Yesterday I was able to step off the Now You See It book tour to attend the launch of the fourth Digital Media and Learning Competition, focused on an ambitious topic this year and with an unusual structure: “Badges for Lifelong Learning.” (You can watch the archived event on the Hirshhorn Museum’s U-Stream channel here: http://hastac.org/DML-competition-launch) What makes this event stunning to think about is that it was emcee’d by Hari Sreenivasan, of the PBS NewsHour, and included Julia Stasch, Vice President of U.S. Programs at the MacArthur Foundation, Mark Surman, the Executive Director of Mozilla, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden. A panel discussion then included Emily Stover DeRocco, President of the Manufacturing Institute and National Center for the American Workforce, Martha Kanter, Under Secretary of Education, Leland D. Melvin, Association Administrator for Education at NASA, and Debra Sanchez, Senior Vice President of Education and Children’s Content at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Think about who is thinking about new forms of accreditation, one of the most pressing issues for learners and for educators—at all levels—in our time!
Other Organizations and Institutions Can Apply
The very impressive array of those on the podium articulated the scope of the problem. Any other organization can join them in asking for partners to design a new way of offering accreditation to their own organization. Organizations can be virtual or actual, formal or informal, large or small, operating on inexpensive mobile phones or Web-based platforms. They can be peer run or top down. Some might be games---but most will have nothing to do with games or what people are calling (ambiguously and not always accurately) "gamification." Badges may be used in games but games have very little to do with alternative forms of peer contribution and credentialing in most institutions. That's important. And so is the fact that you don't need much technology or money to implement a badging system--or, at least, that is another of the goals of this Competition. In short: There are as many systems for badging—a new form of accrediting participation and accomplishment—as there are variations in institutions and organizations. There is no one-size-fits-all.
Perhaps a school wants to be able to recognize the master teacher who is caring and constructive mentor to new teachers in her school. Isn’t that a fantastic contribution that so many teachers make, day in and day out, that, currently, goes unrecognized? (An aside: I loved the “Go, Teachers!” thread that ran throughout yesterday’s program.) Perhaps there’s a national network of auto mechanics that would like to be able to come up with a way of credentialing high school drop outs who happen to be great at fixing hybrid cars but who cannot afford to go to for-profit trade school that offer formal credentials. I’m making this up, but I can see applications that could help participants and communities to recognize those with achievements “outside the system” and yet crucial, to the community and to their own success in the workplace. What do we have now to offer? Multiple choice tests, ABCD grades, transcripts, resumes: that is an extremely narrow range of alternatives that in itself selects who counts and what is counted.
Individuals can earn badges from multiple organizations, some certifying human skills such as collaboration or even helpfulness, that mean as much to future employers as skills and experience and credentials from traditional institutions. And an individual can choose to reveal or not reveal an e-portfolio. YOU own your portfolio. These are badges, designed to record and inspire learning and collaboration, and so ownership is key. Yesterday, I heard about (and want to learn more) of a system used among goat herders and mechanics in Africa, where badges on their cell phones certified quality of product, fair exchange, honesty, and innovation in a migrant situation where credibility is key and hard to measure. This is key because no one wants a new form of credentialing that replicates the hierarchies of traditional accreditation. The point is to thing big, think new, think change.
Our current, standardized systems of credentialing are very rigid and often restrictive. Badges allow groups of people—organizations and institutions--to decide what counts for them and how they want to give credit. Every contribution isn’t measured by ABCD. If you contribute, you can have a record of that contribution. That’s the beauty of digital badge systems or eportfolios such as Top Coders where you can actually click on the badge and see all the specific contributions or skills of a person that were recognized by peers in the form of a badge. A badge is a visual symbol. In the best online badging systems, that emblem then opens up a full array of contribution. Open web developers often depend on strangers around the world who start to pitch in and contribute to a project. Badging helps one developer to know how much they can trust some unknown contributor and then, if the project goes well, one participant in the virtual team can recognize the skills, collaborative attributes, and other technical as well as social collaborative skills of another. Developing credible systems that can’t be “gamed” or “cheated” is one challenge that open web developers have addressed in a variety of ways and that we can all learn from. Another inspiring aspect of open badges for lifelong learning: they recognize achievement and contribution, not reputation or credentials. If I’m engaged in a project with someone who does an exemplary job, I can award credit whether that person happens to have a Ph.D. from MIT or be a brilliant sixteen-year old programmer in Gary, Indiana—or Nairobi.
