Class Blogs

I have been using a blog in my design class for a number of years now. I thought it might be a good idea to post about how blogs can be used and how I have mine set up. A sort of ‘Blogging 101’ for teachers.

What is a blog?

A blog (short for weblog) is an internet based technology that allows participants to post diary entries to the web site for others to read. Blog sites generally offer a free basic service which is adequate for general users. The income stream of the service providers is generated from subscribers who require advanced features such as domain registration and specialized page themes. Some providers also use advertising to generate income.
From the early blogs, which provided little more than a ‘roll’ of diary entries in order of date, modern blogs provide for embedded media and content pages accessed through menus, to provide something approaching a wiki. There is also the ability for readers to comment on entries. Integration with social media is also provided so that bloggers can link their posts to Facebook and Twitter feeds etc.
Blog sites offer a range of themes to allow bloggers to personalize their sites and make them attractive. Managing the sites is easy for a user with basic computing skills. It is possible to manage the access to a blog, but the process can be fiddly and usually it is assumed that a blog is a public document.

What are class blogs used for?

There are a number of uses for class blogs and it is important to decide on the purpose of the blog before setting it up. Possible uses include:

  • Information source for class members
  • Flexible delivery of learning materials
  • Opportunity for students to engage in communicating their ideas

Information source for class members

In this scenario the blog is used to support the classroom activities of the students. The focus is on developing a class identity and increasing engagement with the curriculum by providing further activities and interesting peripheral information. For instance links could be provided to multimedia clips on the internet and other information around the curriculum to assist students to put the core curriculum material into a broader context. There is not always time to provide that broader context in our busy curriculum, but it does help students to add meaning to the core curriculum and engage more effectively with their learning.

Flexible delivery of learning materials

Not all students find the classroom environment, with its distractions, an effective learning environment. All students benefit from thinking about the lesson content between lessons. Thirdly, at times the teacher may elect to adopt a flexible delivery mode within the class and provide a work program for students to work through at their own pace during the class time. All these needs can be provided for if the lesson content is added to a blog. In this case the structure of the blog might be different and provide for a menu so that students can browse directly to the activity or lesson material.

True flexible delivery requires that work be submitted, progress through the program is monitored and student-teacher communication be formally managed. A blog does not provide tools to adequately perform all these functions and a virtual learning environment (VLE) is required.

Student blogging

In English writing classes there is an obvious use for blogs as a tool to develop writing skills in a modern context. Blogging has become a genre in its own right and students benefit from experiencing it. In other classes, however, there is also a place for a blog.
Many teachers come from an age when privacy was a virtue and most people equated privacy with safety and freedom to some extent. Students today often lack that reserve and think nothing of throwing information about themselves ‘out there’. While young people might view the privacy of the pre-internet age as secrecy and repression, which allowed many social ills top flourish (abuse, sexism, racism), the openness of our students also supports bullying, identity theft, and other misuse of the information disclosed.
I took that brief digression to make the point that it is important when establishing a class blog to educate students in how to protect their own safety. It is important not to imbue them with paranoia, but on the other hand they need to be aware of the safe boundaries. I prepared a wiki page on cyber-safety for the staff at my college which you are free to use at

Blogging as a creative writing exercise

In this situation students will be writing about the topic of the blog, attempting to appeal to a wider audience. If this is oyur aim then students and parents should be consulted before a public blog is established. Students will not in general be posting personal information, but what they do post might still create a negative impression of them which may have consequences in the future. If there is any concern then a safer option would be to use a blog on the school intranet.

How do I get started?

The first step is to decide what the topic of the blog is and stay true to that. If there are several different purposes then consider multiple blogs. (Blog software generally allows users to establish a number of blogs under the same account.)

There are a number of free blog sites available. WordPress seems to be one of the best and most popular, and at my school ( Don College, Australia) we have standardized on that. I also like to encourage staff to use a standard theme and appearance, which gives our subject blogs a relatively consistent look and feel. In this way students readily identify the blogs as part of the college teaching program. It looks more professional as well.

An example

The blog for the Don College Computer Graphics and design class is at This blog has two aspects. The first thing you see is a traditional blog which reports once a week on the progress and direction for the classes. (Note though that lately I have not added a post, this is because we are into exams and then the long summer break will start.) Once a week is a good spacing between posts, as it maintains engagement and interest and doesn’t become tedious for the teacher writing or the student reading. It also provides an item of interest like an embedded animation which serves to attract students to the blog and inspire them a bit. The second part on the front page is a set of links to other resources. Thirdly there is curriculum content and copies of assignments etc. under the menus at the top. So that overall the blog acts as a sort of class home page where students go for information and resources they need.


