A Closer Look at a Caffeine Story

Coffea canephora.

Coffea canephora. Bali – Indonesia – July 2007 – Guy Sabattier

Like many people around the world, I begin my every morning with a rather large cup of coffee. Caffeine – found in coffee, tea, mate, and chocolate – is the most widely consumed psychoactive substance in the world. So it was with great interest that I greeted the news, published in Science on Thursday last week, that an international team of scientists has sequenced the genome of the coffee plant, Coffea canephora.

Molecular structure of caffeine.

Molecular structure of caffeine.

Getting inside the coffee plant’s genome provides a biochemical view into the mechanism for creating caffeine (start with xanthosine, shave a bit off here, add a bit there and – voila – caffeine).  But here’s the really interesting part – the coffee plant and the cacao plant produce caffeine in different ways. In other words, the biochemical pathway for producing this important molecule evolved more than once. Different evolutionary paths to the same end point. Biologists call this phenomenon convergent evolution. The independent evolution of similar features in different lineages (think wings in birds and bats, the camera eye in vertebrates and octopuses, the ability to glide in flying squirrels and sugar gliders). When this happens, it’s a good indication that the evolved adaptation is pretty useful. And, indeed, caffeine is a very useful molecule for these plants – it helps to ward off enemies, to attract pollinators (and keep them coming back for more), makes the soil immediately surrounding the plant inhospitable to competing plants, and it deters leaf-eating pests. For the rest of us, it provides that much-needed kick-in-the-pants each morning.

As excited as I was about this story, I was quite taken with the way different news groups elected to cover it:

Here’s the New York Times article:

New York Times.

Here’s the Washington Post article:

Washington Post.

Washington Post.

And here is Fox News coverage:

Fox News.

Fox News.

The thrust of the WaPo and Fox coverage is on the “mutation”, the possibilities for manipulation, and the slightly shadow-ey (the “quirk”) scariness of what might come next – genetically modified coffee??

It’s startling to see how few of the primary news channels covered what was most interesting about this finding. Namely, the intensely interesting evolution story and the way genomic tools help scientists solve problems and understand the mechanisms of life.  Only Carl Zimmer, that noteworthy NYT Science journalist, included a clear and helpful description of the evolution element in his story. Sidebar: note the illustration choices in the three articles – the cup of coffee, the barista’s product. The New York Times at least shows the coffee beans but not a one of them show the actual plant, let alone the plant in its environment.  How we report the news – the headline, the image, the story – these are all vital ingredients that help shape public perception and our attitudes toward science.

 

 

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ConnectedCourses

Connecting...

Connecting…

OK, I’m on board.  Alan Levine, Jim Groom, and Howard Rheingold have organized a seven-session (run over four months), distributed course to serve up a curriculum on how to create an open, online, connected courses. It’s called ConnectedCourses. A learn by doing experience, go-at-your-own pace, facilitated by some of the best thinkers and doers in higher ed tech, for free. Sounds pretty sweet…so why did I hesitate?  First off, I am wary of the time commitment. While these courses are open, free (incredibly generous of them to give so freely of their time), and not asking for a particular commitment, we all know that you will only get in proportion to the investment you’re able to make. I’ve now taken enough open, online courses to know that it works best if I can do the time – participate in the live sessions, read the participants’ blogs, ruminate and blog about it. Could I carve out the time? And was a deep dive into the architecture of an open, networked course something that I needed? That was my main hesitation, but there’s something else. I have to admit, I do get a little tired of the boys’ club feeling to these kind of events. There is a male-ness to the thought leadership and culture in this community that tires me out.

I went to the ConnectedCourses site to find out more and listened to the pre-course warm-up video  – a capture of a September 2 Hangout, orchestrated by the three course leaders (Alan, Jim, and Howard) who are referring to themselves as Click, Link and Embed, in honor of that other infamous boys club – the Car Guys.

