Blog Post

Why Are MOOCs Controversial, But Badges Are Not?

Some time ago, I began a discussion of "Why (Some) People Laugh at Badges." 

I would like to ask a different question here. Right now (September, 2013) badges are risible, albeit less and less so, and non-controversial, while discussion of MOOCs is ubiquitous and intensely controversial. Why the difference? What would make discussion of badges more like discussion of MOOCs?

Some reasons that I can think of are that MOOCs clearly appear as a more imminent threat than badges do to faculty livelihoods.  MOOCs also appear to some as a threat  to cherished values about face to face teaching and learning.

What might make badges controversial? I can think of a few possibilities. One is that they actually "take off," and threaten to displace college and university degrees as labor market credentials, along the lines Kevin Carey has written. But, that is unlikely.

Already much of the work of human resource managers in firms is being computerized, so adding badges to what employers want to know about applicants is not likely to step on HR folks' toes any more than they have already been stepped on by other developments.

If university administrators tried to insist that faculty incorporate badges into their courses, there would be backlash. But, that is unlikely. Right now, badges remain "experimental," undertaken voluntary by individual or small groups of faculty. To generate real faculty concern, I think badges would have to be part of a much broader kind of imposition than standing singly, e.g., as part of mandated competency-based education, crafted for accountability purposes. For the time being, competency-based education in higher education remains experimental, and marginal, e.g., Southern New Hampshire University, University of Wisconsin System's Flex Degree. 

If badges ever become as controversial as MOOCs it will be a sign of their success, that they have come to matter consdierably more than they do now.

 
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13 comments

Lest, anyone think that badges might not, at least at some point, pose a threat:

"A crowd was beginning to form around the MOOC. Coyote and the tower creatures began to
interact with all of them and everyone began sharing and growing together.
 
Meanwhile…. Far to the north. Raven’s new method of badging and credentialing was headed
right for the tower."  
 
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"Right now (September, 2013) badges are risible, albeit less and less so, and non-controversial, while discussion of MOOCs is ubiquitous and intensely controversial."

Evidence would be awesome.

"If badges ever become as controversial as MOOCs it will be a sign of their success, that they have come to matter consdierably [sic] more than they do now."

Why?

"To generate real faculty concern, I think badges would have to be part of a much broader kind of imposition than standing singly [sic], e.g., as part of mandated competency-based education, crafted for accountability purposes."

Are you saying change can only come top-down? Isn't the whole point of Open Badges that they enable people to bypass the traditional gatekeepers to learning?

<sigh>

 

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Well, it is speculative.

RE Evidence: If you read my post ""Why (Some) People Laugh at Badges," on HASTAC (http://www.hastac.org/blogs/molneck/2013/07/02/why-do-some-people-laugh-when-they-first-hear-about-badges), you will see anecdotal evidence, and the fact that even Cathy Davidson at  first thought badges were frivolous. In her response to my post, she said that it was among educators that badges were met with laughter, not among employers. I would invite others to chime in as to where badges are taken seriously, and where they treated dismissively.

As to evidence about widespread controversy over MOOCs, see the last couple of years of Inside Higher Education, and Chronicle of Higher Education. While there are controversies, debates, and disagreements within the "badges community," I know of no evidence that would suggest they are controversial in the same way as MOOCs are. Anyone know someone who has gotten angry about badges?

RE Why badges would be a "success" if they were controversial: I guess I am using "successful" in the sense of sufficiently "consequential" to excite opposition.

RE: Assumptions about change coming only from the top. Certainly change can be catalyzed from the "bottom." See e.g., ethnic studies, women's studies in late 1960s-1970s, even afterward. I think it is an open question whether badges can take hold broadly in academia through voluntary imitation of early experiments by folks like Alex Halavais at ASU, Bill Watson at Purdue, or Dan Hickey at IU. And, I think that badges will remain uncontroversial unless they are threatened to become mandatory, which I can imagine only as a part of a broader program of accountability associated with mandated competency-based education.

