Bold Ideas

Digital Badge Learning: “Geeking Out” Across the Curriculum

♦ by Sarah Blattner

Building upon the innovations of the Mozilla Foundation, Blattner demonstrates how schools can employ digital badges to accomplish a host of pedagogical aims, including motivation, assessment, curricular planning, problem solving, blended learning and more.

Technology revolutionizes how, where and when learning can happen. Learners today have access to more information in the palms of their hands than we could access in university libraries just a decade ago. More importantly, learning happens beyond the school calendar, beyond the classroom walls and with all sorts of people, including teachers, experts in the field, mentors, counselors, coaches and peers. Learning today is about collaborating, evaluating, synthesizing, creating, communicating and problem solving. The Internet amplifies the possibilities of John Dewey’s vision of progressive education, providing heightened opportunities to explore the world in a social context, to contribute content through a global platform, and to seek out solutions and experts to solve relevant and interesting challenges. The time has come for us to reimagine how we “do school” and how we can best meet our students’ educational needs for the future.

Numbers also tell a story: the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 95% of American teens ages 12-17 are online; 80% of teens participate in some sort of social network; and over 64% of teens post some kind of content online. We must listen to the numbers. It is a profound time—a time for transforming the learning landscape and for shifting how we assess what students know and what they can do.

Digital badge learning is one innovative approach that invokes the spirit of Dewey and relies on the endless possibilities that the Internet and digital media afford students. Badge learning is passion-based, project-based and occurs within a social and participatory context. Students can earn badges for achievements that happen inside or outside of school. Students can demonstrate what they know through their badges as a transparent transcript of their learning, all while pursuing their interests.

In simplest terms, a digital badge signifies achievements and tells the story of the learner, capturing rich data about students’ knowledge, skills and pathways. Similar to badges earned in youth scouting programs, the badge as a graphic icon symbolizes a milestone or accomplishment. But a digital badge is so much more than just an icon.

The Mozilla Foundation is leading the badge learning movement and coined the term “open badges.” Open badges are hard coded with rich metadata that reaches far beyond a traditional letter grade on a report card. When clicking on a badge, a user may see the issuing institution, the rubric for the learning and a description of the learning pathways to achievement. And depending upon the age of the student (adhering to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act), learners may share out their badges to a variety of social media interfaces through their “Mozilla Open Badges Backpack.”

Badge-empowered learning capitalizes on many elements of good game design. A good video game, for instance, keeps the learner engaged through constant feedback. Throughout an experience, gamers visibly see milestones, levels, tokens and points that provide a sense of satisfying accomplishment. Similarly, badge learning relies on frequent feedback and rewards accomplishments at a granular level, where achievements and milestones are recognized along the learning journey, visible within an online community.

Good games maintain a pleasant challenge, where the learner is balanced on the edge of frustration, not overwhelmed or moving through obstacles with too much ease. Good games also encourage risk and fun in failure, for in failing, we get to try again and again, seeking mastery. Like good games, badge learning creates a fun risk-taking environment and is supported by a community of peers and mentors.

Badge learning embraces the spirit of play and the benefits of “iterative prototyping,” both cornerstones from the design world. By creating a low-stakes environment where students feel free to takes risks, muck around in the messiness of learning and test out models, we empower students to be more creative and innovative in their problem solving. Instead of attempting to arrive at a final completed project the first time around, multiple versions or prototypes evolve through formative feedback. The ending result is “sticky” learning and the kind of learning that reaches the full range of the new Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Additional gaming elements influence badge learning, including points tied to badges, leaderboards and the unlocking of privileges or “power ups” within the learning community. For instance, badges may recognize soft skill behaviors, like collaboration and posting comments on a discussion forum. Badges may confer community power ups, such as being promoted to peer reviewer status, where students who have earned a skill badge get promoted to that badge’s peer review or nomination team. Students may also unlock additional “superpowers,” like the freedom to design their own badge.

Steeped in current research, badge learning relies on the values and principles of “connected learning,” as well as data about how youth learn with new media. As explained by the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub, University of California, Irvine, which is supported by the MacArthur Foundation: “Connected learning seeks to harness and integrate the learning that young people pursue in the spheres of interest, peer relations and academics.” Lead researcher Mimi Ito explains that one way youth interact with digital media is they “geek out,” seeking deep understandings and skills around an academic interest. When “geeking out,” adult mentors are welcome in the peer-connected culture to help coach, guide and evolve a student’s understandings.

Digital badge learning is a natural distillation of the principles of connected learning, helping students to “geek out.” Through intentional design, badging can transform Jewish day school learning into modern, connected experiences that integrate new media literacies and skills. Like all good curricular planning, badge learning begins with an essential question. By sparking a “need to know” within the students, “quests” or learning journeys are designed with relevant, project-based outcomes and provide students with choices or multiple learning pathways. This instructional design approach integrates the best of what we know about learning styles and differentiated instruction. Relevant to any content area or learning outcome, badge learning can engage learners in service learning programs, research projects, arts programs, STEM initiatives or Jewish studies electives.

