What Happens When You Create and Issue Badges to Yourself?

Badge newcomers ask wonderful questions. There is something to be said for paying keen attention to the questions, comments, and ideas of people new to digital badges. That was the case with a session that I attended at the 2015 US Distance Learning Association Conference. The session was entitled, Creative Credentials: The Power of CBE and Digital Badges; a solid and well-done presentation and introduction to badges. Near the end, a gentleman in the audience shared that, from his perspective, there seemed to be two types of badges. There are badges that an organization or entity creates and issues. There there are badges that an individual can create and issue to him/herself. A presenter rightly responded by explaining that the standard approach to badges is the former. In fact badge issuing services are typically set up with the idea that one person/organization is issuing a badge to a different person; although it is indeed possible for one person to issue a badge to him/herself, granted there are two accounts…representing two different roles.

When I heard this question from the person in the crowd, I was compelled to pull up a new window and start writing this post. Realize it or not, this attendee asked a brilliant question, one that hacks the common thoughts about how badges work, but one that also offers us a chance to think about badges in a more novel way. In fact, his question fist nicely into the broader conversation about the democratization of credentials. Can you imagine a context or time when self-designed and self-issued badges gained broader acceptance and external value? While that does not seem to be the direction of many in the badge community, I see this as a valuable perspective. Yes, the credibility of the issuer plays an important role for many as they think about how they might grow as a more acceptable form of credentialing currency.

The idea of someone self-issuing a credential also sparks concerns about deception and credibility. I can’t, for example, take a class from myself and then give myself a grade at the University where I work. We usually divide the role of instructor and student, learner and the role that assesses/verifies. Nonetheless, what would it look like to blur these lines? Can you think of contexts where this might have merit, where it might gain a measure of acceptance? I welcome your thoughts in the comment area, on Twitter, or wherever else you opt to extend the conversation.

10 Higher Education Trends to Watch in 2015 & Beyond

Thanks to the University of Wisconsin Madison Department of Educational Policy Studies and the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education (WISCAPE), I enjoyed sharing a draft paper and informal comments yesterday on When For-Profit and Non-Profit Meet: Monopolists, Entrepreneurs and Academics in Higher Education. I might be able to share a polished version of that paper at some point, but driving back from the event, I realized that I have failed to share my predictions post for this current year, something that I’ve done each year since 2012. So, five months into the year, here goes. I’ve decided to focus this list mainly on higher education trends and innovations, although some of them have parallels in the K-12 sector. These do not necessarily reflect the paper or comments shared in the mentioned presentation, but there is certainly some overlap.

Which trends should we watch in the second half of 2015 and beyond? This represents one of the more common types of questions people ask me. Which trends in education are most noteworthy? Which ones will persist and grow? Which ones will fade and wither? I try to add an important disclaimer when I step into a futurist role, even the near future, because education is one of those deeply political and regulated sectors, adding plenty of uncertainties in any claims. Nonetheless, here is my short list of ten. None of them are new, but I expect them to gain increased attention into the second half of 2015 and well beyond this year. Or, in some cases, look for interesting pivots or adjustments in these areas.

Customized / Personalized Programming

Some  higher education institutions are not positioned to respond to this growing request. As such, this is a promising opportunity for the more agile colleges and universities, continuing education units, as well as a range of education companies interested in providing training, courses, or educational opportunities. What I’m referring to here is the idea of a company or organization partnering with a University or an education company to create and offer custom training, courses, degrees, or programming. It might be a partnership to create a custom leadership training program for those who show promise in a given company. It might be a business school that offers a special cohort MBA program for a given employer, agreeing to integrate case studies and other elements that are directly related to that company. It might be a school district partnering with a college to design professional development (for credit or more) that helps teachers pursue specific district goals for improving student learning. There are so many possibilities. While this is not new, this approach is gaining more attention. A growing number of Universities are showing the interest and willingness to pursue these partnership. At the same time, we see existing education companies ramping up their capacity for these services as well as startups that specialize in such a model. For the latter, it isn’t the type of model that gains extensive interest from investors because such personalization sometimes prevents the scaling that leads to the payoffs they are seeking. As such, this leaves ample opportunity for willing colleges and Universities along with boutique education businesses.

