Project Q&A With: Pathways for Lifelong Learning

Project Q&A With: Pathways for Lifelong Learning

The Providence After School Alliance's "Pathways for Lifelong Learning" badge system recognizes, motivates, validates, and connects learning interests and achievements of youth beginning in 6th grade, creating a seamless system of learning pathways that usher youth through middle school, high school, and onward to college, career and life.

What are the 3 most important things about building a badge system you would share with another organization just getting started?

  1. Familiarize your stakeholders with digital badges before the design process begins. In this way, you will get buy-in from all parties that will ensure a more streamlined implementation process.
  2. 2Make sure your badges mean something. Before going into the design process, create a comprehensive learning strategy with goals and outcomes that the badges can become a critical support for. In this way, you will avoid turning your badges into digital trophies and will instead have a badge system that is a key part of a comprehensive learning system.
  3. Build your tech infrastructure with the badges, rather than trying to integrate them with a pre-existing system. This will keep maintenance costs down, while also ensuring that badges feel like an organic part of a multi-tiered system.

With support from HASTAC, the Providence After School Alliance (PASA’s) Hub team has successfully launched its digital badging system, designed to support the Hub’s high quality, credit-bearing ELOs (expanded learning opportunities). The Hub—which maximizes cross-sector collaboration and resources to engage the city’s high school youth in a variety of programs where they can earn school credit toward graduation through rigorous and relevant out-of-school expanded learning opportunities.

PASA developed a digital badge ecosystem that integrates with—a connected learning platform designed to allow ELO students share, connect, reflect and expand their learning experiences anytime and anywhere. The goal of is to deepen student engagement with their learning and to share it across the unique contexts where students are learning. Student and provider posts can be viewed and commented on by peers, teachers, parents, other program providers, and other students. The students earn digital badges for their credit-bearing expanded learning opportunities that are documented and shared on All of the badges earned are then displayed on their student profile page, and can be shared across the web.

Who were you addressing with your badge system design?

The badge system design took into consideration two primary audiences:

  1. Youth: Because youth continue to be PASA’s primary customer, the badge system design took their needs and aesthetic preferences into consideration first and foremost. PASA engaged design focus groups of middle and high school youth who submitted badge design sketches and mock-ups and helped us narrow in on the badge categories.
  2. Educators: Because the badges are designed to support the Hub’s credit-bearing learning initiative, PASA knew that the badges needed to be connected to high quality learning goals. The criteria for each badge is therefore connected to both programmatic goals and outcomes as defined by ELO community-based program providers, as well as to the common core, attendance, and participation.

What were your initial goals for the badges? Did those goals change at all throughout the design process?

PASA’s initial goal for the badges was to create a comprehensive system of dedicated learning pathways from 6th-12th grade. Badges would be used to connect our middle and high school systems, as well as to track and nurture student learning and professional interests beginning in 6th grade. While that goal remains intact, PASA has shifted the timeline, focusing our immediate attention instead on ensuring that our high school badges are connected to, support, and publicly showcase the relevance and importance of high quality after-school experiences. PASA’s goal was therefore to create a strong foundation of high quality badges off of which pathways could be built in the coming years.

Further, during the design process, it became clear that it would be untenable at this point in time to create a holistic ecosystem of badges that incrementally built learning pathways. Rather than going with this “level up” approach, we re-focused on creating badges that more concretely showed what students were learning in real time and that were connected to the Hub’s student outcome goals. This allowed us to roll out badges much more quickly, while ensuring that they were intentionally connected to PASA’s nationally-recognized, high quality system. In this way, PASA’s badges were immediately recognized as having value and meaning, which fast-tracked their acceptance by PPSD (the Providence Public School District), and by Rhode Island College —who began accepting PASA’s badges as part of their application process.

What types of badges are you using (participation, skill, certification, etc.)? Are there levels or pathways represented in your badges?

PASA’s badges represent participation (attendance), skill, and evidence of course credit, combined. As mentioned above, PASA’s badges currently represent real-time after-school learning experiences, but we are strategizing the creation of pathways based on learning “themes” (e.g. STEM, art and design, etc.). As part of this long-term plan, PASA is in discussion with local business industry leaders about how to connect workforce skills to future badge pathways designs. For example, if a student has earned three years of STEM-based badges tied to web design skills acquisition as defined by the field, then that student could be eligible for a paid summer internship going into their senior year of high school. That student would then have multiple years of credit-bearing learning experiences as evidenced by their badge collection, as well as relevant professional experience. Both could go on their college application.

How was the criteria for the badges determined? What pedagogies (if any) informed the learning and badge system design?

PASA’s badges and their criteria are tied to the Hub’s overall student outcomes goals. PASA works with providers and teachers to develop ELO experiences that help students become more:

  1. Engaged: Passionately involved in their own learning, developing confidence to challenge themselves with experiences beyond the ELO.
  2. Persistent: Showing innovation and resiliency, with the dedication and creativity to persist through problems or difficulties.
  3. Collaborative: Comfortably and effectively communicating and collaborating with peers and adults on teams throughout the learning process.

