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Apr 6, 2012

Badges, buckets, and bugles

The idea of the week is “badges.” This week, PASA has announced its "Pathways for Lifelong Learning" entry was named as a winner in the national competition Digital Media and Learning, sponsored by the MacArthur and Mozilla Foundations. (The other winners include Microsoft, NOAA, NASA, PBS, Department of Veteran Affairs, Carnegie Mellon Robotics Academy, The Walt Disney – not too shabby a company!) Their work builds on a Mozilla project to create an open infrastructure for awarding badges. PASA will develop a program where students will earn digital badges, which in some cases will be converted in high school credits. The difference between a badge and a college credit (or a continuing education credit) is that to earn the former, one needs to demonstrate some specific skill, or show an accomplishment. While credit is basically the seat time, a badge is like a mini-certificate. It is similar to Boy and Girl Scout badges – you show you can play bugle, you get a bugling badge. Only now this can be done electronically, and one click will drill down and show which authority awarded the badge, and what was involved in demonstrating the skill or knowledge.

This idea finely completes our TEIL session last week. OK, basically the dilemma is this. To compete with low-cost quality online degrees, we should emphasize what we do better than they do. Namely, we need to provide our students with quality experiences and the quality relations with faculty and peers. Imagine something like a residency with either an Arts and Sciences professor, or a teacher preparation experiential learning community. But to do that well, we need to free up time and resources, and therefore we must cut something out. To do that, we must embrace our enemy, and borrow its weapons. In other words, we should shift some learning to on-line or self-paced modular kind of experience. That’s the paradox – to distinguish ourselves from them, we have no choice but become partially like them. It took us a while to realize, actually’ about two months.

The next thing we did was try to brainstorm how student knowledge could be put into two buckets – one that requires longer, intense interactions, and carefully constructed meaningful experience (the Experience Bucket), and the second that includes knowledge and skills that can be learned in a relative isolation, independently, perhaps on-line, or tested out of (we called this the Sacrificial Bucket, although we realize it is as important as that in the first bucket). We also realized that our version of the buckets is heavily biased towards pedagogy, because no FAS faculty were amongst us. Oh, well, but the idea still stands – you need to compress something in order to expand something else.

The next problem is that there is no open market of these modules, and we have very little means of distinguishing which ones are good, and which are not. It would take many millions of dollars to invest in building rigorous content and quality assessments. RIC alone simply does not have these kinds of resources, and neither does any other single institution. So, of course, when I heard about the badges idea, I realized that they can be used to fill our sacrificial bucket, because presumably, they will create a global market of those relatively narrow, although very important skills, which could be learned for free or at low cost. Interestingly, this is perhaps third or fourth time I hear about badges. The first few times I was just skeptical or laughing, like you’re laughing right now. Funny how when you don’t need it, it is trash, and when you do, it becomes treasure.

What I am saying, basically, that we have figured out the salvation plan for higher education. Yep, no less and no more. Many details are still vague, but I can imagine how we can gradually turn some of our courses into badges – fully or partially, and how we can eventually build high quality, life-changing experiences for our students; the experiences they absolutely cannot get anywhere else but here. This would be a great opportunity to re-think our curriculum in view of two buckets, and how they interact. The badge infrastructure is promising to be flexible and simple; it will allow to keep track of student progress (it may be even better than PeopleSoft), and to both create our own badges and borrow/buy someone else’s. We can also use the same badge for both our students and for teachers’ professional development (which some people from Providence Public Schools already indicated). They can signify both online or face to face learning, as long as there is a rigorous assessment or a convincing demonstration of a skill. A lesson plan writing badge, anyone? We already have a number of badges under different names: writing requirement, service learning requirement, health education workshops, licensure tests.

The low-cost high quality online degrees are probably between 5 to 10 years away. The New Charter University or the Western Governors, or someone else with enough money and brains will figure it out. There is no intrinsic limit to the model, even though most of the existing online degrees are still pretty poor. And once this happens, change can be sudden and catastrophic, for students will vote with their purses. Some colleges will capitalize on their prestige; others will learn how to provide unique experiences and communities, while still others will close their doors. I am convinced RIC should be in the second group. There is no choice, really.

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