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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Student Awards: Digital Badges Make a Debut

For about 10 years of my childhood, I was a Girl Scout. I loved earning badges; it was always my goal to have the most of anyone in my troop. I earned them anyway I could, from selling cookies to riding horses to creating a "secret language" with my brother (communications).

Through these experiences, I learned a great deal, in both academic and nonacademic skills. For example, selling cookies required me to break out of my shell and develop at least the beginnings of customer service skills, as well as do basic math and handle money. While some of these skills translated to my grades at school, not all did. Still, I had those badges, which I showed off to my teachers by wearing my sash to school on days we had meetings.

Using Badges to Capture Out-Of-School Learning

Flash forward a couple decades. Out of school learning opportunities are becoming more and more prevalent -- and less and less formal. Organizations like Girl Scouts still exist. So do new learning opportunities. Consider an outstanding high school student who is very interested in architecture, and who is working her way through some of the courses available on MITOpenCourseWare. Or a student who struggles in traditional classes but is interested in video game development, has taken Peer to Peer University courses in programming and game development, and has successfully created his own game.

Do either of those learning experiences "count"? Not formally. Neither is considered in assigning a high school grade or diploma to the learner. While the first could certainly list the courses she took on a college application, she would most likely have to retake similar courses in college. And while building a video game is impressive, the second would be hard-pressed to find an employer or postsecondary training program that would consider him with a low GPA and/or no high school diploma.

As a working paper by the Mozilla Foundation (in collaboration with the MacArthur Foundation) puts it, "The time has come to connect self-directed and interest-driven learning to a broader ecosystem of accreditation and recognition to enable each learner to capitalize on the learning experiences that they are already having, or to inspire and help them to seek out new ones, as well as to communicate their achievements and skills to necessary stakeholders. To do so, we must not only recognize that people learn across many contexts in many different ways, but also find a way to capture that learning, collect it across the contexts and communicate it out."

What they propose: digital badges. Much like Girl Scout badges, digital badges would be "a validated indicator of accomplishment, skill, quality or interest." They could be earned in any learning environment, and signal either traditional academic achievements or skills such as collaboration, teamwork and more. They would be compiled and displayed on an individual's online profile, allowing potential employers, teachers and peers to view them.

Badges to Capture the Learning Path

Another possible use for digital badges is what has been termed "capturing the learning path."

To quote the white paper, "a degree or report card tells a limited story about what skills and competencies people have developed along the way."

What if a student earned small badges for each skill she masters, adding up to a larger badge when a body of knowledge is reached? I used to teach math. What if there was a badge for adding fractions? One for subtracting fractions? One for dividing them, for multiplying them, and for converting them to decimals? And so on. Once the student mastered all, she would get a larger badge, representing fractions as a whole.

In addition, consider that if a student ended up with a B in my class, that B did not let the student's next teacher what the student's skills were -- whether he could create a bar graph or subtract decimals, for example. What if there was a badge system that we could look to for an immediate assessment of the student's strengths and weaknesses, to guide our instruction for him?

The Need for a Badge "Ecosystem"

Of course, there are a number of challenges to developing such a badge system - among them, designing the badges themselves and quality assessments to ensure that they actually mean something, as well as developing an infrastructure that allows learners to capture and display these badges. Not to mention finding entities (Schools? Museums? Online communities?) that are willing to issue badges, though one prominent agency has recently stepped to the plate in this regard. NASA is planning to use the emerging digital badge platform to advance interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, focusing on two themes -- robotics and teamwork -- in developing an initial digital badge set for grades 4-12.

To address the challenges associated with digital badges, the 4th Digital Media and Learning Competition has been designed to spur development of the badge "ecosystem" through the creation of high quality individual badges and sets of badges. I was fortunate enough to go to the launch event for this competition last week, which is where I first grew excited about the digital badge concept. I'm excited to see how it progresses over the next few years.

What do you think? Do digital badges have the potential to impact K-12 education? Please share with us your thoughts and ideas!

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