In conclusion there are a number of effective ways in which blogs can be used, and with a little planning and support they are an effective way of presenting material to students and supporting their learning. They do not have the power of a fully functioned VLE but they are quite easy to set up and very easy to post information to. They are also free to use. The blog can become a sort of home space online for the class.

Teaching and assessing problem solving skills – PISA recommendations

In 2012 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), which operates under the OECD, released their evaluation of problem solving skills in 15 year old students. The study defined problem solving and established an assessment regime. They then compared the results from 65 participating economies. The full report is at

I don’t propose to critique, or even attempt to summarize the report, but as an educator there are some interesting points in it which I would like to refer to. I will be skipping through the report, highlighting what I see as key ideas for classroom teachers and mixing in a few personal observations and ideas. For the full context and supportive data you should refer back to the original report.

Importance of problem solving skills in the 21st Century

Across the countries it was found that a large majority of workers are expected solve a simple non-routine problem (taking less than 30 mins) once a week. One in ten workers are confronted on a daily basis with harder problems. Complex problem-solving skills are more in demand in the faster growing managerial and professional occupations.

A suggested explanation is that automated systems are increasingly dealing with routine problems, leaving the workers to deal with the unexpected or unfamiliar situations.

As a result we see the following trend in employment towards non-routine analytical and relational skills.

As educators preparing students for the world, we need to consider these trends. Amongst other things we need to be seeking to equip our students with the skills to thrive in non-routine problem-solving situations.

What are problem-solving skills?

In order to teach and assess problem-solving it is necessary to define the skills and understand them.

PISA defines problem-solving as:

…an individual’s capacity to engage in cognitive processing to understand and resolve problem situations where a method of solution is not immediately obvious. It includes the willingness to engage with such situations in order to achieve one’s potential as a constructive and reflective citizen.

( pg. 30)

The key domains in the definition are identified as:

  1. Cognitive domain: The problem solver needs to engage, understand and resolve the problem.
  2. Problem domain: The problem is non-routine, meaning that the goal cannot be achieved by merely applying a proviously developed solution.
  3. Affective domain: The problem solver needs willingness to tackle the problem. I would add that willingness also pre-supposes confidence and the ability to handle failure positively.

The problem solving framework defined by PISA involves three main elements, further divided into parameters or processes:

Using this framework a problem can be categorized and the problem solving process (not necessarily linear as shown) described and evaluated.

Levels of problem-solving competence

To evaluate  the level of competence of a problem-solver there needs to be a progressive developmental framework. In previous posts I have discussed the progressions to evaluate collaborative problem-solving skills proposed by the ATC21S (Melbourne University) group and 21CLD . I have summarized these down to 4 levels relevant to secondary education

PISA present 6 progressive levels of development for problem-solving:

Level 1

  • At Level 1, students can explore a problem scenario only in a limited way, but tend to do so only when they have encountered very similar situations before. Based on their observations of familiar scenarios, these students are able only to partially describe the behaviour of a simple, everyday device. In general, students at Level 1 can solve straightforward problems provided there is only a simple condition to be satisfied and there are only one or two steps to be performed to reach the goal. Level 1 students tend not to be able to plan ahead or set sub-goals.

Level 2

  • At Level 2, students can explore an unfamiliar problem scenario and understand a small part of it. They try, but only partially succeed, to understand and control digital devices with unfamiliar controls, such as home appliances and vending machines. Level 2 problem-solvers can test a simple hypothesis that is given to them and can solve a problem that has a single, specific constraint. They can plan and carry out one step at a time to achieve a sub-goal, and have some capacity to monitor overall progress towards a solution.

Level 3

  • At Level 3, students can handle information presented in several different formats. They can explore a problem scenario and infer simple relationships among its components. They can control simple digital devices, but have trouble with more complex devices. Problem-solvers at Level 3 can fully deal with one condition, for example, by generating several solutions and checking to see whether these satisfy the condition. When there are multiple conditions or inter-related features, they can hold one variable constant to see the effect of change on the other variables. They can devise and execute tests to confirm or refute a given hypothesis. They understand the need to plan ahead and monitor progress, and are able to try a different option if necessary.

