The Digital Badge as a Transitional Technology: A Raft on the Journey

I’ve written many articles about open and digital badges in the last six years, and I continue to be an advocate for the ways in which badges can help us broaden our sense of what is possible when it comes to democratizing recognition of learning. Over the past year, I’ve slowed on my writing about badges, not because I am any less supportive of the movement, but because I’ve started to notice more significant patterns in my analysis of future and emerging trends likely to impact education and recognition.

I started to share some of these ideas in their earliest form about two years ago when I was attending the the historic EPIC conference in Bologna Italy, the event where many of us signed on to the Bologna Open Recognition Declaration. Now I’m ready to share a bit more. In fact, I see several possible futures for recognition of learning, but I consider it beyond doubt that almost all such potential futures will include three key elements:

  1. Documentation of data points related to learning, experience, competence, accomplishments, dispositions, and even fixed traits
  2. Big data
  3. Artificial intelligence & algorithmic matchmaking

Notice that I didn’t include badges, certificates, diplomas or any other credential in that short list. Why? I suspect that badges, while they will persist well into the future, are not the central innovation. Rather, they are part of a set of transitional technologies. Since I’m using the term in a specific way here, allow me to explain what I mean by a transitional technology.

It is a technology with the following five traits:

  1. It helps expand people’s thinking beyond an existing, related, but increasingly too limiting technology (in this case, traditional diplomas, transcripts, and certificates). As such, it helps surface the downsides and limitations of that technology, expanding the community and conversation around the alternative.
  2. It it borrows from the existing metaphors and vocabulary enough that people can understand it, while adding new features, taking advantage of new and emerging technologies to do so. In fact, it is always sparked by the affordances of multiple new technological developments.
  3. It sparks experimentation and entrepreneurial endeavors that promote further innovation and refinement.
  4. Many early experiments remain limited to the metaphors and frameworks that informed practices with the preceding technology. While there are some who will experiment in fascinating ways, demonstrating entirely new applications not possible with the previous technology, most people see it as a supplement to or a replacement of the prior technology, missing the fact that it could actually lead to a completely different construct. Only it works largely within an established culture, beliefs, values, and norms.
  5. Due to these factors, its most important role is not to be a long-term replacement to its predecessor, but to aid in progress toward what is usually a completely new mental and cultural construct, and associated technologies. In this sense, it is the raft that gets us across the river, but that raft is left behind as we move on to the next part of the journey.

Badges are that raft. The journey is about connections and recognition, not credentials. Only we’ve worked in a credentialed context for so long that we find it hard to imagine what could be next. Now we can start to see what is next. This begs the question. What is next? What comes after (or alongside) badges?

Several years ago, I started to write and talk about the changing nature of assessment. death of testingI even hired a cartoonist who does quite a bit of work from the New Yorker to create the following (or to the right depending upon what type of device you are using to read this) cartoon to illustrate my point.

When we look at emerging innovation around data analysis, it seems to me that testing is eventually on its way out, or at least moving toward having a lesser role in education. This is not a one or two year prediction, but we will see it play out in the next two or three decades. The reason for this is the same reason that I point to when I contend that bagdes constitute a transitional technology. It is about the future of data.

We are now in the age of big data, algorithmic strategies and solutions, learning analytics, adaptive learning, and artificial intelligence. In such an age, a test is less necessary. Tests become embedded, integrated, even invisible. We can mine data constantly to track progress. Tests can still be used as a teaching and learning strategy, but their role as a separate measurement tool decreases in this emerging world of data.

The same thing is true for badges and other credentials. What is the purpose of a credential? There are actually multiple purposes, but they generally signify something: experience, accomplishment, traits, competence, relative growth (or the lack thereof), and much more. As such, they communicate something about a person. Over time, they even communicate more or less than the reason for their issuance might warrant. Some more accurately and persistently communicate something true about a person, group, or organization. Some do not. That has always been the case, just as it is with badges. Badges are sentences in the stories that we tell, and we all know that some stories are fiction, while others are non-fiction. Most are a blend of the two.

