Saturday, January 30, 2016

So maybe open badges can get you into Harvard (or Yale or Dartmouth) after all

By Daniel Hickey and James Willis

As summarized in Education Dive and reported in the Boston Globe, Harvard and 80 representatives from other Ivy League schools released a report arguing that admissions officers should give more attention to service-learning and volunteer activities. They recommended:

  1. "Promoting more meaningful contributions to others, community service and engagement with the public good.
  2. Assessing students' ethical engagement and contributions to others in ways that reflect varying types of family and community contributions across race, culture and class.
  3. Redefining achievement in ways that both level the playing field for economically diverse students and reduce excessive achievement pressure."

Those of you who follow RMA can likely appreciate how much this means to us and where this post is going. Yup. Badges and assessment. That second recommendation is going to be a really tough one to implement. As we will elaborate in some length, open digital badges are intended to provide valid evidence of accomplishment outside of accredited contexts. Some new developments may allow them to serve precisely this function.

 The Making Caring Common project at the Harvard Graduate School just released a report called Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions. This passage from the executive summary sets the stage:
While some colleges have diligently sought to convey to applicants the importance of concern for others and the common good, many other colleges have not. The messages that colleges do send about concern for others are commonly drowned out by the power and frequency of messages from parents and the larger culture emphasizing individual achievement.
Depending on how it goes, this could have a massive impact on engagement in volunteer activities among ambitious high school students looking to bolster their chances of getting into an Ivy League school. This alone would be wonderful, leading some of a generation of future leaders to discover the value of truly meaningful service to others.

What Might Actually Happen
Whether this report leads to policies is another story. And, whether those policies lead to changes in admissions is yet another story. As introduced above, the second recommendation is going to be a tough one to implement. This is because most of these accomplishments occur outside of formal schools, where the accreditation process provides some evidence that credentials students earned are valid. The report recognizes the challenge. In fact, the next line after the quote above was:
Further, even when students and parents receive the message that contributions and service to others do count, they often seek to “game” service.
Consider, for example, a sub-recommendation regarding Contributions to One's Family under the third recommendation above:
The admissions process should clearly send the message to students, parents and other caregivers that not only community engagement and service, but also students’ family contributions, such as caring for younger siblings, taking on major household duties or working outside the home to provide needed income, are highly valued in the admissions process.
The small army of college coaches and consultants affluent families hire are likely already scheming how they might produce evidence of engagement in activities without actually requiring it or keeping kids from the intensive study needed to get top grades in multiple AP and IP courses. The bottom line is that it is very difficult to provide evidence of meaningful engagement in these sorts of activities. It is even harder to then validate that evidence.  The existing credentialing system evolved alongside schools and practices for admissions and hiring. It has gotten pretty good at producing valid evidence of achievement and course completion. But, the system is lousy at producing evidence of engagement of any sort, and terrible at producing evidence of the "ethical engagement" and "community engagement" that is the focus of this new report. Since the report does not make any recommendations for doing so, let's see what we can come up with.

Badges as Evidence of Engagement
This may well be precisely the situation where open digital badges and other new web-enabled digital credentials can break new ground by providing valid evidence to admissions officials for learning outside of formal school. This is because open digital badges can (a) contain specific claims, (b) contain evidence supporting those claims, (c) contain links to additional evidence, (d) circulate readily in social networks, and (e) be curated and annotated by the earner, and (f) accrue additional endorsements and validation after they are issued.  Take, for example, the badges budding sports journalists earn from the Support to Reporter Medals (S2R) program in the UK.  This was one of several badge development projects that we studied in the Design Principles Documentation project that built a thriving educational ecosystem around digital badges. Their badges are chock full of evidence of learning and engagement that circulate in social networks. When Glenn Wheeler (the student who earned the badge above) pasted the URL to his badge into Facebook or Linkedin, or sent it as an email, somebody who clicked on that badge would be directed to the evidence page at S2R's website:

It is important to notice here that the badge does not show evidence of specific competencies. Rather, it mostly says the earner "worked as" or "demonstrated" or "can keep calm." The evidence supporting these claims about student engagement are mostly supported by the amazing video interview of a world champion wheelchair racer at the Makewaves website which has been viewed over 1000 times and has four comments from other S2R participants. Furthermore, anyone who is interested can visit Glenn Wheeler's homepage at S2R to see this is just one of 13 badges he earned, and that he actually produced or co-produced 77(!) videos of similar quality. (But, you have to be a member of the S2R network to post or see comments.)

