Tuesday, September 17, 2013

In Theory and In Practice: Digital Badges in Education and the Challenges that Arise.

This post is an article by Roshni Verghese about badges that features an interview with Cliff Manning and Lucy Neale of DigitalMe .  The article describes the possibilities and challenges of incorporating digital badges into Supporter to Reporter (S2R), a program designed to introduce young sports enthusiasts in the UK to sports reporting.

The notion of “badges” in education has come a long way since they were first pinned onto boy scouts. Pushing the recognition of learning and accomplishment into a web enabled environment are digital badges, which are virtual tokens that can contain detailed evidence of practical educational accomplishments. The idea of a digital badge is no longer unknown, especially amongst those engaged in educational research and digital technology.  Spurred on by major support from the MacArthur Foundation and the leadership of Mozilla, moving badges from an interesting idea to widely recognized and valued credential now calls for intense attention.

Most people find it hard to disagree with the benefits of web-enabled credentials, particularly in the light of increasing socio-political debates surrounding the efficacy of public schooling in the United States. The notion of creating an interconnected, learning ecosystem that leaning based on student interests is almost always welcomed. After all, it’s all about the children, right? But the thought of renouncing established norms and codes in education and professions and parting with the restrictive yet widely accepted grading and assessment system has as lot of people wondering. Therein lies the biggest hurdle that challenges introducing new modes of assessing learning and identifying knowledge in students.  Yet through deep theoretical investigation and persistent practice, weaving badges into educational curriculum has proven to be stimulating with certain organizations seeing applauded success. 

Research in Practice:
Research and experimentation centered on digital badges in learning become pivotal in bridging the gulf between warm, fuzzy thoughts on bettering the quality of learning in schools and the harsh grade-based reality that the rigidity of formal educational norms has established.

MacArthur’s Digital Media and Learning (DML) initiative is the primary force in this new initiative, in close. In partnership with technological gurus at Mozilla and educational researchers at HASTAC.  In 2012, DML’s Badges for Lifelong Learning Initiative funded thirty organizations that mixed badges into the folds of social entrepreneurship, education, technology and innovation. Documenting the evolution of the thirty projects can provide seminal literature going forward in the implantation of badges and the responsibility of collecting, investigating and sharing the new knowledge that these project generate is the responsibility of a team lead by Daniel Hickey, an Associate Professor and Director at Indiana University’s, School of Education. Funded by MacArthur, Hickey’s efforts through the Design Principles Documentation Project (DPD) are seeking to compile a web-accessible database of the principles, practices, and resources  for using digital badges to recognize, assess, motivate, and study learning.

One exemplar that Hickey’s team have identified for such research in practice is the work coming out of DigitalMe, a U.K. based association dedicated to building an educational network of interconnected schools and professional or social organizations. Lucy Neale, Projects Director at DigitalMe, oversees the implementation of several project which involve their open badging system that is free, web accessible and easy to share with other organizations or schools.
“The aim is to create an ecosystem of badges … where there’s lots of different choice for young people, because we found through our program, one of the main drivers and motivators for young people was that they could earn badges in things that they were interested in,” said Neale.
 In partnering with MakeWaves, which is a social learning platform for 5 – 19 year olds, DigitalMe witnessed a huge leap in incorporating DML guidelines into practice at schools across the UK as one of the flagship projects titled Supporter 2 Reporter (S2R).  This program has garnered substantial international recognition for the implementation of its badges.

From Road Blocks to Building Blocks:
The work emerging from DigitalMe and MakeWaves is refreshing proof that badges are indeed educational and prompt higher motivation and participation, especially amongst younger students. With a network of over 4500 schools, 75000 students and 9000 teachers, badges in the UK are gaining national approval and interest. However, the newness of digital badges threw up a few hurdles that could be typical yet informational at this stage of the developmental life cycle of badges in practice. In highlighting some of the challenges that the team at MakeWaves and DigitalMe ran into, other organizations might have a sense of what to expect while badging and think about effective work-arounds.

Value and Recognition: 
Perhaps the most frequently asked question with respect to the implementation of badges in schools or colleges today is tied closely to the professional worth attached to each badge. “The value thing is the key bit that everyone keeps coming back to,” said Cliff Manning, Communications Director at MakeWaves. “On Makewaves we’ve seen the value for the younger students is more internal, based within the school, getting recognized by a teacher has proven to be most sought after and is a good motivator. However, as students get older, employability is also key to this badge earning process which is the challenge that we face.”
While it is natural that any new mode of assessment and learning face some scrutiny, badge enthusiasts across the blogosphere are confident that badges will play a central role in the advancement of education. 

