Category Archives: Digital Badges

Gormenghast Education

 In the Gormenghast Trilogy, Mervyn Peake paints a vivid picture of a huge and crumbling castle looming over a community. Within Gormenghast Castle the residents perform endless ritualized activities which have no relevance to the population around the castle, and even the residents of the castle can’t remember why, they just believe them to be important and not to be broken. Once a year the citizens of the village outside the walls were allowed to enter the castle and display their carvings for the castle residents. This quote describes that annual event.

Very little communication passed between the denizens of these outer quarters and those who lived within the walls, save when, on the first June morning of each year, the population of the clay swellings had sanction to enter the Grounds in order to display the wooden carvings on which they have been working during the year.

Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan

While Gormenghast is clearly a fantasy I can see certain similarities between it and our current schools. Classrooms are strange places which bear little resemblance to the world outside the school. They have their own rituals and practices which are rarely questioned.

When parents visit a classroom there is something of the atmosphere of the village people visiting Gormenghast. The atmosphere is that of people entering a space where they don’t belong. The education space is separate from their day-to-day life. Children enter this space to get an education before emerging (graduating) to enter the real adult world. Rather like butterflies emerging from the chrysalis.

Teachers find these analogies confronting. As a teacher we see schools as vibrant social spaces where children and young adults grow and develop, but this is the view from within the castle. For those looking in from the outside it appears quite different. When someone in the community thinks about a class room they often imagine something like this:

As teachers we know this is outdated. Modern secondary classrooms look like this:

The students look happier, but in my opinion, functionally the difference is small. The fact is that our K-12 schools are still based on an industrial model. They are essentially production lines where students enter in kinder and work through the curriculum in lock step, coming out the other at a graduation. It comes a surprise to many that education has not always been like this. Schools  as we know them appeared as a way of providing mass education in the 1800’s. Prior to that time education was based around community tradesmen and experts passing skills on to the young people (professional teachers were rare) and usually look more like this:

When asked to provide mass education to the community in the industrial age, the educational leaders of the time used an industrial model. They essentially developed an education factory and in industrial societies it was, and continues to be, spectacularly successful. In Australia we have emerged into a post-industrial 21st Century world. The most valued traits are now creativity, individuality, problem solving skills, communication skills, initiative and entrepreneurship. We need an educational model which encourages these 21st Century skills.

At this point you might think I am going to advocate doing away with traditional schooling. Actually no, I happen to believe that traditional/industrial schools are still a very effective way of mass educating basic skills and starting to teach 21st Century skills. They are also an excellent way for young people to develop social skills vital for surviving in our overcrowded world. In our schools students learn the limits to individuality and the communication skills and social customs which are the glue for our society. What I do want to see, however, is a change in community attitude which recognizes that learning is an integral part of life. Schools provide one type of learning important in the early years of life, but there is learning which continues outside school throughout life. This life learning allows people to adapt and enriches their life. Life learning is needed to hone and further develop 21st Century skills and learn new skills as the employment market changes. It is the life learning where people further develop their creativity, problem solving and communication skills in a real world context. In saying this I don’t want you to confuse life learning with life experience. Life experience is certainly valuable, but life learning can also be structured learning. Attending short courses, reading, practicing new skills, etc. these are the life learning experiences I am referring to.

There are a number of reasons why many in the community do not see learning as part of their life. Their experience in school, the opportunities available, cultural factors and many other things contribute to community attitudes to learning. To cover them all would require a text book rather than this short blog post. One aspect I would like to focus on is recognition of learning. Modern society places high importance on evidence and the measurement of learning. This gives institutions like schools an advantage, as they have the infrastructure to provide robust credit for the courses they offer. This in turn means that formal school-based learning is more highly valued by the community. The life learning, which is often  not supported in this way, is considered of less value and more of a hobby activity. In fact as we grow older it is the life learning that becomes more important.