Conceivably, badges could prove so attractive to employers that they would threaten the value of degrees, in which case colleges and universities would have to begin awarding them in order to retain students. In that case, it would be the employers as "gatekeepers" accepting some "currency" in the labor market, rather than other. I do not think a market in badges will erase the power of gatekeepers.

While the intentions, aspirations, and hopes of those developing badges will affect strategies and tactics in promoting their adoption and spread, it will not be those intentions, aspirations, and hopes that will determine the outcome of badges.

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If you think of badges and MOOCs in terms of Gartner's hype cycle, they are at very different phases, making it hard to compare them in the way you suggest. 

  • Technology Trigger: A potential technology breakthrough kicks things off. Early proof-of-concept stories and media interest trigger significant publicity. Often no usable products exist and commercial viability is unproven.
  • Peak of Inflated Expectations: Early publicity produces a number of success stories—often accompanied by scores of failures. Some companies take action; many do not.
  • Trough of Disillusionment: Interest wanes as experiments and implementations fail to deliver. Producers of the technology shake out or fail. Investments continue only if the surviving providers improve their products to the satisfaction of early adopters.
  • Slope of Enlightenment: More instances of how the technology can benefit the enterprise start to crystallize and become more widely understood. Second- and third-generation products appear from technology providers. More enterprises fund pilots; conservative companies remain cautious.
  • Plateau of Productivity: Mainstream adoption starts to take off. Criteria for assessing provider viability are more clearly defined. The technology’s broad market applicability and relevance are clearly paying off.
I would suggest that badges are in the Technology Trigger phase, while MOOCs are on the Slope of Enlightenment, maybe even heading down the Plateau of Productivity. 
 
You might argue that these two ideas are staggered like this for reasons that have to do with their viability, but I would argue that catalytic innovation (badges) is different than disruptive innovation (MOOCs), to borrow from Clay Christensen. Catalytic innovation is using technology purposefully to create social change, a much heavier lift than trying to change the market through a product or service, with social change as an afterthought. Take email as an example. Way, way back in the 1990s, universities made institutional email addresses available to faculty, but not all faculty used email. As we now know, email was a "killer app," and social pressure (at first benign) and convenience led to mass adoption. Perhaps not a perfect analogy, but in general we tend to do badly at predicting how technologies will affect us once they reach scale. 
 
Another thought: While badges are relatively simple to explain (images that contain information), the concept of a badge ecosystem is quite complex. For example, we currently display our credentials as a line of text on our CV. A digital badge allows us to display that credential as an image with information. Nothing too controversial there. But if you consider the implications of allowing any institution to issue badges, using any kind of assessment, with any endorser (or not), for any kind of learning, you are having a conversation about concepts that many people never question, much less think about, not to mention the scale of social change possible. It is hard to stir up controversy about implications that aren't immediately clear. That doesn't mean that these concepts can't pack a punch once adopted widely. (Thinking about the Internet as an example.)  
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Thanks very much, Sheryl.

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I think badges will be similarly controversial but have not gained enough widespread acceptance to truly develop a backlash.  Let me go through how I view MOOCs and briefly demonstrate how I think such a process will play out with badges.
 
I think one of the reasons that MOOCs remain controversial is because of their relative ineffectiveness.  The high rates of dropouts make MOOCs worrisome to faculty, especially those teaching in less-elite universities.  The individuals that MOOCs target tend to be older and/or less able to access "traditional" education.  MOOCs sell the message that mass education is similar to face to face teaching.  Individuals taking MOOCs believe that the education that they are gaining will provide them similar opportunities as those gained by individuals at elite universities.  Yet, academia has largely been brand oriented.  Individuals graduating from Ivy league schools are often able to make connections along with skills that allow them marketability in the workforce.  One reason for this is because people believe that they are going above and beyond a "standard" system of knowledge.  In regards to MOOCs, I fear that this standardization of knowledge will in many ways simply "raise the bar" of what is expected of knowledge workers.  By standardizing knowledge in such a large way, MOOCs dramatically shift the requirements of jobs.    
 
