Opening the Door for More: Digital Merit Badges in Education
posted by: Jill | October 19, 2011, 04:14 PM   

What if you could see your students' learning outside of the classroom? Perhaps an after school job that is improving reasoning skills; or an online video game which is strengthening the ability to collaborate; or just simply a website that is assisting in the improvement of analytical reading skills. That would be nifty...yes, nifty.

Well, it's already beginning to happen. Welcome to the fourth annual MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Lifelong Learning Competition. In conjunction, with HASTAC and Mozilla, the competition will "explore ways digital badges can be used to help people learn; demonstrate their skills and knowledge; unlock job, educational and civic opportunities; and open new pipelines to talent."

If you feel a bit unfamiliar with this idea, no worries, you probably know a good amount already. First, take what you know about the Boy Scouts and their merit badge system. Add in what you know about earning badges from video/computer games. And then take your knowledge of learning standards and assessments into account. Mash-up those elements with a couple of other ingredients and the outcome becomes digital learning badges. I like to think of this "informal" learning as a kind of backchannel in education, the education that is going on in the student's life which isn't recorded in the gradebook. Since the inception of assessments in education, this important stuff has been missing when we grade our students about what they "know."

Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan stated at the opening ceremony of the competition:

"There is one sector with tremendous potential that has not been fully tapped: the field of education technology. As we upgrade the crumbling infrastructure of our schools, we must also invest in the innovative learning technologies that can transform teaching and learning... Badges can help speed the shift from credentials that simply measure seat time, to ones that more accurately measure competency. We must accelerate that transition. And, badges can help account for formal and informal learning in a variety of settings...In short, we must begin to see schools, colleges and classrooms as central points – though still very important ones – in larger networks of learning."


I think there is great potential for innovation when we think outside of the box schoolroom. I really believe that we are on the cusp of disruptive innovation within the education world in many aspects. Does Secretary Duncan really mean what he says? Or are there conditions and limitations? For example, Ann Obrien in her blog post about digital badges posted "Consider an outstanding high school student who is very interested in architecture, and who is working her way through some of the courses available on MITOpenCourseWare. Or a student who struggles in traditional classes but is interested in video game development, has taken Peer to Peer University courses in programming and game development, and has successfully created his own game."

Would Secretary Duncan be bold enough to say that "learning counts" when it comes to applying those individualized out-of-class learning experiences to a high school diploma. I hope so. I would hope that when the rubber-meets-the-road, he would challenge a status quo that has repeatedly settled for less than stellar outcomes because the current process was "good enough"; too big to change; or threatening current conditions/people.

Check out this working paper by the MacCarthur and Mozilla Foundation. Read it with two questions in mind (1) Could digital badges really work in education? And (2) Given the technology to which we have access, what tools and practices can be implemented to better serve our students' learning needs? Maybe this competition is really more about helping us recognize what we need to challenge and change in education than whether or not digital badges can provide credence to student learning outside the classroom to the point that it counts on students' report cards.


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