To raise respect for life learning and encourage more participation, one important step, therefore, is to democratize recognition for learning. The giving of credit needs to be taken out of the exclusive control of the learning institutions and distributed to the community. One effective way of doing this is to facilitate and promote open badges in the community. Open badges are a computer image or icon which links to information about what the badge was awarded for, the issuer, the recipient and supporting evidence provided by the recipient. The badges can be shared online (social media and blogs) and through email. Using open badges it is possible to give robust credit for skills and achievements in a non-institutional context. I believe that providing an open badges infrastructure to a community so that non-institutionalized learning is recognized equally with institutional learning we will take a big step towards a learning community. A community that sees learning as a part of living rather than something associated with a period in their early life. Some communities are beginning to embrace this idea to great effect. Perhaps the best known are the Cities of Learning in the USA. Even there, however, the emphasis is on youth and I would like to see programs develop that encompass all life stages. So, in summary:

  • Our schools do their job, but they are an uncomfortable environment for most adults.
  • If we are to have a learning community, a community which views learning as part of life we need to break the association learning has with schooling.
  • In turn we need to democratize recognition and credit for learning within the community (pre-industrial model learning) so that learning outside institutions is seen on an equal footing with school learning. Open badges are an effective way of achieving that.

Gamification: Making sure the game is ‘learning’

In my last post I asked some questions about gamification using digital badges. The gist of my concern was that digital badges may become victims of their own success. Specifically, the game might end up being more about badge collecting than learning. Secondly, if badges are the driver for engagement in learning activities then students may revert back to old habits when the badges lose their novelty.

We need to be developing the 21st century skill of innovation in our students, making independent learners of them. The danger with digital badges is that students may instead become, or remain, reward  and guidance dependent learners.

So is this an argument against digital badges? Absolutely not. It is important to reward learning and digital badges are excellent rewards. The pleasure of the reward, however, must be transferred back onto the learning that took place. Students need to learn to take pleasure in learning if they are to become independent learners. I believe this can be achieved if the badges are designed well.

It is important for the badge criteria to be written to reward specific learning outcomes, that need to be demonstrated consistently. Students should know exactly what the requirements for the badge are and be able to consistently meet those requirements. In other words an element of consolidation needs to be factored into the badge. In this way students are being rewarded for learning rather than completion.

I believe it is also important to use progressions of badges, so that students are encouraged to build on prior learning. This emphasises the notion that learning is a process and also consolidates the prior learning.

Many badge systems use groups of badges to work towards a higher badge. For instance science, technology, engineering and maths badges combined earn a STEM badge. While this might be suitable for holiday programs I believe it encourages the ‘collector’ mentality and I think that the progression model is more powerful for learning.

As an example of a badge progression here are a series of badges for developing skills in collaborative problem solving:


 

Basic badge

CPS1

When solving a non-trivial problem in a collaborative context the recipient

  • Recognizes the role of others in solving problem
  • Shares resources
  • Communicates strategies to achieve a common understanding of the problem

Bronze badge

CPS2

When solving a non-trivial problem in a collaborative context the recipient

  • Shows perseverance and commitment to solving the problem together with peers
  • Approaches the problem systematically, setting goals and evaluating different strategies
  • Can make connections between different pieces of information
  • Is aware of the performance of their peers, and can see their own performance objectively

Silver badge

CPS3

When solving a non-trivial problem in a collaborative context the recipient

  • Acts with planning and purpose, drawing on prior knowledge and experience
  • Can adapt and change with new information
  • Initiates interactions and responds to contributions from peers but may not resolve differences or change plans

Gold badge

CPS4

When solving a non-trivial problem in a collaborative context the recipient

  • Assumes group responsibility for the task
  • Works through the problem efficiently using only relevant resources
  • Tailors communication and incorporates input from peers, changing plans and resolving conflict as necessary
  • Can reorganize the problem in an attempt to find a new solution path

 

Badges like these are a powerful way of developing independent learning skills in students because:

  • Each badge builds on the previous one, so that students consolidate existing skills as they move on to the next badge.
  • They can also see what the next badge is awarded for and work towards it, advancing their learning while still giving the students ownership.
  • The badges are focussed on their collaborative behaviour in the group over time, they can’t simply ‘do collaboration’ and move on.
  • The badges are hierarchical, but there is no pass/fail line. Students can enter the sequence at any point and move on to maturity in collaborative problem solving. They don’t reach a point where they can consider themselves ‘satisfactory’ in this skill.

