Introducing Digital Badges Within and Around Universities

Dan Hickey
Sheryl Grant from HASTAC recently posted a detailed summary of resources about uses of digital badges in highereducation.[1]It was a very timely post for me as I had been asked to draft just such a brief by an administrator at Indiana University where I work.  Sheryl is the director of social networking for the MacArthur/Gates Badges for Lifelong Learning initiative.  Her job leaves her uniquely knowledgeable about the explosive growth of digital badges in many settings, including colleges and universities.  In this post, I want to explore one of the issues that Sheryl raised about the ways badges are being introduced in higher education, particularly as it relates to Indiana’s Universities.
IU President McRobbie

Digital Badges at Indiana University?
As someone who sees huge potential in digital badges as recognition of learning and accomplishments, I was pleased that IU President Michael McRobbiementioned them in his recent 2012 State of the University speech.  IU promises to be a fertile environment for exploring the potential of digital badges.  Consider, for example:

          IU was instrumental in the development of the Sakai open-source course management system, under the leadership ofBrad Wheeler, IU Vice President for Information Technology and CIO. The open-source ethos behind Sakai is consistent with the vision of the Mozilla Foundation who is responsible for the Open Badges Infrastructure (OBI).
         President McRobbie (who was formerly a Professor of Informatics) recently announced an $8M initiative called IU Online.  This initiative is being led by Barbara Bichelmeyer, a Professor in IU’s top rated Instructional Systems Technologyprogram. As elaborated below, the university is carefully considering the role that badges might play in this effort.
         Indiana IST Professor Curt Bonk is an internationally known proponent of massive open online courses.  MOOCs are one of the most promising contexts for introducing digital badges in higher education.
         The International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning was launched from IU, and IU remains a major center of SOTL work.  The SOTL community could provide the sort of multi-disciplinary consideration needed to identify and refine the appropriate uses of badges in academic programs.

In previous blog post, I outlined some of the questions that universities might askbefore introducing digital badges.  One obvious question is: where to start?.  One of the things Sheryl pointed to in a comment on her blog is that faculty members and other university educators are working in and around universities to implement badges.  This is particularly interesting to me because the way that badges are introduced will impact how institutions learn to use badges.  This has consequences for how those badging practices impact student learning.

Working Around Universities to Implement Digital Badges
Sheryl’s post links to a bunch of higher educators who are introducing badges on their own.  I have been experimenting with issuing badges that say Indiana University in my small doctoral seminar.  IU Learning Sciences Ph.D. student Sophia Bender and I were recently interviewed about this in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. While the article’s title implied I was replacing grades with badges, I am actually just supplementing the existing grading structure. It is something that educators who are curious about digital badges should try.  It is an easy way for any educator to experience how it feels to make detailed claims about learning that your students might share with others over Twitter or Facebook.

A more formal badging effort is underway at IU’s InCNTRE networking lab.  They offer a ten-week summer internship program called Summer of Networking and a day-long workshop on OpenFlow networking technology.  InCNTRE Training Coordinator Steven Wallacerecognizes that badges are a natural extension of the existing certificates the inCNTRE lab offers.  Badges can easily provide detailed information about the programs that participants can share with others.  This should increase the credibility of that evidence of accomplishment and help InCNTRE attract new participants.  These workshops are non-accredited and take place outside of the formal academic programs of the IU School of Informatics.  So implementing these badges is a relatively straightforward affair.

Working Within Universities to Implement Digital Badges
Sheryl’s post also highlights more formal efforts to implement digital badges in higher education within accredited academic programs.  Readers who have been involved in efforts to reform accountability in academic programs know that this gets very complicated very quickly.  As I argued in a previous post, changing accountability usually changes assessment, and changing assessment often calls for changes in instruction.

One of the most ambitious formal efforts so far is the Passport System recently unveiled at Purdue University. I don't know much about Passport beyond the relatively straightforward technology components that they have created to allow instructors to create and issue OBI-compatible badges.  Indiana IST graduate Bill Watson helped design the system.  I assume that Dr. Watson and others are working through some of the complex (but consequential) accountability issues as they field applications of up to 200 instructors to participate in beta tests of the system.  This promises to be quite a test bed.

This post is an initial salvo in my effort to convince Purdue to systematically document the badge design policies that emerge in this effort.  This might be potentially more far-reaching than the badge design principles that my graduate students and I are documenting in the DML Design Principles Documentationproject. My project is documenting the reasoning behind the 30 MacArthur/Gates initial plans and practices for using badges. We are drawing on research in software design that captures this useful knowledge before it “evaporates” as features evolve and teams dissolve.  In a similar fashion, reasoning behind initial badging policies will be difficult to recover as policies evolve and committees dissolve. This knowledge will be invaluable to other institutions that are introducing digital badges.

President McRobbie's Approach to Instructional Innovation
It will be interesting to see how digital badges are incorporated in the IU Online initiative.  President McRobbie seems to have tied them closely to MOOCs in his 2012 State of the University address:

This new initiative will accelerate the development and delivery of targeted quality graduate professional programs on the core campuses, joint undergraduate programs on the regional campuses, key gateway courses university-wide, experimental massive open online courses—so-called MOOCs—and educational badges, in order to address Indiana’s economic and professional development needs, and to extend the university’s national and international reach. It will also help with the systematic evaluation and development of new technologies that will underpin the new directions in online education, and coordinate how IU can benefit from economies of scale in deploying these technologies across the university.

Touching on the distinction raised above above, McRobbie indicated that the initiative:

recognizes that the distinction between “traditional” and “non-traditional” students is increasingly blurred and that it no longer makes sense to use different strategies to reach them. It recognizes that all the online courses and degrees must be owned by the schools and campuses as online education is becoming an increasingly fundamental and integral part of what they do.

But he acknowledged the need for caution:

However, as we vigorously move forward with IU Online, we must nevertheless also maintain a skeptical and questioning approach—as is appropriate for a university—to some of the wilder claims being made about online education

As someone who is dismayed by explosive growth of truly awful online instruction, I appreciate these concerns. I was inspired by McRobbie's closing quote on the topic in comments that C. L. Max Nikias, president of USC made to his faculty in an August 2012 memorandum:

The Internet's first wave in the 1990s resulted in a dot-com bubble that was inflated by a fixation on the total number of users that a company's website could collect, rather than the true value that was created through a viable business model. Online education similarly lends itself to a focus on large numbers—yet there is scant evidence that free online classes or viral lectures produce worthy educational or career outcomes. [Our] academic community recognizes, at key inflection points within the development of higher education, that there is a difference between data and wisdom; between mere information and deep insight; and between knowledge disseminated and knowledge absorbed and appreciated. Our goal will always be to produce true academic value, for the fullest benefit of our students (emphasis added).

I really like the sentiment and tone of this observation. While it references the need for evidence, it does not endorse the dreary test-prep practices that currently dominate online education. For me, the highlighted points lobby against a simplistic "what works" search for "best practices" for increasing scores on static tests of content knowledge. 

McRobbie's words leave me with optimism for the IU Online initiative and the broader policies and practices that will follow. While some of us innovators may chafe under some of the restrictions that will likely emerge, these words imply a sensible, balanced approach that makes sense for an institution that has been around for nearly 200 years.

[1] For the latest examples check out the that Sheryl  maintains or another one for professional credentialing and for higher education.


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