Thursday, October 23, 2014

Open Digital Badges: Recognizing, Assessing, and Motivating Learning in the DPD Project

by Katerina Schenke, James Willis, and Dan Hickey

As the Design Principles Documentation team analyzes the project data from 30 digital badge projects awarded funding in the 2012 DML 4: Badges for Lifelong Learning Completition, certain principles and practices emerge as being successful or overly challenging. This post highlights the three most successful and challenging principles and practices in recognition, assessment, and motivation

Recognizing Learning

By recognizing learning, we mean acknowledging the skills, achievements, experiences, and practices involved in individual, peer, and social learning. This includes focusing on decisions about the types of learning and achievements to recognize, the connections with existing credentials for this learning, and how learners interact with badges to unlock their value. 

One of the most successful principles in recognizing learning is using badges to map learning trajectories. Using badges provides an opportunity to organize the achievements recognized by the system into a structure that matches the layout of the underlying subject area or the order students can move through it. Most projects organized learning by determining levels of badges that chart out a progression of learning or by offering. While allowing designers to prescribe a specific path through material, badge pathways can also be structured to give students freedom over what they learn and the order in which they earn the badges. This was one of the most successful principles enacted by badge projects and describes a typical approach to designing badge ecosystems. A challenging principle to enact is seeking external backing or a credential that is externally-valued. Badge development systems sought external relationships that would enhance the credibility and utility of the badge. This stands in contrast to conveying the value of a badge to external entities. Whether or not the badge is actually externally endorsed, existing formal relationships can increase its external value. In some cases, a badge is formally endorsed and carries the insignia of the endorsing institution. A variation on the practice could be the operation of a badge system on behalf of an organization who would like to recognize certain achievements but does not have an instruction or assessment infrastructure. This demonstrates the external value of the degree based on the backing it receives from a respected institution or entity. This was categorized as one of the most difficult principles to implement because badge projects had the challenge of reaching out to outside agencies or organizations to communicate and establish the value of badges. Badge projects then changed their strategy by intending to first build and effectively run their badge systems within the internal community and attaining external backing in the future.

Assessing Learning

The assessment of learning includes the summative, formative, transformative, and transcendent practices, functions, and assessment types that directly impact the ways in which learners engage with the content. 

A successful principle in assessing learning is promoting "hard" and "soft" skill sets through a combination of collaborative learning and discrete skills. One of the most successful assessment principles was projects awarding badges for both “hard” (discrete) and “soft” (collaborative learning) skills. Some projects' intentions with this principle are to more accurately model the types of skills that are useful in the workplace. A challenging principle to enact is using e-portfolios that foster discussion around artifacts. Eight projects required learners to collect artifacts in a digital portfolio. One of these e- portfolio systems was open to the public, while seven were “closed,” meaning only the immediate learning community could see and comment on them.

Motivating Learning

The motivations of learning are the hypothesized implications of earning badges on an earner's desire to learn, desire to continue with the badge project, and value for earning the badge, inclusive of intrinsic, extrinsic, and participatory modes of measurement. 

A successful principle in motivating learning is recognizing identities and roles within a system. A prominent way we observed badges being awarded to learners was by recognizing a role of the badge earner within the badge ecosystem. Identity can be considered as something we uniquely possess: it is what distinguishes us from other people. Yet on the other hand, identity also implies a relationship with a broader collective or social group of some kind. In many projects, we found that badges were awarded to recognize an earner’s specialization or identity such as “journalist,” “engineer,” or “peer mentor.”A very challenging principle to enact is providing incentives or prizes for earners. The least successfully implemented principle was to award tangible prizes as a result of earning a badge.  In one project, this practice was discontinued because it led learners to repeatedly answer the types of questions they had already mastered to rack up the most points. We would like to note that this is a specific principle that is best left unpracticed.

Preliminary Conclusions

We are excited to begin reporting findings from this two-year project. As findings emerge, we will begin reporting some of them here, and we will also have them uploaded to our DPD page. As some of these practices highlight, we are finding that the notion of "best practices" is simply incomplete because it does not take into consideration the deep knowledge and outcomes of contextualized learning. In other words, the badge ecosystem is a context that should highlight experiences of learners in a way that is not best encapsulated in a best practices approach. Rather, what we are finding are "promising practices" within particular contexts. 

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