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Gaining Momentum: Badges in Education at ISTE 2012 San Diego, CA

San Diego Convention Center

I was afraid that I had turned into a broken record. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

When I tell people that I’m not currently working full time, for anyone, the question that follows is usually, “well, what are you doing then?”  Simple enough.  I tell them that I am spreading the word about badges, their use in education and otherwise.  What are badges? Ah, yes.  Let me tell you…

Every conversation I’ve had about badges recently has ended up being positive (and different!) in some way.  The skeptics leave with at least an understanding of how badges might work in different settings.  The curious end up leaving with a smile.  I’d like to think I have a solid 87% smiling rate.  Unfortunately, I’m lacking the data to back up the figure.  Anyways…

At the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference this past week, I’m sad to say that many of the talks and panels were littered with shameful plugs for “new” products and services.  Beyond colorful advertisements and “let us take a minute to thank our sponsors” at the beginning and end of every talk, it seemed as if the speakers spoke lightly about the theory of technology in education and heavy on the features of their wares.  This was, of course, saved by a handful of meaningful forums and panels I was lucky enough to listen in on.

Enter Badges.

Dr. Kyle Peck has spent a fair amount of time researching possible applications of badges in training and education settings, among his many other projects.  I had the chance to listen in on a webinar of his back in May and had been corresponding with him via email leading up to ISTE12.  He facilitated a Birds of a Feather talk titled “Badging in Education: Another Component of the “Killer App” for Technology in Education?” Though the talk was late in the evening, around fifteen attendees took part.

Dr. Kyle Peck

Dr. Kyle Peck, Penn State University

Part-way through his slides, Dr. Peck’s presentation had sparked real discussion which ended up lasting a bit beyond the scheduled time frame.  Common themes brought up in the talk were:

  • Validity and authentication of badges
  • Earner limitations based on age (Mozilla only hosts backpacks for users age 13+ for now)
  • Comparisons to trade-based certifications (electricians, automobile mechanics, etc)
  • Technical requirements for groups who would like to experiment with issuing badges

While it might sound like a discouraging factor, many attendees left with more questions than answers.  This is good.  Why?  Because the success of badges in education relies on educators and trainers exploring their use and sharing with others.  On another positive note, a number of the attendees of Dr. Peck’s talk were also in attendance at Thursday’s panel talk about badges, which was enlightening.

Panel Discussion

Badges in Education Panel Talk ISTE 2012

Panel Talk on Badges in Education at ISTE 2012

Thursday’s panel talk about badges was titled Badges For Learning: Dialogue and Demonstration Exploring Online Achievement Systems” and featured four speakers with immense knowledge of badges and how they have effectively been applied in educational settings thus far.  The panel was made up of Carla Casilli (Mozilla Foundation), Marc Lesser (MOUSE), Al Byers (NSTA), and Richard Culatta (US DOE Office of Ed. Tech).  Calling this panel anything but an all-star cast would be an insult.  Here’s a summary of each speaker’s brief presentation:

Carla Casilli is the Project Lead for the Mozilla Foundation’s Open Badges project.  In line with Mozilla’s goal, Carla placed emphasis on making the web an open resource, providing access for all, and most importantly…badges for all.  She shared her team’s work on the Open Badges project as it relates to the accommodation of both formal and informal learning pathways.  The Open Badge Infrastructure (OBI) is designed to support achievement of both hard and soft skills, peer assessment, and provide a means for “stackable lifelong learning” where the earner is at the center of the ecosystem.  Carla shared first, setting an optimistic tone for the remaining speakers to showcase their experiences applying badges in learning systems.

Marc Lesser is the Education Director at MOUSE, a youth development program based in New York City that assists young people in the development of life and leadership skills necessary to succeed in today’s tech-centered world.  He shared MOUSE’s success in providing an online platform for young MOUSE Squad members to develop technical skills and earn badges for training achievements.  Marc spoke about the badge ecosystem that had developed in the program, allowing earners to identify what is valuable, building validity around what the learners are doing.  MOUSE’s badging system offers a glimpse at the way a larger badging ecosystem could scale out and connect to other similar systems, all with interoperability supported by Mozilla’s OBI.

