Julia Steiny: Digital Badges Bust Out of School-Defined Learning

by Julia Steiny

Damian Ewens sits in his snazzy office at BetaSpring, a Providence business incubator.  He’s mother hen to Achievery, a business that provides a platform for building “digital badge” systems.

And they are?  Well, they’re basically a high-tech version of Boy Scout badges, certifying that the young man sporting one of the iconic patches on his sash actually knows something about knot-tying, canoeing or cooking over a campfire.  The Scout manual explains what skills that badge certifies and the criteria for getting one.

Julia Steiny

Okay, but a “digital” badge?

Ewens takes his diploma, a Masters from Stanford University, opens the leather-like cover and starts swiping and touch-screening it the way you would an iPad.  “Stanford gives you accreditation.  But what you’ve got is a static piece of paper.”  With his fingers failing to get more information out of the diploma’s image, he says, “My daughters wouldn’t understand a static diploma.”  They’d be looking for the “About” or “Who we are” buttons to find out what the thing is.

While few would question the value of an M.Ed. from Stanford, in math no less, really, what does it mean?  Exactly?  Can he manage a classroom?  Teach algebra through computer coding?  Map lessons to the Common Core Standards?  We don’t know.  A digital badge might tell us.  We take the famous credential on faith, but badges give detailed backup to credentials with less name brand.  Furthermore, how does anyone verify valuable skills and knowledge that have nothing to do with schools?

Mozilla Corporation re-booted proficiency-based credentialing.

Ewens says that in the 1970s, educators struggled with how to reward academic competency and mastery, instead of seat time.  Today most high schools still hand out diplomas based on sticking it out and completing so-many Carnegie Units.  A “D” is passing.  No big competency there.

So after teaching high school in both California and Rhode Island, Ewens took over The Hub, a cool hang-out and alternative-learning center for high-school-age kids.  Its motto is:  “Learning happens anywhere, anytime.”  The Hub conscripts community partners — businesses, arts organizations, individuals — to act as mentors and internship sites so Hub kids can have “Expanded Learning Opportunities” (ELO).  Ewens needed to figure out how to arrange real high-school credits for these skills acquired out of school.  And even if a high school does grant credit, where does it go on a transcript?  What would a college make of it?

As  Ewens pondered his challenge, the Mozilla Corporation developed OpenBadges, an infrastructure for organizing what they call a badge “ecosystem.”  To populate what they hoped would be a diverse and ever-growing world of badges, they offered 30 grants to developers to make badges for specific purposes and to collaborate on creating the online universe to support them.

Two years ago Ewens landed one of those prized grants, launching him into a cyber-world that allowed him to marry real-world skills to a credentialing system that validate kids’ mastery and competencies.  Now he’s an entrepreneur building Achievery with a partner, Kerri Lemoie, a self-taught developer.

Ewens says, “The way we’ve structured school, there’s no bridge from there (to the real world).  The idea is to create an open global certification system that enables us to capture, enable and verify skills that happen anywhere.  If there were a digital badge that replicates any academic achievement, we could get away from the Ivory Tower.  A badge is a verified, data-rich product, better than a resume and endorsements from LinkedIn.  The person on the street can click the badge and see exactly what it certifies and what evidence backs it up.”

The anatomy of a badge

To qualify for display on Mozilla’s site, a badge needs certain specifics, which Achievery explains here.  An icon is essential, of course, but when the college or employer clicks it, they need to know what the badge means — its name, issue date, the party issuing it, the criteria for earning it, and so on.  Achievery works with clients to develop badge systems to capture employees’ trainings, workshops and achievements.  But Achievery also has a nifty do-it-yourself online kit that includes a free logo-maker.

Mozilla users can store badges in their own online backpack, effectively a hip, high-tech Boy Scout sash.  A 10 FAQ will get you going both if you want to issue badges or earn them as supplements to your education credentials.

Mozilla’s site emphasizes that it’s not an either/or — go to school or make your own education with badges.  Education is evolving, but right now it badly needs to bust out of its rigid 4 walls and 6-hour day as the only source of learning.  Schools can’t teach everything, nor should they try.

So if you’re applying to college and you’re an expert sailor, rapper or elder-care worker, those skills deserve to be credentialed, with a whole lot more punch than a mere self-reported list on an application or resume.

Especially for people who are highly talented but no good at school, badges are a godsend.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny