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Exploring Technology in Many Dimensions

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September 21, 2011 06:47 pm


BadgesI am always finding new ways to appreciate how technology can enhance learning.  Recently, I got to see first hand how social – and online – interaction can really impact learning in a whole new way. I was fortunate enough to attend the launch of the MacArthur Foundation’s fourth annual Digital Media and Learning Competition here in Washington, DC.

The event announced the Digital Media and Learning competition and introduced the idea of “Badges for Lifelong Learning.” Mark Surman, executive director of the Mozilla Foundation, provided an explanation of what badges were all about. Inspired to some extent by the merit badges many remember from their scouting days, digital badges capture an accomplishment, skill, quality, or interest. Digital badges are already in use in many online environments – I was recently “awarded” a badge for being a proficient reviewer of hotels on the website TripAdvisor – but this practice is still fragmented, with no way for individuals to pull this evidence of skill or accomplishment into one place and make it available to employers or others.

MacArthur wants to marshal what is known about badges for learning and seed innovation for future growth. Speakers, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the head of NASA, spoke enthusiastically about how this effort could support all our efforts in improving education, improving the pool of people qualified for critical STEM jobs, and much more. Badges also move us in the direction of competency-based learning, where students no longer are limited by seat time but can demonstrate their achievement in far more tangible ways. An “A” in English does not tell a potential employer as much as a collection of badges related to excellent expository writing or editing skills.

Such an event would be interesting enough as a stand-alone, but with the interactive hashtag took it to a new level. Since the event was also being broadcast live on the web, it was interesting to see comments and questions from people both in the room and watching from anywhere in the world. The moderator kept abreast of the hashtag feed and was even able to ask questions of the panel as they appeared on Twitter. It was such an interactive experience!

Now, while I am generally a late adopter when it comes to new technology, I have warmed up to and become a big fan of Twitter, especially because there is so much about educational technology and digital learning there. While it was a little distracting at first for me to pay attention and absorb what the speakers and panel were saying, the fact that I was thinking about what my own next Tweet might be and reading hundreds of other tweets commenting on the events was really fascinating and kept it really interesting. It was like seeing little thought balloons over the heads of everyone in the room – or being able to read minds! At least half the people in the room had smartphones, tablet computers, or laptops out and were clearly reading, Tweeting, and tapping away.

It took an alarming turn, though, when a large number of detractors started chiming in on the Twitter feed with what started as questions and concerns but descended into a Twitterstorm of sarcasm and scorn. Remarkably, the moderator and other event leaders responded to questions and concerns and emphasized that they wanted to hear from all perspectives and detractors to make sure that the competition resulted in the best possible results. After all, while there were clearly many who thought that badges have tremendous potential to improve learning, nobody was pointing to them as a silver bullet or saying that all assessment and report cards/grading systems, at the state, district or individual level, need to be completely disassembled. Far more exploration and research is needed before any widespread policy changes would be pursued. But as Leland Melvin, associate administrator of education of NASA (and former NFL player AND astronaut) said, “we’ve got to keep exploring” and finding ways to get better at educating our people.

There was also a fair amount of concern that education institutions would resist any intrusion on their monopoly on degree-granting, but to some extent, the move towards competency is already happening. Both high schools and community college are offering students the opportunity to earn industry credential and certificates that are valuable in the marketplace. Here at the Alliance, we’re interested in anything that improves the life chances for students, especially low-income students, who are so often less likely to go to college and have a chance at good jobs that allow financial growth. The more access students have to tools that give them a personalized educational experience, relevant learning that leads to employment, and rigorous content, the more likely we will be to improve graduation and college-going rates and improve the economic and social well-being of our nation.  We’ll be following the Competition carefully and will be excited to see the results!

Terri Duggan Schwartzbeck is a the Alliance’s senior policy associate. Follow her on Twitter at


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