Monday, December 27, 2010

'Certification' Revisited (#1)

I am currently working with Peer-2-Peer University (P2PU) and Mozilla Drumbeat to integrate assessment and badges into the open and peer learning environments on P2PU, specifically the School of Webcraft. We’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this and I am finally getting around to capturing my thoughts here.  I should get a badge.

What are badges? 

Come on, you’ve seen them before.  Boy Scouts. World of Warcraft. Foursquare.  I do something, demonstrate some skill, defeat some monster, show up in some location, meet some predefined criteria or assessment…and I get a badge.  If I know about the badge, I might be motivated to do the necessary behaviors or meet the requirements to get the badge, or if the badge is a surprise, I might be motivated to keep exploring or trying out various things to earn or unlock more badges. Once I have the badge, I can display it so that others can see it and thus demonstrate my skills or achievements.

There are many crossovers here with learning - motivation, feedback, exploration, achievement.  

Why do we need badges?

Well, we need something.  Is it badges?  Maybe, maybe not.  But there is no question that we need an alternative form of assessment and certification (although I hate that word…it conjures up images big, mean Microsoft gorillas). Here are a few reasons why we need a change:

  • In the current system, the institutions (schools, universities, etc.) have the all the control. They decide what types of learning are “official” and what “counts”.  But most learning doesn’t happen within those confines and constraints and there are lots of examples of people learning outside of the system: open education courses and materials, afterschool programs, peer discussions, books, Wikipedia, the Web in general, LIFE…learning happens everywhere.  But it only counts if it happens through an institution.  Why? Why shouldn’t the learner have control?
  • Current models of assessment (grades, rankings, etc.) currently don’t work well for many kinds of learning - in fact, many argue that they don’t work well for most learning.  In peer learning environments, grades and rankings do not encourage participation and information sharing, and in fact, can constrain the interaction and learning.  In informal learning environments, these models make it feel like school, squashing the inherent value and engagement.  In many open education environments, there is not often a dedicated instructor or authority figure to issue the top-down grade. And so on.
  • There are so many important skills and competencies, some age-old and some new(ish) in today’s world, that are not currently captured or acknowledged. Things like the often referenced 21st Century Skills, or New Media Literacies, which cover everything from information organization and evaluation, to negotiation and trial-and-error prototyping. Or the “soft” skills like critical thinking and teamwork.  None of these skills are captured in my credit, grade or degree.  And yet, these skills are critical to most careers and are often some of the key things that employers are looking for. As a learner, it is difficult, or impossible, to know to seek out or hone these types of skills because they aren’t acknowledged or encouraged…and yet they will be glaringly apparent the first time I fub up in a critical situation that involves one or more of these competencies. When I am applying for a job - my resume and education history tells potential employers nothing about my full set of skills and if I have any of these other competencies. And when I am looking to hire someone, I have to come up with clever questions to try to get a complete picture of someone (above and beyond the resume and education history which everyone knows is a limited resource) in 30 minutes. 


What if there were badges for various skills that you could collect across learning experiences, carry them with you and then share out to various audiences as needed?  You may earn badges that represent more traditionally recognized behaviors or skills like completing a course or mastering a mathematical model, but you could also earn badges for softer skills like critical thinking, teamwork and information analysis.  You could earn badges from authorities, like Mozilla, from course organizers where appropriate, from peers or even from yourself.  The badges would be associated with assessments that once successfully completed, earns you the badge.  There might be multiple assessment paths to a single badge, giving you the flexibility to have a unique and personalized learning path.  But you could also look at the badges of other people to discover things to learn or try for…or what skills to develop or hone for particular disciplines or jobs.  You could even (possibly) carry the badges back to the institutions with you to get credit or help them cater that experience to your interests and needs. 

So that’s what we are currently exploring.  Of course, there are many unanswered questions, some of which I am sure are springing to mind as you read this.  Questions like: What skills should we assess? Are there skills that are better left unassessed?  What do we want to encourage?  How do we avoid encouraging the “wrong” behavior? Who gets to decide which skills to assess? How much influence should outside stakeholders, such as employers, have on badges?  Should they be able to design assessments and badges that are relevant to them?  How can we let them have a say without creating an imbalance in the system or constraining the learning? How granular should badges be? For example, our HTML5.0 badge is at the level of the entire language mastery, but would we want HTML tag level badges?  What granularity is the right level?  Do badges aggregate into larger or higher level badges? Should badges expire?  How do we deal with skills that need to be refreshed or renewed?  How can the badge system grow with learners? How does the introduction of badges affect learner motivations?  If learners were initially intrinsically motivated, how do we avoid “crowding out” those motivations with an extrinsic badge system? How will people game the system?  How much will they do so? How can we discourage gaming or recognize when it happens? Will these badges translate to formal learning environments? And if so, how?  What would be required to make schools or institutions value or accept badges?  Can we meet those requirements without changing the nature of the learning environments?

There are a lot of questions and a lot of unknowns, but we need a change…we need to give the learners the control.  So this is one way we are hoping to accomplish that.  We are building a badge/assessment pilot in the January session of the School of Webcraft, which is a subset of P2PU courses focused around web development and endorsed by Mozilla.  We are hoping to have a core set of badges and assessments, as well as the initial infrastructure to support the issuing, collection and displaying of badges over the next month (or less).  We plan to learn a lot and start to answer the questions above.  But we can’t possibly answer all of these questions alone.  We hope to encourage more interest in badges and these new approaches, get more people researching them and issuing them (within the same open infrastructure ideally) and figure this out together.

I’ll keep you updated as much as possible here.  So buckle up!  Next up, thoughts on assessment and the open badge infrastructure…



  1. worldofe posted this