Tuesday, April 8, 2014

More Beefs

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A week or so ago Barry Joseph - a close and valuable colleague and contributor the Open Badges community - posted  “My Beef with Badges”, where he calls for a healthy dose of skepticism and honesty about our successes and our failures with open badges. I do not disagree with Barry’s main point: the goals with the badging work are lofty and tough, and we won’t see any significant impact or change if we aren’t watching closely, sharing (all) findings, recalibrating or evolving as we go. But there are specific points that Barry makes that I, errr, have beefs with, or that I feel deserve more context and discussion.

The problem that concerns me the most is the lack of a broad ecosystem for badges. I want to tell youth in our programs their badges will have value outside our museum, and many even need to hear that as a condition for participation. But without such an ecosystem in place, I’d be lying. 

Again, I do not disagree with the general sentiment: the badging ecosystem is still young and while there is a lot of adoption and interest, there is still much more growth necessary to recognize the potential. It’s true that the ‘issuing’ side of badges has received and continues to receive the most attention from the community. Why? Because without valuable badges out there to earn, the conversation about systemic change stops pretty quickly. That said, in the last year, there has been significantly more interest and work on the ‘consumption’ side of badges - employers using badges in the hiring process, universities using badges for admission, etc. -  and we’ll see even more of that this year, as it’s a top priority of the Badge Alliance. But there are a few things I’ll say:

1) I think we’re selling ourselves and our learners short if we ONLY link ‘value’ with our own top-down predefined measures (i.e. got me a job). There is a lot of value that can come out of learning in and of itself, community participation, as well as reputation and identity building. Before the open badges work, we weren’t doing a very good job recognizing any of that stuff. Now we’re starting to change that, and there’s some value in simply calling it out to youth (or learners of any age for that matter). Recognizing learning can help them know what they know, learn how to learn, discover themselves. And unlike anything else they may have experienced so far in their education-related trials and tribulations, the badges they earn are theirs. They own the data about their learning. They can decide what they value, what is reflective of who they are or want to be. With that as a new starting point, they can begin to build a personalized, customized story in a way that’s valuable to them. So, if we as badge system builders get stuck in a cycle of trying to determine what’s going to be valuable for learners upfront, we’ll find ourselves reinventing the same system we’re dealing with now. Not saying that we shouldn’t be considering how to build badges that are valued and used by employers or admissions folks, but we can’t limit ourselves - or our learners - to that alone.

And its not just about personal gratification or meta-cognition. Look at sites like StackOverflow, who have badges for what seem like completely context-specific behaviors. “Your answer got voted up 100 times!”, “You were the first to answer a question 5 times!”, “You edited someone else’s answer!” In isolation or with our prescriptivist glasses on, some would say that those badges are insignificant and meaningless outside of that context. But turns out those badges, in combination with other badges like “knows Javascript”, start to paint a pretty solid picture of what kind of worker and colleague this person will be. Ultimately those badges could get that person a job, so who are we to condemn them based on our own perceptions or preconceived notions. Let a thousand flowers bloom, something something. Or, as my colleague Carla so eloquently put it, let’s not get stuck behind “The Myth of the Lightweight Badge”. 

2) Don’t wait for the ecosystem, build some of those connections yourself. I’ve endured a lot of finger pointing and curved-eyebrow questioning over the last few years. Which employers are accepting badges? Which badges are being accepted for credit? By whom? Where can I use them? What’s the currency? These are all extremely important questions and as I mentioned before, a top priority of the Badge Alliance. But why wait for it at an ecosystem level? Build in some of the currency directly. Reach out to local businesses, forge that relationship with an institution. You know your learners better than anyone else, so figure out what they want with them and start to layer that into your badge system design thinking. That only makes your badges, your entire offering and the ecosystem more valuable. Win-win-win.

I mean I love them for what I’ve seen them actually achieve: new literacies amongst youth to describe their learning within a Brooklyn  after-school program; new motivation within an Atlanta private school;  pride in portfolios within a Bronx library; a new understanding of how  to use learning technology in a New Orleans day school; the emergence of  formative assessment within a New York museum. I am informed by the  theoretical but guided by practice, by what I have seen with my own eyes  over the past five years…

…But I preferred to focus on that achievement rather than the majority of youth who displayed little interest in badges as their design offered   scant value beyond an additional form of grading. 

I have to say I’m pretty sad if we can’t celebrate the individual learner anymore. Sounds like there were some pretty positive things that came out of the experience for some youth. Let’s not discount that. Indeed, let’s celebrate that! If we are going to hold ourselves to solutions that work for everyone out of the box, we’re on a slippery slope towards standardized testing. 

But OF COURSE the badges didn’t ‘work’ for all youth (although we really need to define what ‘work’ means). Badges are not a silver bullet. They are not a magical solution you can overlay and expect them to enlighten every type of learner out of the box. Does anything work that way? Badges are a tool for recognizing more and connecting more learning than we were able to do before. We still need to approach badging by being thoughtful about how we’re developing them, using them, and consuming them, all the while paying close attention to our learners and their needs, etc. Barry is totally right that we need to be honest about what worked (and who it worked for), and what didn’t work (and who it didn’t work for), so that we can build better systems that have different badges or options for different learners. But we’ve still got to do the work.

But, I do harbor concerns. Not concerns about extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation, or whether badges are the right focus for advancing  alternative assessment. Those don’t concern me. 

Interestingly, the things that Barry is not concerned about are the exact elements that we don’t have enough information about. Those are the things that we need the honest feedback and findings about. They are exactly the elements that play into how we design learning experiences and align badge systems that cater to each of our learners.

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We all have a beef, or severals beefs with badges. I would be worried if we didn’t, because that would mean that we weren’t taking this seriously enough; that we didn’t think it had enough potential to warrant the tough questions. “Hopeful skepticism" is a common thing I hear, and even feel myself at times. We don’t have all of the answers figured out, but we agree that there are some problems that need solving and there is definitely some promise, some potential resident in the idea of badges that’s worth exploring.

My ‘yes, and’ to Barry’s general call for sharing and honesty about the failures, would be for us to be open and persistent about our beefs. And equally open and persistent about addressing and solving those beefs. Not to just state them or poke holes - that part is easy - but to commit to doing the hard work of finding answers, finding solutions, and suggesting alternative approaches.

I’m also pretty hopeful that the recent announcement of the Badge Alliance @SRL14 will help in this direction (Marc Lesser, from comments on Barry’s post)

Marc Lesser, of MOUSE and Open Badges community fame is spot on. I too am hopeful that the Badge Alliance will be able to move us towards progress, honesty, and impact. Simply creating the Badge Alliance (with close to 300 organizations already signed up as members), is a statement that we’re committing to collaborating and zeroing in on these issues. And now its my team’s (and ultimately the wider network’s) job everyday to ensure we are not only just talking about our beefs, but actually addressing them.

IN FACT, the Open Badges community call TOMORROW is dedicated to talking through some lessons learned so far. Join us.

So thanks, Barry, for your important and timely post. Looking forward to digging in together.

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-E

(image attribution: www.buedelmeatup.com, www.insidearm.com, www.brandsoftheworld.com)

Notes

  1. worldofe posted this