Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Introducing Digital Badges Within and Around Universities

Dan Hickey
Sheryl Grant from HASTAC recently posted a detailed summary of resources about uses of digital badges in higher education.[1] It was a very timely post for me as I had been asked to draft just such a brief by an administrator at Indiana University where I work.  Sheryl is the director of social networking for the MacArthur/Gates Badges for Lifelong Learning initiative.  Her job leaves her uniquely knowledgeable about the explosive growth of digital badges in many settings, including colleges and universities.  In this post, I want to explore one of the issues that Sheryl raised about the ways badges are being introduced in higher education, particularly as it relates to Indiana’s Universities.
IU President McRobbie

Digital Badges at Indiana University?
As someone who sees huge potential in digital badges as recognition of learning and accomplishments, I was pleased that IU President Michael McRobbie mentioned them in his recent 2012 State of the University speech.  IU promises to be a fertile environment for exploring the potential of digital badges.  Consider, for example:

          IU was instrumental in the development of the Sakai open-source course management system, under the leadership of Brad Wheeler, IU Vice President for Information Technology and CIO. The open-source ethos behind Sakai is consistent with the vision of the Mozilla Foundation who is responsible for the Open Badges Infrastructure (OBI).
         President McRobbie (who was formerly a Professor of Informatics) recently announced an $8M initiative called IU Online.  This initiative is being led by Barbara Bichelmeyer, a Professor in IU’s top rated Instructional Systems Technology program. As elaborated below, the university is carefully considering the role that badges might play in this effort.
         Indiana IST Professor Curt Bonk is an internationally known proponent of massive open online courses.  MOOCs are one of the most promising contexts for introducing digital badges in higher education.
         The International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning was launched from IU, and IU remains a major center of SOTL work.  The SOTL community could provide the sort of multi-disciplinary consideration needed to identify and refine the appropriate uses of badges in academic programs.

In previous blog post, I outlined some of the questions that universities might ask before introducing digital badges.  One obvious question is: where to start?.  One of the things Sheryl pointed to in a comment on her blog is that faculty members and other university educators are working in and around universities to implement badges.  This is particularly interesting to me because the way that badges are introduced will impact how institutions learn to use badges.  This has consequences for how those badging practices impact student learning.

Working Around Universities to Implement Digital Badges
Sheryl’s post links to a bunch of higher educators who are introducing badges on their own.  I have been experimenting with issuing badges that say Indiana University in my small doctoral seminar.  IU Learning Sciences Ph.D. student Sophia Bender and I were recently interviewed about this in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. While the article’s title implied I was replacing grades with badges, I am actually just supplementing the existing grading structure. It is something that educators who are curious about digital badges should try.  It is an easy way for any educator to experience how it feels to make detailed claims about learning that your students might share with others over Twitter or Facebook.

A more formal badging effort is underway at IU’s InCNTRE networking lab.  They offer a ten-week summer internship program called Summer of Networking and a day-long workshop on OpenFlow networking technology.  InCNTRE Training Coordinator Steven Wallace recognizes that badges are a natural extension of the existing certificates the inCNTRE lab offers.  Badges can easily provide detailed information about the programs that participants can share with others.  This should increase the credibility of that evidence of accomplishment and help InCNTRE attract new participants.  These workshops are non-accredited and take place outside of the formal academic programs of the IU School of Informatics.  So implementing these badges is a relatively straightforward affair.

Working Within Universities to Implement Digital Badges
Sheryl’s post also highlights more formal efforts to implement digital badges in higher education within accredited academic programs.  Readers who have been involved in efforts to reform accountability in academic programs know that this gets very complicated very quickly.  As I argued in a previous post, changing accountability usually changes assessment, and changing assessment often calls for changes in instruction.

One of the most ambitious formal efforts so far is the Passport System recently unveiled at Purdue University. I don't know much about Passport beyond the relatively straightforward technology components that they have created to allow instructors to create and issue OBI-compatible badges.  Indiana IST graduate Bill Watson helped design the system.  I assume that Dr. Watson and others are working through some of the complex (but consequential) accountability issues as they field applications of up to 200 instructors to participate in beta tests of the system.  This promises to be quite a test bed.

