Update on Badges for Learning and Global Kids' Reports

Earlier this week I spent two days at the Digital Media and Learning Badge Workshop in New York City. It was a tremendously stimulating and useful session.

First of all, it was remarkable to hear how much is going on right now around badges as a form of alternative assessment and learning. Carnegie convened a meeting late last year and Gates/MacArthur held one last week (in which top game designers taught top assessment researchers what they knew). The MacArthur learning networks, at the national and local level, is interested in exploring badges, as is a number of government agencies. Things, clearly, are happening.

At the same time, I ended up facilitating a session to map the history of badges and learning, in large part because I know so little about this and wanted to learn more. It became clear that while badge systems have been in use for some time (by the scouts, military, judo practitioners, etc.), research on their educational effects and current examples are hard to find.

At this point I imagine you might be asking yourself: What are badges, exactly, and what do they have to do with learning? This is a question that was asked regularly throughout the sessions, and there are no clear answers yet. This is clearly a work in progress. Yes, they are commonly referenced these days within discussions of alternative assessment, as ways to capture youth's informal learning. But they are also so much more, in very complicated ways that need to be teased out.

Something frequently referenced during the event was an upcoming MacArthur-funded report on badges from Peer 2 Peer University and The Mozilla Foundation, which defines badges as “a symbol or indicator of an accomplishment, skill, quality or interest,” and provides as examples uses by the Boy and Girl Scouts, PADI diving instruction, and the more recently popular geo-location games, like Foursquare. The report asserts that badges “have been successfully used to set goals, motivate behaviors, represent achievements and communicate success in many contexts” and proposes that when learning happens across various contexts and experiences “badges can have a significant impact, and can be used to motivate learning, signify community and signal achievement.” The report also makes clear that the value of badges comes less from its visual representation than from the context around how and why it was conferred.

For us at Global Kids, badges have been a valuable tool for exploring the importance of GK Youth Leaders developing lifelong learning skills, through teaching them metacognitive skills about what they are learning through their involvement with our programs. When they write their resumes, apply to colleges and enter the workforce, they need to be able to articulate what they have learned and be able to discern and pick out the most relevant skills and values for a particular context. Badges can play a role in that process, as well as providing a guide for youth to navigate a complex informal learning space like Global Kids.

There are so many challenges for pulling this off effectively, and traps to avoid. For example, it's one thing to participate in a badging process that helps a teen to play with and present an identity - but in a digital age, it can become hard to change or leave behind that identity, given the trail created along the way. It was illuminating and a privilege to start exploring all sorts of tricky issues like this with such smart people involved from a variety of angles - academics, educators, and tech geeks bent on world domination.

Practically, I spent a lot of time thinking about how valuable it would be if we had a robust badging system for GK youth leaders, perhaps tied to their Facebook profiles. It could prove remarkable, for engaging GK youth leaders, guiding them through the GK experience, and providing rich assessment data on our youth. I also think, if robust enough, it could be a valuable component of a toolkit that might support GK to scale.

All in all, a very fascinating experience that I think will help us continue to position GK as an informal educational leader and introduce us to opportunities which I help can inform and strengthen GK's work.

Below are a number of resources which highlights Global Kids’ educational use of badges over the past three years:

  • Badges in an after school program (Media Masters at the High School for Global Citizenship) (video)
  • Badges in a library (New York Public Library)
  • Badges in a K-5 School
  • Badges in a museum (American Museum of National History)
  • Badges within Global Kids (article)
  • Badges overseas in Senegal based on Global Kids' work.
  • Badges for a serious game design certification program (link coming soon)