By constructing our digital badges in this way I believe that the focus is always on continuous learning. We are therefore developing independant learning habits in our students. We are making sure that the game is learning.

Gamification? Hmmm let me think about that…

There has been a lot in the blogosphere lately about gamification. In the context of this post it involves using techniques common to computer games to promote engagement in school classrooms. This is distinct from game-based learning, which uses computer games as the medium to deliver the curriculum.

Gamification is defined as:

Gamification is the concept of applying game mechanics and game design techniques to engage and motivate people to achieve their goals.

http://badgeville.com/wiki/Gamification

So how do we gamify our classroom learning. The web site http://badgeville.com/wiki/education#how%20to%20gamify list the following methods for gamifying activities:

  • Add points to tasks that need to be completed
  • Define badges/rewards to be given out after a criteria is met
  • Create a Leaderboard to show top performers
  • Define levels to repeat tasks or to perform harder tasks
  • Earning of badges can be tied to unlocking higher levels

In a modern calssroom we usually try to avoid an excessively competative environment. As a result the practical application of gamification in a classroom generally involves establishing an ecology of digital badges which students can work towards. These badges are connected to learned competencies and students can progress through them and often combine them to achieve ‘higher’ badges. The badges can be collected and shared.

This presents a picture of students engaged in their learning as they collect badges and show them proudly to their peers and family. Activity doesn’t necessarily equate to productivity, however, and I can see some potential dangers in this.

The first issue is touched on in the last words of the definition above. “…motivate people to achieve their goals.” I love learning. I am 56 years old (shhhh…) and I still get joy out of learning new things. I wish my students were the same. When I am speaking to a disengaged student about their progress I often ask,

“What is your aim in maths class? What are you there to achieve?”

Typically the answer is,

“I want to pass maths.”

“Wrong”, I say, “if your aim is to pass then no wonder you are bored and struggling. Your aim should be to improve your maths, then if you pass or fail you are a winner and you will likely pass anyway.”

Unfortunately our system has made collectors out of many students. They collect subjects and if they can collect them easily with a minimum of learning then that is fine. If we gamify the classroom a student with that attitude will simply start collecting badges. They may collect a lot of them, but they will do this by completing badges quickly and moving on without necessarily retaining much along the way.

Now to my second concern. During my teacher training I learned about “token economies”. These are Pavlovian systems where students are rewarded for a desired behaviour with a token or reward. In this way the desired behaviour becomes more frequent. The problem with this is that sooner or later the rewards have to stop and if the underlying reason for the undesireable behaviour isn’t addressed, the student will revert back again.

Looking at gamification with badges, we need to ask ourselves what happens when the student stops getting badges, or the law of diminishing returns nullifies the reward? Will they just stop learning? In  other words the gamifiation has helped the student through a few years of education, but it has not addressed their underlying attitude to learning and they have not become innovative learners in the sense of 21st century skills.

In conclusion, I don’t want you to think I am against digital badgeing or gamification. I just think that we need to be very careful how we implement it. Gamification is effective only when the game is learning, if the game becomes badge collecting then the badges become a distraction from deep learning. How do we ensure this? Well I did say I needed to think about it.

 

Digital badges for collaborative problem solving

In my last post I suggested that although open badges are a powerful credential and those working with them are making excellent use of them, badges will struggle to find traction as a replacement for existing reporting systems.

I went on to suggest that badges were ideally suited to credential skills currently classified as 21st century skills. In this way open badges can form a parallel system to the reporting systems currently in use in most jurisdictions. While an assessment for maths provides evidence on the level of numeracy a student has reached, a badge would provide evidence of  global citizenship, research skills or collaborative problem solving. Arguably, these 21st century skills are rarer and say more about a graduate than a traditional school report.

In order to receive broad acceptance, however, the badges need to be based on an objective measure of the skill it is awarded for and in the case of 21st century skills this is difficult. Fortunately work is being done on the assessment of 21st century skills by the ATC21S project, headquartered at Melbourne University. In March of this year ATC21S released an empirical progression for collaborative problem solving, which can be the basis of an assessment rubric.