Until the tide turns though, introducing badges in schools and colleges successfully relies on the external recognition the open badge system can provide amongst professional organizations. “It is an ongoing challenge and it’s a bit of a vicious cycle in a way, in that the often times the partners we’ve spoken to, media organizations as an example would be ideal to endorse the badges but they want to see people going through the programs and earning the badges before they would endorse it but similarly schools want the endorsement piece in be in place before they give out badges,” said Neale.

What’s come out of their efforts this past year is an observation that badges are more pervasive in benefiting local communities rather than national or international networks. “As a good example, one college in Scotland proved that the local impact of the open badges system was far more effective and revealed greater motivation and community building than the national or international efforts, “ said Neale of increased community based involvement and motivation. Additionally, by marrying education in the classroom with practical performance, badge based learning has received support from reputed third party organizations like the United Nations, Sarah and Gordon Brown with the UN Envoy for Education, the Princess Trust and World Wildlife Federation. Stemming from the warm reception that S2R received at the nationally acclaimed sporting venues like the Oval Cricket Grounds and Arsenal Football Club, DigitalMe and MakeWaves have seen how building recognition for badges is a challenging yet viable prospect.  Furthermore, their initial work has inspired the conception of a national badging advent titled, ‘Badge the UK’ which draws from developing DML research and aims at increasing organizational  association of badges in education. 

Evidential Content in Badges:
Another challenge that badges in education face is a concrete agreement of what evidence badges must contain in order to be effective and attractive. Badges are now mostly being used to compliment current assessment standards.  In order to work their way up to being credible and universally comprehendible, they must be consistent and structured. While efforts from Mozilla have created the technology for anyone to exchange and access open badges, the work at MakeWaves especially through S2R, has highlighted the need for transparency and structure surrounding the badge earning and credentialing process.    
“Quite early on we realized that the S2R framework is quite complex. Badge missions are a way to address that. The idea is that it provides more structure and framework around the badge so that you can take a badge but also that you can see the steps that students have done en route to achieving that badge and you can see the evidence along the way,” said Manning.

Badge Missions and Badge Canvases were concepts introduced at MakeWaves to ensure that teachers and administrators were putting serious thought into their badges in order to ensure specificity and effectiveness of the badge issued. By mapping out an informal flowchart of the purpose, the assessment criteria and even the visual design of the badge, teachers and experts administering the badges have a reliable implementation plan in place that can be polished to perfection after introducing them. Equally important to the students earning these badges, the badge missions allow the badge earners to map their learning curve along a progress bar that the teacher can monitor through a dashboard. This transparency has been crucial in not only ensuring consistency in the way each level of the badge (for instance, gold, silver and bronze) is awarded but can also motivate the earners to earn all the levels of a particular badge while honing advantageous skills.    

Lop-sided demand and supply:
While the research emerging from DML and DPD is quick to reveal the excitement associated with earning badges, the increase in demand for more badges quicker cannot always be received correspondingly. The hierarchical nature of badge issuance requires increased expert moderation when it comes time to award higher level badges and teachers and experts are required to invest extra time in grading and assessing higher level submissions. Tying into the lack of recognition currently associated with digital badges, experts and teachers are struggling to depart from formal educational standards in order to sanction these new assessment tokens which do not guarantee employability just yet. Also fueling this badge related teacher-student discrepancy is the intentional design to keep higher level badges scarce to heighten value which can disrupt the equilibrium that is designed to motivate students.   

While building recognition associated with various badges is a gradual process, what is proving to increase teacher participation is a less prescriptive model as badges gain traction. After investing more than a year in designing models for schools and organizations to use directly off their website, DigitalMe is looking to allow teachers, students and administrators a chance to design learning plans specific to their necessities.  “What we’re hoping to do now that we’ve received some more UK based funding to do now, is actually enable more organizations  to go through that process, supported by ourselves so that it becomes less about us creating our own programs and about us enabling other organizations to create their badges related to their own learning programs, “ said Neale.

With the challenges of badging in education being persistently tackled through research and funding, this is proving to be the time for those in learning; research or practice to plan to incorporate badges as a compliment or the centerpiece of their curriculum. After all, the practical application of the badges is proving to be useful to building positive student centric communities, rethinking assessment and propelling motivation in the classroom, all of which are beneficial to bettering education in the digital age. 

                                                                                                                                      Roshni Verghese

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