In a 2013 TEDx talk, “Emerging from the Middle”, I suggested that our education pipeline is insensitive to the diverse talents of our students, and the needs of communities and ecosystems they stand to touch. Rather than cultivating and harvesting potential in its most diverse and abundant forms, we constrain its development, making students compete for limited opportunities for growth and success. While this is tragic for individuals, the collective loss is staggering. The sea of untapped potential represents missed innovation and impact in the face of growing challenge, inequity and need. Fortunately, the solution is both clear and compelling. By recognizing and cultivating diversity of talent and interests through meaningful engagement with the world, we can support student growth and achievement, while leveraging the benefits.
Since giving my TEDx talk, I have been putting this idea into motion, creating a model that connects students with opportunities for customized engagement through project-based learning. Our web-based system, the ELN Project Portal, detailed in a recent book chapter, includes mechanisms to generate and share relevant project opportunities, support and integrate engagement through a flexible framework (PEARL), and showcase and assess impact via digital badges. Together, these components create a dynamic model that can accommodate traditional experiences including mentored research, internships, and civic engagement, while also supporting novel responses to emerging needs and opportunities.
When we launched the Portal in 2019, we included profiles of our Tanzanian partners, small NGOs (community-based organizations) we visited during our annual study abroad course. We had maintained engagement between trips, and our partners were eager to build further collaboration. By enabling virtual projects, we could generate interest in the course while making the opportunity more accessible to those who could not travel. But when the Pandemic hit in 2020, we recognized a broader opportunity. With the move to remote instruction, in-person experiences had shut down and students were searching for virtual options. We quickly expanded the portfolio of global NGO projects, inviting students to explore organizations within the context of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Through Zoom meetings and ongoing communication with partners, we were able to customize projects to help students make meaningful contributions while also supporting their goals and interests.
The idea of connecting students with the world was compelling from the start. But the results have been quite extraordinary. Beyond exciting assessment data, it is clear that we are tapping into something important and powerful. Students are ready to connect with the world. They want to be part of solutions, to get close to challenges and ideas. And we need to cultivate every drop of their talent, helping them frame their learning and preparation within emerging contexts and opportunities. Within this space of global engagement, our colleges and universities have important roles to play. Through our respective resources and relationships, we can connect students with opportunities for collaboration and engagement and help them integrate their experiences with academic programs and professional goals. By doing so, we can become more relevant and nimble, activating our own potential for greater impact and sustainability.
When it comes to (higher) education, structure is inherently necessary. It defines resources and commitments, ensures stability, and sets expectations for all who participate. But too much structure is detrimental. For students, it shuts down growth and creativity, and prevents them from benefiting from, and contributing to, the very resources designed to support them. And for educational systems, it prevents them from adapting and being nimble, which ultimately threatens their relevance and viability.
Unfortunately, this is true for experiential learning- the area of education that transports students out of the classroom and into the world through internships, mentored research, global experiences and project-based learning. In an effort to provide students with meaningful opportunities, colleges and universities bury their resources in layers of structure and complexity. To access offerings, students must navigate organizational offices and programs, applications, deadlines, fees and curricular requirements. And if they are fortunate to obtain an opportunity, they must comply with requirements, securing signatures, count hours, and meet stringent expectations.
How ironic that we have managed to suck the life out of the most exciting and expansive type of learning.
So let us begin to remove the excessive layers of structure, starting with opportunities themselves. Keep only what is necessary to ensure value and set students on their way. In our model, we require that experiences are mentored and collaborative, and that they result in something that is meaningful for an identified audience. Mentoring gives students a connection with a faculty or staff member, seeding a relationship that can offer support and encouragement. Collaboration provides students with feedback and challenges them to adapt and integrate as they pursue their goals. And a meaningful contribution stretches students to think beyond themselves, to consider an audience and work to add value through their actions. With these key design components in place, we release all other constraints and open up the universe of possibilities.
When you begin to view the world through the lens of meaningful projects, amazing things start to happen. The most exciting opportunities begin to emerge from relationships, challenges, and ideas, and all a student needs to get started is a tingle of curiosity, a desire to understand, or a dream of making a difference.
But, without enough structure, how can we support and assess (experiential) learning? What about students who lack the necessary skills or foundation? Don’t we need some level of consistency across experiences to anchor learning and facilitate success? Yes.