Based on the collaborative problem solving empirical progression I have developed a series of open badges, from basic (blue) through bronze, silver and gold, to recognize the level of development a student has achieved. These badges provide evidence of a student’s skill level and also identify a zone of proximal development for the student. For instance a student at the bronze level can see from the  silver level criteria what their area of development is.

Each of these levels is supported by more detailed descriptors in the ATC21S documents, but I believe the badges have more utility if a simplified version is attached to the badge, while still maintaining clear developmental stages. An assessor would refer to the more detailed descriptors when awarding a badge. In the empirical progression the basic badge corresponds to level C, the bronze badge level D, the silver badge is level E and the gold badge is at level F.

Collaborative problem solving badges

Basic badge

CPS1

When solving a non-trivial problem in a collaborative context the recipient

  • Recognizes the role of others in solving problem
  • Shares resources
  • Communicates strategies to achieve a common understanding of the problem

Bronze badge

CPS2

When solving a non-trivial problem in a collaborative context the recipient

  • Shows perseverance and commitment to solving the problem together with peers
  • Approaches the problem systematically, setting goals and evaluating different strategies
  • Can make connections between different pieces of information
  • Is aware of the performance of their peers, and can see their own performance objectively

Silver badge

CPS3

When solving a non-trivial problem in a collaborative context the recipient

  • Acts with planning and purpose, drawing on prior knowledge and experience
  • Can adapt and change with new information
  • Initiates interactions and responds to contributions from peers but may not resolve differences or change plans

Gold badge

CPS4

When solving a non-trivial problem in a collaborative context the recipient

  • Assumes group responsibility for the task
  • Works through the problem efficiently using only relevant resources
  • Tailors communication and incorporates input from peers, changing plans and resolving conflict as necessary
  • Can reorganize the problem in an attempt to find a new solution path

There still needs to be some thought put into refining these badges and techniques for assessment must be developed, but I believe that there is enormous potential for open badges in this area. As the work of developing empirical progressions for other 21st century skill areas continues, this badge system can be expanded.

Digital Badges and 21st Century Skills

Open badges

Open badges offer a method of credentialing specific skills in a number of contexts. They can be used to support professional learning, they can be used to evidence skills developed in extracurricular activities (such as holiday activities) and finally they can be used to reward classroom achievement. In the educational system I work in, however, assessment is already criterion based. It is, therefore, already possible to lay a school report alongside the subject curriculum documents to identify the level of competence a student has achieved for a particular skill. In this situation any curriculum-based badges will, to some extent, be doubling up on the existing assessment. I still issue badges for work within the curriculum and I still see value in it, but many would argue convincingly that these badges represent an unnecessary doubling up of credentials.

On the other hand curriculum documents tend to be relatively narrow and subject specific. Students in the classroom can be awarded badges for co-curricular achievement, in the sense that they credential valuable skills which are not part of the formal curriculum, but underpin the curriculum. Some might refer to these as ‘meta-skills’, such as collaboration, research and time management etc.

The problem with these co-curricular badges is that they can easily lose their value if the criteria are not well thought out. In addition, badges issued through different sources will not necessarily be comparable. For example if I issue a badge to a student for “Internet search skills” the student and I will know what that involves, but will a third party understand it the same way? Finally how does my badge compare with a simular one from the school down the road?

21st Century skills

I would like to move on from badges for a while and consider 21st century skills. The term 21st century skills is used to refer to a collection of skills which will be of particular use in a post-industrial world, where routine skills and factual recall is of less value. There is as yet no definitive list of 21st century skills, but there is a consensus that they include such things as collaboration, digital literacy, problem solving and global citizenship.

These skills are universally valued by educators, but in general they are not well served by school curriculums and assessment methods. In addition, there is currently a political agenda pushing for increased accountability for schools and a need to measure success. This is evident in the common core in the USA and NAPLAN in Australia. While accountability is important, the danger is that this emphasis on numeric measures of success, comparing students and schools, can emphasise those elements of the curriculum which are most easily quantified. In other words test marks can overshadow learning processes, so collaboration, creativity and ethics (21st century skills) end up being neglected.