Yet, badges are only one of many devices useful in communicating a story to others. What is important is the story and connection people as a result of the story. That is where big data, artificial intelligence, and all the other related buzz words that I listed before come into play. As more integrated and easy-to-consume methods of connecting and communicating develop, badges and other credentials will begin to play a smaller role.

Each new day that we live with one foot in the digital world, we are becoming further acclimated to algorithmic living. We trust our favorite search engine to guide us toward that which we seek. We do the same when we listen to music, shop, or try to find a date (or spouse). We rely upon these increasingly intelligence systems to match, connect, guide, and direct our choices and decisions.

Of course, not all algorithms are created equal. There is a wide spectrum when it comes to sophistication, not to mention the fact that every algorithm amplifies certain values and muzzles others, prioritizing some things over others. And as much as I will continue to draw attention to this important fact, that will not slow the global move toward such a world.

If you scan the communities discussing the present and emerging future state of digital badges, you might notice some people concerned about various patents or applications for patents with regard to badges. Some are concerned about this development, but seeing badges as part of a set of transitional technologies, I do not anticipate that hindering the larger move toward a new way of matching and connecting, as well as the larger move toward open recognition. Once we reduce the developments to their least common denominator, we find ourselves talking about something that is far less hindered by anyone who might seek power or protection through the patent office.

Badges represent a set of fascinating technologies, certainly expanding and deepening our thinking about recognition. They have served us well in that sense, and will continue to do so for some time. Yet, sooner than later, we will find that they have taken us as far as they are able in this journey, and we will set them aside on our larger and far more significant journey toward open recognition and what I hope will be a transparent but useful ecosystem of algorithmic connections. That will bring (and has already brought) ample ethical challenges that we are wise to begin exploring and addressing, especially before the next generation of artificial intelligence.

Is it Better to Encourage Students, Teachers, Policymakers, & Innovators to Set Small or Grand Goals?

“If you are thinking of solving a problem that you can solve in your lifetime, you are thinking too small.” – Wes Jackson (Land Institute, World Future Council, and lost of other stuff)

Nearing thirty years after the fact, I vividly recall a debate with my high school social studies teacher (John Shimkus, who is now a US congressman from the Illinois). I remember many conversations with him, and continue to be grateful for his willingness to diverge from what some might consider standard teaching practice at the time: student input on co-creating an ancient history course with a student teacher, his willingness to deviate enough to tell fascinating stories about his training exercises on the way to becoming an Army Ranger, allowing me to pursue a wonderfully engaging research project entitled “Did Hitler Meet the Clinical Criteria for Insanity?”, teaching fascinating military strategy as part of our history units on the world wars (what do you expect from a West Point graduate?), and much more. Just as important to my learning was how I often felt like he treated me and others as peers in the marketplace of ideas. As such, there was one particular day when we debated about the proper use and role of goals in life.

He contended that goals are best broken up into small, achievable, sub-goals. They should be challenging, but achievable. Your success in one goal will motivate you to take on the next goal, eventually leading to mastery of something otherwise too overwhelming to take on in the first place. I accepted the logic behind his thinking, but this was long before I started reading about and studying books and research on motivation and goal-setting. As such, I mostly spoke from personal preference and experience. Small goals didn’t motivate me, I explained. In my experience, I needed to start with a grand vision and goal, something that might seem entirely impossible to others. I needed a moonshot. Then, and only then, I could start thinking about the steps to making that vision a reality (which might, of course, include smaller goals). I remember articulating my idea this way. “I want to shoot for the stars. I might reach them. I might not. Even if I ultimately fail, if I set that grand of a goal, I’m far more likely to do something truly remarkable along the way.”

Thinking back on the debate, I didn’t actually disagree with Mr. Shimkus. It just wasn’t inspiring enough for me. I am and have always been addicted to meaning, purpose, and impact…but in a sometimes undisciplined way. And in full disclosure, my position represented a character trait that I carry with me to this day (even though I acknowledge its significant dark side). Namely, I take on too much. I fail at more things than I succeed. I lean on the inspiration of a grand dream, vision, or goal to inspired me toward the discipline and work needed to make it happen. I also get drawn into and distracted by too many grand goals. Along the way, I learn more than I ever imagined and find this approach taking me to incredible places (literally and figuratively).

