professional learning and then I began to develop and issue badges for my students as well. The student badges were usually contingent on successful completion of a section of the work. For example I issued a badge for sketching to my Graphic Design class and a basic java badge to my Computer Science students. All the badges were supported by specific observable skills, which was a strength. A weakness, as I will discuss later, is that they were all isolated badges with no interconnection or progression.
So far I have created 15 badges and issued about 40 badges to staff and students at Don College.
What have I learned from this and what have I yet to work through? What follows might be a bit rambling, and the ideas are not always fully formed. I should also say that I am still learning and in another 6 months I might have changed my opinion, but here goes.
Badges vs marks
My first badges were issued for reaching a level of competence or successfully completing an exercise. In this situation the badge is really just sitting alongside a traditional assessment. So why give the badge? I have found there are several reasons:
- There is an element of reward or celebration in a badge which is missing in a mark. A student might post their badge on Facebook , but they might be less likely to post a status like “Just passed Maths test. Yay!”
- There is often an immediacy about a badge. The reward is close to the event.
- Badges can be shaped to fit the skill set of the student. Students can be rewarded for sub-skills which might get lost in a poor overall mark. Badges can also recognize progress toward individual goals which might not be quite the same as the course goals.
- The data attached to the badge gives a clear definition of what the student has achieved to earn the badge, so they are actually more reliable than a school report or certificate, which can be easily forged.
So badges do have a place in the classroom alongside existing assessments and there is in my opinion good reasons for issuing an Algebra badge or a Reading badge, but I can also see that many teachers would ask why bother with this ‘double entry’ when it is the mark on the report card which really matters?
If badges are to become a widely used and recognized credential there needs to be a wide acceptance of the reason for using them, and an increased dissatisfaction with the current assessment methods. We could build a better mousetrap, but it will not catch on while people are broadly happy with the old one they have.
Learning vs badge collecting
Collecting badges in areas of interest is fine in a holiday program, but there is the danger that the students are badge collecting rather than engaging in focused learning. Many badge advocates point out that learning doesn’t only happen in school and badges give credit for the informal learning people do. That is true, and people may find those badges valuable, but as a teacher I am mostly interested in badges that have a connection with the curriculum I am delivering. In the context of formal education the badges need to support focused learning and development. In my opinion this is achieved by sequencing and interconnecting badges. The badge system needs to allow multiple paths, but also encourage development in skills. When a student has achieved a badge they need to see the next badge in the sequence as a goal to encourage the further development of their skill.
My initial badges lacked this, but I think that by carefully planning badges at the various stages of proximal development for a skill, the students can be lead through skill development. By providing a number of such sequences students will also be able to shape their personal education plan, while still remaining within the curriculum provided.
Gamification and badges
Gamification refers to the practice of applying the engagement and motivational techniques used in (computer) games to learning design. This is distinct from game-based learning which uses computer games as a learning tool.
Not being a gamer myself, I only had a vague notion of the relationship between badges and computer games, but now that I am mixing in the badge community I realize that most people see badges as a gamification technique. In my case I wanted to be able to credential staff PD and also keep track of skill development using badges. As a result my first badges were probably designed a little differently and I certainly didn’t place emphasis on the graphics.
I can see the value of badges as an element of gamification, but I still tend to take a more utilitarian view. I view badges more seriously as a credential rather than a game-like addition to learning. That doesn’t mean that I don’t also see them as fun, it is a matter of emphasis.
Badges are only one element of gamification and I have not ventured into the other aspects, so I view myself as an educator that makes use of badges rather than a practitioner of gamification.
It is still about good pedagogy
I have learned it is important to focus on the learning, and let the badges come out of that. I hear people talk about building a curriculum with badges. I know what they mean, but we need to be careful that the pedagogy remains preeminent. Good teaching and learning doesn’t change when we introduce badges to a course. Having said that I know that the mode of assessment is a driver in curriculum delivery. Teachers tend to teach what is being assessed and if something is missing from the assessment it gets neglected in the teaching. So it is important to get the assessment right if a curriculum is to work.
Badges and 21st century skills
The curriculum in schools is divided up into subject areas like Mathematics, English, Art etc. , however, modern educators know that there are skills which cross the traditional curriculum, such as problem solving, collaboration, ethics, research etc. These skills have come to be known as 21st century skills because of their importance in the 21st century information economy. While they are considered important, fitting them into the curriculum is problematic. Regardless of the curriculum statement, the 21st century skills will get neglected if they don’t appear in a meaningful way in the assessment. On the other hand if there is a problem solving or collaboration mark on the Maths report, how is it assessed and how does it compare with the collaboration mark awarded in English? Isn’t it a wasteful duplication to be assessing that same skill in different subjects?
As I work with open badges I can see that this is an area where badges can have a real impact. They can be used to credential cross curricular skills. At the moment work is being done on ways of teaching and assessing 21st century skills. With well developed rubrics for these skills it will be possible to issue robust skill badges to students. A 21st century credential for a 21st century skill.