Bringing this all together

In summary we have a set of 21st century skills which are universally valued, but are in danger of being neglected because they are not easily quantified. We also have a credentialing system in open badges, which recognizes competency without seeking to make comparisons. I suggest we bring these two ideas together. Instead of seeking to replace traditional school assessments with digital badges, badges provide a parallel system to provide recognition for those skills which are ultimately more important, but not easily measured in a traditional testing regime. 21st century skills can be recognized and encouraged through the badges, while the existing assessment of the subject curriculum, NAPLAN and common core testing continue to serve  their purpose, resulting in a balanced and effective education system.

The issue that remains to be addressed is the assessment of 21st century skills. I commented above that for badges to be effective they need to have well defined competencies. Fortunately there is work under way to provide an objective measure of competency for 21st century skills. A leader in this field is the ATC21S project headquartered at Melbourne University. Their particular emphasis at this stage is on the key 21st century skills of collaborative problem solving and learning in digital networks.

ATC21S have developed an empirical progression to define levels of competence at the developmental stages in collaborative problem solving. It is now possible to use this empirical progression to develop a series of digital badges recognizing competence in collaborative problem solving across the developmental stages.

So we have the tools, in the empirical progression and open badges, to begin to develop a robust credentialing system for 21st century skills. The next task is to work on defining the open badges for the existing empirical progression and as the work on teaching and assessing 21st century skills progresses, develop a badge ecology along side to assess and reward those skills.

Getting Started With Digital Badges

About Digital Badges

I have become a recent convert to digital badges. When I first heard about badges my initial response was interest, but as I have been exploring the potential I have become increasingly excited by the potential of digital badges.

First of all, for the totally unititiated; What are badges?

Those of us who are baby boomers, of even gen X, will remember their years in the boy scouts (or simular) collecting cloth badges which you sewed on your sleeve. To earn a badge you needed to demonstrate a competency (light a fire or pitch a tent etc. ) which was witnessed and authenticated by your scout master, who issued you with the badge. Digital badges are very much the same. A badge is an icon or image which links to criteria or competencies. To claim the badge evidence is sent to the issuer of the badge, who issues it via email. Once you have the badge you can display it on your social media. Anyone clicking on the badge can see what you did to earn it and who gave it to you. As such they are more fun and much more robust than merit certificates.

The best way to understand this is to look at an example. I earned this badge through New Milton High School in the USA. You can click on the image to download the information about the badge.

Students are used to this concept in the context of computer games. Game developers have a range of tricks to encourage progress in the game and engage players. One of them is to issue badges, usually referred to as trophies, which attach to their gaming profile.

As an example here is how my football tipping competition looks at the moment:

tipping

http://afltipping.westnet.com.au/

As you can see I am ranked about 3480 out of 12471. Hardly anything to bother posting on Facebook, but I have accumulated quite a number of trophies over the weeks for achieving perfect scores on a week etc. In this way the administrators of the competition provide interest, engagement and a sense of achievement for those (like me) that are not going to win anything. Badges can fill a simular function in education, providing motivation and a sense of achievement.

They are more than that though. Badges can also be a valid and robust credential. A collection of badges like the one above could be used as evidence to a future employer of my experience and expertise integrating ICT into education. A skill which is not easy to evidence with formal educational qualifications.

Be aware, though, that badges are only effective if the recipient sees value in them. There needs to be defined criteria for earning the badge, and the recipient needs to feel they have worked for it.

This idea obviously works best if there is some kind of badge standard, and a place where recipients can accumulate badges from different sources. With that in mind Mozilla have established an open badges standard. Anyone can register and establish a backpack where badges from various sources can be stored. (A virtual scout uniform sleeve if you like.) To find out about the standard and establish your own backpack go to http://openbadges.org

Mozilla have produced support and promotion material for open badges, including this clip which covers the basics of digital badges.

 

Getting started with Badges

Once I understood badges I wanted to start creating and issuing some. If your institution is committed to a badge project then the task of reading through the documentation and setting up a badge infrastructure can be handed over to your IT support. Lets be honest though, you are probably a teacher with little time and limited resources, wanting to give badges a go in your class. So how can you setup some badges for your class during your lunch break?

