Paper packages tied up with string

Yeah I went there. Not even sorry.

Lately I’ve been musing on adaptive learning. I’m not going to talk about the Moodle lesson module, which I have a long illustrious history in hating, or proprietary solutions like Smart Sparrow or anything Adobe branded, which I also have a long illustrious history in hating. The latter are useless when you have budget and resourcing constraints. The former is just an infuriating UX.

I’ve never been big on adaptive learning as driven by education, because generally games do it way better than we ever do when we’re focused on the outcomes rather than the experience. But since personalisation is the newest buzzword on the edublock (or I may just be late to the party, one or the other), one can’t ignore it forever.

What to do? Well if games are doing it better than we are, may as well game engine it up.

Twine is all my favourite things – free, open source, platform agnostic, lightweight, spits out html and full of retro nostalgia for text-based choose your own adventure games. Another instance of me being late to the party since it’s been around for years, but it’s not really me if I’m not flogging old horses for new tricks now is it.

The main benefit for me of Twine is that it has a visual node based backend. Which for people like me who struggle with the visualisation of adaptive and branched things makes life very easier because you have a built-in map of all the various nodes and branches.

Look at all the nodes. Look at them.

So what am I actually doing with this?

Let’s say you’re Ed. Let’s say you’re sick of wasting time telling students how to navigate the dumpster fire of a uni website to locate the fact sheets and resources they need. Let’s say that you’d rather just give students a resource pack and get on with developing more valuable skills. How do you create a customised resource pack based on different study paths of students, whilst also giving students some agency in telling their own study stories?

So I’ve been experimenting with hanging fact sheets, policies and links off various nodes, which allows students to navigate through and answer various questions to build their own starter resource pack based on their journey to study, enrolment path, need for support etc etc. It’s not an elegant solution because it doesn’t automatically generate a zip file at the end or anything and unless you get hardcore CSS-ey the interface is very 1980s text-based choose-your-own-adventure game, but that does hold a certain level of appeal for me. It does, however, allow for very rapid development with no need for budget or resources (theme song for my life).

Whether it ends up being an ultimately usable solution remains to be seen, but Twine is definitely staying on my radar of neat free tools to pull out when the situation warrants.


Front-ending student generated content in WP: A story slightly more exciting than that title suggests

If you’ve been paying attention to my work for any period of time you’ll be aware that me working on student-generated/collaborative content in WordPress is nothing new. But when I started doing this years back, I was using a centrally-administered WP install over which I had no admin rights and no ability to customise. Which meant creating student accounts, teaching them how to use the back end of WP to post content, and a whole bunch of compromises. Ultimately it worked and many good things happened but it was a PITA and huge time sink and ultimately not particularly sustainable or scalable.

Fast forward several years after I’d gone more cowboy and learned how to be my own sysadmin, I can run pretty much whatever I need to now off my own rogue hosting. I once again was approached about making some kind of *thing* where students generate all the content. In this case, a collaborative database for maritime archaeology fieldwork. Moodle database tool was immediately voted off the island for being boring, inflexible and both temporally and physically locked. Plus it just looks a bit crap. Sorry Moodle. I naturally then turned to WP, but recalling the pain of managing student logins and training last time, and the knowledge this time that when you go cowboy, you’re the only support you’ve got, getting students to use WP in the standard way didn’t really seem viable.

Enter WP User Frontend Pro (standard version is free if you don’t need the extra features, I needed gmaps and pagination and things so actually spent some money for once). Not the only plugin around that allows people to post content from the front end of course, but this one works well and served my particular needs. This allows students to create posts via a standard (well, conceptually standard, fields are custom) web form served on the front end, no need to log in or learn the WP admin interface. Now admittedly I’m working behind password protection atm so I’m not sure how hard this gets hit by spambots in practice, but that’s a bridge crossed easily enough later. Ultimately I’d rather have to slay some bots than provide bespoke tech support to a whole cohort. At any rate the form works nicely and the pro version allows you to get quite complex in the number and type of fields you use.

