Christine Chow and Nate Otto
Open Badges allow new practices of interacting with personal credentials. Students who are new to badges may also be new to using traditional credentials to present their accomplishments or qualifications and unsure how to leverage them to unlock new opportunities. This case study describes how this challenge played out across several of DML Badges for Lifelong Learning Awardees and those projects’ responses.
Badge earners may not understand why or how their badges can be valuable to them or what they might need to do to unlock that value. For example, adults may tell students that a badge could help them get an internship or a job, but those students might not know how to find or apply for those experiences in the first place, let alone how to present an unfamiliar credential to those audiences. A common thread that ran across projects investigated by the DPD Project was a challenge demonstrating to badge earners that the badges were valuable tokens of their achievement that could be leveraged to unlock opportunities, perhaps even outside jobs or internships. Students new to earning badges may also be new to the process of presenting their accomplishments or qualifications to prospective employers, a process familiar to long-term participants in the job market. Even as program organizers made claims about how their badges would be valuable, badge earners across several initiatives did not see significant worth they could get out of a badge, which deeply undercut the credentials’ motivational potential. The projects in this case study show how this challenge emerged across different contexts, presenting various sides to establishing the value of a badge.
Objectively, the value of a credential depends on several factors, including the contents of the claim it makes about skills or learning and the reputation of the issuing institution. In the case of traditional higher education credentials, college degrees, there is a long history of attempts to define and compare relative value. Students, academics, and employers need reliable information about the quality of degrees. National and international rankings based on a variety of methodologies have served to fill this information need, and more reliable shared measures of quality assurance are rising to provide more detailed, yet easily understood accreditation records to help these parties evaluate degree quality (Green, 2011). Objective measures of a credential’s worth say little about a particular earner’s ability to realize that value, and even the Obama Administration’s proposed college ranking system that weighs graduate employment outcomes as a major contributing factor is an indication that even objective rankings must consider how students realize the value of their degrees.
Even to students who grew up in schools that showed them how to write a resume and situate their credentials within it, digital badges pose an additional challenge, because they are an unfamiliar component in the self-presentation process. They require learning new digital tools in order to share. Students may not know when or how to display their digital badges or what types of opportunities for which they may be a relevant qualifier.
A closer look at Providence After School Alliance (PASA), Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), and the American Graduate projects under the Corporation for Public Broadcasting umbrella sheds light on the complexities of these challenges and the stance and approach that the badge systems have adopted. In specific, this case study discusses how (1) PASA found social and structural challenges in showing youth the relevance of badges to their lives, (2) YALSA communicated the narrative potential of badges for telling the story of librarians’ on-the-job learning and continued professional development, and (3) American Graduate built and sustained the value of badges for potential earners and employers while considering factors of assessment and averting the issue of credential inflation.
Providence After School Alliance (PASA)
The PASA badging project encountered the challenge of communicating the value of badges to young people, and an examination of this case can uncover specific interactions and dynamics that surfaced. Many students did not see the point of a badge, because it was not clear what relevance the badge had to their lives. PASA Deputy Director Alex Molina described:
We’re learning that badges are a cool thing for us adults or those who work with technology, but for a lot of urban youth, it’s not there. How do you convince young people that a badge has a currency when they’re facing other issues–when they’re at a failing school, when they’re competing for jobs with adults? And until a badge gives them a job or really gets them to college, it has no value to them, especially for urban youth, the value is engag[ing] in high quality experiences with an adult that cares. (DPD Follow-up Interview)
Students immediately understood the value of working with an adult they respect in 10-week programs relevant to their interests. However, they did not see how to use badges to open up future opportunities. PASA found that youth may be focused more on overcoming day-to-day obstacles that were well-known to them rather than earning a badge that had unknown value. In the communities PASA serves, youth encounter immediate, practical concerns that overshadow the potential future value of a badge. Molina described the structural challenges in recognizing the value of the badge, highlighting the significance of its potential to open up concrete pathways for learners to pursue, but indicated more of that pathway development might need to happen on PASA’s end rather than the students’ (DPD Follow-up Interview).
