Reflections on Badge the World: A Great Start to #SXSWedu

My first day at SXSWedu did not disappoint. I arrived a bit late, but it was rich with a half-dozen thought-provoking conversations and a couple of excellent presentations. For me, the highlight came from a panel discussion entitled, Badge the World. The panel consisted of Kate Coleman (Deakin University), Tim Riches (DigitalMe), Mark Riches (, and Serge Ravet (ADPIOS / Badge Europe). Each took a 5-10 minutes to tell their story of badges, but what was most exciting to me is that they didn’t just talk about the “what” of badges. They also talked about the “why.”

This panel consistently represented what I consider to be the best and most promising of the badge world. We learned about Kate’s exciting work with Universities in Australia. We gained a glimpse into Tim’s work with DigitalMe, building a badge ecosystem in the UK, and people were pointed to a helpful canvas or template for designing badges. Mark talked about yet another badge ecosystem that already includes thousands of schools. Serge, among other things, left the group with some powerful and thought-provoking statements and ways of thinking about the affordances of badges in the modern education space.

The more time you spend learning about badges, the more you learn that there are different, evening competing “whys” at work amid open badges. Some champion badges as motivational tools. Others look at them as an opportunity for scalable, standardized and interchangeable curricular units. What this group represented was a deeply human and relational vision of badges.

They started the session with a fun, simple and insightful activity. People were instructed to move to one side of the room if they were “badge ninjas” or people who have significant experience with open badges in the real world. The other side of the room represented those who were novices, new and at least interested enough to show up for a session like this. Scattered in between were people somewhere on the spectrum between these two.

Across the panelists, there was this thread about how badges can empower learners to be active, engaged and taking ownership in their learning. Time and Mark Riches talked about how students are becoming interested in discovering learning opportunities for themselves amid their badge projects. There was reference to how badges are a wonderful way to recognize learning that is not part of the curriculum, as a way to acknowledge good and valued learning that might otherwise be largely ignored in formal learning contexts. There was the inspiring story of Lewis Philips, a student and media producer who shared his knowledge with classmates and was nominated teacher of the year. Notice that each of these focused less on the technology of the badge and more on the affordances of badges as a means of amplifying student, voice, choice, and empowerment.
Amid the session, I Tweeted a few choice meaning statements that, to me, summarize the spirit of the panel.

This was a Tweet inspired by statements from multiple members of the panel, all of whom displayed a refreshing appreciation for the philosophical foundations that can inform a democratizing view of badges. Serge Ravet explained that many educational technologies appear to be about control. This is certainly true given the fact that testing and associated technologies are now a billion dollar industry. While open badges can be twisted into something that is about control, Serge pointed out that this was not the original spirit of the open badge movement. It was instead about equality and empowerment of the learner. I know that this is not the only viewpoint among badge issuers and designers, and this is likely to be a “badge battleground” as I’ve called them in the past. This is a battle between visions of badges as democratizing technologies and a vision of badges as authoritarian technologies.

This was another statement from Serge Ravet, also drawing our attention to the reality that badges can be designed as authoritarian technologies, but that we can also use them with a “badges with the people” vision, as represented by this next Tweet.

In another statement from Serge, he explained that a badge is less about a visual display and more about a relationship between an issuer and a recipient. Instead of being teacher-centered or student-centered, what if we instead focused upon the relationship between the two? I couldn’t help but build on this idea in my own mind, considering the concept that every badge represents some sort of connection between two or more people. This is a promising way of looking at conversations about the value of a badge and badges as currency. Perhaps such topics make most sense if we understand badges as being about very specific connections. This relationship has value regardless of how widely it is recognized. Yet, from this perspective, it would seem that the best way to spread perceived value is to invite more people into these relationships. Expand the relationships and the perceived value spreads as well.

It was a great first day at SXSWedu. If this panel is reflective of what we can expect in the upcoming days, we are in for an exciting adventure!