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 1.21.04 PM

But through the mists, I could hear some really good stuff coming through. The course is for faculty, each week will feature an idea key to the success of open, online learning, facilitated by some excellent folks. In addition to our three fearless leaders, we’ll hear from Michael Wesch, Cathy Davidson, Mimi Ito, Gardner Campbell, Helen Keegan, Randy Bass…  well, ok then! The line up sounds terrific.

In addition to that, Howard Rheingold’s words resonated with me (as they always do)  – the language of the web is the lingua franca of the way we interact and communicate from now on.  We have a responsibility to understand how this works in education (and in life!).  We have a responsibility to learn it and pass it on.  It’s the right time to take control of these tools, where you content goes, who owns it, and how it works.

Howard also talked about the importance of tinkering…that there are no solid answers out there, new services are cropping up all the time, figuring out as we go is the way this works.  It reminds me of that wonderful John Seely Brown video (from 2008!!!), Tinkering as Mode of Knowledge Production:

So, I’m on board.  I’ve made my first blog post for the course and I’m grateful for the help/support/guidance that this community will provide as I grapple with this body of knowledge.  I’m looking forward to the conversations in the community, making sense of this topic together. Let the tinkering begin!

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Retrieval Practice and Ed Tech

From July 18,2014 NYT, Sunday Review

From July 18,2014 NYT, Sunday Review

Last month, the NYTimes ran an education article entitled How Tests Make Us Smarter, by Henry Roedigger [July 18, 2014]. The basic idea put forth in the article was that frequent testing begets frequent retrieval of the tested information; the more often we attempt to retrieve information as we learn it, the more sophisticated mental structures we create around it, the better it sticks.

Roedigger’s piece sent me off on a hunt for the original research cited in the article.  That led me to this article authored by Jeffrey Karpicke and Janell Blunt (Purdue University):

Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping, [January 2011]

Their research points to the conclusion that testing provides retrieval practice and, as such, works as a memory modifier – it strengths the information in the learner’s brain, making it more likely to be recalled later. In their article, Karpicke and Blunt cite the researcher, Robert Bjork, a cognitive psychologist at UCLA who has, hands-down, the best lab name I’ve ever heard, “The Learning and Forgetting Lab”. Bjork is well-known in education circles for coining the phrase “desirable difficulties”. His cog psych research points to the conclusion that roughening up the learning path (“desirable difficulties”) leads to greater retention and comprehension. The practice conditions that produce desirable difficulties are spacing (distributing practice over time), interleaving (for example, mixing in equal parts tutorials and practice problems), and testing (retrieval).  Bjork talks about the “study-study-study-TEST” model versus the (preferred) “study-test-test-test” model. I’ve blogged about Bjork’s work previously.  Here is a good explanation of his research, When and Why Introducing Difficulties and Errors Can Enhance Instruction, Courtney Clark and Robert Bjork (UCLA)

The key take-home in both Bjork’s and Karpicke’s work is the importance of using testing as a learning tool instead of just as an assessment tool. Frequent, low-stakes, formative testing, companioned with timely feedback, allows learners to strengthen their retrieval and rehearse the correct information.

With this research base in mind, the next natural step is to address the practical question of how best to provide regular retrieval practice? How to encourage practice that enhances learning in the classroom and doesn’t add to the feeling of being tested to death. To my mind, that’s where educational technology comes in. With tablets or laptops in the hands of each student in a wired classroom, educators can construct lesson plans around frequent, low-stake performances that provide regular feedback.  For instance, reflective blog posts, short student presentations, practice problems, and peer-to-peer teaching in small groups.

The interesting thing about this way of looking at educational technology, is that it doesn’t drive the change – it becomes a facilitating tool.  First you want to improve teaching/learning, next you examine what the educational literature tells us about what works, and then you look for the tools to help drive that change.

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An Irrigation System Comes with a Teaching/Learning Lesson

New garden installation.

New garden installation.