Let me give an example.  Say, for instance, a company needs employees that can code in Java.  There are three main candidates.  One graduated from a MOOC where he learned Java.  The other graduated from a top Ivy league university in Computer Science.  A third person graduated from a local community college with an Associates degree and then went on to a small state university to get a Bachelors in Computer Science.  In such a scenario,  the Ivy league student will likely get the job.  The local community college student and the MOOC student were likely "non-traditional" and focused on career oriented degrees.  While the local community college student was able to later transfer and perhaps develop new connections/marketability, the MOOC student is largely left with little credentials.  With a MOOC, the idea is that individuals that take the course will also be competitive because they have the skill set necessary for the job.  Yet, if these courses are open to everyone, a competitive marketplace would no longer be innovative.  While ten people may know Java, they will only know the relative amount of information that is produced in the course.  While in a traditional university, the student may be able to supplement his knowledge(and usually do) with meetings with the professors and other courses, the lack of this interaction dramatically effects the skill set of the worker.  Individuals will likely not be able to compete in the marketplace as an increasing glut of workers seek the same accreditation.  In many ways, this is similar to degree inflation.  Yet, with MOOCs, they are also denied a college experience along with networking capabilities(not to even mention the loss of academic capital). 
 
For badges, I don't see this system really changing.  Sure, this may work for a while as individuals use badges to assess others in the marketplace.  Yet, with the increased ability to gain such badges easily and cheaply, the large influx of labor (perhaps even "virtual" labor from third world countries, such as the case of Mechanical Turk) may lead to these workers being even more removed from the workplace as they will need to meet increasing demands of knowledge and skill sets(often undermining the very large labor pool the problem was meant to fix).  Ultimately, I agree with your statement: "I do not think a market in badges will erase the power of gatekeepers."  In fact, I would say that they will only make them stronger.  Individuals will turn to a more traditional model of education to meet credentialing requirements as MOOCs and badges provide a new labor class available for exploitation.  The use of MOOCs may increase "credential/degree" inflation and provide even more limited change.  
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One thought that comes to my mind reading your post is that answering my original question requires asking "controversial among whom?" I think that legislators who see MOOCs as a possible remedy for high costs,e.g., California, will not regard the idea of MOOCs as controversial, but will be concerned about effectiveness. They will treat the issue as a means-ends problem.

I think that faculty who feel threatened with displacement by MOOCs, will use the effectiveness argument against MOOCs, but the "hot buttons" being pressed will be fears about livelihood, and violations of ideal models of education.

Also, some faculty, Mitch Dunier (spelling- ?) in Sociology at Princeton being an example, will be offended by the monetization of MOOCs.

From what we know about how people react to, and account for, blocked social mobility, the ineffectiveness of MOOCs to broaden mobility will probably go unrecognized, and MOOC completers will blame themselves for not completing "real" college.

Another reason for controversy over MOOCs is that they intersect with urgent sources of anxiety, I.e. costs of higher education. If badges were further along, as Sheryl Grant points out, they might intersect with the same anxiety, but for now they are in an earlier phase than are MOOCs.

While I follow your analysis of badges, I am uncertain as to how or why you see them as causing controversy. Can you say some more?

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I agree that asking the question of controversial among whom is important.  In many ways, it reminds me of Wiebe E. Bijker.  Bijker implored us to not think of technology as "working" and "nonworking" but to understand the ways that technology works for some and not for others.  I think the controversy will not necessarily be uniform in the same way.
 
For California legislators, the technology is "working" and noncontroversial as it is a great way to defund higher education.  You see the same issue in the controversy surrounding UVA's unwillingness to work with MOOCs.  Badges(if they are similar to MOOCs in altering education), will enhance the anxiety you talk about in regards to higher education.  I don't believe, however, that this anxiety is disingenuous and merely faculty worried about their jobs—although that may also be a factor.  In fact, I would argue that educators are worried because they have seen the same things played out before in correspondence courses, radio universities, and television universities.  The reason I have lumped MOOCs with badges, although the original discussion implies a distinction, is because of this.  I don't necessarily view them as new technologies but part of a larger historical trend.  In my home country of Pakistan, there is a virtual university that provides a similar form of education through television but has not led to any significant change in social mobility.  You see the same pattern played out whenever a new technology is used for education: a new technology emerges->individuals rush to this technology in order to make higher education more socially mobile->there is a large controversy surrounding this technology in the higher education sector—>education remains relatively similar but with credential inflation.  I think badges are only at the first part of this stage(maybe, the second).  
 