How the Badges Competition Works (http://dmlcompetition.net/)
In stage one of the competition, organizations that are looking for some new way to recognize and encourage members who contribute to the organization define the possible “ecosystem” of their organization and why a new form of recognizing participation would serve their needs. Some subset of organizations, representing the widest possible array of possibilities, will be selected to go forward. (See http://dmlcompetition.net/ for details.)
In the second stage, designers interested in working with that organization come forward with a proposal. (Again, details here: http://dmlcompetition.net/)
Then, there’s a meet-up. At the end of that intense process of collaborative work, a cohort of partnerships of organizations and designers will be supported for a year to work out all the details of an open, functional, exemplary credentialing system for their organization---one that other organizations can learn from.
A Research Competition: Learning from What We’re Learning Together
We will also be sponsoring a research competition (http://dmlcompetition.net/Competition/4/research-competition-announcement.php) so that White Papers can emerge studying every phase of this process and of badging more generally so there is still more that we can all learn from.
And HASTAC will be sponsoring a series of webinars, online forums, and of course groups and blogs (such as this one) on the HASTAC website that anyone who is a HASTAC network member (registration is very simple) can contribute to. We want good ideas. We want critique. We want push back. You can’t have “evidence-based hope” without all the details, all the nuances, not based on prejudice or preconception but thinking through a problem together.
We know the current systems of standardized grading don’t work. At the end of this competition, we hope to know a lot more about what will work---and how others can learn from the hard work of our winners and apply their working examples to their own institutions.
Not Just Winners but Working Examples We Can All Learn From
The winning organizations and developers will receive support from the MacArthur Foundation to support their work creating a new badging system with all the flexibility and all the precautions and all the applications their organization requires: about individual and community participation, openness, privacy, security, intellectual property, changing Human Resources, cost of implementation and sustainability, and other institutional practices, and so forth. This is a worthy enough goal but the real “game changer” is that the end result should be an array of actual, open, working and functioning systems of accreditation that will help all of us, in any situation, think about whatever method our institution now uses and to be able to see, in concrete detail, how things might be better by adopting this new system that these teams have worked on together.
In other words, for something as complex and important as how we create the standards for the institutions that structure the ways we all live and work, we will, in a year or two, have an array of models, actual working and real models. And we will have researchers studying and writing about the pluses and minuses of these systems and where and how they can be adapted elsewhere. These are not hypothetical results but ongoing research on evolving, working examples in real-world and real-life situations
Think about that! Think about the haphazard way in which social change and, even more, how institutional change usually happens. And then think about the concrete, specific examples of not only ill-defined “hope for the future” but an actual working plan for change (in multiple forms, in multiple working examples) that a competition like this can model for us all.
A virtual friend (in the Twitter sense of the word), Michael Josefowicz aka @ToughloveforX), a self-made public education reform advocate, likes to talk in terms of “evidence-based hope.” At the end of this Badges for Lifelong Learning competition, we are going to be able to offer institutions and organizations, large ones and small, an array of models that they can apply to their own organizations. That removes a very large “fear factor” that often inhibits institutional change. “Evidence-based hope.”
Here are some other things to think about. We are working to make this Competition cycle as open as laws and concerns about privacy allow. Everything the winners do will be open. The process will be open. The outcome, or so we are hoping, will offer any organization or institution that wants to find new, complex, nuanced ways for peers, participants, members, or anyonethey wish to give credit to their members in a way that might also have benefit to them in their life beyond that organization. Are you a good mentor? Someone who sparks ideas? Someone great at moving a collaborative group to a final product? Or maybe you write great HTML or are an ardent contributor to the organization’s goal of writing its own institutional history? The point is badges allow institutions the flexibility of deciding, collectively, on what they want to count and to find ways of counting that have real variability. You reward only what counts. If something doesn’t count, you simply don’t give it a badge. Think about that change in and of itself. We reward contribution. If someone doesn’t contribute, no reward. You don’t have to give them a D or a “gentleman’s C” (the old Ivy League equivalent of “failure.”) You earn badges. That simple. But it’s not simple at all to work out such a system and, at the end of this Competition, any institution that wants to try something different, will have all the details about what adopting a new practice will mean, how it works, how it can be modified, and how much it will cost. We have had such a limited palette for measuring of accrediting a range of work that, for over a hundred years, in the highly limited and constricted ways that we measure “high standards”
Why Does HASTAC Administer This Competition (along with all the other things HASTAC does)?