We’ve recently installed a new front garden – a nice bevy of native and drought-tolerant plants, along with a bit of functional hardscape (I’m learning the landscaping terminology) in the form of a meandering pathway to the front door. In addition to improving the patches on all sides of our home, it’s turned out that this garden project has awarded other benefits – useful lessons in teaching and learning and a well-timed reminder of how incredibly difficult it is to do this education stuff right.

Our guide on this project, Liz Simpson, is an experienced landscape designer, who specializes in native plants.  I’ve worked with her on and off for the last six months, planning, sketching, preparing the soil, etc. and have found her delightful to work with – flexible, clear-thinking, and imaginative. In an attempt to marshall the budget on this project, I volunteered to be the laborer, along with my husband. That meant that we did the sheet mulching (see earlier post), the soil preparation, the digging and planting, and, eventually, the installation of a drip irrigation system.  Needless to say, there was a lot to learn.

The actual installation took place over a three-day period – 197 plants and lots of mulch.  Liz was there the whole time, overseeing the work, making sure we plopped the plants in the right places and heaving the flagstones into place herself, with the help of two, strong-backed helpers. It was all hard work, no doubt about it, but we got it done and were very happy with the results.

Irrigation system parts.

Irrigation system parts.

Then came the irrigation system.  These are drought-tolerant plants, but they do need some water, and given our current complete lack of rainfall in California, the drip system was called for. Liz brought over all the gear – tubing, emitters, brackets, couplers, goof plugs (my personal favorite) – and gave me a thorough tutorial on how to assemble the bits and pieces into a working system.  It’s a bit like a tinker toy operation.  The parts are designed to fit together, snap in place, and be flexibly positioned so that each plant has its own wee stream of water delivered right to its root ball.

Paper plan.

Paper plan.

Liz had carefully assembled all of the components of a productive teaching and learning experience for me.  She would explain, demonstrate, and give me resources – then I would be on my own for the ultimate assessment – a properly installed system.  I listened carefully to Liz’s “lecture”, watched her as she “demonstrated”, consulted the overall irrigation paper plan (“textbook”), and felt confident in my ability to complete the job.

Sound familiar?  Bet you know where I’m going with this.

Two days later, we set out to install the thing. It quickly became apparent that this was going to be harder than I’d thought.  There were elements that weren’t covered in my “lesson”, nuances to the execution that were eluding me. For one thing, the black, mainline hose turned into a serpent creature, taking on unforetold behaviors, roiling in unexpected directions and just generally being a pain in the ass. Furthermore, in what order should we work – should I lay out the hose first, stake it down, and then punch holes for the emitters?  Or is it better to install each emitter as you worked, laying out the hose in small segments? Complicating the whole enterprise was the fact that the “punch and insert” action required to add the emitters was extremely difficult – first, you have to get the hole just right (straight on, not at an angle) and then, when you push in the emitter, the hose sort of collapses on you, failing in the face of all that pressure and pushing (I distinctly heard it mocking me).  What’s more, everything has a proper orientation that must be remembered – right side in, path of water to plant, uphill versus downhill. What had, at first, sounded like a pretty straight-up affair was quickly turning into a Herculian task that I felt less and less qualified to complete. My fingers and hands fatigued quickly and we opted for a tag-team approach, I’d punch the hole, my husband would come along behind and land the emitter (later, it became apparent that was a very bad plan).

By hook or by crook, we finished the first half of the system and decided to call it a day.  Not only were we both wiped out, I thought it wise to ask Liz to review our work, just to make sure we were on track, before starting the second half.

When she arrived to check out our progress, I could tell by the look on her face that our performance had not met the grade. We failed the assessment. In fact, we were destined for remedial work. In addition to improper hose placement, incorrect distances (emitter to plant) we had installed every single emitter backwards. Yup, you heard me, backwards.

Good grief.  Ok, let’s just review for a minute.  Liz had done everything that a teacher should do with a naive student:

1.  Explanation. She explained the content, using language the learner understood, giving clear examples, making helpful analogies.