The largest controversy, however, will likely not even emerge from faculty or higher education administrators.  I agree with your analysis that much of the controversy will emerge from students that will blame themselves for not going to "real" college and will become intimately confronted with the lack of social mobility.  I wanted to spend time in my earlier post analyzing some of the market forces that this entails, but as a whole, I think we agree that the gatekeepers will not necessarily go away.  While I am fine with innovating learning techniques, I think the customers of MOOCs and badges will find fault in the rhetoric of education and learning that tells them that they will be able to gain high paying careers due to their badges/MOOCs.  
 
Hope that is clear.  I wanted to type this up before dinner so it may be a little disjuntled.
 
On a side note: I am interested in analyzing this larger historical trend of new technology and mass distance education for my dissertation, which is still in the tentative stage.  If anyone has any knowledge of archival resources for radio universities, telegraph correspondence courses, etc.  Please keep me updated as I am still determining if such a topic is doable.  
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This is a very thoughtful discussion and I'd like to address one thread of it.  Michael writes:  "What might make badges controversial? I can think of a few possibilities. One is that they actually "take off," and threaten to displace college and university degrees as labor market credentials, along the lines Kevin Carey has written. But, that is unlikely."

I want to take up the inverse of that:   What if university professors embraced badges in order to make their institutions design a form of credentialing (for acceptance, for graduation, for post-graduate entrance) that actually valued what we as professors value, not a terrible system that was designed for the Taylorist, Fordist industrial age---the multiple choice test that, we know, neither measures knowledge nor critical, creative thinking and does so in only a very narrow range of subject matter?

I wrote the "How We Measure" chapter of Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way we Live, Work and Learn (Viking Penguin 2011) in  2009-2010, before badges really existed in any coherent way and before the Finnish had schooled the whole world in the benefits of getting rid of standardized testing and class rankins and in valuing professionalization of teachers over standardized curriculum.   My "How We Measure" chapter is Deweyite, connectivist, and advocates real-time formative feedback and is full of research studies. 

To write that chapter, I also researched the history of standardized testing, including finding the papers of the inventor of the multiple choice test.   The ties between that form of testing (like standard deviation and IQ testing) and the relationship to eugenics and the scientism of measuring and ranking human achievement are clear in 1914.   Humans were ranked by "scientific" tests so that white race would rank superior to the non-white races (that included Jews and southern but not northern Italians in 1914 when the Kansas Silent Reading Test was invented.  That is a slight oversimplification but not much: Galton (inventor of deviation from the mean), H. H. Goddard (who made the Binet achievement test into a genetic-based IQ test), and Yerkes, head of the new American Psychological Association who used IQ testing to sort out who would lead and who would be cannon fodder in WWI:  all were professed, professional eugenicists.

  Frederick Kelly (inventor of the test as a doctoral student) himself was quite egalitarian.  He was appalled when it was used by those with eugenic or racist inclinations.   He was also appalled that it was used after the crisis of a teacher shortage no longer made a "test of lower order thinking"  for " the lower orders" a social necessity.  He went on to be President of the University of Idaho and tried to be Deweyian and was fired by faculty vote within two years:  he'd been made president so he could bring the new science of testing to the university and people felt betrayed.

Kelly was appalled again in 1925 when the Scholastic Aptitude Test adopted his multipe-choice test as the standard for getting into higher education.   It was a perversion of purpose and all research since then has shown how much this form of testing reduces the different complexities of the human mind to not just a lowest common denominator but one very narrow version of intellectual ability, narrowly conceived.  I do not know any college professor who thinks their university should celebrate SAT scores as the best way to recruit students.  They may exist but I don't know them.

 

The problem with my "How We Measure" chapter is it didn't provide any answers.  Against the 100 year history of standardizing standardizing testing, and requiring it as part of the 2002 No Child Left Behind national policy, we have theories.   Not a better way that is also fair and machine readable and standardizable and efficient.   Without that, we will never have a better way.  We will be tyrannizing youth over standardized testing that has a terrible origin that reinforces all kinds of social inequalities.