This was my dilemma and the solution I found was to use a web service at https://credly.com. Credly provides the tools to develop and issue your badges. It is free to register and with the tools provided it only takes minutes begin creating your own badges. You can issue the badges to recipients through email. Recipients can store them in a Credly backpack and uploaded to a Mozilla open badges backpack if they wish.

I have been issuing badges for about 6 months with great success and this is the only infrastructure I have needed.

Digital Badges – A Suggested Taxonomy

I was introduced to open badges via a tweet by Eric Sheninger, principal of New Milton high School and author or Digital Leadership: Changing Paradigms for Changing Times. He mentioned the work of Laura Fleming in providing a badge infrastructure to support staff PL. Inspired by that example I began developing and issuing digital badges to staff at Don College to credential their PL. Realizing the usefulness of badges I am now also issuing them to students in my classes.

What are Digital badges? On a simple level digital badges, also called micro-credentials, are icons linked to metadata describing the criteria needed to earn the badge, the issuer of the badge and supportive evidence. Once earned, badges can be stored online and shared via email and social media like Facebook and Linkedin. The dominant standard is now Mozilla Open Badges. This infographic from Mozilla gives an overview.

One of the things I have discovered as I work with badges is that they are not all the same. The badges issued to staff are qualitatively different to those offered to students. Many of the badges incorporated into learning management tools are different again. This is problematic, because if badges representing robust credentials are put beside ‘well done’ badges issued to grade school students, the integrity of the whole system is put into question. To overcome this a standard taxonomy for badges needs to be established to differentiate between types of badges within the open standard. The question is how should this taxonomy be defined?

Badges could be classified according to subject area or content. Cities of Learning have moved towards this with their classification of badges against STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and maths). While this works well in the context of that program it has limitations. Many valid badges could not be categorized in this way, and STEAM is not in my opinion a balanced definition, in the sense that it really comes down to STEM + everything else, implying a bias towards science and technology related content.

A natural progression from that idea is to categorize badges according to context. For example professional learning badges, high school badges, community badges etc. This shows some promise, but in my opinion the contexts themselves are not easy to categorize. With increasing use, badges will be incorporated into an increasing and changing range of contexts. In addition qualitatively different badges might be used in the same context. As such a context based taxonomy would not be stable and well defined.

To establish an effective taxonomy we need to look at the badges themselves. The first distinction I can see is that some badges are based on specific competency and others are not. The open badges standard requires that badges should contain criteria and evidences, which means that the badges are issued in recognition of a level of competency or a skill. The fact is, though, that there are good reasons for issuing badges which don’t recognize a specific measurable competency. Badges can be issued to young students as an encouragement for good work, rather like the ink stamps we used to have in grade school. People also like to issue badges to friends and colleagues for sundry social reasons. (A colleague at a recent PL meeting issued me a badge for “trying my best”.) So within our taxonomy we need to recognize two genera; competency based and non-competency-based badges.

Within the non-competency badges we have two species;

  • Encouragement badges are awarded like good work stamps to encourage (mainly) young learners.
  • Social badges are used like friendship cards, or for fun.

Competency based badges divide into three species:

  • Achievement badges are issued to credential demonstration of a specific skill or achievement. An achievement badge might be issued for running 100m in 10 seconds, for being elected class captain etc. The achievement is defined in the badge and evidences attached.
  • Skill badges are issued to credential expertise in an area. They include a series of criteria that need to be met. For example they might be issued to staff who demonstrate effective integration of an ICT package into their teaching. Skill badges differ from achievement badges in that they have more complex criteria and do not apply to a single achievement or event.
  • Mission badges are used where a person (usually a student) has embarked on a series of activities with the aim of achieving a badge. These missions are often cross curricular and involve the development of a skill followed by a culminating achievement. Mission badges occupy the area between skill and achievement badges. Not surprisingly a mission badge might be issued as the culmination of a group of related skill and achievement badges.

So there we have what I believe is a workable taxonomy, which classifies badges according to their qualities. It avoids confusion about the nature of a badge and quarantines the more robust and meaningful badge credentials from the weaker ones. In this way it preserves the integrity of the badge philosophy.

I welcome your thoughts as I am sure that there is room to refine and further develop a taxonomy for digital badges.