This post is an initial salvo in my effort to convince Purdue to systematically document the badge design policies that emerge in this effort.  This might be potentially more far-reaching than the badge design principles that my graduate students and I are documenting in the DML Design Principles Documentation project. My project is documenting the reasoning behind the 30 MacArthur/Gates initial plans and practices for using badges. We are drawing on research in software design that captures this useful knowledge before it “evaporates” as features evolve and teams dissolve.  In a similar fashion, reasoning behind initial badging policies will be difficult to recover as policies evolve and committees dissolve. This knowledge will be invaluable to other institutions that are introducing digital badges.

President McRobbie's Approach to Instructional Innovation
It will be interesting to see how digital badges are incorporated in the IU Online initiative.  President McRobbie seems to have tied them closely to MOOCs in his 2012 State of the University address:

This new initiative will accelerate the development and delivery of targeted quality graduate professional programs on the core campuses, joint undergraduate programs on the regional campuses, key gateway courses university-wide, experimental massive open online courses—so-called MOOCs—and educational badges, in order to address Indiana’s economic and professional development needs, and to extend the university’s national and international reach. It will also help with the systematic evaluation and development of new technologies that will underpin the new directions in online education, and coordinate how IU can benefit from economies of scale in deploying these technologies across the university.

Touching on the distinction raised above above, McRobbie indicated that the initiative:

recognizes that the distinction between “traditional” and “non-traditional” students is increasingly blurred and that it no longer makes sense to use different strategies to reach them. It recognizes that all the online courses and degrees must be owned by the schools and campuses as online education is becoming an increasingly fundamental and integral part of what they do.

But he acknowledged the need for caution:

However, as we vigorously move forward with IU Online, we must nevertheless also maintain a skeptical and questioning approach—as is appropriate for a university—to some of the wilder claims being made about online education

As someone who is dismayed by explosive growth of truly awful online instruction, I appreciate these concerns. I was inspired by McRobbie's closing quote on the topic in comments that C. L. Max Nikias, president of USC made to his faculty in an August 2012 memorandum:

The Internet's first wave in the 1990s resulted in a dot-com bubble that was inflated by a fixation on the total number of users that a company's website could collect, rather than the true value that was created through a viable business model. Online education similarly lends itself to a focus on large numbers—yet there is scant evidence that free online classes or viral lectures produce worthy educational or career outcomes. [Our] academic community recognizes, at key inflection points within the development of higher education, that there is a difference between data and wisdom; between mere information and deep insight; and between knowledge disseminated and knowledge absorbed and appreciated. Our goal will always be to produce true academic value, for the fullest benefit of our students (emphasis added).

I really like the sentiment and tone of this observation. While it references the need for evidence, it does not endorse the dreary test-prep practices that currently dominate online education. For me, the highlighted points lobby against a simplistic "what works" search for "best practices" for increasing scores on static tests of content knowledge. 

McRobbie's words leave me with optimism for the IU Online initiative and the broader policies and practices that will follow. While some of us innovators may chafe under some of the restrictions that will likely emerge, these words imply a sensible, balanced approach that makes sense for an institution that has been around for nearly 200 years.

[1] For the latest examples check out the Scoop.it that Sheryl  maintains or another one for professional credentialing and for higher education.


  1. knowledge gained or competencies achieved have, in most instances, a half-life. Badges, like any other evaluation follow this same rule. In today's pressure towards a college degree, the rather jaded model, but one which has some truth, is cram, exam, dump and on to the next class/test, etc. Badges are particularly vulnerable because they are usually specific and often a subset or a needed part of a larger experience (collection of badges in scouting are a paradigmatic example). Badges or other assessments without some "use-it" or "loose-it" measure seem to have lesser value than current grades in courses which are usually more holistic. Badges have all the properties and concerns raised by Alfie Kohn in his volume, Punished by Rewards. IU would be well advised to tread cautiously through the hype of the MacArthur/Gates enthusiasm and take a more considered, and potentially more rewarding approach by avoiding badges in their current embodiment, this post not withstanding

    1. Tom--
      I am not sure where to start. It is late and I want to reply but I am so weary of this issue. All of the data that alphie cites and in most of the self-determination research was collected in controlled studies or impoverished classroom where the was no feedback or way to improve. Badge are being used in very different ecosystems. How can a badge that is associated with extensive feedback and accomplishment AND that unlocks new opportunity lave the earner feeling like a pawn. It is silly from my perspecive, which is outlined at http://www.education.com/reference/article/sociocultural-theories-of-motivation/ as of a few years ago

    2. Tom--
      Sorry for the typos! It was indeed quite late when I wrote that. See my comment below. I wonder what you think. How do you assess learning outcomes in whatever context you teach in? What would you put in a badge as evidence of accomplishment or potential? What hyperlinks would you add?

