Mozilla’s Open Badges Create a New Currency for Learning

“Get recognition for the skills you learn anywhere”—that’s the idea behind the Mozilla Foundation’s Open Badges experiment.Badges-196x139

Classrooms have never been the only place where kids learn. From tinkering in basements to getting excited about reading in book clubs, kids are continuously learning new skills and hatching new ideas. And as digital media tools and online spaces, from Photoshop to the Harry Potter Alliance, more readily connect kids and allow them to follow their interests, the options for learning have multiplied exponentially. Yet classrooms are still predominantly the only places that document and validate what we learn.

Open Badges is changing that.

With badges, kids (or adults) identify a skill they want to learn or an idea they want to explore, go to the badges website, find the appropriate organization issuing that badge and the requisite skills needed to earn one, and learn those skills. Then they assemble their badges online in a “backpack,” which is rather like a digital transcript, only more layered than one-dimensional grades. Potential employers or colleges, for example, can click on the badges in a person’s backpack to see which skills were acquired, how, and the criteria used.

A child, for example, can earn a badge from the Smithsonian Museums for completing ”quests” designed by museum staff. To earn a badge, he or she submits an “artifact” at the end of the quest (a photograph, an essay, an oral history, or other creations), which is reviewed by staff.

In another approach, organizations can join together to issue badges. During Chicago’s 2013 Summer of Learning, more than 125 organizations across the city issued over 100,000 badges to kids. They earned everything from fashion design badges to audio engineering badges to “maker” badges, which they received after learning how to use 3D printers or a milling machine. Los Angeles and other cities are considering their own Summer of Learning next year.

Badges are not just empty trophies. DePaul University in Chicago has agreed to consider certain badges during its admissions decisions. The Manufacturing Institute is on board as well. As Jennifer McNelly, president of the Manufacturing Institute, described it, her organization has developed badges for youth groups for such skills such as leadership and teamwork and for veterans to recognize their military experience. Other partners in the project include the US Department of Education, Microsoft, NASA, the 4-H Council,  and the Department of Veteran Affairs, among others.

The benefit of badges to employers and other organizations is that they not only show that someone has earned a badge, but also the steps involved along the way. In that respect, badges can give employers a clearer picture of which applicants already have certain competencies and skills that are not always evident in a transcript or resume.

As tech reporter Heather Chaplin wrote:

Let’s say a 15-year-old boy is doing terribly in school but is making digital movies at his local community center that he writes, shoots, and edits himself. In addition, he’s been teaching younger children at the center how to fix computers. Right now, the official record of his education will only show that he’s nearly flunking out of school, which won’t be particularly impressive to prospective employers, nor will it do much for his own self-esteem. But what if the community center had a system for evaluating his work, and rewarding him for having met certain criteria established by the center? And what if that community center could publish the badge online for future employers to see, and for the kid himself to show his friends?

There are some potential pitfalls to badges, however. For example critics contend that badges can strip away intrinsic motivation. Turning everything into a reward—or a game—isn’t always the best way to inspire. Others wonder whether badges will focus attention on only those skills that are easily badged? What about soft skills? The biggest hurdle, however, is determining who validates and verifies the process. There’s a lot of buy-in and agreement that has to happen upfront among those issuing the badges. Not such an easy task.

Nonetheless, the push toward badges is clearly gaining ground, and there’s no shortage of smart people working to answer these tricky questions.

We look forward to seeing how badges evolve, and how they might be used in meaningful ways by the early childhood community, to help educators and informal learning providers acquire and be recognized for new skills—in the effective, developmentally appropriate integration of technology, for example. What do you think? We’d love to hear from readers about how you think badges might be helpful for teaching and learning. Comment below or find us @FredRogersCtr.

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