Now that the ability for students to post from the front end with no special knowledge or logins is go, the further question is – how much control do we want to give students over metadata and taxonomies, given it’s supposed to be kind of proper database-y and will have potentially 300 entries? Folksonomies giveth, and yet folksonomies with 300 misspelled and typoed tags that are conceptual duplicates taketh away. Asking students to enter post tags manually seemed like a slightly bad idea. Enter custom taxonomies. Again, a number of plugins exist that can do this job, I’m using Custom Post Type UI. A couple of hours* with a cup of coffee and some data entry later, you can have a whole host of custom taxonomies to play with. And both plugins play very nicely together so you can then ask students to categorise their posts in multiple and flexible ways using finite dropdowns or checkboxes instead of free text input. The end result of which is a really robust structure that allows eventual public visitors to explore and filter the content in multiple ways, and also makes export of content to other systems (if necessary) more effective.

This particular project is still only at proof of concept stage and won’t run with actual students for another month or so, but I’m hoping this setup will really streamline the experience of student-generated bodies of work, not only in terms of student UX but my own workload and sustainability and scalability.

*Probably won’t take you that long if you don’t have 200 different kinds of boats to enter.

Badge literacy: a field guide

Following on in my thinking about badges, Colin’s comment re: badge literacy on my last post deserves some exploration. Little graphics that you stick on some website somewhere are a hard sell to a university, because:

1. Boy Scouts. The actual concept is identical and the niche for this type of credential is identical but the association of nine year olds in funny hats sewing patches on their shirts is not doing us any favours.

2. Gamification. The idea that you can bribe students to do things with cutesy digital carrots is also not doing us any favours.

3. Related: academics are generally allergic to anything that is not dripping with rigour.

4. The buzzword bingo keynoter set who like to simultaneously hype and fearmonger badges under the guise of ‘future’.

5. Anything that involves new technology generally sounds bad, because generally universities have a history of implementing new technology badly.

In short, badges suffer more than their fair share of bad press. And as such, the idea that “badges have the potential to support by surfacing the less-obvious learning that is often hidden due to the focus on grades and transcripts” sounds fairly implausible.

So how do we sell it? In my completely anecdotal experience, people generally fall into three camps regarding badges – the Boy Scout set, the fence sitter set and the gamification set; dismissal, ambivalence or poor fit for use. Which tends to be a recursive loop of doom; the more the Boy Scout set see flippant, gamified use of badges, the more they are dismissed as trivial and gimmicky and the more ambivalent the fence sitters become.

All of these groups have somewhat disparate needs in regards to raising badge literacy; here is my quick and dirty field guide.

Badge literacy for Boy Scouters

Clearly identified use cases

Clear identification of the niche that badges fill and the current problems exist that badge implementation may help solve

Badge graphics that look ‘serious’

A badge that looks cutesy or gimmicky or uses poor graphic design will only damage perception of badges further

Scholarly evidence

Evidence to support the notion that badges and microcredentialling are not passing fads and executive whimsy. Actual policy a bonus.

Concrete examples (either theoretical or best practice from other institutions)

Demonstration of the process in practice, ideally from someone who has already done it because people like the word ‘leading’ in theory but in practice nobody wants to be the first institution to do crazy things.

Badge literacy for Gamifiers

Clearly identified use cases

Clear identification of the niche that badges fill and the current problems exist that badge implementation may help solve, as separate from superficial learner engagement and motivation

Emphasis on ‘big picture’ (professional portfolio usage, context, durability etc)

Awareness of where badges sit as part of an individual’s overall portfolio and knowledge of the intended audiences to put individual badges in context

Reputational awareness

Awareness of the implications of public-facing badges and how media and research coverage of badge use will reflect on them and their institution

Alternate strategies for motivating learners

Since an already-identified need for learner motivation exists, this group needs alternate strategies to address this need that do not require the use of badges

Badge literacy for Fence Sitters

Clearly identified use cases

Clear identification of the niche that badges fill and the current problems exist that badge implementation may help solve

Assurance of technical stability and ease of use

People get very tired very quickly of yet another system that’s going to be hard to use, break a lot, and probably be superseded in a couple of years.