This brings me to the opening quote from Wes Jackson. “If you are thinking of solving a problem that you can solve in your lifetime, you are thinking too small.” I treat this as a proverbial truth, not an absolute one. I’m sure that Wes Jackson has set out to solve small problems in his life and work, and that he has achieved many of them. Yet, the proverbial truth in such a quote is that there is something powerful and compelling about taking on massive and seemingly insurmountable problems. In fact, the nature of problems in our modern world begs for us to set goals bigger than what we might think achievable in a single lifetime. Such goals move many of us in ways that do not happen if we settle for that which is merely achievable in a 60 to 80 year timeframe.

Part of what intrigues me about this mindset is that it demands that we think beyond ourselves. It is not just my personal quest. It calls for a broader view and good, solid, systems thinking. This is often a collective quest, greater than a single person. It calls for a legion, or maybe a tribe, to make significant progress.

Not everyone thinks this way. I know many who are not as inspired by the larger-than-life quest. They are more interested in the present-day experience or smaller-scale goals. In fact, I see ample wisdom in that, and have even embraced it in some areas of my life. Jacques Ellul is likely the original source of the well-known quote, “Think globally. Act locally.” It is about being inspired by a global vision for good, but then it draws us to think about how we can each contribute to that global good by doing something positive in our own family, local community, or other sphere of influence.

Yet, some people do not seem to need the global thinking at all to find motivation, meaning, and ultimately fulfillment. They play their role. They build meaningful relationships. They develop character that is important to them. Maybe they articulate it as having their small contribution to a better world or benefiting others. Maybe they don’t.

There are undoubtedly benefits and limitations to these different ways of thinking and living, and we can become quite passionate in defending our particular take on the subject. No matter where one ends up, however, this topic has important implications for education. Any attempt to convince every learner to set goals so big that they can’t be achieved in a lifetime is a setup for disappointment. The same is true for the one who drives us to focus our attention on the present, small, achievable goals. It will work for some and not for others. There is more wisdom in finding ways to honor and celebrate the benefits of both approaches, along with a few more that I’ve not even thought to include. Yet, there are some cautions and suggestions that I offer along the way, especially for those educational innovators and policymakers in the crowd.

  1. Beware of :thinking big” shortcuts. That is how we end up with ill-informed policies and practices forced upon others, usually with unwanted and unexpected consequences.
  2. Beware of “small thinking” nativity and addiction to keeping everything simple. Simple is good, but what we do impacts others. Even the most pragmatic and here-and-now minded person can benefit from a crash course on systems thinking, because what we do locally can and will have a global impact.
  3. Your local effort can and will have a larger impact, even if you do not want or expect it to do so. This is especially true in education. The law of compounding interest applies, I contend, to the impact of any educational innovation or experiment that involves more than a couple learners. What you do will have consequences, some of what will be favorable, and some will be hard (or impossible) to predict.
  4. Beware of demonizing the other perspectives. If you are a big picture person, learn to use it, but there is no need to contend that everyone must become like you. The same is true for the pragmatist or realist who is tempted to judge the big picture thinkers as do-little dreamers or egomaniacs. Instead, consider how we can learn from one another, celebrate the benefits of each, and discover the value of supporting and maybe even working with one another.
  5. If you are a big picture thinker, invest time in learning about systems thinking and strategic planning. It will amplify your impact.
  6. Learn to appreciate the less efficient pathway from one destination to another, from one goal to another. The serendipitous has its place for many journeys in life.

Set small goals. Set goals that are larger than life…your life. Forget about goals altogether and just focus upon cultivating values and experiences that are important to you. A robust educational ecosystem will have room for these and many other approaches among learners.

On the Educational Numerati & Picking the Wrong Measures in Education

I’m increasingly convinced that we are experiencing a measurement crisis in modern education. Big data is here to stay. Analytics is here to stay. The algorithmic revolution is well underway. I have no intention of arguing that we resist or avoid these innovations and developments, but we must also cultivate a deep and persistent love for wisdom that informs our use of this growing world of numbers, analytics, and measurement. We must not consider questions about wisdom, values and priorities in education as less important or any less significant in our explorations of educational innovation and entrepreneurship.