First, HASTAC has not changed its mission. This is one of the many, many things the HASTAC network (now about 7200 network members) does. Yet HASTAC’s main goal, since its founding in 2002, has been institutional change. How you measure what individuals and institutions contribute determines how individuals and institutions function. So this is big. The potential is as great as our imaginations, and that is what we mean by “thinking the future together.” We want to hear from you. We know many people embrace this. There are some ardent “haters” who reject it without even know what “it” is (know one knows that yet). And there are many wise and skeptical critics who also seek institutional change but who don’t think badges will lead to change. We want to hear from all of you in the constructive way that our community has thrived for nearly a decade now.
As HASTAC network members all know by heart, David Theo Goldberg and I were inspired in 2002 to bring together a dozen or so other researchers in the worlds of the humanities, arts, social and natural sciences, computer scientists, and technology developers in order to think through the possibilities of new ways of organizing learning institutions in the digital age.
HASTAC’s Partnership with the MacArthur Foundation on the Digital Media and Learning Competitions
Our own focus is on higher education, our domain, but we have included many far beyond that world. We feel grateful that the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation recognized our visionary, community-based role and asked us to administer their annual Digital Media and Learning Competitions. We have learned so much, every year, from the process of running these competitions, and from the work of our winners. You can find more about those winners here: http://hastac.org/competitions It’s an impressive list.
HASTAC’s Partnership with Mozilla
HASTAC was inspired by the way open web developers work together in worldwide communities of contribution and peer-learning to make the World Wide Web and some of its most astonishing collaborative projects, including Wikipedia, of course. So we were especially excited in 2010 when Mozilla came to us and recognized us as one of the world’s most exciting institutions for peer learning within formal education. They asked us to participate in their 2010 Drumbeat Festival on “Learning, Freedom, and the Open Web,” and HASTAC ran a full day of programs there, at the Drumbeat Festival in Barcelona, including a separate full-day of student-generated programing. Mozilla leaders were unaware, when they found us, that HASTAC, originally, had been formed to adapt to higher formal education their work in the developing and keeping the World Wide Web open. They had inspired our idea of new, open institutional models of peer-learning, and we were gratified when it turned out the admiration was mutual.
I am honored and grateful to be part of this grand experiment designed to not just explore but also to model new, interactive, participatory forms of credentialing for the 21st century. The concrete examples, I hope, will inspire us to see ways we can transform our own institutions. We will do our best to choose wise and capable winners who can show us, in minute detail, how institutional change works—so that we can build upon their examples. Think about the difference between saying “the status quo doesn’t serve us” and saying “the status quo doesn’t serve us—but here are some current, working examples that can help us to find what will serve us better. Here’s a blueprint that we can follow.” That’s breathtaking.
As HASTAC readers know, I am currently on a forty-site book tour for Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking) and am giving many different interviews on line or in the traditional media each week. Events have been standing room only. I talk to people every day and see how much of a need there is. Chapter Four “How We Measure,” is an analysis of the limitation of the metrics and means of assessment that now govern how our institutions of education and our national educational policy now function, systems of standardized assessment that the U.S. has developed and given to the world. We think we aspire to “high standards” but we badly confuse “standards” with “standardization.” The particular form of standardization was invented for the efficient working of the industrial age—the assembly line becomes the prototype for educational reform and even the creation of the research university in the late 19th century. The science of attention (William James was the first philosopher in English, he says, to write about “attention”) motivated a new, focused, disciplinary, hierarchical form of attention, taken almost to its reduction ad absurdum by the translation of nuanced, individual, written critique to the brutal A, B, C, D letter grades. In 1897, Mount Holyoke was the first institution to adopt this system. The American Meat Packer’s Association took it up next but, if you go into the archives of the association, you found that they were suspicious of such an inflexible, reductive system for grading something is variable as sirloin or chuck. If you are a teacher or a student, you know what I mean.