Compelling arguments

Mostly a combination of items from the previous two groups. Shiny powerpoints optional.

Obviously this is by no means exhaustive, but it’s something to chew on while sitting in red tape purgatory.

Implementing badges 1: adventures in drop shadows

I haven’t been particularly forthcoming about what I’ve been working on in the last year or so, because reasons. But since 2015 is the self-declared year of damn the man, here we are. What I’ve been working on recently is a proposal for the implementation of OpenBadges. Since Moodle now comes with a nice but rather full of implications little button to turn badges on, and since with great power comes great responsibility etc etc, it seems like somebody should be doing something about it. Turns out for here that that person is me.

Since in the recent past we have been burned by merrily jumping on buzzword bandwagons without a whole lot of consideration, badge implementation needed a bit of thought behind it. And while I’m generally a fan of the cowboy forgiveness not permission approach on an individual level, I tend to agree with the need to not go off half-cocked institutionally. And so, documentation. The proposal itself is fairly dry and written for a lay audience, but the key part of it of interest here is the development of a badge taxonomy.

Why a taxonomy, you say? Because if left to their own devices, people tend to jump straight to gamification and start using badges to entice students to participate in discussion forums. Which I have many feels about. Badges really have their niche in making the stuff that’s not visible, visible, not in adding bribery layers under the guise of gamifying. I’ve nutted this out a few times before, but TL;DR gamification bad, microcredentialling good. A taxonomy gives those who are none the wiser and those who read the gamification marketing guff and the ‘watch out universities badges will kill you’ hype something to work with to develop their own understanding of what badges can be and how they might work in their own context.

Since every good taxonomy must have an Office-style crime against visual design (and everyone needs a nice printable *thing* for their wall and it’s nicer to look at than the written taxonomy table), the following is what I’ve come up with.

OpenBadge taxonomy

A veritable cornucopia of drop shadows and gradients, and a very rough translation of Halavais’ genealogy of badges into usable higher education terms. The colour codes are a nod to @catspyjamasnz’s Moodle tool guide (getting rather vintage these days)  ‘good thing to do, not great thing to do unless you design it well, seriously don’t do that’ system. The guiding principle was essentially ‘what’s going to be relevant in a portfolio (backpack) for future employers etc?’. Nobody is going to care that you wrote 6 discussion forum posts in a literature unit 5 years ago – but people will care that you have demonstrated effective communication skills.

Staff use is only one side of the story. A significant issue with badges is one of their largest target demographics is students, who often to subscribe to the marketing hype and think of them as gimmicky, non-serious things more akin to the stickers kids get for good work (do they still get stickers? Is that still a thing?). How does one go about changing this perception? Student-facing taxonomy? Bludgeon? Cross our fingers and hope? I’ve learned from past projects that students don’t respond well to a service created for a need they don’t realise exists. Perhaps even harder to convince are the professional learning set, academics who decry anything perceived to lack rigour. Currently filed in the ‘deal with it later’ basket, given people want to start using badges now and not after the wicked problems have been solved.

Stay tuned for further adventures once we actually press the button and start using badges…

On screen

My toddler has her own iPad.

Quelle horreur.

I don’t normally write about parenting on here (although I have certainly been tempted; lack of critical thinking is just as pervasive in parenting as it is in education) but this one is somewhat relevant. You can be in the edtech community or be a parent or really anyone at all and constantly see ridiculous articles like this one doing the rounds. Technology for children, especially young children, is bad, screen time is bad, even when technology is good it’s bad if it’s used below a certain age. And parents who allow their children to use technology just use it as a babysitter to compensate for their poor parenting skills. Right?

