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Digital Badges

Labo : Open Badges in Education - Step 3

Lab Session Summary: Implementing Badges

By Alexandre Enkerli. The 12 January 2015

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Towards a Full Badging Ecosystem

The third and final session in our lab on digital badging focused on the broad ecosystem where badges are issued, earned, and valued. Through this lab session, the fuller potential for digital badges was revealed and some lab participants were able to share their experiences and hopes.

At first blush, digital badges may sound like a specialized domain, of interest to a few passionate experts (including our distinguished guests) who put their hope in a newfangled technology. In discussions outside of the lab, the very concept of a “digital badge” often leads to offputting connotations. In this sense, the recommendation by Ashoka Canada’s Charles Tsai to focus on “Open Credentials” may lead us in the right direction.

As a group, badging experts share important concerns, many of which were addressed in the lab. But the real interest in new forms of credentials comes in the broader contexts where people give value to learning.

Even when stakeholders have no conception of each other’s roles, these contexts make up a full ecosystem. The actions of some partners in credentialing process have an impact on other people involved. For instance, the decision to only hire graduates with certain degrees in hand (say, a nursing DEC-BAC) has an impact on teachers in programs providing other degrees (say, DEC-only programs). The value of a “common currency”, in such a context, goes beyond the specialized spheres of prior learning assessment or headhunting. Both vocational training and pre-university programs require alignment with other institutions. Badges make explicit some of the needs of these partner institutions.

Guests

To join us this time around, we invited Val Thomas, Open Badges Project Lead at the Canadian Federal Government, along with Vanier teacher and Affordance Studio co-founder Avery Rueb. Also present on the panel were Erin Fields, April Moore, Geneviève Rock, Charles Tsai, Don Presant, James Willis, and Dan Hickey (all of whom were present during a previous lab session).

Though timezone differences prevented her from participating in this live session, Leonie McIlvenny has provided the lab with a screencast and explanation of a badging project she has been conducting at Iona Presentation College’s iCentre. While McIlvenny’s programme is meant for ICT training in a secondary school for girls in Australia, her description can provide some inspiration to Cegep teachers wishing to monitor competencies.

Following Up

Several guests have been involved in concrete badging projects, some of which have been emerging between lab sessions.

  • UBC’s Erin Fields made some quick comments about the completion of one of the pilot projects on which she had been working. In that one course, participation has increased by 250% and more data should come soon.
  • Don Presant has been involved with George Brown College on the implementation of a new badging system.
  • Ashoka Canada’s Charles Tsai had mentioned Adobe during the second live session and the software maker has started issuing badges in relation to its youth programs.
  • The day before the second live meeting for the lab, James Willis and Dan Hickey had launched a badging initiative for Open edX.

Pipelines and Industries

Industry involvement has been a major theme through this third lab session. As telegraphed by Champlain CERAC’s Geneviève Rock during the first lab session, employers may participate in a badging process by giving titles to badges. Presant provoked lively interactions on this topic through a short fictional piece in which a community’s industry players make decisions on what skills their potential employees need to get.

Work on such issues expand to the full ecosystem, including educational institutions, students, parents, and even the public sector. According to Geneviève Rock, the rail industry has important ties with Champlain. Without dictating the curriculum, this industry may provide clear indications of skills it deems important.

April Moore provided an intriguing example from her school district. The local fire department trains people in fire prevention and provides badges aligned with this training. An extracurricular activity such as this one can have a deep impact in an educational context.

Public Sector

Blueprint 2020 is an engagement process to improve Canada’s federal public service. The point is to develop talent and create an agile workforce in the public sector. In view of this process, lab participant Val Thomas has been piloting an Open Badges project for public servants at Natural Resources Canada (NRCan). As NRCan already has an awards system in place recognizing innovation, it has been relatively easy to convert paper certificates to Open Badge Factory. According to Thomas, the badging process works well at a small scale but doesn’t constitute a full operational structure at this point. She plans to expand the project to harness informal learning.

Others notice the potential for badging in the public sector. For instance, submission to the Blueprint 2020 National Student Paper Competition described a points system for employees along with a way to badge citizens themselves.

Empowerment

A dream of learners’ empowerment runs at the centre of many badging initiatives. As Charles Tsai has it, badge earners need not trade on institutional reputation to construct their own stories. Following on the concept of pathways described in the second lab session, Presant pointed out the importance of alternate paths to diverse achievements. In the context of a job offer, “or equivalent” is a deeper key phrase than what may appear. As with route planning software suggesting diverse routes, badging may allow some freedom in learners’ acquisition of skills.

Dreams guide action. Preferential treatment, closed systems, and established power centres reveal themselves to be obstacles to empowered learners. Badges offer a path to overcoming those obstacles.