 

The more I explore badging, the more I am impressed by a system that, if done properly, requires an instituiton to come up with all the ways it values learning, ideas, achievement, knowledge, thinking, creativity---or whatever it is that it values.   A letter grade or a test score is opaque.  It "represents" the person's achievement with no other informatioin about that achievement but institutional imprimator (ETS, for example).  A badge is also a single representation of achievement but you click on it and its entire etiology is visible:  who gave it, for what reason, for what kind of accomplishment, achieved on this date,as certified by whom, what, where, why, when and how.    YOu can do the fast version and look at the badge or you can click on it and find all the "meta data"---so much better than the resume with its hyperboles and nuances, the recommendation letter that is fearful of litigation, or the test score that is opaque.

 

Is badging the answer?  I don't know.  But having a concrete alternative makes us deconstruct the whole history of the testing that rules the lives of youth and the organization (highly inequal) of our universities today.   For that alone, this alternative---tried along with a close reading of Finnish Lessons--is invaluable.

 

My adage is that we have to come up with a better way to measure that counts what we value---and values what we count.   We have a terrible, impoverished system now that feeds rather than erases inequality and has the even worse side-effect of passing itself off as "neutral" or "unbiased" when all research correlates standardized achievement scores, in the US, to income and to educational resources.  We need something better.   If you actually sit down to think about what your organization might want to value in order to award badges, you find that the levels of questions (all glossed over by current testing systems) is extremely deep and complex.  This is why I have my students design a badge system (on paper) and award one another badges--it is about the complex and nuanced evaluation of what one values.   This may or may not be the end result of badging.  I'm not naive about how systems go astray.  

 

The process could give academics what we say we want:  a thoughtful way of understanding all the different kinds of thinking that, together, make intellectual life.   At the same time, badging has the potential, on a technical level, to address the issues of standardization and mechanization that are necessary if we want this to be not just a good theory but to actually serve as "what comes next": a practical--and more thought-filled--replacement to the bankrupt system we have now.

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I think defining "controversial" as "most disruptive" is an interesting way to compare the two, but by those standardsthe potential for badges to redefine when and where learning happens, empower learns to be in control of their credentially, is more disruptive than MOOCs, which can become one of the many activities that feed into this new potential for alternative credentially. I also think about the ability to co-opt it, to utilize it within an old framwork and delute or remove the disruptive potential. MOOCs are very easy to not do right, but when wrong they are still sustainable - they look like online discussion, resources and classroom managemenrt tools (all now acccepted) and due to the large numbers will always show success for some. Badges on the other hand, when co-opted, look like gold stars in kindergardens at best or a form of transcript with no audience at worst - neither of which will keep them in use as the learners have to select to participate.

 

In practical terms, my Museum (of Natural History) started three Courseara this Fall, and the work load was heavy but we had all the skills required in house and could see it as a natural extension of things we already do. Brining is badges, however, is a giant conceptual leap, as it forces us to think about credentially informal learning, which we rarely do, and forces a new bar for measuring educational objectives against actual achievement.

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I think defining "controversial" as "most disruptive" is an interesting way to compare the two, but by those standardsthe potential for badges to redefine when and where learning happens, empower learns to be in control of their credentially, is more disruptive than MOOCs, which can become one of the many activities that feed into this new potential for alternative credentially. I also think about the ability to co-opt it, to utilize it within an old framwork and delute or remove the disruptive potential. MOOCs are very easy to not do right, but when wrong they are still sustainable - they look like online discussion, resources and classroom managemenrt tools (all now acccepted) and due to the large numbers will always show success for some. Badges on the other hand, when co-opted, look like gold stars in kindergardens at best or a form of transcript with no audience at worst - neither of which will keep them in use as the learners have to select to participate.