Level 4

  • At Level 4, students can explore a moderately complex problem scenario in a focused way. They grasp the links among the components of the scenario that are required to solve the problem. They can control moderately complex digital devices, such as unfamiliar vending machines or home appliances, but they don’t always do so efficiently. These students can plan a few steps ahead and monitor the progress of their plans. They are usually able to adjust these plans or reformulate a goal in light of feedback. They can systematically try out different possibilities and check whether multiple conditions have been satisfied. They can form an hypothesis about why a system is malfunctioning, and describe how to test it.

Level 5

  • At Level 5, students can systematically explore a complex problem scenario to gain an understanding of how relevant information is structured. When faced with unfamiliar, moderately complex devices, such as vending machines or home appliances, they respond quickly to feedback in order to control the device. In order to reach a solution, Level 5 problem-solvers think ahead to find the best strategy that addresses all the given constraints. They can immediately adjust their plans or backtrack when they detect unexpected difficulties or when they make mistakes that take them off course.

Level 6

  • At Level 6, students can develop complete, coherent mental models of diverse problem scenarios, enabling them to solve complex problems efficiently. They can explore a scenario in a highly strategic manner to understand all information pertaining to the problem. The information may be presented in different formats, requiring interpretation and integration of related parts. When confronted with very complex devices, such as home appliances that work in an unusual or unexpected manner, they quickly learn how to control the devices to achieve a goal in an optimal way. Level 6 problem-solvers can set up general hypotheses about a system and thoroughly test them. They can follow a premise through to a logical conclusion or recognise when there is not enough information available to reach one. In order to reach a solution, these highly proficient problem-solvers can create complex, flexible, multi-step plans that they continually monitor during execution. Where necessary, they modify their strategies, taking all constraints into account, both explicit and implicit.

I believe that this progressive development is sufficient basis for an assessment rubric and to establish zones of proximal development for students, which is the first step towards developing an educational process for teaching and assessing problem-solving. Test questions have also been developed and they can be viewed at .


Analyzing their assessment results PISA found that some countries were doing better than others at teaching problem-solving skills. On this basis they were able to make recommendations on improving education in this area. There were suggestions for improving educational policy, but I have adapted the following 5 points from their recommendations, which can be implemented at the classroom level. I suggest you refer to the original document for a more detailed discussion.

Don’t teach solutions

In general problem solving is taught by focusing on rule-based solutions. This is most obvious in Mathematics education. This is really a two step process, the first step being formulation of the problem from a messy real-world scenario, the second step is the application of the solution. Once the solution path is established the rest of the process can be automated, so it is the first step that is the more valuable skill.

In order to assist students to develop skills in problem analysis and solution formulation they need to be exposed to numerous real-world problems.

In the language of ATC21S this means exposing students to real-world problem spaces so that they learn to develop, evaluate and select solutions. Presenting students with restricted problem spaces leading to defined solution paths is not developing effective problem-solving skills.

Teach for skill transfer by looking for connections

problem-solving skills developed in one domain do not readily transfer into another domain. Teachers can assist this transfer by using diagrams and illustrations to highlight the similarity between strategies across domains rather than the superficial differences of jargon or context.

In practice this might involve finding the similarities in the design process when designing a house or a prom dress, or calculating loads on roof trusses and optimum tacking angles for a yacht. These pairs of problems seem superficially different, but the problem spaces have things in common.

Skills are best developed in meaningful contexts

People are less likely to transfer isolated pieces of knowledge than they are to transfer parts of well-integrated hierarchical knowledge structures. The more connections a learner sees between the learning environment and the outside world, the easier the transfer will be.

( pg 121 )

Teachers need to be prepared to look at the real world, particularly the world that students live in. I have always been aware that this helps with the affective domain in problem solving (willingness and persistence), but the evidence shows that it also assists with the cognitive domain by aiding skill transfer across contexts.

Encourage metacognition

Students need to be encouraged to think about how they are thinking about a problem. Self awareness through the process is extremely powerful in developing problem-solving skills.

This can be encouraged by “thinking aloud” sequences. Solving problems in a collaborative setting is also a way of encouraging this, particularly if the communication is managed. For example if students are placed in the situation where they are collaborating through a network chat session it encourages them to communicate their thinking explicitly to one another. It also records that communication for later analysis and discussion. ATC21S made use  this strategy in their work. I have also explored this using etherpad.

Teachers also need to be courageous enough to model this behavior for the students. Because of their familiarity with the subject teachers tend to model problem-solving as a routine activity with their classes, simply because they generally go into class knowing how to solve all the problems. It is not a bad idea to sometimes attack a problem that the teacher does not know how to solve.

