Sunday, March 11, 2012

Initial Consequences of the DML 2012 Badges for Lifelong Learning Competition

Daniel T. Hickey

The announcement of the final awards in MacArthur’s Badges for Lifelong Learning competition on March 2 was quite exciting. It concluded one of the most innovative (and complicated) research competitions ever seen in education-related research. Of course there was some grumbling about the complexity and the reviewing process. And of course the finalists who did not come away with awards were disappointed. But has there ever been a competition without grumbling about the process or the outcome?

A Complicated Competition
The competition was complicated. There were over 300 initial submissions a few months back; a Teacher Mastery category was added at the last minute. Dozens of winners of Stage 1 (Content and Program) and Stage 2 (Design and Tech) went to San Francisco before the DML conference to pitch their ideas to a panel of esteemed judges.


After what must have been a terrifically complicated matching process, Stage 1 and Stage 2 winners were paired up. This yielded the final Stage 3 winners who would actually be awarded grants to carry out the work.

The list of funded proposals reveals some terrific ideas. As an assessment researcher, I am particularly excited about the intended broader consequences of the proposed badging practices beyond simply awarding badges. See David Theo Goldberg’s recent post about the broader goals of the initiative. And of course, the unintended consequences (both positive and negative) will be even more interesting and are likely to be even more far reaching. I agree with Cathy Davidson when she suggested that we may well look back on this competition as a "tipping point" for digital media and learning. I will begin summarizing the intended consequences and speculating about the unintended consequences in posts to follow. Before that I want to consider the consequences of this initiative before the awards were even announced.

The Indirect Consequences of the Competition
The parade of directors and department heads from DOE, NASA, Veterans Affairs, and elsewhere at the September 2011 launch event suggested that this initiative was going to have some impact. Given that other education funding agencies routinely spend far more on a single project, this level of attention for a $2M competition must have raised some eyebrows in DC (more at

By compelling over 300 individuals and teams to draft proposals in the first place, DML generated tremendous interest in the very idea of open badges. Then the Stage 1 and Stage 2 winners clearly invested a lot of additional energy into these ideas. I spoke with a number of Stage 1 winners at the conference who indicated that they hoped to pursue their proposed effort regardless of whether they were funded. And this gets at the transformational/disruptive potential of badges.

Badges as a Useful Disruption
On one hand, it is simple to add open badges to an existing educational ecosystem. With the Open Badges Interface (OBI) being developed by Stage 3 awardee Philipp Schmidt and Peer 2 Peer University, virtually anybody should be able to easily offer digital badges for accomplishments. By structuring and simplifying the peer reviewing process, communities will be able to negotiate criteria and establish validity and value.

But there is more to it. Barry Joseph of Global Kids put it perfectly at the end of the meeting:
"Introducing badges into an educational ecosystem is like developing a new website within a company or an organization.” Barry explained how the seemly simple process of creating a website often reveals unexamined sources of power and information, and forces communities to explicate reams of previously tacit information. Introducing badges forces learning organizations to do the same. Simply drafting a Stage 1 proposal surely led those proposers to consider and reconsider how learning was being acknowledged and rewarded. (BTW, stay tuned for an important announcement from Global Kids in this regard).

Return on Investment
In any socio-historical context, the energy that DML catalyzed around open badges would be a noteworthy development. This development is even more notable when juxtaposed with test-based accountability, with its focus of exceedingly narrow kinds of learning and corrosive use of rewards and punishment. It seems that the structure and community that emerged with just the competition phase was an unprecedented outcome. Given that other agencies and foundations routinely commit far more funds to community building efforts that often fizzle, this seems like a pretty wise investment.

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