By weaving together Work Readiness Standards and Benchmarks, ongoing program assessment, and introspective youth-level program assessment, PASA ensures ELOs provide the highest possible quality of experience through a strategy that holistically addresses the developmental, academic, and work-readiness needs of Providence youth. By tying the badges to these standards and using them as a way to publicly display the high quality experiences youth are engaged in, badges ensure that educators, potential employers, and policy-makers take not only expanded learning experiences seriously, but also the use and potential of digital tools to connect school, work, and life.

What have you learned about badge system design? What would you do differently if you were to start over?

Through this process, PASA learned that in order for educators and the workforce to begin to adopt badges, the digital badge system has to be designed so that it’s tied to quality experiences, not simply used as digital “trophies.” Further, the areas in which our badge design made the most headway also provided considerable challenges, including continued limited knowledge or awareness of digital badging among external stakeholders, limited technology and human resources (especially on PPSD’s side), and coordination around the school year calendar. The majority of the badging process involved simply familiarizing stakeholders with badges as a concept and exploring the implications of badging within our work. Additional challenges have been encountered due to the limited scope of badge services and software.

If we were to start over, building badge relevance and demand would have begun the design process. PASA would have hosted a “badging summit” to get all stakeholders familiar with and on the same page about the use of badges. Further, we would have pulled industry leaders into the conversation earlier to ensure the badge design was immediately relevant to their needs.

What is left to do? What is left unanswered?

Because PASA’s badges represent a long-term evolution of our citywide middle and high school learning systems, there is much work left to do. As mentioned, PASA’s badges are intended to eventually create tactical, comprehensive learning pathways beginning in 6th grade, carrying students through high school graduation. To ensure that badges meet their maximum potential, PASA will need to continue to build its tech infrastructure, as well as its partnerships. To support this work, PASA would like to see an DML ongoing community of practice established, where DML badging groups could come together to share best practices, successes, and strategies. Additionally, because digital badges are still a largely unknown tool, broader success of the project hinges on educators, policy-makers, and industry leaders understanding what badges are and how they can be used. Such understanding will take a considerable amount of press that familiarizes the public with badges as a strategy. It would be helpful if DML organized a communications subcommittee with representatives from the grantees who could craft clear and consistent messaging and work as a group to pitch stories and disseminate information about digital badges.

What are the 3 main challenges to widespread adoption of your badge system for your organization?

The three primary challenges to widespread adoption of PASA’s badge system are:

  1. Lack of public awareness and comfort. In particular, it will be crucial that badges aren’t seen as yet another “flash in the pan” approach to learning reform, but as validated tools and resources. Badges can’t be framed as the end goal with regard to learning, but as one way among many for differentiated learning experiences to be validated and publicized.
  2. Technical challenges with regard to all stakeholders adopting and using the badges. This is particularly true of PPSD, whose tech capacity and philosophy is well behind contemporary best practices and industry practices.
  3. Keeping badges connected to relevant, high quality experiences.

What is your badge system testing strategy? How have you or will you be testing your badge system prior to deployment?

PASA’s first wave of digital badges was tested last summer and is now fully functional on our site. We created a variety of “dummy badges” and tested their site integration. Students from last year’s ELO programs were then invited to a small “badging ceremony” at the end of last summer to go through the entire process of putting badges into the badge backpack and then uploading them onto their profiles. They retroactively all received a generic “Hub ELO” participant badge. With the process tested and badges deployed, PASA then created the suite of program-specific badges that students now receive.

What are the top 3 factors that the success of your badge system are contingent upon?

The success of PASA’s badge system is contingent upon the following:
Badges need to be connected to real life benefits and high quality experiences. Currently, students see badges as the icing on the cake of an engaging, hands-on learning system that garners them unique opportunities for credit accumulation. For badges themselves to be truly successful as a strategy, they will need to not only be tied to experiences, but to tangible benefits—such as internship and job opportunities—as well as taken into account by college admissions officers.
Broader adoption by education and industry professionals.
PASA will need to ensure that our tech capacity for badges can grow with the expansion of our high school work and with the evolution of digital badges as a strategy.

What have you done, or do you plan to do, to evaluate your badge earner community?

To evaluate the programmatic elements of the ELO badging initiative, PASA uses the nationally recognized and validated RIPQA (Rhode Island Program Quality Assessment) tool, setting consistent standards for best youth development practices and engaging program providers in a continuous quality improvement process. Using the RIPQA to conduct regular program assessments, offering aligned professional development, and holding providers to high enrollment and benchmarks ensures that program providers offer rigorous content that guarantees students are experiencing high-quality, credit-bearing learning worthy of digital badges.