Utilize the visual arts

The visual arts are often devalued by teachers, particularly teachers of the core disciplines like Maths and Literacy, as a place where real problem-solving does not happen. The visual arts can be a powerful vehicle for developing problem-solving skills. On a superficial level students are learning skills and techniques, but on a deeper level participating in the visual arts involves:

  • Envisioning: Students are asked to envision what they cannot observe directly.
  • Observing: The skill of careful observation is taught.
  • Reflecting: Teachers often encourage reflection by asking open-ended questions about the work. Students are therefore encouraged to develop metacognitive awareness of their work.
  • Engaging and persisting: Students tackle projects which engage them, and they need to persist through frustration as they refine and develop their skill with the medium.
  • Stretching and exploring: Students stretch themselves and take risks in producing their work.

So the visual arts are a powerful context in which to teach the basic problem-solving tools.


This post constitutes a summary of what I learned form the PISA report. It has given me a lot to think about as I evaluate my teaching practice. 21st Century skills, like problem-solving, are the key to future success for our students. Effectively teaching them is as challenging as it is worthwhile and work by PISA, ATC21S and 21CLD are showing the way for classroom teachers like yours truly.



Badge Taxonomy – Badge Alliance consultation overview

Let me start by making it clear that I have not personally been involved with the Badge Alliance working groups. As an impartial observer I am free to congratulate them on the progress they have made. The report on the first cycle of consultation is at

Having posted in the past on badge taxonomy I was particularly interested in their comments on that. Under Badges for Educators & Professional Development the working group made the following recommendation:

[To]…Loosely standardize a set of badge types. This would not dictate the content of the badge (i.e. assessment), but the class of badges or the general type of activity/assessment it represents. This would help educators, administrators and employers more easily anticipate the value or weight of various badges, and ensure some commonalities in experience across different badge systems.

Potential examples:

◦Participation/Attendance – a badge for attending a conference or seminar, participating in an online community or event. No assessment other than proof of attendance/participation.

◦Skill – a badge representing a distinct skill. Assessment is tied to demonstration of that skill.

◦Achievement – a badge representing a completed set of activities or a set of skills. May have a number of skill badges that ‘stack’ to an achievement badge, or unlock access to it. Assessment involves demonstration of the sub-activities or skills, and perhaps some expression of the cumulative learning.

◦Specialty – a badge representing an interest area, area of training or skill set. Assessment is most likely tied to demonstration of the sub-skills, but also includes evidence from educator’s own experiences and approaches.

◦Peer/Social – a badge representing qualities or skills, awarded peer-to-peer. Assessment is peer review/recognition.

◦Community – a badge representing behaviors, values and roles within a particular community. Badges are defined and issued by members of that community to reflect values, behaviors and roles that are important to them.

These categories are more refined and expanded than my initial definitions. I do have a couple of comments though.

In my taxonomy I used the term “mission” badges where the badge alliance have referred to “achievement” badges. I still prefer the term mission badge, as it speaks to me more of engaging in a process or journey to achieve the badge. To me an achievement is more suggestive of a ‘one off’, and I reserved that term for badges that mark specific achievements, such as breaking sports records etc. On the other hand these are just names, would a rose by any other name smell any less sweet?

I like the idea of the community badge, participation badge and the specialty badge.

Overall I congratulate the badge alliance on their work and I encourage you to read through all the recommendations.

Flipping classes using Edpuzzle

This year I have been reading about flipped classes. I must say that I am amused by this term. Here in Australia “flipping” is used as a softer version of another less socially acceptable “F” word, as in “He is a flipping idiot!”. As a result, talk about flipping maths classes might generate some smirks or raised eyebrows amongst my peers.

For the uninitiated this is what flipping classes really means. Typical (teacher centered) teaching involves using class time to teach new material and homework to practice and consolidate. In a flipped class students cover the new material in their own time before class and class time is spent on practice and consolidation. Flipping classes is made possible by the availability of online multimedia resources. The advantages are that the teacher can spend less time teaching from the front and more time providing individual help to students. More able students can move ahead more quickly while less able students have improved access to the teacher.

This is a great idea, but so far I haven’t done much with it. I guess my resistance comes down to two main points. Firstly it takes significant time to prepare or find suitable resources. Secondly I don’t really trust my students to do the pre-class work. If I turn up to class and discover half of them didn’t bother to do the preparative work, then I need to rewrite my lesson plan on the fly.