That sound you hear is absolutely no one ever being surprised that I beg to differ.

Hannah is 20 months old and has had her own iPad for maybe 6 months now. It’s an old iPad 2 of ours, but it is hers alone and nobody else uses it. This was a very conscious decision. But forget the ‘kid using fisher price app on mum’s iPhone in public to shut them up’ trope, that’s not how we roll. Two fairly contentious points:

1. We do not restrict her access to it. She chooses how and when and how often to use it. Some days it’s a lot. We don’t limit it. It’s not a reward for anything else, it’s not a bribe, it’s not something to be taken away as punishment. It is hers to use as she sees fit, and to self-regulate her own use of it. And yes, before you ask, a 20-month-old is fully capable of making such decisions, even if they don’t look like we think they should.

2. There are no “kid” apps on her iPad. Ok I lied, there is one Hairy Maclary ebook thing, and iView has the child filter set*. But other than that, she uses ‘big people apps’. When she draws, it’s not in an insipid colouring in app, it’s in Paper by 53. When she wants to make noise it’s in Bloom or Pianist Pro or Garageband, not Giggle Gang. She “plays” Angry Birds. There is no reason to ‘dumb down’ the intellectual scope of what children engage with (obviously within appropriate parameters).

So what does this mean? Articles such as the one I linked above would have you believe that I have a violent, developmentally delayed obese child. Instead I have an intelligent, creative, empathetic and gentle normal weight child with fairly complex problem solving skills and an astonishing vocabulary. I realise that a sample size of one is statistically invalid, but so few people (if any) actually approach technology use this way there are not many opportunities to extrapolate more widely. I watch my toddler teaching herself how to navigate and use features, solving problems,  making active choices on what show and for how long she wants to watch, making some pretty awesome art and music, and I question strongly a culture that demonises this yet endorses the passive consumption of children’s television (most of which is either ridiculously patronising or clearly the result of an acid trip – seriously, In the Night Garden, wtf even is that??).

I don’t do it to be contentious, or because I like technology, or to “prepare her for [school/real world/zombie apocalypse]”. I do it because I’m not content to raise a passive consumer. I do it because critical thinking, exploration, problem-solving and self-directed learning are conspicuously absent from most of society. I do it because it’s only fair to let her engage in behaviours I model. And I do it because she loves it**. To forgo all of this on the basis of impassioned misinformation is incomprehensible to me, but until mainstream thinking changes it will be a long haul in the cowboy corner.

*Everyone thinks this is so she doesn’t see inappropriate content. It’s actually so she doesn’t get prematurely disillusioned at the state of the world by watching too much Q&A.

**Ok fine, maybe I like watching Charlie and Lola, a little bit.

Exploring badge plugins – WP & Moodle comparisons

As promised, this post is just intended to give a quick, rough comparison of the WordPress badge plugins I’ve explored and Moodle openbadge functionality. It’s mostly for my own benefit and isn’t intended to be any kind of comprehensive review.


If you don’t want to dump any cash, as far as I can tell there are three main plugins for issuing badges in WordPress: WPBadger, BadgeOS and Achievements for WordPress.


This is the ‘official’ Mozilla one that issues OpenBadges. In terms of functionality this plugin probably has the least – you create a badge and award it manually. It’s simple and lightweight but has no ability to automate issuing badges (although this plugin offers a couple of simple options). It does, however, issue Mozilla badges which integrate with the backpack, which is probably the strongest point in its favour. It’s an odd balance between the most widely acknowledged badges and the least functionality.


This is a nice, more fully featured plugin that has automated issuing functionality. It has more of a gamification slant as it has options for quests and levels, and it has a fairly nice suite of add-ons available, although not all are free. It issues badges via Credly, which does talk to your Mozilla backpack but it’s another step of remove. It’s probably the most polished of the three.

