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…

The problem with educational design (+ the WDC)

Once upon a time, I was a teacher. Probably quite a few (most?) of you reading either were or are as well. And while teaching is a varied and movable feast of a profession, one thing can be taken more or less for granted, and that is that pretty much every day for at least part of it, you will be teaching. You’re a teacher, you do teaching, simple, no?

Nowadays I do something rather intangibly named ‘academic development’, and I’ve just been seconded into a gig on a SAF-funded project titled ‘educational design’ (all part of the same semantic quagmire). However, if we follow the same nomenclature logic as teaching, the profession should actually be called ‘A bunch of meetings, planning and administration, some testing, making Moodle quizzes for people and sometimes you might get to go to a conference’.

The problem with educational design is that we spend so little time actually designing education.

I am well aware that higher education throws up quite a lot more red tape than K12 education, but most of the time universities are in danger of project managing themselves into the ground. There’s an awful lot of talking about deliverables that sound like doing something, cf actually doing something, and very little abounds that really looks like innovation. So – as an antidote to this, I’ve just tossed up a Weekly Design Challenge project, in which for an hour or so each week we tackle a pedagogical design problem, in a sort of conceptual hackerspace.

Functionally it’s not dissimilar to the daily quest idea – a short repeated task that keeps your hand in and ups your skills and reputation. It also neatly solves the problem of being able to show something tangible when people ask ‘can we see an example of an innovative unit?’ (because when you tell people they have to innovate that’s invariably the first question they ask). It’s also not far removed from Google’s 20% time I suppose, although it’s depressing to think that we need to specifically allocate time to do the thing that’s in our job title.

Will it work? Who knows. But at least it’s doing something.


I’ve been a bit slack about getting this up here given it was a couple of weeks ago, but better late than never, yes? At any rate, SAFFIRE was a festival of innovation-y things and general pot-stirring hosted by UC as part of their SAF-funded initiatives. A few of us who are known for liking to poke the beehive (was in good company with @marksmithers, @type217 and @jonpowles) were invited to present on whatever tickled our fancy. My presentation focused on getting outside of the higher education echo chamber and taking some cues from the ways other places were approaching innovation. The annoying thing is that I presented by live-drawing some ‘slides’ using Screenchomp (an iOS app from the same guys who make Camtasia), but the sharing feature completely failed and now I can’t get at the recording at all to even screenshot some highlights for you. So instead, you get the non-visual Cliff’s notes version. Enjoy.

What if we thought like game designers?

Academia (and most forms of education really) have a rather insane reliance on the written and spoken word as method of delivery. But – if you look at games like Angry Birds, they manage to conduct the entire experience including all the necessary instruction without using a single word. Everything is visual. Would you be able to express the last thing you wrote (paper, topic notes etc) in a purely visual form?

For some inspiration from people who can, check out Dance Your Thesis:

What if we thought like product developers?

Let’s pretend that Apple, prior to bringing out the iPad, had asked people what they wanted in a tablet device. They probably would have said they wanted a nice physical keyboard, an input device, probably running a full OS etc. Et voilá, they have created the laptop. People didn’t know that they wanted a touch-only, mobile-OS, non-keyboard device until one came out. It was panned in initial reviews then promptly sold eleventy billion units.

However – the iPad didn’t happen overnight. In the late 80s and early 90s Apple brought out the Newton – a neat little brick of a tablet device that was stylus-only, and had cool things like a mobile OS, handwriting recognition and rudimentary bluetooth. People weren’t really ready for that kind of thing and it was a giant flop, getting axed entirely in the mid-late 90s. But rather than binning it entirely they developed it in the background until they could release something people were ready for at a more opportune time.

Conversely. In higher education we slavishly adhere to the student review process of units – units are judged almost solely on how they fare in the end-of-semester student reviews. Effectively, we keep asking our customers what they want, and what they want by and large looks rather like the type of education we’ve had all along. What we need to start doing is selling them on something they don’t even know they need yet and probably doesn’t look like anything they have a concept of. And if it fails, we need to stop shelving it and start tweaking, redesigning and reimplementing.

What if we thought like MacGyver?

Ah MacGyver. Paragon of mullets, purveyor of duct tape, the stuff of every good 80s woman’s dreams. MacGyver is a champion of kludging, cobbling together anything at hand with his ever-present duct tape to solve any problem he encountered. What he did not do, interestingly, is sit around making a whole bunch of feature requests on the duct tape, pushing them through user acceptance testing and hoping the duct tape would eventually turn into a boat or a bomb or whatever he needed.

We waste so much time in higher ed trying to make our LMSs into something else – if we just added this plugin or patched this or if this looked a bit more green then we could finally do something innovative. I call bollocks. I’m interested in what we can do with what we have at hand, in exactly the form it currently exists. We can already do some really innovative stuff, we just need to turn our approach on its head. There’s nothing stopping us from starting something now, today.

EDITED TO ADD: Several of the questions I fielded following this presentation were along the lines of ‘that’s well and good but how do you marry this with the restrictions lecturers face?’. My response is – someone has to not care about them. The restrictions and red tape are very real and limit a lot of what goes on, but if we all just throw our hands up in disgust and say nothing can be done we’ll never get anywhere. Somebody has to be the cowboy who says ‘bugger that, let’s do some stuff anyway’. May as well be me.