The Epstein School in Atlanta is a Jewish day school trailblazer for badge learning. With training from New York’s Global Kids and support from The Covenant Foundation, Epstein is in its second year of implementation. Epstein designed a badge learning program around their original character education program called “Echoes,” which focuses on how Jewish role models demonstrate values we want children to emulate and how these qualities reverberate throughout time.

Their middle school faculty team structured the badge learning program around contemporary and living role models who demonstrate values that could be attached to attributes they want to see within their students as modern learners and Jews. For instance, teachers crafted rubrics around the hallmarks of project-based learning, including the “Eli Wiesel Acceptance Badge,” the “Ruth Messinger Collaboration Badge” and the “Steven Spielberg Communication Badge,” to name a few. A badge learning scaffold or a “badging constellation” includes multiple learning pathways, where students first “recognize it,” “talk about it” and then “do it.” These multiple pathways afford students with opportunities to engage in deep learning with frequent feedback and coaching from Epstein’s badge learning faculty team.

The badging program was first introduced to Epstein’s 6th graders as an optional program, where faculty sought input from the students on meaningful power ups for granting privileges within the middle school community for achievements, such as a day trip to Google for the “Information Literacy Badge,” or permission to work on a laptop without teacher supervision. Students were also engaged in researching the contemporary leaders for the badges and created Vokis, talking multimedia avatars, that captured the essence of each Jewish leader and their attributes. Students continue to be recognized for their learning accomplishments through public recognition ceremonies at Epstein.

Epstein reflects trends in the secular world, ranging from K-12 education to higher education and the business world. The New York City Department of Education’s Dig/It program engaged over 4,000 high school students this school year in badge learning. Students participate in a digital literacy course, engaging them in mastering real-world life skills and knowledge within a peer-supported online learning community. Ultimately, these high school students use the badges to mark milestones in their learning and demonstrate their understandings and skills.

K-12 digital learning tools and resources are also providing some badge learning features, such as the badges and achievement levels within the Khan Academy and the social learning tool, Edmodo, where teachers can award badges within the online community. In higher education, Purdue University’s Passport badging program guides their college students through challenges that earn badges. And in the business world, forward-thinking companies like Deloitte are using badges, missions and leaderboards to engage and train their own employees and clients.

Tamritz, a national digital badge learning network for Jewish day schools, is a nonprofit project dedicated to supporting schools in shifting their learning landscapes. Tamritz, meaning “incentive” in Hebrew, seeks to give Jewish day schools an incentive to collaborate, network and learn together within a connected, online community. Taking a comprehensive approach to implementing badge learning, Tamritz focuses on professional development, student learning and collaboration.

For starters, teachers participate in a 10-week badge learning course, “Digital Age Teaching,” designed to build their skills sets in teaching and learning with new media. The course immerses educators in a badge learning experience, as well as in a community of practice. Following the course, school badging teams participate in face-to-face training, designing their own badge learning curriculum.

On the student learning front, Tamritz provides a badge learning course for middle schoolers, “Digital Media Literacy,” which focuses on connected learning habits and etiquette, digital citizenship, research and media tools for collaboration, communication and creative productivity. Ultimately, schools will implement their own badge-empowered, connected learning programs, supported by a community of practice. Currently, Tamritz concentrates on middle schools, where developmentally students are expected to take an increased ownership of their learning.

When determining if your school is ready for a badge learning program, a few key elements must be in place to support the success of the faculty and students. First, reliable technology infrastructure and ample access to digital learning equipment is a must. Equally important is tech support staff for troubleshooting and technology integration. In addition, schools should be prepared to dedicate a small team of faculty to the badging initiative, serving as a “badge learning advisory team.” This academic team will help create the vision, build the program, coach students through the learning and train others into the future. Most importantly, schools must be ready and committed to shifting the learning landscape towards new media literacies and project-based learning.

John Dewey said, “If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow.” We are living in a time of infinite information and possibilities for learning, collaborating and creating. We must teach and learn for tomorrow. As the authors of the Mozilla Foundation’s whitepaper, “Open Badges for Lifelong Learning,” explain:

Learning is not just “seat time” within schools, but extends across multiple contexts, experiences and interactions. It is no longer just an isolated or individual concept, but is inclusive, social, informal, participatory, creative and lifelong. And it is not sufficient to think of learning simply as consumption, but instead learners are active participants and producers in an interest-driven, lifelong learning process.

Digital badge learning has the potential to place Jewish day schools on the leading edge of pedagogy and new media literacies and skills sets, supporting students in “geeking out” across the curriculum. Badge learning is one innovative approach to digital age teaching and learning that harnesses the power of the Internet and digital media in a relevant and engaging way for both students and teachers.♦

Sarah Blattner is the founder and executive director of Tamritz, a digital badge learning network for Jewish day school students and teachers, incubated as a Joshua Venture Group Dual Investment Program Fellowship and generously supported by the AVI CHAI Foundation. You can follow her on Twitter @tamritzlearning, and she can be reached at sarah@tamritz.org.

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