Can't Badges be "Gamed" too?
Getting back to our previous concerns about families "gaming" the system--this would be nearly impossible to game. In fact, Glenn's efforts were quite successful and reportedly led him to a job with the London Olympics. The very public nature of Glenn's engagement would have made it very difficult for him to game the system. What important is that if he had, another member of the network likely would have called him out in a comment. This ability to post endorsements after the badges were issued was just one of several things that made the S2R badge system such a successful system for supporting student engagement and then generating compelling evidence of that engagement.

In addition to the ability to endorse (or possibly dismiss) the evidence in badges, three other success factors at S2R appear to include that (a) they used badges primarily as evidence of engagement and only secondarily as evidence of specific competencies, (b) the learning and assessment was social in nature, (c) it was simple to see the broader context in which the badge was earned. Certainly, there were other success factors at S2R as well (check out this S2R video).  But, because the two other highly successful Badges for Lifelong Learning projects (the MOUSE Youth Technology non-profit and the PBS News Hour Student Reporting Labs) included these factors as well, we think we may have uncovered the secrets for successfully using digital badges to generate valid evidence of the sort of meaningful engagement that the Harvard report is seeking. After all, the badges are already helping their earners get into college. Check out this S2R video or this article about a MOUSE participant.

These findings are particularly noteworthy in light of the fact that all seven of the other Badges for Lifelong Learning projects that focused on very specific measurable (if not measured) competencies never got beyond the pilot stage in building an open badge system. In fact, it appears that our finding mirrored the findings in the Rand Corporation's study of three of those projects, which, in turn, mirrored some of the concerns made in a Carnegie Foundation report on the "Carnegie Hour."  Right now, we are just checking our facts and following up with some of the projects to get a sense of their current status.

Project LRNG and Remake Learning Competencies
Finally, we will add that we are particularly excited about Harvard's report in light of Project LRNG. This is the continuation of the Summers of Learning project that was formally supported by MacArthur and is now supported by a $25M grant to a new organization known as Collective Shift. This will make it easy for youth (particularly inner-city youth) to gain access to world class learning opportunities.

Cities of Learning and Project LRNG have already catalyzed other work that should help Harvard find a way to assess caring and meaningful engagement. Consider, for example, the Remake Learning Competencies project in Pittsburgh. Their competency mapping-process included the crucial (but elusive) dispositions (including Empathy, Perseverance, and Open-Mindedness).  Check out the badges that make up the pathway for Career Readiness. It includes badges for knowledge (e.g. Business Principles) and skills (e.g., Research) alongside badges for dispositions (including Giving Back). Right now, dozens of organizations are working hard to provide summer opportunities for students to earn these badges.

Maybe the Harvard report will convince the learners to get on the Career Readiness pathway to redouble their efforts to make sure their Giving Back badge contains lots of evidence and gains lots of endorsement. Or, it just might lead them to switch to one of the Coding & Gaming or the Designing & Making pathways which both include the Empathy badge.

Up Next
We had hope to work some discussion about validity into this post around these issues.  But this got pretty long, and and it might be best to wait until the paper Dan co-authored with Carla Casilli on this topic is published in The Information Society.  Any day now.


  1. Hi Dan and James.

    This is intriguing news and a great discussion.

    I wonder if there's a future for a badge-enabled Co-Curricular (and extra-curricular) Record for K12, focused on PSE Admission?

    I think that's a much better use case than the PSE-Workplace CCR that's so prevalent today.

    I'll be watching this space with great interest.


  2. Thanks Don. Great question, that is the direction we are hoping to push people for Post Secondary Education. The fact that a badge can represent a pathway consisting of other badges, and each of those badges can contain multi-point endorsements seems like it might be the hot ticket. I have always only seen CCR associated with higher ed, rather than K-12.

  3. As a former high-school teacher who would have preferred to focus on mastery education but was required to work within the Carnegie-unit model, I like the idea of developing some form of badge-enabled PSE admission model for high school students. It could solve (or at least partially solve) the motivation issue of students who spend large portions of their senior year just "marking time" until graduation. It might also address the needs of those students who don't see much point in staying in school, and choose rather to drop out, pursue a GED (maybe), and enter the job market.

    In either case, if multilevel badging could demonstrate that a student is proficient in, say, math or English comp to enter college, she or he could conceivably not be required to take further high school coursework in those subject areas except as electives (or for college credit).

    In short, if students can earn their diplomas early, I'm all for it!

    1. But badges are different from Competency-Based Education. I am not as confident as many are in the assumption that CBE can "fix" education. There are many things that are only learned when groups of people come together to learn them. In fact, none of the eight CBE-based projects funded in the 2012 Badges for Lifelong Learning got beyond pilots stages with open badges. The concerns that Carnegie Foundation raised about CBE are very real: I found them in my study and the Rand Study of three of the eight projects found the same thing: I am working on a new post about this topic. We need to "problematize" competencies