2.  Demonstrate.  She demonstrated the method for me, then had me do one with her watching (“watch one, do one”).

3.  Reference.  She left me with a detailed description in print for reference, should I need it.

So, what went wrong?  A dissection of this mess-up is kind of interesting, actually (that is, when I can get over the humiliation of being so colossally mistaken).  First, let’s take a look at the emitter:

Drip system emitter.

Drip system emitter.

Liz’s description was to insert the red side into the hose and the black side would face out.  Couldn’t be easier, right? Not only that, but if you look at the structure of the beast, you can clearly see that the red side is fashioned to accept the water flow and the black side is crafted to “emit” water. But somehow, I got it in my head that the black side would go in to the mainline hose …it matched with the black of the hose, it made a continuous color whole, whatever.  That was the model I had in my head.  And even though she left me a correctly completed example and it was written down on the printed irrigation plan (in words, not pictures, I should point out), my misconception was firmly established and I proceeded to install each and every emitter with the black side in and the red side out. Wow.

I suspect that a picture might have made a difference for me.  Either a photograph or a colored diagram, showing insert A to B here, in this way.  Why the actual physical model of a properly completed one didn’t serve that purpose completely baffles me.

It’s also worth taking a moment to ponder why I didn’t more carefully scrutinize the structure of the emitter itself. If I’d studied its functional design and reasoned my way toward a complete understanding of why the red side goes in, I suspect that would have helped. I suspect that understanding the orientation – as opposed to memorizing the color scheme in a garanimals approach – might have worked. But it did not occur to me to do that. Does that have to do with my lack of experience in building/assembling? Or is is a lack of native how-to sensibility?

What’s more, I suspect the number of details to keep track of got in the way; as if my brain could only hold onto so much information and just plowed ahead with its own managerial method. As we worked the logic of my approach felt more and more rationalized.  Of course, this is the way to do it!

Interestingly, when Liz came to inspect the work, undoubtedly taking pity on us, she stayed for the rest of the morning and we finished the remaining circuit all together. This allowed lots of ongoing observation and regular check ins.  “Do you mean, like this?”  “How deep exactly should the hose be buried?”  “Where do you put your thumb when you punch the hole?” The opportunity to watch her in action over a sustained period made a significant difference – wrestling with the main line hose, tapping in the brackets, how she kept her tools nearby, the way she positioned her body in relation to the hose when punching the emitter hole. I gained a much deeper and more practical insight into the proper method, not to mention the hard-to-explain-in-words nuances of the approach. It also allowed me to ask context-specific questions and get the answers when I needed them.

So, bottom line, our little exercise in irrigation underscores a couple of important education reminders:

  • Pictures really make a difference.
  • We hang onto our misconceptions with a death-grip.
  • The apprentice model really works.

Now.  If I can just remember….red in.  black out.

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Learning Feels Different

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI grew up surrounded by music teachers. My mother was a piano teacher and her father, my grandfather, taught violin, guitar, and piano. They both taught students in their living quarters so my own home and my grandparent-visits were woven through with the sounds and sights of music lessons. The line up of nervous children waiting their turn, the dissonant sound of songs not quite mastered, the ritual tones of fitful tuning, the repetition and nervous laughter. If you’ve ever heard “Tuna Fish” pounded out on the piano keyboard by a well-meaning eight-year-old, well, you’ll know just what I mean.

Though I lacked the native talent of my matriarchal lineage, growing up without learning to play an instrument just wasn’t an option. I started with the piano, but my instrument of choice was guitar. I learned mostly by imitating others and through sporadic lessons. Once I’d left home my guitar stayed with me but it mostly hung out under my bed, collecting dust. Occasionally I’d feel the itch to play, pick it up and quickly put it back when I realized how rusty I’d become and how little I remembered.

Recently I decided to pick up the thread. By luck I found a very good guitar teacher, Wayne Anderson, who is a perfect match to my ambition (gentle, non-intimidating, and relaxed). We meet once a week for 30 minutes.