Educational Partnerships

I’ve already written about the Starbucks / ASU partnership, but this is just the beginning. Expect to see several other high-profile announcements of similar partnerships over the next couple of years. Also scan the growing size of offices in Universities dedicated to building external partnerships. For the colleges, this helps them save marketing dollars, and sometimes allows them to pass that savings on the the students. For the employers, they have an employee perk to keep good talent, and raise up the next group of leaders by investing in their education. The PR for both sides doesn’t hurt either.

Big Data & Business Analytics in Education

Advancement wants it. Admission wants it. Marketing wants it. Professional advising staff wants it. More higher education leaders are interested in dashboards that give them a snapshot of the University status regarding key performance indicators. As blended and online learning grows, there are also more data points about student and faculty behavior that are recorded and can be mined. This world of informatics and analytics is growing quickly, and it is a massive money maker for software providers. Consider how some healthcare systems are paying a quarter of a billion dollars or more for implementations of new informatics systems. While not typical at that price point, Universities have already started investing hundreds of thousands (sometimes millions) to implement data warehouses and analytic software. I don’t expect it to gain as much traction among faculty in the classroom this year, expect where there is experimentation with adaptive learning and the like, but that will potentially come within the next 2-4 years.

Alternative Education Meets Higher Education

I’m probably a little early on this one, but I still expect to see signs of it over the next 12-24 months. What I’m referring to is a form of what we’ve seen happening with independent schools, charter schools and magnet schools on the K-12 level. We see project-based schools, classical schools, self-directed learning academics, place-based learning schools, leadership academies, etc. I expect to see an equivalent emerge in the higher education space. Look for more colleges and Universities offering niche routes (sort of like the already existent honors colleges at some schools, but focused on niche approaches like project-based learning, service-learning, even self-directed learning. In addition, while this is not nearly as easy of a development, I expect to see the announcement of at least a few new higher education institutions over the next 1-2 years that have interesting niches and approaches, schools like Minerva or more long-standing schools like Antioch College, Bennington College, Goddard College and Prescott College.

Virtual Reality in Education 

This one will probably gain more traction on the k-12 level in 2015, but look for it to make a few headlines in higher education in 2015 and 2016 as well, especially given that some of the software is starting to catch up with the hardware in this industry. Events like the Silicon Valley Virtual Reality Conference will give us a glimpse into near future uses in higher education.

The Rise of Higher Education Beyond Regionally Accredited Entities

As we continue to see the Department of Education and regional accrediting bodies trying to make sense of the developments and innovations in higher education, it puts innovation Universities at a disadvantage, especially the smaller to mid-sized schools. As a result, we will see foundations giving even more interest to education companies that are not bound by things like the federal financial aid system or regional accreditation. Expect more announcements from new and existing companies that provide courses, training, credentials, and “degrees” of their own; but not part of the standard regionally accredited higher education system. Many of these will earn their credibility through close connections, conversations and sometimes formal partnership with employers and professional organizations that oversee credentials for a given trade or field of work.

MOOC Credentials

We’ve heard a little bit about it in the past, and while I’m still not one to jump on the claims that MOOCs will make traditional higher education obsolete, this year and next will be the time when we see the growth of credentials (certificates, badges, etc.) and even traditional college credit being associated with learning demonstrated through MOOCs. Coursera and EdX are already engaged with this to some extent, but expect other players and for credentials from these sources to be refined, expanded, and gaining more traction. It should probably go without stating that there will be tension and push back on this one.

Competency-based Education

The Competency-based Education Network accepted its second group of 30 schools into the network in 2015 (I work at one of the new member schools). Beyond that network, I’m also directly aware of countless schools that have moved from interest to formal exploration, experimentation, and even implementation of competency-based programming. The scope of this trends impact will surprise many in higher education.

Self-Directed Learning

The most attention to this topic will continue to come beyond the walls of formal higher education. However, interest in self-directed learning is a natural progression of the digital revolution, driven by a combination of increased access to online content, resources, communities, etc; as well as education companies targeting “learners” with apps, services, and resources that allow them to reach formal and informal learning goals.

Self-Blended Learning

This is essentially self-directed learning finding its way in the formal learning environment. As more resources for learning emerge online and college students become further informed about them; we will continue to see creative and unexpected student-led “blends” used to help them find success in school and to achieve personal goals that are not being adequately supported by the formal college experience.

There are plenty of other trends that are likely to grow and expand, but I’m confident that these ten are here to stay. Expect to see them in more headlines, to learn about new products and services focused upon them, and for them to become more common aspects of higher education discourse.

