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Why We Badge

Five reasons we set out to design a digital badging system for learners at MOUSE five years ago.


  1. More than five years ago, MOUSE issued its first digital badge, and to many outside the small community of early pioneers who we’ve grown close with over time, we’re still explaining why. The potential of digital badges often eludes many funders, K12 administrators, members of our board, other non-profit partners, and the educators, learners, and staff supporting our program sites. Our own team, even those designing the system itself, asks the question to ourselves pretty regularly. (Part of doing any work well is to remind yourself why you do it, so we see asking as part of the job.)

    The whole history is too much for one post, but being that it’s a pretty reasonable question, “why badge?,” I’ll attempt some straightforward history here, and elaborate on more details in subsequent posts. My hope: if, as an organization we can carve out more time to document the story as it happens, maybe we won’t still be making the case in another five years - i doubt it, but maybe.
  2. To clarify, a “badge,” in this context, is a graphic representation of a skill or competency that is displayed and accessed online, earned through a specific criteria, and that links to “evidence” or some type of portfolio data that can be reviewed by various stakeholders.
  3. Here's a terrific graphic developed by @kyledbowen at Penn State that does a nice job illustrating how badge images (or graphics) are only a skin for the rest of the anatomy.
  4. In 2009 - almost a year before there was a wider community of practice, we began a series of design experiments on our web-based learning platform with these major factors in mind:

    Scaling Culture
    We sought ways of leveraging the web to build community across what was now a national program network. Ideally, not just any type of community. We looked to mirror the most contemporary norms for the web developers, engineers, technicians, and designers that many of our participants were setting off to become. We envisioned a currency that 1) connected participants through their skills and experience, and 2) allowed us to force-amplify a participatory network ethos the way we saw platforms like Stack Overflow, whose users receive peer votes for quality participation that lead to increased status and ownership, do it so well.
  5. Curating Experience
    For too long learners have traversed learning ecosystems with way more dimension than traditional transcripts are capable of capturing. Imagine a teenager in an afterschool program who spends a year prototyping a new technology for the hearing impaired, but with no formal way to demonstrate the experience back at school, or to a future admissions counselor. It’s not about some learning environments having the ability to prove worth, it’s about empowering educators and learners by enriching the tools that help each curate the past, navigate the present, and support a promising future. Using traditional transcripts to that end poses two significant (among several) issues 1) it’s not enough data to capture human potential even before considering race, class, and gender (all learners deserve better) and 2) the system isn’t *open* for learners in a way that helps them cultivate an ability to orienteer in an increasingly complex landscape for achieving success in life and work. We saw then (and do even more today) a future where constructivist pedagogies are supported by a complementary infrastructure for capturing outcomes, and portfolios of navigable evidence help equitably redistribute value across learning organizations and among learners themselves.
  6. Motivation
    The issue of motivation has, in some ways, been a strain on the now substantial community pushing to realize the potential of digital credentials. The fear for some is that the community of practitioners utilizing badge-driven content might mistake badges as a panacea for engineering motivation that, we know ultimately, must be intrinsically driven. Will badges, like gold stars, become a superficial carrot for learners? But our thought early on - and framed well by the good work of researchers like Richard Ryan and Edward Deci - is that if we’re careful about how digital credentials are introduced as an aspect of a programmatic context that is situated, and focused on cultivating “expert” identities, that credentials can play a vital role (especially for youth from non-dominant backgrounds) in shifting their confidence and owning their pathway. Indeed, we realize the risk of having badges become a kitschy gamification of the learning experience. But if the worst case scenario is that only a portion of our participants use them to consider their identity-building pathway seriously, it still seems unquestionably worthwhile. If we can realize new ways of transforming extrinsic to intrinsic motivation, then the result could have game-changing impact.
  7. Taxonomy of Skills
    There are a few crippling impediments for all of us determined to improve the education field (K12 especially) that consistently cause us to churn out only partial solutions to the problem of connecting young learners with the practical skills they truly need for success. Taxonomy is one of those. Too often we default to modeling competencies and skills in a manner that lays out as neatly as the aisles of a supermarket - *hard* and *soft* skills, domain-specific competencies organized by subject, etc. - but if the education system was a grocery store, no doubt that when asked by a cashier “did you find everything you need today?” the answer from learners would be “no.” And the problem is either that we don’t have the store laid out properly (we’ve spent a lot of time on this already) or, more likely, we need to find a better analogy. Seymour Papert used bricolage as an analogy to describe a different style by which learners can solve problems by testing and tinkering. In art or literature it's about constructing or creating from a diverse range of available things.
  8. To redraft learners’ mental model of skills acquisition, we need to give them more flexibility to connect what’s relevant and available for the pathway they’re interested in pursuing. Supporting individuals, organizations, and platforms then need tools that translate the residue of each experience into data that's useful in both marking the path taken (a breadcrumb trail) and informing choices ahead.
  9. In practical terms, we set out to design a badge system at MOUSE that would help learners and educators see typically classified “21st Century Skills” not as a standalone, but as a key to weaving the overall fabric of an expert identity in any century. I wouldn’t pretend that we have everything right toward that goal yet, but it sure would help if we were riding a wave where every learner could craft a unique skills profile by bricolage rather than pushing against a current that insists on an outdated taxonomy and often irrelevant sequence.
  10. and, finally, Pathways
    As an education practitioner you can’t currently sneeze without spraying some reference to “learning pathways,” but whether or not you’re over the jargon already it serves an important purpose - I hope you’ll bear one more mention. The days of linear pathways where learners steam along (ideally with their peer group (= age)) from one stop on the learning express to the next were over before they started. To my knowledge, we haven’t found a strategy to successfully standardize this type of system in a way that works for ALL in over a hundred years of honorable attempts. Even the largest K12 systems in the country, despite being both directions of the grain in difficult ways, are on to a different picture where “personalized” learning is, more and more, being recognized as key to our progress.
  11. Pathways are a useful analogy because, while they can offer some scale (multiple travelers) over time, the emphasis is on the journey and not solely the destination. Some can be efficient - from A to B - but others can meander, loop, reverse and intersect. It is at those intersections where the potential of digital badges becomes exciting. We knew, for example, at MOUSE, that early on we would focus on creating a successful system that worked within our specific context, but part of what motivated us from an early stage was the potential that MOUSE’s badges might become a valuable support for learners and educators journeying beyond our programs (as all of them do). A focus on pathways invites all of us to support the necessary infrastructure to help learners beyond a privileged subset achieve their desired expertise. If all “local” program cultures (at school, after school, or at home) can plug credentials into a wider traversable ecosystem, we might actually mobilize the GIGANTIC VOLUME of motivated young citizens that will be required for tackling the problems of their time.
  12. These five ideas are what set us on a course that would eventually propel MOUSE into a global effort made up of lots of moving parts (passionate people and innovative institutions) to realize the potential of digital credentials. None of the goals are short of extremely ambitious, but we love that. The stakes are too high in this work to allow the conservation of known practices (that aren’t working well enough) to preclude our ambition.

    I’ll work on writing more about some of the detailed decisions, successes, and failures we’ve made along the way in more posts. After five years, we’re only just past the on-ramp, so by no means do we have enough road behind us to consider the effort successful in all of the ways we're dreaming they can be. What we have are our experiences so far, and hopefully the more we share (as a community) the smarter we’ll all get about what comes next.
  13. For a good overview and substantial list of citations for further reading, visit the Digital Badge page on Wikipedia.