  2. Hi, Dan. I need to look over more of your posts to get a better understanding of what you have in mind, but I think we should talk. I'd like to have a better idea of your vision for and how you are currently using badges as well as discuss your ideas of documenting the emerging policies at Purdue surrounding Passport and its implementation. Drop me a line, and we can see about setting up a time to talk things over!

    1. Cool. Thanks for writing bill. I think it is great that Purdue dove in the way it did. I may be up your way in the next month or so. I would love to just sit in on the meeting where instructors who have decided to use badges figure out how they are going to implement them. I hope somebody on the inside will start blogging about it. IUB is defining policies for educational badges in the abstract; you folks are doing in in context. Very different. Good luck!

  3. Kyke Peck got stumped by the fincke Kaptca. so here is his comment:

    Hi, Dan. Thanks again for sharing your thinking about Digital badges. I really liked the quote from C. L. Max Nikias that reminded us not to get too starry-eyed about a focus on large numbers. Although I do think that the MOOC movement's goals of extending a college level education to people who can't otherwise participate is a very noble goal, I also understand that their work will result in major enhancements in the way online courses work.

    I also see more value in badges than others currently do. I agree with your statement that "changing accountability usually changes assessment, and changing assessment often calls for changes in instruction," andI believe that they will do just that, helping to elevate the quality of what will happen in tomorrow's higher education classrooms. Imagine if every professor identified at least three things that were viewed as important enough to define well, assess well, and certify that students had learned. Students would benefit, potential employers would benefit, and if these outcomes reflected higher-order skills and abilities not easily developed online, face-to-face classes would be better able to distinguish their value.

    Thanks again for stimulating our thinking.


    1. I meant finicky but finkcke seems like a word that would end up in a Kaptcha. I really need to proofread better!

      I LOVE your suggestion Kyle. It is a really good thought experiment. It really makes me think that I should submit a workshop proposal for upcoming conferences on doing just that. Mozilla is doing a great job making it easy to issue badges; doing a workshop where groups of teachers and faculty with similar interests knock their heads together while figuring out exactly what information they would put in the OBI-metadata fields, including what the hyperlinks would link to would be really helpful--even if they did not end up actually issuing the badges!

      I tried to convey a sense of the experience of designing and issuing badges in my earlier posts about my graduate seminar. I got a sense of it when we created badges for our Hackjam (http://remediatingassessment.blogspot.com/2012/06/three-firsts-bloomingtons-first-hackjam.html).

    2. As usual Kyle, you have really gotten me thinking….

      This all has me thinking about newer embodied notions of knowing and learning. Most of work reflects an assumption that many of the problems in education are the result of focusing on abstract concepts and isolated skills that are removed from meaningful contexts. More on that later

      But it feels to that the concerns that Tom Abeles raised above and that have been expressed by many others are being raised at a very abstract level, not anchored in the actual context of designing and issuing badges in a specific ecosystem. Furthermore, it seems like the many studies of incentives were conducted in sterile disembodied context, either laboratories or very controlled classrooms, set up to flesh out the nuances of two antithetical theories for the way individuals learn. Now when I go back and look at the earlier studies of the “overjustification effect” there is so little feeback and opportunity to improve that they look like educational malpractice. In the 1970s and early 80’s “feedback” was a central practice in the behaviorist paradigm, so the cognitivists who were doing battle with that paradigm seem to have eschewed studying feedback.

      Perhaps this is why so many educators end up simply ignoring both the cognitivist's prohibitions and the behaviorist's prescriptions for using incentives. Instead they just use them willy-nilly, without an eye towards the different potential negative consequences that the two theories worry about. I think this would be a terrible outcome for digital badges. I am pretty excited about revisiting all of this research literature for the design principles for using badges to motivate learning that we uncover in the design principles database project.

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