What if Schools Were Penalized for Overemphasizing Standardized Tests?

In 5 Things I Learned, Jeb Bush wrote, “If we are going to prepare students to compete in a knowledge-driven world, we need to set higher standards for achievement in core subjects. Setting higher standards—and measuring to them—really, really matters. You can’t know if you are getting better if you don’t set the standard and measure to it.”

Do you agree? It can be good to have academic standards and to measure our progress. In fact, I suspect that most people today agree with Jeb Bush’s statement. Yet, debates about the Common Core and countless related issues persist. Why? While there is room for a healthy discussion about the benefits and limitations of the concept of standards in general, most of the debates are not focused upon that. Instead, they relate to one or more of the following questions.

1. Who gets to create or choose which standards should be used…and on what level?

Should this come from the federal government, state government, professional associations and organizations, a group of governors, or local groups? Is the answer the same for all standards or should some be local and others more common across contexts? What say should students, parents, teachers and others have in the establishment of standards? Given that we are a nation that welcomes and embraces diversity, how do we approach standards that speak to areas of contention, areas where there is genuine disagreement among deeply informed people? Should the standards be at the sole discretion of academics with credentials deemed relevant by some group? Who decides what is relevant? There may be less debate in a content area like math, but there is even disagreement there, because standards are not neutral. They are created with some goal or aim in mind. The Common Core, for example, claims to be about college readiness along with workforce readiness. What happens when we test this by looking at whether people thriving in various workplaces meet the Common Core standards currently? I do not pose those questions to argue against the Common Core, only to note that standards are not simple, neutral, uncontested statements. As such, questions about who sets they, how they are revised, and where they are used become critical to the current conversation.

How do we measure progress toward meeting standards?

Many talk about measurement today. We measure what we value, and we value what we measure. Some immediately assume that we are talking about standardized tests, but there are dozens of ways to measure, many of which are more formative, giving feedback about a learner’s progress. It is possible for a K-12 school, for example, to adopt the Common Core, but to reject the standardized test approach to measuring student progress. They might instead create a rich portfolio that is constantly reviewed. It could come from the review of ongoing authentic student-centered projects, adaptive learning software that gives daily updates on progress, or through a teacher’s narrative assessment of each student. Some today treat big data and standardized tests as synonymous with standards, but that is not necessarily the case, and we would be wise to separate these two in our debates. There are limitations to every form of measurement and assessment, and a system of thoughtful educational leaders will separate the means of measurement from the broader discussion and invite others into this important decisions. This ties directly to a question that I will reference at the end of this article.

3. What is the role and value of the “non-standard” in education?

Standards are good. I like them in healthcare, automobile manufactures, and electricians. Yet, not everything in life and learning is standard. What is the role of non-standard learning in an increasingly standards-based approach to education? What about the role of values and convictions? What about the role of helping each learner discover their distinct (maybe unique) set of gifts, talents, abilities and passions; and learning how to build upon them, refine them, and use them to benefit others? That is no small and valuable part of a good education. If standards become the sole (or even just primary) focus, do we lose this important part of education? What about the culture and climate in school, which impacts the disposition, feelings and attitudes about life and learning in general? We have a mandatory schooling model on the K-12 level. While there are alternatives, for most that means young people forced to be in a community for years. How should they be treated during that time? How do we create a culture and climate that honors, values, and celebrates the uniqueness of each person? These non-standards can be lost in a standards-focused system unless create equally robust ways to measure and emphasize them.

This is what inspired the title to the article. If we value these other elements, perhaps schools should be penalized for over-emphasizing standards or standardized tests as much as some argue for penalizing those that under-perform on standards. I am not convinced that penalizing is the best route regardless of one’s take on these issues, but I offer the question as a way to promote important thought and discussion.

4. How do/should values inform what and how we go about education?

I mentioned this above, but it deserves separate attention as well. Every organization has values, whether they are stated or implied. By definition standards value standard performance. That is a core value of a standards-based educational system. What are the other values? Browse core values of schools and you will read things like integrity, collaboration, diversity, and respect. At one school, they state a core value as “a balance between individual achievement and a caring community.” Values are a rich and important part of a learning community. If we value measurement, should we not measure the extent to which are values are embodied and lived out in our schools? I’ve yet to hear massive debates or mandates from government officials that we should measure schools on the extent to which they truly embody their values. If academic standards (as they are largely used today) are the only measure that counts to outside stakeholders, we could find ourselves celebrating a school with  impressive standardized scores while having a socially and emotionally toxic climate and culture.