Al Byers is Assistant Executive Director of e-Learning and Government Partnerships at the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), which has created a badge ecosystem based on professional development training for science teachers via their eLearning platform.  The NSTA Learning Center (online platform) provides free tools for teachers to index their needs and gain knowledge and skills in teaching K-12 STEM lessons, earning “stamps” that lead to badges.  In 2011-2012, the NSTA site issued over 27,000 badges and provided a space for teachers to showcase their strengths through a social “leaderboard”.  Al described the way content, social interaction, and psycho-emotional roles combine to create a collaborative learning space, bringing educators together to strive for excellence in teaching.  An important aspect of this, of course, is the badging system therein.  The NSTA platform’s use of badges provides promise for the use of badges in professional development scenarios, one that many groups are interested in.

Richard Culatta is the Deputy Director of the Office of Educational Technology for the US Department of Education.  He spoke of how the current grading/achievement system is broken, not scalable, and not based on competencies but rather on age or time in the educational system.  He placed heavy emphasis on the amount of learning that takes place outside of the classroom and the need to document it, bringing it back into the formal system.  Richard spoke with excitement about how badges can help improve education by truly tracking competencies, by leveraging accomplishments outside of the classroom, and by allowing students to spend time on the objectives they need to master.  This portion of the panel talk coming from an official representative of the Federal DOE came as a breath of fresh air, showing that there may be hope for the U.S. education system.

In conclusion…

It does look as if the application and analysis of badge use in education is gaining support.  Between Dr. Peck’s facilitated talk and the panel discussion, it’s becoming evident that educators are talking about badges.  Are badges the saving grace for education?  Maybe not, but they do offer an alternative solution to a big part of the education system that most people can see is broken.  It’s easy to point out what’s wrong with education, but it is a much larger task to take the plunge and examine alternatives.

Here are a few resources for educators that are interested in getting involved with badging:

As a final note, I am working with a few good people on an open, free badging platform called  We’d love feedback from educators about what features they would like to see as well as welcome developers who are willing to fork the code here.

5 thoughts on “Gaining Momentum: Badges in Education at ISTE 2012 San Diego, CA

  1. Thanks, Billy, for covering the badging-related sessions at tha ISTE conference. I had to leave before the panel, and really appreciated your summary. That was, indeed, an all star panel. Carla is one of the lead pioneers in badging, and Al has brought a series of innovative approaches, including badging, to teacher professional development. I look forward to learning more about Marc and Richard, but I couldn’t agree more with Richard that “badges can help improve education by truly tracking competencies, by leveraging accomplishments outside of the classroom, and by allowing students to spend time on the objectives they need to master.” I also agree with you, billy that it’s great to hear that perspective from the Department of Education. There are more pioneers there than most people realize. I admire those who accept positions of leadership and continue to explore and pioneer.

    Thanks again, Billy, for keeping us informed.

    • Thanks for the comment, Dr. Peck. It was so good to meet and chat with you at ISTE. I’ve passed along information about your STEM Scouts project, looking forward to hearing about the progress of that and your other many pursuits.

  2. Pingback: Gaining Momentum: Badges in Education at ISTE 2012 San Diego, CA | Badges for Lifelong Learning |

  3. Billy,

    Huge thanks to you and your friends for creating the FREE site. This week I taught several training sessions at a “Geek Camp” in our school district and I used your site to award badges to participants and it worked very well. Many of the teachers are excited about the possibilities of using this with their students.

    Here is the site I created for my session about Badges – Feel free to pass it on to anyone you think might find it useful.

    • Very cool, Mark! Sorry it took a while to post this reply, my WordPress app was giving me issues. That site you’ve created is great, something that should be shared with other people. Have you passed it around much? The Open Badges Google Group would love to see it, I’m sure.

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