You say micro-credential, I say badge

credit where it’s due

Gamification is one of those words that dismays those who value a traditional, respectful use of the English language. For others, it’s a buzz-phrase that’s spent a couple of years around the internet hive (to stretch a metaphorical pun) and means many things. If you’re Evgeny Morozov, then you’ll have eviscerated it and all it stands for with acerbic wit, moral courage and intellectual force. But if you’ve just finished reading Dave Eggers’ The Circle then you’ll be quaking (sorry, another bad pun) in your boots.

One of the offshoots, however, that has some merit (I’m on a pun-athon here) is that of digital badges and their potential use in education and training. The idea is quite simple: you demonstrate achievement of a skill, an attribute or a level of capability and you earn a ‘micro-credential’, a means of certifying your achievement that others can recognise and which has some form of verification and authenticity. With frameworks such as that offered by the Mozilla Foundation’s Open Badges scheme then there is an effective means to identify exactly what the achievements were, how they were demonstrated and who accredited them as well as providing a set of technology standards that allow for exchange, accumulation and production.

Earlier this year we hosted a webinar by Megan Cole (Mozilla) who talked us through the basics and identified potential ‘use cases’, albeit with a US orientation (forgive her, she’s in Washington!), but the idea of badges has spread internationally and indeed they are being given very serious consideration by a number of formal agencies and organisations in many countries. The Open Badges Scottish Education Group was set up in April 2013 and has pooled the expertise and interests from a wide variety of member organisations including the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) and employer groups. The rather excellent design group We are Snook, took the opportunity to draw up a constellation diagram of the situation (perhaps those of you who know my background might see why this particular case study appeals!).

Open Badges Scottish Education — by We are Snook
The SQA have also been working with Education Scotland and educational practitioners on a new competency-based education system, implemented in Scottish schools this year, Curriculum for Excellence. This curriculum recognises that learning happens everywhere and aims to support learners develop skills for learning, work and life through the development of four capacities: successful learners; confident individuals; responsible citizens; effective contributors. It is acknowledged that Open Badges could be a good fit for recognising the wider range of an individual’s attributes and strengths, as well as academic achievements, such a competency-based system can allow.
Grainne Hamilton’s Blog, 30/7/2014

Of course with the pending restructuring of JISC (and, indeed the HE Academy, which also features in this mapping) and associated staffing changes, there’s some uncertainty in terms of future support and facilitation via that organisation and its offshoots.

Nevertheless, badging is gaining credence as a potentially effective means of identifying pathways and opportunities for skills development.

Here in Galway, we’ve been dabbling with badges (through Blackboard Learn, which is compatible with Open Badges) in some of our courses and training programmes. Simple examples were the breaking down of existing modules into identifiable and assessable components and providing a badge for each, completing the whole set leading to a certificate (with or without an additional integrative assessment to provide the formal academic credit required in particular cases). Next time we’ll probably make use of the nice tools provided by the Digital Youth Network.

Now, of course, many of our ‘students’ are academic staff or doctoral researchers, which includes quite a range of ages, attitudes and perspectives not all of which would necessarily be comfortable with the terminology being used or, as they might see it, the implicit simplistic notion of collecting credit. For many, the connotations of Scouts/Guides or computer games (the younger amongst them)was initially off-putting, so in such circles I resort to talking about ‘micro-credentials’, competency frameworks, credit accumulation, etc, and that seems to do the trick for some!

Gathering together our collected anecdata from these experiences, it was interesting to note how attitudes developed as courses progressed. The display of the available range of badges in a given module, with those yet to be obtained greyed out and those achieved shining in all their multi-coloured glory, played on the psychology in a way that would have delighted Mr Pavlov and Mr Skinner. Badge collection became a source of pride and many queries came in from even the most august of professors on what they had to yet completed in order to be awarded the next badge. Now, of course, not everyone can see how these might be applied within their own disciplinary context, but for many of the skills-oriented programmes which we facilitate (say in our Teaching & Learning module for Graduate Teaching Assistants, or our Learning Technologies module for academic staff), their potential became quite apparent.

The interest in competency-based education and training also provides a wider contextual setting for the spread of digital badges and with reforms to school level education, apprenticeships, on-the-job training and continuing professional development, there is clearly scope for such a technology (or methodology, since the detailed technical mechanics should be simple to operate, yet robust and secure).

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, if we are interested in building Ireland’s ‘Digital Capacity’, then mapping and ‘badging’ a set (or sets) of skills, knowledge, competencies, and confidence levels that span the technical, operational and critical (in the academic sense of that word) aspects of living, working and learning in the digital age could potentially be a significant step forward. So too, of course, would be mapping other key study, learning, professonal and informaton skills into a badging framework and not simply restricting it to the ‘digital’ skills per se.