 

In practical terms, my Museum (of Natural History) started three Courseara this Fall, and the work load was heavy but we had all the skills required in house and could see it as a natural extension of things we already do. Brining is badges, however, is a giant conceptual leap, as it forces us to think about credentially informal learning, which we rarely do, and forces a new bar for measuring educational objectives against actual achievement.

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Thank you for the insightful comment, Cathy.  It seems that the badges you are advocating help to get rid of the often problematic testing/statistical measures that we use to evaluate students.  I can sympathize with this view.  In my own personal life, I have always had difficulty taking tests.  The last one I did well on was in elementary school when I was given an IQ test.  Because of the IQ test, I was put into an "accelerated" learning environment.  While it personally helped me, it severely debilitated other students who had difficulty.  The resources of the schools were put on the accelerated students, and over the years, an early test in elementary school began to provide extremely large discrepancies in learning outcomes.  In college, however, the same statistical environment would come back to haunt me.  I had a very difficult time in testing environments.  While taking tests as a child did not cause too many problems for me personally, standardized admissions test(both the ACT and GRE) were severely debilitating and caused many panic attacks.  In short, I sympathize with the sentiment against large testing.  At the same time, I wonder how the badges will be different.  You write that badges "if done properly, requires an institution to come up with all the ways it values learning, ideas, achievement, knowledge, thinking, creativity---or whatever it is that it values."  Similarly, there have been attempts to test students on multiple intelligences, but these tests have still debilitated many students and left them out of the loop.  I know of one personal example of an Ivy-League graduate that now teaches at a top university that was consistently tested as "below-average" on tests of multiple intelligences.  As a result, I may be a little hesitant in regards to badges.  My largest concern is the gluttony of credentialing institutions that may pop up that will actually enhance inequality.  For instance, while a person may be a good electrician, he will now be required to get a badge that demonstrates his competency when he must compete with others in the marketplace to gain these badges.  You see the same problem in certification that often limits many people from entering the workforce who are self taught.  I am a little confused as to how badges differ from these certifications.  
 
If you have time, can you also talk a little about the role of faculty in badges?  What role will faculty play in an environment that allows for multiple agencies to create badges? It seems that badges will require universities to dedicate further resources to partnering with private agencies that create badges(although I understand that some of these agencies will be public) and may take away class time as faculty must begin to insure that their students have the necessary badges to stay competitive in the marketplace.  I also fear that inequality will rise even further as individuals in large universities get placed on the "fast track" for badges.  For instance, if badges truly serve as credential currency then a student could cater to certain jobs quickly as he goes through a university system.  While this may seem beneficial at first, I would question if the student gains enough of a broad educational foundation to cater to a changing workplace and makes the students further career prospects contingent on market rather than educational demands.  Finally, how would badges be different than transcripts that already demonstrate coursework and skills that students have gained?
  
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In an ideal world, faculty would be part of institutions deciding what to value and what to count, and could award transparent credentials.  In fact, now students are often given awards and, if you go back to the original documents and citations, you can find out why.  Badges are not much different except, being digital, they carry that information with them as metadata.  Sheryl grant defined badges as "image files with stuff in them," the stuff being all the details of who, what, where, why, when, and how.   They are transparent and portable--a student who wins an award from a department could be awarded that badge and, in a digital resume, anyone could click on the badge and then find all the supporting documentation.  It's more "real" in that way than a resume.

Faculty could easily decide to issue them--and, believe me, the process of defining what content goes in the metadata is a value exercise everyone should go through.  That level of detail requires an exercise in introspection that current assessment systems gloss over.  Like all things we gloss over, we hide a lot of our assumptions and prejudices beneath the gloss.   There is nothing transparent about GREs, SATs, GPAs.  We reduce all the complexities of achievement to one representation that, in our hearts, we all know falls short of actually representing the complexitiy of our value judgment.  Badges don't solve all the problems but they make the representational aspect of credentialing, assessment, and even simple appreciation of what we value and what we do not something to be thought through, not assumed.

I use paper "mock up" versions in my classes.  In the appendix to our student-created Field Guide to 21st Century Literacies, you can find a template I used in one of my classes, supplied as a sample to inspire other versions:  http://www.hastac.org/field-notes-21st-century-literacies/field-notes-21...

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