One way PASA may build internal value for the badges is to have program coordinators review students’ badge collections as part of the process of guiding their choices about future ELOs to participate in. PASA is investigating that possibility and also talking with local higher education institutions to encourage them to examine the badges as part of the admissions process. In addition, PASA has developed the school district as a consumer of the badges, securing school credit for some of its high school badge earners (DPD Follow-up Interview). However, because both the badge and school credit are designed to be awarded based on the result of the “demo day” presentations at the end of each 10 week unit, there is little to distinguish between the achievements, and PASA cannot argue that the badge leads to the formal credit.
Without knowing how to use badges, motivation could be undercut. Youth may not view badges in and of themselves as motivating or valuable. Kerri Lemoie, who worked on the PASA badging system and is the Co-Founder and CTO of Achievery, described:
One of my students didn’t do his weekly task. Another student got a badge for doing his, and I said to the first student, ‘But you’ll get this badge!’ And he still hasn’t done his task. He just wasn’t interested in doing the task. The badge didn’t even matter. It didn’t matter how cool it looked or that his friend got it. He just didn’t care about it (DPD Initial Interview).
PASA’s experience demonstrates that a badge by itself does not necessarily translate into motivation for a task that is not itself interesting to the student. Rather, other factors, such as meaningful social experiences, come into play that motivate youth to work on an activity. Molina explained, “Young people sign up for programs not because they’re going to get a badge. They sign up for programs, because they get to work with a cool adult. They get to participate in something that school’s not giving them” (DPD Follow-up Interview). PASA boosts engagement in learning by offering youth opportunities for participation and social interaction. These experiences have obvious short term benefit for their own sake. The “value” of badges, as imagined by the PASA designers is a longer-term proposition, even if personal pathway guidance becomes part of the system.
Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA)
The Young Adult Library Services Association, a division of the American Library Association won a grant through the DML competition to create badges for skill development specific to serving youth in libraries. The target earners of the badges include librarians and other library workers involved in serving this population. YALSA has made some efforts to raise awareness of the badge program through its website, but in interviews, the project team articulated a challenge remained in demonstrating the connection between the digital badges and professional librarianship. Nicole Munguia, YALSA Program Officer of Continuing Education, described:
We’re still in the process of communicating that value…we’ve done written communication with articles and making presentations at conferences and trying to get the word out, but… I think that an important chunk of communicating the value is going to take place at ground level where librarians who have earned badges communicating with their peers, and also getting the word out to state youth consultants, and supervisors and administrators. (DPD Follow-up Interview)
She described YALSA’s methods and approaches in adapting to this challenge and getting across the value of a badge. In particular, badges can tell the story of librarians’ learning on-the-job and incorporate their continually updated skill sets. Munguia said, “You can’t just look it as a badge, but a badge becomes a part of your personal narrative to a certain extent, so you are telling the story of you and your work experience, and badges are a part of that overall story” (DPD Follow-up Interview). To emphasize how the badges might be used to show how librarians are building skills, the project aims to convey the potential of badges through further messaging and outreach to tell the ongoing story of librarians to employers, organizations, and the broader community. By employing social media and communication methods, YALSA advances toward introducing the meaning and potential of earning a badge.
The American Graduate badging initiative provides a multi-faceted look at establishing the value of badges and addressing value-related concerns. Stacy Kruse, Director of Serious Games & Education and Creative Director at Pragmatic Solutions, Inc., the technical partner on the grant, emphasized the underlying meaning provided by a badge to earners. In a DPD interview, she said, “Putting a shiny object someplace is only going to attract somebody one or two times. The shiny object has to have meaning. There has to be a reason for them to come there, a reason the want to share, a reason the badges are meaningful” (DPD Initial Interview). Once the novelty of new technology wears off, there has to be a sustained value or reason that keeps students engaged in their learning experience.
