Project Q&A With: Sweet Water (AQUAPONS)

Project Q&A With: Sweet Water (AQUAPONS)

Sweet Water Foundation aims to expand and deepen the impact of aquaponics and urban agriculture as a learning method by creating a replicable model for urban agriculture education. An enhanced curriculum and digital learning platform will support the requirements of Common Core Learning, Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM), IMS Interoperability Standards, and Open Standards. This model will meet the growing needs of lifelong learners to help improve their professional, academic and personal endeavors. Ultimately, this system to encourage learning that will help current and future generations address the growing concerns/implications of food sourcing and healthy food availability around the world.   

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

  1. Badges are not just for online learning. We have proven that we can build an excellent, badge-based system that centers on hands-on, project-based learning.
  2. Because badges are a new and evolving concept, they require a team that is willing and able to evolve along with the technology. It requires a team with great flexibility and constant communication.
  3. Badges are simply a new, more engaging format for your existing curriculum. You do not have to write a new program to create a badge program. It is simply a translation of your existing content.

At Sweet Water Foundation (SWF), we have an existing hands-on training program for aquaponics. Our objective for the badge award is to turn this hands-on training program into a digital badge-based curriculum.

Who were you addressing with your badge system design?

Sweet Water Foundation runs an intergenerational, interdisciplinary educational program. Our badge system is designed to reach a broad audience, from students to hobbyists to professionals. However, our primary audience is secondary school students and teachers.

What were your initial goals for the badges?

We intended to translate our hands-on aquaponics training program into a self-directed, portfolio-based online badge system. Hands-on practice will be documented by learners and documentation will be uploaded to the website. Documentation that passes assessment by peers and mentors results in a badge.

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

Sweet Water Aquapons uses 3 different types of badges, across 4 different proficiency levels.

  • Skills badges are gained when all activities in a certain skill area (e.g. System Build) are completed, and represent discrete skills achieved by the learner.
  • Content badges are earned when all skills in a certain content area (e.g. Water) are completed, and represent competency across a broad content area.
  • Aquapons badges are earned when all content badges are earned at a certain proficiency level (e.g. Junior Apprentice).

Our system encourages the learner to earn Aquapons badges at 4 different proficiency levels: Junior Apprentice, Senior Apprentice, Journeymon, and Master. These badges indicate the learner is proficient in all areas of aquaponics, and has demonstrated a holistic, systems thinking approach to learning.

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

SWF’s program has been informed by many pedagogies, and is always focused on hands-on, project-based learning. Examples of pedagogies that inform our badge program are:

  • Constructivist Learning Model
  • Apprenticeship (Guild) Model
  • Expeditionary Learning Model
  • Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition
  • Bloom’s Taxonomy

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

  1. We learned that the development of the curricular content of our badge system and the development of the web platform are inextricably linked to one another. It is a lock-step dance between designing the scope and sequence of the curriculum and designing the web tools with which our curriculum will be delivered. At the outset, we determined that we should design our curriculum first, and then build the software to support that curriculum. However, as the software development progressed, we had to re-work much of our curriculum to fit the format of the software. Likewise, the changing curriculum then affected the initial software designs. An awareness of the evolutionary nature of the iterative process would have helped us manage our overall timeline better.
  2. Badges have not changed the essence of our educational programs; our badge system is a new tool for delivering our tried and tested curriculum. They will allow us to reach many more learners with fewer resources, which for us is critical.
  3. Seeing other models of badge systems has been enormously healthy for cross checking our badge system, to ensure we are on the right track.

What is left to do? What is left unanswered? What might help you continue to succeed?

We still need to run a pilot of our badge system, which will be the Chicago Summer of Learning for us. We will launch the full implementation of Aquapons in August/September 2013.

Our unanswered questions are about the sustainability of this system: How do we ensure that we have resources and funding to deliver this program that we have created? It would be very helpful to create a conversation with other badge programs around business models that can support the sustainability of badge programs.

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

  1. Computer access in schools and homes
  2. School curricula and schedules often not supportive of project-based learning
  3. Continued maintenance and development of site

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

We have been constantly testing as we go along. Our team is made up of mostly Aquapons people who practice aquaponics; therefore, each step of the design and build process of the badge system is tried and tested by users. We will launch our pilot program during the Chicago Summer of Learning, so that our global launch will have a full iteration of users who have tested its viability.

What top factors is the success of your badge system contingent upon?

  1. Convincing our clientele (mostly teachers) that online badges can work towards school credit.
  2. Making sure the online user experience does not interfere with the hands-on learning process.
  3. Effective communication with partners across the globe in order to get users using the site.
  4. Assessment and evaluation that does not use too many human resources.

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

We are working with a sociology PhD student to design a survey that will be administered online to users at the outset. We are also working with the same student to map, quantify, and qualify our user base.

How would you characterize the impact your badge system will have on the badge ecosystem?

We hope that Sweet Water Aquapons will set a great precedent for other hands-on learning programs that are recognized through badges. Our WordPress-based program should provide some great technical content for others to build from as well.

We are also capturing discrete skills and community and social impact, which we hope sets a precedent for assessment and badging.

What plans do you have to scale your badge system?

Because our badge system utilizes an apprenticeship model, we expect everyone who progresses through the levels of apprenticeship to be affecting other learners along the way, which in turn affect other learners. In this way, we anticipate an exponential growth model, based on the following estimation:

  • Junior apprentice = collaboration with 3-5 peers; seeks out 1 mentor
  • Senior apprentice = 1 mentor has been assigned; individual reaches 25 peers
  • Journeymon = 1-2 mentors; 3 mentees ; individual reaches 125 -200 peers
  • Master = 3-5 mentees; reaches 725-1000 peers

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