Recently I have discovered a tool which makes flipping more convenient. EDpuzzle allows me to take clips from any online source (or one of my own) and annotate them at particular points with comments, questions or commentary. I can create classes within EDpuzzle and it will record the responses of my students so I can tell before class who has watched the video and how well they understand the content.

There are other services that do the same sort of thing, such as Blubbr, but I found EDpuzzle to be very easy and flexible to use. I sat down and was immediately able to work up this simple 5 minute flipped lesson presentation ( ) There are a lot of other examples on the EDpuzzle site. In fact all work is available to all users of the site, so a teacher can use the search function to find suitable presentations prepared by other teachers.

So the advantages of flipping lessons with EDpuzzle are:

  1. You arrive at class knowing who already has a good grasp of the topic and who needs extra help.
  2. You spend less time speaking from the front and more time on individual assistance.
  3. Students that miss classes have the capacity to catch up more easily.
  4. It makes viewing clips fully interactive rather than passive.
  5. You don’t have to do the marking.
  6. The data collected by EDpuzzle can inform your reporting on things like participation and effort.
  7. The EDpuzzles can be embedded in a VLE and used over and over by classes.

I now have no more excuses and I will be starting to flip more of my lessons in the new school year.

Badge Taxonomy – further thoughts

In a post earlier this year I voiced some thoughts on a taxonomy for open badges. In this entry I proposed that open badges needed some categorization to maintain their utility and integrity. To this end I suggested that badges be classified according to genera and species (to steal terms for biology and maintain the taxonomical feel)
I proposed dividing badges into badges based on a competency and those not based on a measurable competency.

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.

Flavio Escribano has since extended this concept of badge taxonomy , including my nascent thoughts and those of Charla Long at Lipscomb University, and developed a more robust classification for badges.

Long describes an excellent badge system implemented at Lipscomb University. They have 7 badges categories further divided into 41 competencies, each measured at 4 levels of achievement, giving rise to 164 badges. The 41 competencies are identified workforce skills and my impression is that the badge ecosystem at Lipscomb is designed to map college education to the  requirements of employers with more granularity than the traditional credentials.

Escribano introduces the idea of the BadgeRank and the BadgeScore. The BadgeRank is a number based on the rank of the badge developed from the rank of the institution, the position of the badge in the institutional ecosystem, the teacher etc. The BadgeScore is based on the BadgeRank, but also takes into account the context in which it will be used. In other words the BadgeScore considers things such as the relevance of a badge to an employer or the desired career path of the earner.

Extending and generalizing the system at Lipscomb, Escribano proposes that badges be categorized according to fields, competencies and categories:

As you can see from this graphic the system proposed also provides for badges to credential a mix of these parameters to varying degrees.

So in summary, a huge amount of work has gone into improved ways to categorize and improve the robustness of digital badges.

My thoughts

As you will gather from the title my objective with this post is not to simply provide an overview of developments in badge taxonomy, but to document how my thinking has developed in response to this work.

I will start by saying that I am very impressed by the work of Long, Escribano and others. It is not my intention to present a critique of their work. These are merely my thoughts in response.

Taxonomy vs. Ecosystem

In my reading it looks to me as if there is some confusion around these terms. I will go out on a limb and say that they are not synonymous and I would define them as follows:


A way of classifying different types of badges into groups. These groups are broad and refer to the general characteristics of the badges. I have suggested taxonomical groups as Skill badges, Achievement badges, etc. Taxonomic classification would be a property of all badges.


A way of defining the interrelationship between badges. How they span the curriculum/competencies and the levels of competence from novice to mastery. In biology, ecology only has meaning in the context of an ecosystem. Similarly, a badge ecology only makes since within an institution or educational system.

The systems proposed by Long and Escribano are very good, but I think that much of what they describe is ecology rather than taxonomy. As such they would be difficult to apply to the secondary school curriculum I follow.

Having said that I believe that badge ecology is a much more interesting problem than taxonomy. Sample ecologys need to be developed and shared so that institutions can easily develop their own robust ecology.

BageRank and BadgeScore

This is a powerful idea. I have written previously about the need to make badges comparable, but this is the first attempt I have seen to quantify badges for comparison across institutions. Having said that, it seems to me that the BadgeRank is quantifying information which is largely already in the metadata. When someone presents a badge I will be able to look at the issuing institution, the competencies and the level of competence in the metadata and make a good assessment of the value of the badge (essentially the BadgeScore). If I am presented with a number I will not know what to make of it without a lot of interpretive documentation anyway.