To evaluate the badge earners themselves, PASA uses the SAYO-Y (Survey of Afterschool Youth Outcomes — Youth Experiences Survey) developed by the National Institute on Out of School Time for the youth to evaluate their own experience of the ELOs. Specifically, students assess whether the level of choice and autonomy, the depth of leadership and responsibility opportunities, their sense of competence as a learner, and whether the program helped their academic, social, and personal skills.

As the ELO initiative, and badges, continue to grow, PASA will share results, best practices, and lessons learned with our national partners in the Collaborative for Building After School Systems (CBASS). CBASS is a group of six after-school intermediaries from cities around the country. Together, we work to grow the expanded learning field, impact policy, and create system-level education reform. As part of this work, we share best practices, replicate aspects of one another’s strategies, as well as collectively disseminate leading edge research and findings to the media and the broader education field.

Please describe any impact your badge system may have already had on your organization and your learners.

PASA’s badge system has already garnered a great deal of attention from local higher education institutions, as well as from the entrepreneurial and tech communities as a way to measure and validate non-traditional learning experiences. As a result of the badges being tied to PASA’s trusted, high quality system, several learners have been offered jobs and internships after employers see the criteria and skills acquired that the students’ badges represent. PASA believes that its approach to badging—which recognizes that badges must be tied to assessments, student outcomes, program quality, and workforce skills—will help to set the standard for how the badge ecosystem can not only impact the learning experience for individual young people, but also how it can help to bridge the very different worlds of public education and the contemporary workforce.

What plans do you have to scale your badge system?

As mentioned earlier in this report, PASA still plans to grow its badge system into a series of pathways beginning in 6th grade. To prepare for this eventual scale-up, we have begun to issue physical badges to our middle school youth (there are liability and internet privacy issues around offering public, digital badges to middle school-aged students) for attendance as a means of familiarizing them with the concept. Additionally, PASA successfully expanded the ELO initiative and badges into a second high school this year, and is slated to expand into another two beginning in the fall of 2013. The long term goal of the ELO initiative and badges is to become a district-wide strategy. The district has been a critical partner in making sure that badges are woven into the fabric of the ELO strategy. Despite considerable tech and funding hurtles that prevent schools themselves from adopting digital badges, the district supports and promotes their use as part of the ELO initiative, recognizing their ability to bridge education, life, and professional aspects of students’ lives.

Finally, Rhode Island College is officially accepting PASA’s digital badges as part of their application process, creating a way for students to use their badges to diversify their application. RIC’s acceptance of the badges also validates them as legitimate proof of skills gained and learning done in nontraditional education settings.

Once your badge system is built, how self-sustaining is it? How much do you anticipate maintenance to be?

PASA’s digital badges have been folded into the Hub’s ELO initiative as a crucial part of the experience. PASA has a multi-faceted sustainability plan that includes continuing to grow private funding. The Jessie B. Cox Family Fund is so pleased with the high school work, and the incorporation of badges in particular, they have committed a fourth year of funding for the Hub for 2014. PASA has also been invited by Amgen and Honda to submit $50,000 proposals and will be approaching other Ed Tech investors. PASA shared the ELO design and badge plans with Chicago’s After School Matters and New York’s TASC with the goal of submitting joint funding proposals to grow the high school badging work nationally. We are also crafting joint NSF grants with both the STEM Center at Rhode Island College and with Brown University.

PPSD, with assistance from PASA, was awarded a Nellie Mae Education Foundation grant that is redesigning high schools for student-centered learning. The ELO model was a key feature of the proposal. To support the ELO initiative moving forward, Title I, CTE, SIG, as well as new and continued private investments could be braided together to ensure sustainability. Strong business relationships and partnerships are key to leverage long term funding.

PASA’s strong five-year partnership with PPSD is seeing positive outcomes. Preliminary data on AfterZone graduates who participated more than 50 days shows high attendance and high school graduation rates. PASA is confident that the ELOs will also improve attendance and boost graduation rates, while motivating students to attend college and/or find jobs that challenge and reward them.

The greatest cost will be integrating our youth data tracking system ( with and badges in order to build pathways beginning in 6th grade. To keep badge system costs low, PASA worked with Embolden to create easy to adapt and replicate badge templates. We also built from the ground up with badges in mind, which enables us to avoid costly site redesigns as the system grows and keeps maintenance costs low.

For those who want to follow the development, implementation, and adoption of your badge system, what social media sites will you be posting updates to?

PASA has a comprehensive social media and web-based communications strategy. PASA regularly posts updates on our Facebook page, as well as on the Hub’s Facebook page. We also post on Twittter whenever a badging-related event or story happens. Additionally, was designed as a publicly viewable social network that includes student blogs, project portfolios, student profiles, badges, photos, videos, and more. The objective is to weave together a way for students to showcase their learning, for the public and educators to witness what real-time expanded learning looks and feels like, and to show how a variety of digital technologies, including badges, can be used to support student-centered learning experiences. Additionally, PASA will re-post high quality student blogs on

No comments