My early badges simply rewarded development of a specific skill in the curriculum. I now see those first attempts as somewhat naive, but they were where I needed to start at the time. Some of my students enjoyed earning those badges and I will continue to use them.
Now I would like to develop badges which are sequenced, aligned to the development of skills, guiding students forward on a journey of learning. I would like to develop badges which credential cross curricular 21st century skills.
21CLD evaluation tool
21st Century Learning Design (21CLD) is a Microsoft supported project to promote the teaching of 21st century skills. They have produced an evaluation tool and a Windows 8 app called ’21st century learning design’. These are intended to help teachers assess their learning activities and develop learning tasks that focus more effectively on 21st century skills. In simple terms a teacher can select one or more skills dimensions and follow the tool to evaluate their activity. For the purpose of this post I have chosen to look at the dimension they define as ‘Knowledge Construction’. This is a key aspect of my innovation strand. The app takes the teacher through a series of questions about the activity, to place it on one of 4 levels of increasing effectiveness. This can be seen in the following screen shot from the app. (I trust Microsoft will not mind me reproducing it.) This is only the landing page for this evaluation, once the assessment has started more information and exemplars are provided at each of the 4 stages.
Evaluating an activity
Armed with the 21CLD app I decided to evaluate a task of mine. I have run this task for a couple of years, and it is fair to say I was quite proud of it.
Description of the activity
In my Computer Graphics and Design class I wanted to cover theory and highlight connections between concepts, while at the same time give students ownership of their learning. To achieve this I decided to give the class the task of developing a wiki. After some instruction on how to use the wiki software I handed out suitable page topics at random to the students and set them to work researching and writing a page. Each lesson I would give the students another randomly assigned topic and they either started a page or contributed to the one started. The lessons are quite long so only the first 20 minutes was allocated to this task before they went back to their practical assignments. More recently I developed a digital badge to reward students for significantly contributing to the wiki pages. Overall the task went well. Students were engaged and covered a lot of theory. (If you are interested the wiki lives at http://dcdesign.wikidot.com) On the face of it this activity ticks a lot of boxes. It is well differentiated, as weaker students can contribute at their own level and be supported by the contributions of stronger students. The students are interdependent, connecting with each other’s work. They are investigating and constructing information and via the wiki links they see connections. It also forced students to think about copyright and intellectual property in a practical way.
Evaluation against 21CLD
The process of evaluation, as you will guess from the diagram above, is to work through a series of questions connected to levels of effectiveness under that dimension. It is possible to evaluate an activity against several of the dimensions, but thinking that this activity was strong in the area of knowledge construction I applied the 21CLD evaluation tool for that dimension.
- The first question was “Do learners engage in meaningful knowledge construction?”
- Reading through the documentation and exemplars provided, this activity is not ideal in this respect. Students are constructing knowledge, but in this case the knowledge is not meaningful in the sense that it is not connected with existing knowledge or experience. By distributing the topics at random I was actually breaking this connection for the students. I was asking them to work backwards and attach meaning to isolated concepts.
- My task could be stronger if I had managed to make the learning more meaningful. Perhaps if I had started with the students selecting a favourite CD cover, book or other exemple and explore that. researching the techniques used and the designer that developed it. Working from that starting point to populate the wiki. My approach was content driven, and therefore not as effective.
- The second question was “Do learners work with significant ideas, topics, questions and thinking?”
- Once again my task was hindered by the wide selection of topics. There are certain key concepts in design: the design principles, design elements and design process. While these are covered in the early part of the course they don’t shine through in this activity. It was not easy for the students to connect the learning in this activity back to the overarching concepts.
- Perhaps I could improved this activity by posting a few key wiki pages on those big ideas with links in place branching out into finer detail. Allowing students to populate those branches and work ‘outwards’ would help them connect their work to the bigger picture.
- Question 4 asked “Do learners make important connections and identify patterns?”
- While I was hoping that my students would see patterns and connections as they developed the wiki, I was not making this easy for them.
- Once again building the wiki from the big picture down to the details rather then from the details up would help strngthen the activity in this area.
- Finally “Do learners apply knowledge to new contexts?”
- As it stands this activity goes nowhere. Having covered the theory students have nothing to do with it. The final stage is to encourage the use the information in the wiki to address design problems.
So in summary, by applying the 21CLD tool I have been able to find weaknesses in my learning design and from there formulate ways in which I can make it richer and more effective in teaching knowledge construction. In this way the 21CLD tool can be used to significantly improve learning design in all the 21st century skill dimensions. Finally, my digital badge for this task was issued for significant contribution to the wiki by adding and editing pages. In retrospect this was a poorly designed badge as it doesn’t credential the aim of the learning activity. I will need to think more about the design of that badge and develop one which credentials knowledge design, or more generally innovation.