Open Badges at Don College

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:

  1. 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!”
  2. There is often an immediacy about a badge. The reward is close to the event.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

 Finally

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.

 

 

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