According to Geneviève Rock, badges may offer opportunities for individuals to re-create themselves and gain recognition outside of established institutions. Institutions matter greatly, but acclaim often extends further.

Gain Credit Where Credit Is Given

Accreditation constitutes a primary context for badging. Organizations and individuals who accept badges as (partial) credit are critical for most badge systems.

Professional orders have an important role to play in the full badging ecosystem. For instance, nurses’ skills recognized by OIIQ relies in part on appropriate training at diverse colleges and universities around the province. Were colleges or the OIIQ itself to issue badges for nursing skills, part of the accreditation structure might shift, ever so slightly. The same could be said about other vocational programs across Quebec’s Cegep system.

Innovation

One of the year’s top words (according to Merriam-Webster), innovation underlines several of the 21st Century Skills recognized by diverse bodies.

Digital badges are an innovation which is being adopted by diverse practitioners. Using a situationist lens, Hickey focuses on the “consequences of any innovation for the discourses, participation, and the routines of practice that are … the primary elements of learning”. Through his research projects on badges, Hickey tackles the following question:

“How does the introduction of a badge system impact the … Discourses in a particular Community of Practice?”

Building on Ashoka Canada’s mission to enable citizens to act and think as changemakers, Charles Tsai explained the complexity of identifying patterns of innovation. The larger story allowing Ashoka to call someone “innovative” makes use of as full a representation of that individivual as possible. A single badge may not do much to pinpoint an innovator but Ashoka can use a set of badges to draw an individual’s overall innovation profile.

Platforms

Following up on technical issues addressed previously through the lab, some comments about badging platforms were made during the second lab session. For instance, highly engaged lab participant Brenda Lamb explained that she will likely use Moodle to issue badges at John Abbott College, early on. The fact that the platform is already in place at the college may ease the transition to badging. However, ePortfolio solutions will be desirable in further steps in Lamb’s work.

Prior to the lab, Dan Hickey had already been investigating badging support in Learning Management Systems (LMS). In parallel with the lab, Isabelle Delisle kindly provided Hickey with a Moodle example of badging from Cégep à distance.

A key issue with most LMS, as Hickey pointed out, is that they are often protected by password. This “Walled Garden” effect makes it near impossible to publicly display the work a learner has done within the system, thereby defeating the purpose of embedding evidence in a badge.

As a workaround, Hickey used a public repository for learners to share their work. This specific solution works efficiently for programming, where sharing code is a common practice. To an extent, a programmer’s shared code can serve as part of a portfolio or résumé. With clear instructions, the same platforms may be used to extend this content sharing practice to other fields necessitating online portfolios.

The issue of providing evidence in support of a badge has come through a question by Champlain’s Geneviève Rock, echoed in the collaborative document. In practice, a platform like Open Badge Factory or Credly may allow users to submit a link or document.

Credly prompt for evidence

Alternatively, evidence may be provided through the badge application itself.

Application details in Open Badge Factory

Communities

Perhaps because of the ecosystem focus in this lab session, much has been said about communities.

Addressing every generation’s necessity of redefining individuals and communities, James Willis offered that digital badges help situate individuals in communities through evidence, data, and assessments. Badges contribute significantly to social identity.

To those whose work specifically involves community building, badges have an even more specific effect. For instance, Charles Tsai described Ashoka Canada’s role in shaping collaborative communities rather than exclusive clubs. In such a context, badges may “force a conversation about what do we value from each other”, according to Tsai. Far from the “touchy feely” handwaving about valued members, badges provide concrete representations of valued skills and achievements.

As sociologists would argue, communities bring about both a sense of belonging and a form of social exclusion. The tension between one’s “in-group” and “out-group” often causes deep bias. Transparency and reflexivity are essential to avoid elitism in badging processes.

Badging Community

Part of the lab’s purpose has been to create a community of practice around badging. In parallel with live sessions, a number of contacts have been made between several lab participants and guests. The network of these contacts extends the lab’s benefits far beyond a workshop or webinar, in part because these connections lead directly to concrete projects with room for widespread collaboration.

As repeated throughout the lab, actors and stakeholders in Quebec’s Cegep system constitute VTE’s core constituency. The lab has provided them with a number of opportunities for experimentation, learning, and collaboration on badges and related topics. For instance, people at John Abbott, Vanier, Champlain, and Dawson have been laying the groundwork for badging projects at their host institutions. Following up on these and other badging plans in Quebec will help VTE amplify the lab’s outcomes.

Though secondary to VTE’s mission, badging projects outside of Quebec also afford some attention. More specifically, connections to badge practitioners in Ontario, Manitoba, British Columbia, and New Brunswick directly benefit Quebec’s Cegep network.

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