5. What is the purpose of education in a given context and on a given level?

All these questions lead us back to critical basic questions about our learning organizations. What is their purpose? We do not have a universal answer to this question, which is why I contend that it is most humane and consistent for us to embrace an educational ecosystem of choice and variety in school options. Many parents, students and community members do not simply see school as about meeting certain academic standards. Learning organizations play a larger role than that in most communities, and we would be wise to approach conversation about standards and measures with this in mind. As such, what would it look like for us to measure schools in way that represents this more holistic view of education?

Educational Innovation & Building a Plane in the Air

Is making educational change like building an airplane in the air? Perhaps you’ve heard that phrase before. The more I think about it, the more I see it as having some useful lessons for thinking about managing change in learning organizations.

I had the privilege of helping with a recent boot camp for a select group of schools chosen to get help working toward a school-wide make-over, with a focus upon moving toward a blended learning model that amplifies their core values. The goal was to help these schools be successful with this innovation while also developing promising practices to share and replicate elsewhere.

We started the first day with a critical conversation about the compelling why behind theirs school and having non-negotiable school-shaping concepts through which they sift new programs, projects, ideas, policies, and practices. Without such groundwork, it is far too easy to make blended learning about chasing the next shiny thing. Coming up with your school-shaping concepts, and making them truly non-negotiable is a key to what I call mission-minded educational innovation that pops, that has a distinct and compelling identity and that results in a high-impact learning organization.

At the end of that first day, we debriefed, and I was struck and excited by one of the questions.

I see how you can do this if you are starting a new school are doing a re-start, but some of us are not in a position to do that. How do we make changes now, while we are still teaching students and working through many of the identity questions.

It is true. There are many benefits to starting from scratch, and engaging in school-wide educational innovations in existing organizations calls for a different approach. It calls for change management and developing the knowledge and skill to know when, what, how, and how much you can adjust at any given time. You are building (or at least updating) an airplane in the air, as represented by the following video.

This playful representation of managing change for existing, living, moving organizations provides a little comic relief to the familiar pain and challenges of leaders who have tried to do such a thing. It also highlights the risks associated with such an effort and draws our attention to some guiding principles.

1. Changing Course

Sometimes it isn’t as if you are building or rebuilding the concept of school. You are just adjusting or changing course. That is not uncommon in the air. We often need to adapt to the circumstances, and that is why things like curriculum require constant review and adjustment. That isn’t necessarily like building a new plane as much as making the adjustments necessary by a good pilot.

2. Major Changes are Done on the Ground, When People are Not Present

That is true for schools as well. Major changes typically happen between school years. You might plan for it during one school year, but launch it the next. There are exceptions to this, but there are still the exceptions. Even in the video you don’t see them building the engine in the air. Some things can be worked on as you go, but it just isn’t possible or advisable to make core changes in the air.

3. Building and Rebuilding Requires Care & Skill

Whether it is on the ground or in the air, it takes time, skill, and special attention to do this well, and in a way that does no harm. It requires knowing the difference between a major change and a minor adjustment; and having the wisdom to choose the best strategy to achieve the goals/changes.

4. A Compelling Why Makes a Huge Difference.

Maybe the comments in the video were over the top and full of cliché, but educational innovation can quickly fizzle under difficulty or pressure if there is not a compelling why to justify the time, effort, challenge, and risk. This is also critical for nurturing shared ownership or buy-in from the different stakeholders.

5. This is not a one person task.

If you have a small and simple enough team or organization, some changes can be led and managed by a single person, but most learning organizations don’t work that way. There are many parts to leading a successful educational innovation, and a committed, cooperative, core team is going to be necessary.

While these may seem simple, I’ve seen plenty of examples where innovations or attempted changes failed because lessons like these were ignored. Lone range efforts rarely work in complex learning organizations. Changes without a clear goal and compelling why often don’t have what it takes to persist or last. There is usually a learning curve and the need to develop or tap special expertise to make these changes a reality. And it is important to assess what can we done “in the air” and what needs to wait for us to be back on the ground. Pay attention to these five lessons and you’ve greatly increased your changes for a successful rebuild.