It didn’t take long for it to feel familiar again – the comfort of the instrument’s wooden swell on my lap, the companionship of working a pattern out in my head, and the dull ache on the fingertips of my left hand.

But what was completely unfamiliar and a delightful surprise is how guitar teaching has changed.  Wayne’s approach to my lessons, as facilitated by digital tools, is a completely different animal to the way my mother and my grandfather taught.

Pitch Lab's tuner screen shot.

Pitch Lab’s tuner screen shot.

The differences begin with the most commonplace of lesson openers – tuning the instrument. Wayne introduced me to a number of apps for my iPhone. After looking them over, I downloaded a free, easy-to-use app from Pitch Labs. Flawless, no-sweat tuning, every time.

Next up, there are no books. Gone are the color-coded Schwann’s piano books, clutched nervously in sweaty fingers with scribbled annotations in the margins as the lesson proceeds. Wayne has a laptop and printer in our small cubicle of a practice room. When we’re working on a new piece, he finds the guitar tabs or sheet music online and prints it out for me. Voila.

As we work together to figure out the piece, assess the timing, and decipher the picking technique he searches for a YouTube video of the song, as played by the songwriter. Bob Dylan, Antje Duvekot, Leonard Cohen, the Avett Brothers, and Joan Baez regularly visit my practice cubicle.

When we’re working on a particularly tricky element we make use of the recording option on my cell phone. Last week, for example, I was struggling with Travis picking. After many failed attempts, I was finally getting it. Wayne gestured to my phone, suggesting I might want to capture this, while the going was good. I propped the phone up on the music stand, pressed record, and did my bit. Back at home, practicing, if I fumbled (which I did regularly), I could just pull out my phone and hear myself picking the right way. I can also recorded Wayne playing and, and in so doing, take my teacher home with me.

On my own I’ve found countless (and I mean thousands and thousands) of excellent instructional videos.  Really good guitar teachers, showing you step-by-step, how to play non-trivial songs on the guitar like Blackbird or Freight Train (seriously, do a search). Often the video production values are so good they’ll show you the right and left hand on a split screen or the musical tabbing along with playing top-to-bottom. Videos are, of course, endlessly patient. I play, stop, rewind, and fast-forward them as needed.

My teacher also makes use of software called Scorch as a teaching device. He bought the software, I have the free plug-in. Wayne will create a scorch file from a piece of sheet music and share it with me. With my plug-in, I can play the song on my laptop and control the speed, slowing it down to match my learner’s pace, and play along with it. Huge.

I haven’t even touched on the various ways to record tracks, edit sound recordings, and write music (I’m so not there yet), but even at my amateur state I can see that teaching and learning music has fundamentally changed.

 

 

 

 

 

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Reflections on #FutureEd

FutureEd

FutureEd

Week #6 brings the end of the History and Future of Mostly Higher Education MOOC (#FutureEd). Time for reflection on what I’ve learned as well as the experience of the course itself (since that was part of the mission).

First, a few facts.  This was a free, six-week course, offered on the Coursera platform, requiring 2-4 hours of work per week.  Cathy Davidson, Duke University, was the instructor.  The course was open to anyone interested in the topic to take asynchronously, but there also were three physical locations where the course took place synchronously.  The axis of the course was a series of videos (4 – 6 of them per week) featuring Cathy Davidson, sharing her insights about education, interviewing other experts, and talking with other faculty. In addition to the videos, there were forums for discussion, quizzes, and small (optional) assignments.  There was a “certificate” option for the course, which I did not take.

My participation in the course was fairly typical – I was there for the duration, but didn’t do the assignments.  I kept up with the course’s pace, watched all of the videos, dipped into the forums, but I did not take any of the quizzes nor did I complete the assignments.  I’m sure I would have gotten much more out of the course if I had but, even without that more robust involvement, I still got a lot and I’m very glad for the experience.