The American Graduate planned to build the value of badges by connecting them to interest-based recommendations. Kruse said, “[t]he ultimate goal is that a student that comes into any program that is affiliated with American Graduate… and begins to earn badges will also be plugged into a recommendation system that refers them to other content and resources that may be of value to them” (DPD Initial Interview). By earning badges, youth gain access to resources and opportunities that provide value. The American Graduate programs intentionally target schools with at-risk student populations, and Kruse suspected that these students do not automatically believe that tomorrow is going to be better. She describes that, rather than seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, they are waiting for employers “to bring the light [at] the end of the tunnel” to them, and she asserted, “You have one chance to make an empty promise” (DPD Follow-up Interview). In meeting this challenge, the badging system considered the goals and opportunities that would contribute to the value of a badge.
Kruse explained, “What’s the ultimate goal of the badges? The ultimate goal of the badge is to motivate and engage students enough that they’re more likely to graduate from high school, then is the consumer of the badge an employer, a community college? Who do you want looking at these badges and saying that matters?” (DPD Initial Interview). The value of badges is linked to the audience who ultimately would view those badges. She noted that identifying the audience would be key in tackling this challenge. On one site she focused on, this was unambiguous: “It was very clear in Philadelphia that the ultimate consumers of the badges is an employer. The goal of the badge is to get somebody a job” (DPD Initial Interview). Not only did the badging system consider the potential earners of badges, but they also took into account the ultimate consumers of the badges or the people whom earners would show the badges. American Graduate recognized the need to include the perspective of employers and understand their true needs in carrying out the badging effort.
For example, Leah Clapham, a managing editor at PBS News Hour, spoke about her experience running one of the American Graduate badge systems and said the News Hour Student Reporting Labs spent a great deal of time and effort to find jobs and internships for the students that stand out. In partnership with local PBS stations that help mentor students and run the program Student Reporting Labs connects their star students with meaningful employment (DPD Follow-up Interview 2).
Kruse also pointed out the issue of the varying degrees of weight and meaning embedded in different badges, articulating that a proliferation of badges ultimately obscures their value. She explained, “We have a learner that earns 200 badges. That’s unwieldy, and they do not have the same meaning and weight… we should institute some controls,” though the team offered the caveat that a multiplicity of badges can inflate their value. (DPD Initial Interview)
Another dimension that the badging system pointed out involves the connection between the worth of a badge and the level of difficulty to earn it. Kruse asserted, “Badges should be harder to get, and they should have greater meaning for whoever you want them to have meaning for” (DPD Initial Interview). This suggests that badges provide the right amount of challenge for potential earners to value them. Building on this thought, Kruse raised the issue of the formal and informal types of assessment associated with badges and how their distinction would be reflected through the awarding of badges. In the interview, she remarked on the structure of the badges, describing how the issuing of numerous badges without distinguishing the way that badges are assessed can sometimes obscure the value of more significant, individual badges. Rather, Kruse suggested the possibility of awarding points for subactivities that would accumulate and lead up to a badge, which would then serve as a more significant indicator of students’ abilities and carry greater meaning.
A challenge that surfaced across projects involved building the value of badges for potential earners. Earners sometimes did not see the relevance or utility of badges. This case study presents the response or approach taken by the badging systems PASA, YALSA, and American Graduate in meeting this challenge. The projects shared insights on establishing the value of badges, presenting considerations such as the structural issues that come up in conveying the relevance of badges to earners’ lives and developing badge pathways that unlock further opportunities that enable earners to join the workforce or attend college. There are no easy answers to this challenge, and as these cases have shown, it can appear in badge systems across many contexts.
Braun, L. & Munguia, N. (2014, January 23). DPD YALSA Follow-up Interview.
Ewens, D. & Lemoie, K. (2012, October 25). DPD PASA Initial Interview.
Green, M. F. (2011). Lost in Translation: Degree Definition and Quality in a Globalized World.
Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 43(5), 18–27.
Kruse, S. (2012, August 29). DPD American Graduate Initial Interview.
Molina, A. (2013, December 20). DPD PASA Follow-up Interview.
Office of the White House Press Secretary. (2013, August 22). FACT SHEET on the President’s Plan to Make College More Affordable: A Better Bargain for the Middle Class. Press Release. Retrieved from http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/08/22/fact-sheet-president-s-plan-make-college-more-affordable-better-bargain-
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