As a secondary school teacher I am not going to be very interested in the BadgeRank and BadgeScore, but colleges and universities are much more preoccupied with these things.


I have written before that achievement badges are of limited use educationally. Achievement badges allow students to mark milestones, but they don’t support the continued development of skills. In order for students to recognize achievement and also be guided forward through stages in skill development there needs to be a series of levels of skill badges built into the badge ecology.


I am excited by the amount of thought going into open badge development. Some powerful and sophisticated ideas are coming forward, particularly in relation to badge ecology. The work I have discussed here typifies that.

My final observation is that most of this work, for various reasons, is being lead by colleges and universities. Other institutions are deploying badges, but usually (based on my reading) achievement badges with little or no ecological context. I agree that badge ecology is vital, but it might be a pity to find growth and development of badge ecology dominated by higher education institutions.

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 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.


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.



Evaluating a learning activity under 21CLD

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.) 21cld knowledge construction 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 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.    

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


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


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


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


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.

So how do we gamify our classroom learning. The web site 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.


What are 21st Century skills?

In previous posts I have side-stepped giving an exact definition of 21st Century skills. To be fair on myself, there is some debate about what they are and definitions like this are difficult to pin down. It is a bit like trying to define a dog, they are all different, but you just know one when you see one.

For my purposes it is important to find a definition which is broad enough to include current thinking from a range of sources, but clear enough to be useful.

One definition which is gaining support at the moment is provided by ATC21S, and Microsoft have also produced a list of skill areas as a basis for their 21st Century Learning Design initiative (previously called Leap21).


21CLD lists 6 dimensions of 21st century learning.

  • Collaboration

Working in collaboration with others and in teams.

  • Knowledge construction

The ability to go beyond what has been learned to generate ideas.

  • Self regulation

Taking responsibility for their life and their on-going learning

  • Real-world problem-solving and innovation

Adaptability, creativity and balancing requirements and constraints to solve problems.

  • Use of ICT for learning

The ability to leverage ICT to enhance life and learning.

  • Skillful communication

Actively participate in society and learning through enriching communication.

The descriptors are my abreviations and you should refer to the site for a more detailed explanation.

21CLD has provided sample learning activities and a rubric to evaluate classroom activities against these 21st century competencies. This information is available on the web site above, or through the 21st Century Learning Design app (available from the Microsoft appstore).


This project defined the following list of 10 21st century skills.

  • Critical think and problem solving
  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Information literacy
  • ICT literacy
  • Citizenship
  • Life and career
  • Personal and social responsibility
  • Creativity and innovation
  • Learning to learn

The ATC21S group is looking at how these skills can be taught and assessed. For this purpose they are combining the skills into broader areas. To date they have done extensive work on teaching and assessing collaborative problem solving, which is a combination of the first three skills in their list.


Looking at the two lists above it is obvious that they cover the same broad skill set, only differing in the way in which they divide up the skills. This is true of all the major attempts to define 21st century skills.

The ATC21S list of 10 skills is more granular than it needs to be. The skills are so inter-related that attempting to assess them all in isolation would be difficult, complex and ultimately unnecessary. For instance how would we separate personal and social responsibility from citizenship, and do we really need to in developing a learning activity? This has been recognized by the ATC21S group and they have incorporated their skills into sets of related skills, for instance critical thinking/problem solving, communication and collaboration, as inter-related skills, have been placed under the umbrella collaborative problem solving.

Looking at the lists of skills and extending from the groups of skills used by ATC21S, I can see 4 broad areas which could be credentialed as a series of badges:

Collaboration skills
  • critical thinking/problem solving (ATC21S)
  • communication (ATC21S) (21CLD)
  • collaboration (ATC21S) (21CLD)
  • real-world problem-solving and innovation (21CLD)
Information skills
  • information literacy (ATC21S)
  • ICT literacy (ATC21S)
  • use of ICT for learning (21CLD)
Community skills
  • personal and social responsibility (ATC21S)
  • life and career (ATC21S)
  • citizenship (ATC21S)
  • self regulation (21CLD)
Innovation skills
  • creativity and innovation (ATC21S)
  • learning to learn (ATC21S)
  • knowledge construction (21CLD)

As a practicing teacher I am excited by the prospect of using the work of the ATC21S group to move on in teaching and assessing 21st century skills, with the 21CLD resources to assist with designing rich learning activities to support that learning. All this could be overlaid with a robust and criterion referenced digital badge ecology, so that students can earn credentials under these 4 broad areas, and take them out into the world.