The most interesting content insights for me…

  • The importance of knowing and using history purposively (what did we do in the past, and why)
  • Unlearning (our preconceptions about how things “have to happen” and how difficult it is to shake old habits, be open to new ideas and new solutions)
  • Value in alliances with other change makers (innovation is happening all around us – listen, learn and share)
  • The importance of experimentation (the more novel approaches we try, the more likely we are to find ideas that work)
  • There is value in what we count and we count what we value (interesting reflections on assessment)
Coursera Forum for the course.

Coursera Forum for the course.

As for the mechanics of the course, as with other MOOCs I’ve taken, it is a challenge to find community within the great expanse of an asynchronous MOOC.  Although I visited the online forums each week, it felt like looking for a needle in a haystack (no pun intended…).  There was just so much to wade through…and many of the comments and stories just weren’t relevant to me. Stephen Downes and George Siemens make good use of newsletters in their Connectivism MOOCs. They send out daily newsletters (via email) that serve as brief summaries, each with a curated list of things to read or watch. Downes and Siemens aggregate and sift, then share what they deem the most relevant and interesting blog posts, tweets, images, videos, and recordings made by the course participants.

It’s all about harvesting distributed information. To that end, Downes developed gRSShopper (see the “RSS” in the middle there?) to do this. It works to harvest links from given feeds (having established metadata tags in advance) and compile them. This solves the problem of the need for centralization (for sanity’s sake) in a learning environment that hopes to maintain and leverage a distributed network (!). People prefer to write in their own environments (not on a Moodle discussion board or a Coursera Forum), but something like gRSShopper pulls it all together to connect the learners. An idea that #FutureEd could have used. Stephen Downes says it well, “…connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore, that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks.”

FutureEd_001

FutureEd Meeting in Second Life

One obvious path toward making such a BIG course feel more intimate and personal is to form a small group – a study or discussion group consisting of fellow travelers who share a common interest in the course. A number of small FutureEd groups formed during the run of the course – on Facebook, through Twitter, and a few who were geographically close met in person. Liz Dorland and I formed such a group and blogged about it here. We were a small, but intrepid, group who met weekly in the virtual world of Second Life for an hour to discuss and share. We probably could have done a better job of organizing the group, encouraging the members to come regularly, and perhaps we could have worked together to build artifacts of our learning – but it was a good start.  Liz Dorland said it well when she said, “I’m sure we could do it better the next time we go through the course!” (one more time, Cathy?)

Our group would have benefitted from some guidance and support from FutureEd’s teaching hub. I wonder if, in future versions of the course, Cathy Davidson might recruit a small army of teaching assistant-type volunteers (I’m sure many would be happy to help). With a little advance preparation and training, these volunteers could fan out to provide mentoring for the myriad small groups organically forming in a course like this. As Dan Lynch, founder of Interop and former director of computing facilities at SRI International, wrote, “The most useful impact is the ability to connect people. From that, everything flows.”

Week #5, the most useful week in the course for me, provided an object lesson in getting the most from these online experiences. Innovation in Pedagogy and Assessment was the week-five overarching topic; we took a look at digital badging systems as an example of a novel way to think about assessment.  Interestingly, one of the reasons that this turned out to be my most useful week was due to an unintended accident. Cathy had interviewed Connie Yowell, the Education Director for the MacArthur Foundation (and an expert on digital badging). Some disaster befell that interview video and, as a substitute, the course directed us to an alternate video (of Connie Yowell speaking at a conference) as well as other links and resources on the HASTAC site.  Those directed explorations yielded a rich harvest for me. I watched, read, explored, reflected and then blogged about it.  By far the most rewarding week and all because I invested more time – more of myself – to investigate, read and connect. Duh, right?

It was a terrific course – thoughtfully put together, well-organized, and welcome range of jumping off points to investigate and connect. Thank you, Cathy Davidson, and the whole team “behind the camera”.

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“Badges? We Ain’t Got No Badges…”

"Badges?  ...Badges?"

“Badges? …Badges?”

Unlike the bandits in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, it looks maybe we do need some badges.

Girl Scout sash.

Girl Scout sash.

