Duchess of the Kohl Center

My first experience with badges was through iPhone apps like Foursquare and Yelp. In fact, my first check in was February 20, 2011, which was probably about a week after I got my iPhone. I was at the Kohl Center for a Badger men’s basketball game. I can’t say I use the apps a lot, but I would have to say that I’ve checked in more than a few times at the Kohl Center… I like watching basketball, what can I say?

At one point last season (2011-2012), I was named “Duchess of the Kohl Center.” (I think I’ve checked in like 10 or 11 times.) The best badge ever, as far as I am concerned. I wish I had a t-shirt. Too bad being Duchess doesn’t give me the power to keep the old people who sit behind us from talking about colonics and stuff…

Anyway, I don’t think I still possess the title anymore because I think other people can steal them from you if you don’t keep checking in and I don’t go to the Kohl Center in the summer. Technically, it’s probably not even a badge either, but a mayorship or something. Whatever, though, I figure it’s like being President–they have to keep calling you “President” even after your term is up, right?

Needless to say, my experience with badges so far has been pretty silly. I knew a guy once whose mom made his Cub Scout Den change his baby brother’s diapers to earn their “Diaper Duty” badge (High-five to his mom!) At least that badge actually acknowledged a real accomplishment. My Foursquare badge “I’m on a boat” wasn’t exactly hard–I drove my car onto a ferry and then waited.

Deep down, we all like to show off our accomplishments. Badges on a sash, medals on a Varsity Letterman’s jacket, patches and pins on a military uniform. With the exception of the military honors though, these types of recognition mean nothing to job world. So when I read about badges as an alternative assessment tool, I was blown away. I’m sold. As it turns out, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts have known what they were doing all along! Maybe that cooking badge you earned as a scout doesn’t seem like much, but I bet for an aspiring chef, it might be quite a big deal to earn a badge for making a perfect crème brulée with a torch. In fact, a crème brulée badge might be currency someday for jobs in a high-scale restaurant.

Standards-based assessment has been all the rage in K-12 public schools lately, especially with the Common Core Standards coming down the road. It’s a major paradigm shift for a lot of teachers to change their grading scales and philosophies from “points” to “competencies.” It’s not because teachers really believe that 84% actually reflects the amount of mastery a student has made–for a lot of teachers, it’s more a question of how to enter a competency into the computer gradebook and have it still spit out a B+. Unfortunately, it is still expected that we use GPAs as a factor in college admissions or scholarships. Sometimes, I’ve felt like it’s futile to even try to change to a standards-based assessment system when higher-ed is going to insist that we boil a kid’s learning back down to a percentage anyway.

UC-Davis sees things differently, however. This year, they won an award for their development of digital “open badges” in the Digital Media and Learning Competition supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mozilla.

Students will be able to customize learning goals within the larger curricular framework, integrate continuing peer and faculty feedback about their progress toward achieving those goals, and tailor the way badges and the metadata within them are displayed to the outside world. Students won’t just earn badges—they’ll build them, in an act of continuous learning. (Carey)

As Kevin Carey puts it in his article,  “A Future Full of Badges,” from the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Compared with the new open badge systems, the standard college transcript looks like a sad and archaic thing.” He’s right–years later, when you look back at a college transcript, that A- you earned in English 271 doesn’t say anything about you, what you learned or what you can do.

I started digging a little bit to find out more about how organizations can get involved and start implementing badges. Mozilla is really at the epicenter of the badges movement with their Open Badge Infrastructure, so that seemed like a logical place to start. It’s actually quite easy to create your virtual backpack as a learner who wants to start collecting and accepting badges. As someone who’s not very good at programming and customizing Open Source tools, like WordPress, the process of creating a badge seemed a bit over my head. I worry that unless I start working on that deficiency (Hey! Maybe there’s a badge out there I could earn…), I might not be very useful to a library as a tech-savvy young person after all.

Canton Public Library and Ann Arbor District Library‘s use of badges in their summer reading programs was incredible. (Thanks to Greg Landgraf for showcasing their programs in his article, “Summer Reading Levels Up!”) But again, I got to thinking, “Well, crap! Where on earth am I going to get the skill-set to help bring something like that to a library or school near me?!”

Librarygame is cool and seems to be ready-made (no skill-set necessary), but for something as experimental as the OBI movement, it seems a little risky to invest the money into quite yet–better to mess around with open source…

I continued my research though and came across a couple of points of light. BadgeStack is an open-source platform that organizations can use to launch a badge program. I actually think I can handle this one. I could at least play around with demo. I also ran into MouseSquad. It’s a 21st Century Skills Training system that prepares and supports students to establish their own technical support help desks in their schools. Basically, kids join and they can earn badges and receive the training they would need for a pretty meaningful project (all the while, they are stealthily being taught a bunch of information literacy!)

Now, this is something that I can advocate for–now! Standards-based assessment doesn’t look so daunting when it’s gamified. Yeah, yeah, there are arguments that gamification is really bad for motivation, but really, for a lot of students, once they hit high school, education is about playing the game and working the system. I like the idea of students pursuing their education by earning badges for achievements and skills that they deem valuable. Being Duchess of the Kohl Center might not be real useful, but Duchess of the Tech Support Desk could be!

PLCs

I have been reflecting on professional development opportunities for collaboration… what’s known in my K-12 world as “professional learning communities,” aka PLCs. It’s funny to me that, unless professionals are given regular opportunities to learn and grow directly with their immediate colleagues, when they are turned loose on something like a convention, they seem to be less likely to cut the proverbial cord and go try something new on their own that they are interested in without a friend. Work friends at a convention together often choose to attend seminars based on each other and only secondarily on their interests. If you never get to see your work friend socially because you are both busting it trying to get the work done, the first chance that you get to take a breath will be to catch up with each other. Might be social, might be work gossip, might be work business. Nonetheless, it’s probably not collaboration time where new ideas can be shared and grown.

Now if there was an incentive to go out there and learn something truly innovative and share it in a creative way, maybe more people wouldn’t fall into the habits I just described. (I recently heard of a TED video about Google, maybe, providing something called a “Fed-Ex day” that inspired just this. I need to find and watch it!)…

Yes, I know that we all as professionals need to be intrinsically motivated to be life-long learners. And for the most part I am. But I’m also a realist who has worked with enough slackers to know that the slackers can stifle the excitement of those who want to learn and share.