The common measurements that seem to emerge are too often reductionist and de-contextual. Then we are building policies, lists of best practices, and social norms based upon the drive to raise these numbers that we select and champion as important. The result is a less humane education system, one that will not serve us well in the long run.

People who challenge these practices are too quickly labeled as irrational and behind the times, but that often comes from what I see as a less nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the world of numbers, analytics, statistics, big data, and measurement.

Too many foundations and investors get narrowly focused upon raising numbers as a proxy for helping students learn, grow, and thrive.

The same thing is happening with many education policymakers and politicians.

Educators and school leaders join in this obsession, fueling the problem when they submit to and unquestionably and/or compliantly go along with these number-driven priorities, often to please the outside agency or secure desired or needed funding. Nobody wants to be labeled compliant or be denied funds.

Professional associations are, too often, contributing to this as well.

Entrepreneurs contribute to the problem when they build products in an attempt to ride the policy and regulation waves toward a hefty profit, promising to help schools “raise their numbers” as prioritized by funders, government agencies, and professional associations.

Even the critics of testing and numbers-obsessed modern education find themselves giving in by accepting the vocabulary and framing of the educational numerati. I’m likely guilty of this too. One well-known critic of both the testing culture in education and modern charter schools will write about the downside of testing culture in one article or book chapter, only to use these same flawed numeric practices as evidence against charter schools. Likely unintended, she just affirmed the numerati agenda.

All of this ultimately does little to create rich, vibrant, positive learning communities.

The world of numbers and big data is powerful and useful, having a valuable role in education, but we also need words, wisdom, ideas that matter, and carefully considered values and priorities.

Show Me What You Measure in Your School, and I’ll Tell You What You Value

Show me what you measure in your school, and I’ll tell you what you value. I’ve written about related topics in the past, but this post at the Acton Academy Middle School Blog brought me back to the subject of measurement in education. As frequent readers know, I’m outspoken about the dangers and distraction of measurement and testing in modern education. I compare it to the modern obsession with taking pictures. Sometimes I find myself and see others more concerned about pulling out the phone and taking a picture of something interesting more than actually enjoying or experiencing it. We are capturing and storing what happens, but sometimes at the risk of removing ourselves from it. This is the state of measurement in education.

We measure more than ever in our schools. We have careful records of student coursework, cumulative grade point average, a myriad of test scores, retention rates, and all sorts of other things. People can give you their best arguments for the importance of what they measure. GPA is a strong predictor of future success, they argue. Test scores help us measure the effectiveness of our academic programs. As we do such things, the measurements themselves become the center of attention. We make entry into to National Honor Societies primarily a celebration of a certain GPA, as if that is the most important sign of “outstanding” students (part of the NHS mission statement). We we find ourselves building programs around raising numbers instead of achieving real goals, amplifying values, or more effectively living out our missions in learning communities.

Yet, measurement is useful. We tend to measure (even if informally and qualitatively) what is important to us. We pay attention to and track our progress when something is a high priority. This is even true in our most important relationships. As such, I’ve come to believe that there are two quick ways for me to get a sense of what is most important to a learning organization. Just let me see the line items in their budget and a list of what they measure on a daily, weekly, monthly, and annual basis. Those two sources of data give a good, albeit not complete, sense of priorities.

This is why I was so delighted (but not surprised) to read the Middle School Acton Academy blog post entitled “How Healthy is Your Tribe.” In it, the author provided a simple but useful data visualization based upon something so important to the school community that they measure it. It is a map that represents how close learners (or Eagles as they call them at Acton) feel to one another. Why would they measure something like this? It is because they value community? They value it as something independently and inherently good, but also because they know that a robust and positive community is also incredibly conducive to student growth and learning.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we paid more attention to measuring such things in all of our schools? What if we were more occupied with measuring student connectedness and positive attributes of community than some of the test scores that consume thoughts and efforts? I can say with confidence that we would have a better, more hopeful, more humane, and ultimately more empowering educational ecosystem.

What do you measure in your learning community and why? What do these measurements say about your school’s values and priorities?