Friday, September 23, 2011

Badges for Lifelong Learning: Join the Conversation

As I (and numerous others) have already mentioned, last week in addition to our announcement of the Open Badge Infrastructure beta1 release, the MacArthur Foundation and HASTAC announced the 4th annual Digital Media & Learning Competition, which is focused around badges. These two efforts work together well in that we at Mozilla are building the infrastructure to support an ecosystem of badges-as-credentials for learners, and MacArthur is bootstrapping that ecosystem with high-quality, high-value, learning-focused badge systems through the competition. Together with MacArthur and HASTAC, as well as all of the people that join the competition (and conversation), I think we can take this experiment and exploration pretty far, pretty quickly, and learn a lot.

The announcement was made in DC at the Hirshhorn (which somehow was my first time there despite living in DC for 7 years - cool museum). It was a jam-packed few hours that went from the conceptual introduction of badges, through goals and aspirations for this work, to very real examples of badge systems that are already out there now. It took an initiative that was certainly publicly talked about (we are Mozilla, afterall), but within a limited range, to a much bigger stage with much wider reach. Needless to say, there has been a lot of chatter about it since then - this post from my colleague, Matt Thompson, highlights some of that. While much of the feedback was positive, there were definitely some concerns and issues raised among the voices, some of which I want to address here.

But first let me just say that for me, it was an incredibly surreal day, given that I could remember back when some of these initial conversations were happening in a not-so-well-lit corner in Barcelona at the Mozilla Drumbeat Festival. And fast forward a relatively short amount of time (and a TON of work) later and I was sitting in front of Secretary Duncan from the Department of Ed and Administrator Bolden from NASA, among others, saying some pretty inspiring and generally awesome things about these efforts. 

Now. I realize that I am coming from a different vantage point in this than most. I have been thinking about badges, talking about badges, designing badges, critiquing badge systems, building the badge infrastructure, etc. So I’m a little close to all of this. Some may argue that makes me blind to some of the concerns raised in the blogosphere and twit-o-sphere (?) after the event, but I would actually say it makes me more tuned into them. And appreciate them even more.

I still very much see this as a conversation, or as I said before, an experiment or exploration. Not so much in a starting-from-scratch or winging-it way, since again, there has been A LOT of work and thought put into this, but instead in a we-don’t-have-blinders-on, let’s-tackle-these-issues-together way. I think as many perspectives as possible are important for this conversation and I would be a little nervous if there wasn’t any push back from anyone. We don’t have everything figured out yet, and its only through this conversation and these explorations that we will make progress. (Note: I do not, however believe that not having all the answers means we shouldn’t try)

Again, most of the feedback was overwhelmingly positive and Matt captures some of that, but there were a few common themes in some of the more concerned feedback that I wanted to address here. This is a conversation after all, and so as conversations go, let’s talk it out. 

A few themes emerged in some of the feedback:

Theme #1: DANGER! This is being done by technologists, not education people

There seems to be some confusion about Mozilla’s role and the role of the technologists in all of this. Mozilla is building the technical infrastructure - the plumbing, or the part that makes sense to have techies involved in - but the key goal of that infrastructure is to support (and not constrain) innovation at the fringes. This means that the education folk have complete control over their badge systems - they can decide what the badges are, what the assessments look like, how the learning experience plays out, etc. So the educators are VERY much involved and in fact are driving the early badges, criteria behind those badges and ultimately the value of the badges.

Theme #2: This is going to be a top-down system forced on everyone that will ruin our motivations for the things we love to do just because we love to do them

Exactly the opposite, actually. This is at heart, a bottom-up, grass roots, OPEN ecosystem that is working to provide recognition where there currently isn’t any option. Issuers can issue badges for any number of skills, qualities, achievements, interests, affiliations, etc. Each issuer can decide what badges to issue and what things to recognize, just as each learner/user can decide what badges they care about. Learners/users control their collection of badges and can decide what to accept, what to reject, what to share, etc. For some, tinkering with robots may just be something they love to do in their free time (doesn’t everyone?) and that’s enough…for them, great. But for some, all of that experience and skill development could lead to job or further education opportunities and right now, there is no real way to get recognition for it. So that’s the gap badges are trying to fill. 

On the intrinsic/extrinsic motivation issue - I think this is definitely something that we want to track very closely. I agree with some of the more current thinking that this delineation is not as binary as we used to talk about it and that there are different motivations mixed into everything we do so I don’t think that the introduction of badges to interest-driven learning experiences is necessarily going to immediately bring us to the classic kid-getting-good-grades-because-they-want-to versus kid-getting-good-grades-because-they-get-paid situation. But again, this is definitely an area to research more and discuss further as we proceed. I am clearly not an expert on this and another great aspect of the competition is that is it supporting the people that are to do solid research on open questions, effectiveness, etc.

Theme #3: Oh great, more gamification, this time attacking education and learning.

Badges are linked in many people’s minds with gamification and so a natural reaction to these efforts is that this is another example of layering gaming on top of yet another space or discipline. These assumptions are not totally off-base, I think some of the concepts of game design and motivation will come into play in some badge systems, but this is definitely about more than that. Certainly, many of the badges developed through the competition will be backed by rigorous assessments and evidence. And we will see a lot of innovation that I think will move the learning/education space forward. This is not about just slapping some badges onto existing frameworks and calling it a day. This is about turning assumptions on their heads and taking a fresh, hard look at learning and how to support it. One of my Open Badges teammates, Carla Casilli, wrote a great post about this as well.

Theme #4: What happens when this gets out of hand and there are badges for everything?

This has come up since day 1 which is kind of funny given that we’ve all jumped from just talking about the potential for using badges to some future world where this has taken off so much, that there are a ton of badges in the ecosystem. I think that that future day is a real possibility, and in some ways would validate some of our thinking about the potential for badges. But while I understand the concern, I myself am not that concerned about this. One, we aren’t there yet. Two, we are building things into the Open Badge Infrastructure that can help with some of this. And three, if badges do become as big of a ‘thing’, then there will be markets and tools that emerge around them. Look at the Web in the early days - thanks to the simplicity of HTML among other things, there was an explosion of websites. It could have been complete chaos but then third party tools (and arguably quite lucrative markets) emerged to help us filter, rank and make sense of this world. I think the same thing will happen for badges. There will be tools that emerge to filter and visualize badges. Endorsements and other information built into the technical infrastructure (and the badge itself) will help people make sense of badges. And again, users will have complete control over their badge collections so can decide which badges to let in, how to value those badges, who to share them with, etc.

Anyway, I am super excited about these efforts and really looking forward to continuing the conversation. I encourage all of you to get involved in that conversation - in a constructive way of course (nothing is more frustrating than a negative (or positive!) remark without anything context or thoughts that we can all react to or build from so let’s just avoid that if possible). So join the conversation, join the competition. Explore this with us. 

-E

Notes

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