HASTAC members know I have spent the last decade of my life studying and trying out new forms of assessment, almost all of it written about in detail on the HASTAC site. “How to Crowdsource Grading” (http://hastac.org/blogs/cathy-davidson/how-crowdsource-grading) attracted worldwide attention and is the inspiration for some of Part Two of Now You See It. In my quest to find new and better forms of teaching and learning together, though, I interviewed dozens, maybe hundreds of teachers far more gifted than I. I tell the stories of many of them—all of them who have championed with creativity, inspiration, and “evidence-based hope” against a system that “grades” them according to how well their students do on multiple-choice tests invented in 1914 for the explicit purpose of addressing a national crisis. I tell that story in Now You See It too, finding the archives of the man who invented the item-response test in a doctoral dissertation, to help out in a national crisis, and who spent the rest of a long career trying to convince others to use more Dewey-esque ways of learning, and not to reduce all the ways we think and learn to “lower order thinking” measured by the test he created during a national teacher-shortage during the world’s first World War. The test Kelly made in the crisis-moment of 1914 looks like one any school child will take this year.
Our world has changed. Kids need to know how to think about credibility, how to synthesize enormous amounts of knowledge, how to know what is or isn’t high quality, and how to contribute to judgment themselves. They deserve better than a test created in a wartime crisis for their great, great great grandparents.
Are badges the answer? We don’t know.
Certainly, we all know, they are not the only answer—they are just a small beginning, to encourage many new, vital conversations everywhere about what might work. If you don’t like badging, give us your ideas for what you think might work. That in itself is a great good. If you don’t like badging as an alternative form of credentials and standards, we invite you to give us something constructive as an alternative, give us something we can all learn from.
As with any good experiment, this one contains within it the possibility for failure. We would be cowardly if failure were not an option, we would be setting the bar too low—a problem with so much contemporary assessment from grade inflation to cheating to the fact that over 80% of articles in scientific journals now report only on positive experimental results. What is wrong with this picture? Everyone is teaching to the test these days, a disaster in so many ways. We don’t know if badging solves that problem. We know it can’t solve all problems. But it is an important, practical, hopeful beginning to a profound conversation that, with your participation, can yield institutional change.
We cannot keep educating students for the twentieth century. We cannot keep measuring our achievements by narrow, inflexible standardized means thatmay have worked for the industrial age but that ignore virtually all of the skills and talents we need to succeed in the 21st century.
If we don’t begin right here, right now, we will never find out the best ways to change what we know is broken. We hope, in this amazing year, to find many ways we can enhance learning. We know that many of you will not be competing in the actual Fourth Digital Media and Learning Competition but we hope all of you will be participating in a year of thinking about assessment, credentialing, merit, and evaluation as keys to learning and to learning institutions. We hope you will help us think about institutional change. We hope you will join us in thinking through the future of lifelong learning.
NOW YOU SEE IT
Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, and author of The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and the forthcoming Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (publication date, Viking Press, August 18, 2011). below.
A starred review in the May 30 Publisher's Weekly notes: "Davidson has produced an exceptional and critically important book, one that is all-but-impossible to put down and likely to shape discussions for years to come." PW named it one of the "top 10 science books" of the Fall 2011 season.
In the August 9 New York Times, columnist Virginia Heffernan calls the book "galvanic. . . One of the nation’s great digital minds, she has written an immensely enjoyable omni-manifesto that’s officially about the brain science of attention. But the book also challenges nearly every assumption about American education. . . . As scholarly as “Now You See It” is — as rooted in field experience, as well as rigorous history, philosophy and science — this book about education happens to double as an optimistic, even thrilling, summer read. It supplies reasons for hope about the future. Take it to the beach. That much hope, plus that much scholarship, amounts to a distinctly unguilty pleasure."
NOTE: The views expressed in NOW YOU SEE IT are solely those of the author and not of any institution or organization. For more information, visit www.nowyouseeit.net or order on Amazon.com by clicking on the book below.