Week #5 of the History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education MOOC focused on innovations in pedagogy and assessment.  As part of our study this week, we learned about the use of badges in education  – and I’ve been thinking about them ever since.  I have very fond memories of the badges I earned as a Brownie and a Girl Scout.  There was a well-worn Girl Scout Manual, listing each of the possible badges one might earn (one badge per page) along with a description of what had to be done to earn them.  Each badge entailed arriving at clear evidence of your mastery and many of the them involved a fairly complex project – building, creating, collaborating.  Once awarded, the small, circular, cloth badges were sown onto your sash (thanks, Mom) so that you could wear them with pride. When meeting a fellow girl scout for the first time you could instantly find points of connection – “oh, so you’re a swimmer…”  or ” you play the piano!” I have a distinct memory of the point at which the number of badges I’d earned meant that my mother had to start sewing them onto the back side of the sash. Some girls had to wear two sashes, like Pancho Villa, to display their collection (I never got there).

But what about badges in education? They’ve been used in gaming and online spaces for awhile now but what if we devised a system of digital badges for learning?  As Connie Yowell, Director of Education at MacArthur Foundation, puts it, digital badges are image files with “stuff” in them. A validated indicator of accomplishment. Tokens of trust. If you earn a digital badge, anyone could open it to find out what you did to deserve it. One could examine the metadata associated with the badge as well as the products and artifacts created by the badge-earner. This suggests a way to clearly and systematically communicate one’s abilities and accomplishments with media-rich, tiled portfolios.

In an educational setting badges could be awarded for knowledge as well as skills. Something you earn along the way of getting better at something larger. Since badges are smaller in scope than a certificate, a badging system gives us an opportunity to break assessment down into smaller (more meaningful? formative?) chunks. Perhaps bringing the assessment closer to actual the learning?

In order to make the badges meaningful, a given education community would have to agree on what’s required to earn a badge.  I could imagine some very interesting decisions coming out of such conversations in school districts and colleges.  What badges could be earned?  How would you break down a general chemistry course into a series of badges?  Who decides when the badge has been earned? What is the relationship between badges and credentials, degrees, grades? How does the definition of the badges alter the way we structure the learning? It would have to be a rigorous system, grounded in the values of the institution and reflection of the learning objectives that drives their curriculum.

As one substantial step in the right direction, the folks at Mozilla have developed Open Badging to provide a shared infrastructure (software and open technical standards) for creating and sharing badges across the web. Earned badges could be displayed on your web page, your social media profile, your cell phone, your online portfolio, your email signature line.

So, where to get more information? The MacArthur Foundation has led the way with careful thought and funding so their site on digital badges is worth a visit.  Cathy Davidson has proposed using a badging system to facilitate peer group feedback in this HASTAC post.  Carla Casilli talks about badge pathways in this post on her blog about badge system design (that’s her image in the figure below). UC Davis has devised a badging system for their new undergraduate major in sustainable agriculture and food. Purdue University has devised the Purdue Passport Program, currently in beta – a way to “show what you know”. Educause recently published one of its helpfully succinct “7 Things You Should Know” documents on Badging.

I am warmed by the implied message here that education happens in many different places and forms; that learning happens in a vast range of places  – after school programs, online, in the home, mentoring programs, internships, study abroad programs, and on the job.  Formal and informal. And isn’t it interesting to consider that the process of earning a badge would give the student a language around their learning, a way to meaningfully talk about what they did, thought, and experienced?

Here’s another intriguing thing to consider –  the concept of the badge as a pathway –  a sort of breadcrumb trail to show others how you got there and, presumably, how to follow you. Badges could work to make learning visible in a way that a diploma or your GPA just doesn’t.  What does an “A” in Geography 101 at Bowling Green State University mean anyway? When you think about it, your diploma or your certificate says more about the institution you attended than it does about you.  A badging system would give you an opportunity to tell the story of your education.

Bade pathways. (Image courtesy of Carla Castilli)

Bade pathways. (Image courtesy of Carla Castilli)

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