Looking across the broader education, training, library and other communities in this country and beyond, it soon becomes quite apparent that there is no shortage of frameworks, maps, models, certifications and development projects, along with a burgeoning crop of research publications. The trick, though, with any simple idea is to keep it simple.

Sharpe & Beetham framework

Sharpe & Beetham’s framework for Digital Literacies has been adopted and adapted by many in the JISC Developing Digital Literacies projects in the UK.

In many cases, institutions develop their own frameworks to align better with their mission, values and priorities. There’s also a difference in emphasis dependent on which particular community (eg Library, Teaching Centre or Staff Development) takes a lead.

This example is from Greenwich and is centred on their conception of a ‘critical’ digital literacy.

For others the focus is on ‘Learning Literacies’ embracing aspects of study skills, academic writing, etc. For others still, it’s about building up the skills of support staff or academics (see, for example, Helen Blanchett’s nice summary of a JISC webinar on the topic early last year).

Competency frameworks for staff working in higher education institutions and the wider public sector are also regular items on the HR and Staff Development agenda — even if the terminology alienates those who see their work as a ‘calling’ and part of their identity, rather than a neatly stacked set of measurable, Taylorised activities. Such frameworks typically identify skills, levels of capability, progression and development. Rummaging in this space, again, there is no shortage of proposed (and some implemented) models of what an Admin Grade 5 post should be expected to handle, or a Senior Lecturer’s role in the three dimensions of research, teaching and administration/leadership. The National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching & Learning is also currently exploring the development of a Professional Standards Framework for academic staff, for example (the UK’s HEA has an already established equivalent).

Increasingly, too, institutions are publishing statements of Graduate Attributes, outlining their expectations of what a successful graduate from their institution should (in principle) be able to offer to employers and wider society. The extent to which such attributes are demonstrably achieved, other than through the successful completion of a programme of study, isn’t always clear although there is much ongoing work on this aspect and a clearer focus on learning outcomes at the programme as well as modular levels.

But, before this turns into a long, meandering ramble, perhaps it is time to focus on the current funding call from the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching & Learning. It is evident from discussions and communications around this call, that there are many people interested in aspects of digital literacies and others in digital badges. There’s also an emphasis on developing academic staff skills to teach with technologies, emerging from both the draft digital roadmap and draft proposals. To what extent is there scope for weaving these different (but complementary) strands, alongside other parallel ideas into a neat tartan, rather than a spaghetti-like collection of oddments? As I said, the trick is to keep it simple.

Let’s look at what the key areas might be, the various threads, if you like.

Exploring, Networking, Collaborating, Sharing

The idea of developing badges based on skills, knowledge and attributes potentially span a range of interest groups and professional communities including, Library associations, primary and second level schools’ curriculum developers, further and adult education, voluntary and community organisations, teaching and learning centres in universities and colleges, careers and guidance, industry and employers. Many of these have already established work in parallel domains and have considerable expertise.

Any such proposal needs to respect this diversity and experience, tapping it as a national resource through facilitating dialogue and the sharing of ideas around a common set of goals.

Flexible, Dynamic, Open

Frameworks, curricula, competency statements, and the like sometimes run the risk of becoming rigid, dogmatic and requiring compliance to levels of detail which can be off-putting to so many charged with their implementation. For an articulate, dynamic and imaginative digital citizenry we need to be more nimble, able to encourage and, indeed, nurture individual creativity and enthusiasm. We need not, in short, forget about the joy of learning and the power of intrinsic motivation to drive learning and grow confidence. Whatever curricular goals, structures and designs we develop need to be flexible, open to change, attractive to learners and providers whilst meeting the overal aim of ‘building digital capacity’ across Irish education. Taking on board contemporary ideas of Learning Design we can construct an ‘Open’ curriculum framework that is adaptable and dynamic.

Simple, Clear, Transparent

Jargon abounds in so many of these areas, as does a tendency to draw up detailed schema, complex diagrams and interconnected level statements, specifications and dependencies. Going down such a route will kill off a badge system from the outset.

Stimulating, Creative, Fun

Need I say more on these points? If our purpose is to build up skills, build up ‘capacity’ then it requires confidence, a flexible disposition and enthusiasm. That means any such system needs to be able to provide not just a visceral, Skinnerite sense of achievement, but a real enjoyment and sense of worth, opening out (rather than closing down) opportunities to be creative in the design, engagement and application of the badges and their skills. By looking around the wider informal learning arena we can discover many effective approaches to enthusing and inspiring learners, by allowing them to be creative, to be collaborative and to feel part of a broader learning community. Let’s try some of these approaches to our badging proposal, otherwise the boring old checklist-fillers will win out in the end!


That’s the next blog. I’ll wait until this one has been digested before unveiling the master plan.

Photo: CC Attribution, flickr photo by hyperdashery badges.