Case Study: Badges for connected learning at PASA

Nate Otto and Christine Chow

Badges can support connected learning and are compatible with learning spaces that exemplify connected learning principles.

Connected learning is a theory that recognizes learning occurs across many spaces and networks in a learner’s life. It aims to support integrating three spheres of learning that are (1) socially embedded, (2) interest-driven, and (3) academic (Ito et al., 2013). In the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation DML Badges for Lifelong Learning Competition, many badging projects exhibited characteristics of connected learning design principles.

One particular program, the Providence After School Alliance, built a badge system that in large part serves to connect learning between in-school time and out-of-school Expanded Learning Opportunities. Another project, MOUSE, helps students learn by performing tech support for their school communities and uses badges to support connecting the learning that happens in classrooms, in this workplace-like environment, and through digital social networks. These are a couple examples of how badge system practices can exemplify the principles and core values of connected learning.

Facets of Connected Learning

Connected Learning Infographic: Features and values of Connected Learning

Connected Learning Infographic: Features and values of Connected Learning

Connected learning, as described by the researchers of the Connected Learning Research Network, occurs students tie their experiences from interest-driven and peer-supported contexts (the spaces they occupy for fun and social connection) to their formal academic and employment setting (Ito et. al, 2013). The researchers identified some characteristics of what is produced when the design features of an educational environment come together to make connected learning: they support production, there is a shared purpose between different contexts, and those contexts are openly networked.

Their 2013 report consists of design recommendations to support these outcomes, and though they were not written specifically with badge system builders in mind, their recommendations have particular significance for badge programs. The emphasis on production, for example, fits with how badges can make a claim about student learning that is attached to specific pieces of that student’s work, the badge evidence. Open badges are one technology that helps learning ecosystems become openly networked, so that students can move between different programs or resources without leaving their accomplishments behind. And badges can help a student collect evidence of their skills from a variety of experiences into one record of their learning pathway, illustrating the shared purpose and complementarity of those experiences.

Contexts for learning Core properties of connected experience
  • Interest-powered
  • Peer-supported
  • Academically oriented
  • Production-centered
  • Openly networked
  • Shared purpose

Providence After School Alliance (PASA)

PASA itself is a network of interest-driven programs (Expanded Learning Opportunities) in semi-formal learning environments. This case demonstrates how badge-enabled learning ecosystems can exemplify production-centered and openly networked designs that build on their shared purpose with students’ formal school curriculum. PASA implemented the challenging design principle “Award formal academic credit for badges” as part of their efforts to connect learning between school and ELOs.

Many of PASA’s partner programs are production-centered, engaging youth in creative multimedia projects in which they learn how build a website or produce their own video. The PASA network is a community of learners who can connect with others who share similar interests and choose out-of-school activities from a menu of choices, but all the options connect with some element of in-school curriculum and standards. Molina said, “The big picture includes working with the district to create a portfolio that connects students’ in-school and out of school experiences, providing youth with the tools to create their own personal learning pathways” (DPD Follow-up Interview). Youth may choose the same activities as their friends, or they may explore personal interests. PASA is a community exhibiting interest-powered, peer-supported, academically oriented and production-centered experiences.

While the students mostly interact with each other in the programs in person, PASA is beginning to support some online interaction through its website for high schoolers, HubProv, where PASA already uses the student data management tool to update youth profiles when they earn a badge and connect them with additional opportunities that would be relevant to their interests. In the initial rollout of PASA’s badge system, the only badges that students could earn were for completion of 10 week Expanded Learning Opportunity (ELO) programs, but the network has ambitious plans for a second set of badges that indicate skills students can earn across different middle school and high school programs, so that if a student meets only half of the criteria for a badge in one 10 week session, it would be possible to complete the badge in a later or parallel experience (Durham, 2014).

Alex Molina, PASA Deputy Director, described the process in which the students can find and pursue learning pathways:

We’re using that data to make sure we’re giving [students] the right tools to make informed decisions about what they’re interested in. Once they get to high school, they have an idea of what they’re interested in…The data goes online. Young people can then see what they’ve done in the past and what they can do in the future. Even more, we’re working hard with the district and the Office of College and Technical Careers to make sure [students] understand exactly the long term impacts, and how an adult could come in and say, ‘Hey, it looks like you’re really interested in technology. You’ve done these programs in middle school; this in high school. You have these skills. Think about X.’ (DPD Follow-up Interview)

In addition to helping students build continuity across their own pathways, the HubProv platform shows what ELOs their friends have taken and what badges they have earned, enhancing peer-based discovery. As PASA moves toward badges that are not explicitly tied to program completion, the HubProv site could play a more interesting role in connecting student choice to academically-valued results.


Durham, A. (2014, April 14). Connected learning in PASA badges revamp.

Ito, M., Gutierrez, K., Livingstone, S., Penuel, B., et al. (2013). Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design. Irvine, CA: The Digital Media and Learning Research Hub Reports on Connected Learning.

Recognizing Principles Assessing Principles Motivating Principles Studying Principles

Loves open education, Open Badges, free culture, Progress of the Useful Arts and Sciences, people-powered politics, and local food production. Coordinator for the badges Design Principles Documentation Project at Indiana University.

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Mozilla Open Badges
Digital Badges are web-enabled credentials of learning or accomplishment. -Erin Knight, director of the Badge Alliance
Badges contain detailed claims about learning, links to actual evidence of learning, and they're shareable over the web. -Dan Hickey, DPD Project Lead Investigator
To me, digital badges represent the bridge between formal learning & informal structures. -Alex Halavais, DML research competition winner
Open Badges can help people tell a verifiable story about their accomplishments. -Nate Otto, DPD Project coordinator
Regardless of where you start, it’s more than likely you’ll end up somewhere other than your intended destination. That’s okay. Systems are living things, and your badge system needs to be flexible. You must embrace a bit of chaos in its design. -Carla Casilli, Director of Design + Practice at the Badge Alliance