How sustainable is sustainable?

Last week I flirted with the idea of nominating for an OLT citation (ultimately, didn’t happen, didn’t get my institutional EOI in on time). What struck me, though, was the requirement that ‘your excellence be sustained over time’. Which means that any project you nominate has to have run for at least three years (two if you’re an ECR), and even that is reduced from last year’s four years.

Four years. Think about it.

Given where we are in terms of education and evolution I find this staggering. Four years ago we were talking about web 2.0 like it was hot stuff. Four years ago virtually nobody had a tablet device and smartphones were kind of optional. Four years ago there was no Minecraft or Instagram or Angry Birds or Kinect. Four years ago you were almost certainly using a different LMS, OERs were a bit meh, and almost nobody was MOOCing and if they were they probably weren’t calling it that. Given this rate of change, how can we justify keeping something exactly the same as it was four years ago?

In higher education we like to talk about sustainability. Generally this can be interpreted as ‘we’re going to throw a stupidly large amount of resources at a temporary project team to implement a flavour-of-the-month impressive-looking project and somehow we need this to exist after all our funding runs out’. Which, in theory, is good, if something is to exist long term it needs to be able to sustain itself sans enormous pots of money and time. But – at what point does longevity become detrimental? What if what we need isn’t sustainability at all, but adaptability?

When I think about my own work, I tend to classify anything that I was doing more than a year ago as old news, outdated or irrelevant and time to move on (which makes my career look a little like the Chinese calendar – the Year of The Moodle Dailies, the Year of Coffeecourses etc etc). The only project of mine that satisfied the criteria for the OLT citation was the Moodle Dailies (by the skin of its teeth, incidentally, and only because I’m classified as an ECR), and as I was writing the EOI it occurred to me how ‘old news’ it feels to me. A Twitter conversation with @catspyjamasnz on the Moodle Tool Guide showed I’m not the only one:

By getting caught up in the concept of sustainability and requiring ‘excellence to be sustained’ over multiple years, are we creating a bigger problem than we’re solving? I’m left wondering what will happen if we don’t acknowledge that adaptability and flexibility may trump longevity. Universities are already dangerously outdated in many ways – an obsession with sustainability may just tip us over into irrelevance.

Fire up the moocmobile, Jerry, we’re joining the bandwagon

So I’ve signed up for a MOOC (I’m still undecided at which point I’ll start decapitalising that acronym). Having thought for a while now that I should at least attempt a mooc (turns out that point is now) before whinging about the genre at large, since if there’s one thing that irks me it’s people either complaining about or advocating for something they haven’t experienced (conversations around games-based learning by people who refuse to game themselves, for instance). Now I am well aware there are moocs and then there are moocs (cMOOC/xMOOC distinction etc but I have very little patience for adjectival lettering these days), and for a couple of years now I’ve had half an eye on what, to me, are proper moocs – the #ds106s and #change11s of the world. Since I have no particular desire to point criticism in that direction it might seem a little misguided that the mooc I’ve signed up for is #cfhe12, a Siemens/Downes offering. However, I did spend some time last week trawling the likes of Coursera and I just couldn’t do it. Most of the courses had descriptions like this one:

The class consists of 1 to 2 hours of lecture each week, which are made up of videos that are generally shorter than 10 minutes each. Each video contains integrated quiz questions. There are also weekly standalone exercises that are not part of the video lectures and a (non-optional) final exam.

I’ve had enough lecture/quiz/exam/essay courses to last a lifetime, and I can’t bring myself to suffer another one just for the sake of confirming what I already suspect about mainstream moocs. End of last week I came across #cfhe12 via the twitterverse, which seemed a much better fit for how I do things, so here we are.

I feel like I should be up-front about my motivations for doing this, which are equal parts curiosity and street cred. I don’t intend to participate beyond dipping in and out and discussing the odd thing here and there with a bunch of people whose opinions I value, which conveniently is exactly the type of participation suggested. This is in stark contrast to most mainstream moocs which appear to be desperately asserting themselves as ‘traditional courses’ and hence talking about things like ‘attrition’. It strikes me that if you are going to take something that conceptually doesn’t scale well (traditional edu) and try and stick an M on it (‘massification’ is another trendy that’s coined itself lately and which also irks me to no end), you really have no room to complain about the M also applying itself to attrition rates.

Anyway. I’ve had some mixed feelings about #cfhe12 thus far. I like the deconstructed, decentralised, DIY approach, the fact that many of the readings are blog posts and media articles (cf journal articles) and the fact that several of my Aus HE peers are also taking the course. I was not so enamoured with the registration process, site navigation etc although this seems to be sorting itself out now. I was pleased to see at least one member of senior executive from Aus HE enrolled to participate (@drpievann). I’m currently debating whether to get involved with the introductions discussion board – I’m never convinced that a ‘hi my name is’ is actually a better snapshot of a person than you can get from trawling their Twitter feed or blog, and threaded discussion forums, regardless of LMS, universally suck for that kind of thing. I’d rather meet someone out in their own space and converse with them that way.

So – watch this space, or don’t. I have no idea if or how #cfhe12 will fly for me but there’s one way to find out.