Achievements for WordPress

This, to me, is the most fully featured and exciting plugin. It still takes a more gamification slant, with points and challenges functions, but it talks to other WP plugins to offer far more options for unlocking achievements. It talks to Buddypress, Buddypress Courseware (a free LMS plugin) and WordPress eCommerce (which happens to be the ecommerce platform Coffeecourses uses). The list of available actions that trigger automated issue is still a little simplistic for my liking, but it’s still a wider feature set than the other two plugins above offer. However (and this is a fairly significant caveat), the badges appear to be standalone rather than integrating with a service like OpenBadges or Credly. Which is an issue if you are working with another system that does support these services and you want your badges to be universal and portable.


OpenBadges functionality is integrated in Moodle 2.5 (docs here). As we’re still running 2.3 and I haven’t got round to updating my own rogue Moodle yet, I haven’t had a chance to play yet but from what I can see the implementation is fairly robust and flexible. The badges module integrates with conditional release and activity completion, which means that you have a fairly wide range of options to issue badges. Issuing is automated and administered quite well. You’re also able to issue badges at both the course and site level, which means you can do macrocredentialling (is that even a word??) as well as microcredentialling. For my money, which is none given this whole post is about free and open-source stuff, Moodle is currently the best option for working with OpenBadges in education. Unfortunately it’s not the best option for the things I’ve got set up that I want to issue badges. But in general, Moodle’s badge implementation has a much stronger focus on credentialling rather than gamification/engagement.



Engagement layers vs microcredentialling

Further to my previous post, I’ve finally had some time to look more closely into openbadges integration. What I’m discovering is that from a WordPress point of view, badges are still largely thought of as an engagement layer – a somewhat superficial achievement set to motivate users to engage with your content. What gives this away is the fact that  the only automated award options across any of the plugins I’ve looked at (will try and do a comparison in another post given there’s not really anything around on that) is based on basic engagement actions like logging in or posting a comment (unless you’re running Buddypress Courseware – but I don’t, that’s naughty even for me :D). You aren’t able to automate awards triggered by any interaction deeper than that – for instance, posting a comment on a specific post. You still have the option for manual awarding of badges for whatever you like but if we want to tick the buzzword boxes like ‘scalable’ it’s not really a viable option. Now perhaps for the gamification set this is sufficient, for the purposes of trying to increase student engagement in a simple quantifiable sense (ie avoiding tumbleweeds), but if my goal is to use badges for microcredentialling professional development the available plugins (at least, the free ones) aren’t quite there yet.

Which leads me to the fact that I may have to eat my words, a little bit, because the implementation of openbadges in Moodle 2.5 is much more sophisticated in this regard, and I suspect this will be what draws me back to doing cool stuff in Moodle again. Because Moodle 2.x has a fairly good conditional release and activity completion set, the options for automated issuing of badges are much richer and more targeted. Badges in Moodle appear to be implemented specifically for microcredentialling, with engagement layers and gamification likely to be an afterthought that gets exploited, coming to a teaching and learning conference near you.

So why do I care about the difference? After all, aren’t I the person who gamified Moodle (sigh)? I have no interest in an arbitrary feature set that exists solely for the purposes of bribing people to participate with pretty coloured gifs. But – I have a real use for something that lets me track completion of a course or event and give some sort of recognition to people for that completion, given that we’re unable to offer “proper” credit points and we have a PD requirement for new staff. As @ghenrick points out, “if a resumé or CV is a bunch of claims, Open Badges are a bunch of evidence”. This is the real strength of openbadges, and it’s why you need a slightly richer feature set than just ‘log in and engage with my site in some way’. And this is where my appropriation rant falls down, because the non-edu world, being largely unconcerned with credentialling in general, just hasn’t quite got past the engagement layer with badges yet. I’m not quite sure where this leaves me given Coffeecourses is in WordPress and not really portable into Moodle, but I’ll stick a category on this train of thought and you can follow my progress.