As we remove layers of structure that constrain opportunities and experiences, we must add facilitative structure to the process of engagement, supporting students as they work through their projects, and navigate the challenges that they will encounter as they pursue their goals.
We support student engagement through our PEARL process, helping them Prepare, Engage and Add Value, Reflect and Leverage their experiences toward broader impacts. We guide students through these stages with prompts and exercises, encouraging them to move forward, integrating their experiences with academic and professional goals. And when they reach the end of the process, we award them a Digital Badge, serving as an enduring symbol of their achievement, linking to their final project and communicating their contributions to external audiences. That’s it. No academic credit, no additional costs, and no external deadlines or threats of termination. The experience is theirs to activate and they have unconditional support to help them through.
I have spent a lot of time thinking and writing about stuckness, the state that prevents us from flexing and growing as we engage with the world around us. Although this state can be perilous and demoralizing, especially at the system level, at every moment, we have the power to release ourselves by redesigning the very structures that keep us stuck.
The opposite of stuckness is magnificent. It is creative, innovative and inspiring. It is expansive and generative. It is students finding a sense of purpose and direction, seeking out opportunities to grow and challenge themselves, stretching and thriving, adding value and finding their place in a world that needs every drop of their talent. And for our colleges and universities, unstuckness is a renewed sense of commitment to our students and relevance to the world.
This summer is testing many things, including the potential of virtual projects.
It is clear that we need curricular versatility more than ever. The idea of leveraging resources and investments in ways that accommodate learners’ individual interests and expectations, as well as institutional goals, is becoming an urgent priority. And although technology provides exciting tools and capacities, we are still constrained by the rigidity of traditional academic courses. Finding models that are nimble, impactful and scalable represents an opportunity for innovation and continued viability.
Prior to the onset of the Pandemic, we, the UB Experiential Learning Network (ELN), created a system to support and catalyze mentored student projects. Through our Project Portal, we design, promote and share projects of all types and focus, while also facilitating student engagement via our digital badge series that follows our PEARL process (prepare, engage and add value, reflect and leverage).
Although we continue to build our portfolio to include mentored research, creative activities, innovation and community engagement, we are finding global initiatives especially popular and versatile. Over the past 10+ years, I have cultivated engagement with partners in the Mara Region of Tanzania, developing collaborative projects that serve as the foundation for our expanding offerings. With the move to online instruction beginning in March, we predicted that once students finished the spring semester and confronted the uncertainties of summer, we would see increased interest in virtual projects, especially those with a global focus.
We are now approximately half way through the summer, and our approach is yielding exciting results. Of particular interest is the range of distinct applications that feature the same Tanzanian partners and engagement model. Namely, in all iterations, students work through our PEARL process, with identical assignments and reflection activities. Through the modularity of our projects, we are able to customize the delivery to meet specific goals and parameters, offering a uniquely versatile and scalable curricular approach. The three applications and their respective benefits are described below:
Self-Paced Co-curricular Projects
Students can enroll in projects, working individually or in groups. After completing indicated preparatory research and skill development, students work with their mentor to create a project plan, and implement activities in collaboration with global partners. Because the projects are co-curricular, students work at their own pace, and earn a Global Collaboration bade upon successful completion. Students can select from a portfolio of projects or craft a customized project based on their individual interests and skillsets. We also offer opportunities for students to explore the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), focusing on a particular SDG and contextualizing their research through engagement with our Tanzanian partners. See sample projects
Projects Embedded in a Virtual Study Abroad Course
In response to the cancellation of our yearly Tanzania study abroad trip, I will be offering a remote version of the course, visiting the same and connecting with our Tanzanian partners via remote collaborative projects. The course schedule integrates the ELN PEARL process and digital badges, engaging students with partners via teleconferencing and social media. While this virtual version is not intended to replace student travel, it serves as a more accessible and scalable option while complementing and leveraging in-person trips. By engaging students in high-impact projects throughout the semester, they will have the opportunity to apply conceptual learning while connecting their experiences with academic and professional goals. This model for virtual study abroad has generated significant interest as colleges and universities struggle to continue with traditional models and programs cnbc articlediverse education article
Framing Projects within SDG’s across SUNY system
With the sudden move to on-line instruction in spring 2020, and the resulting disruption to travel-based study abroad experiences, SUNY (State University of New York) leaders were seeking remote learning options for impacted students. Together with a group of SUNY colleagues, convened by SUNY COIL (Collaborative Online International Learning), we designed an innovative course sequence piloted this summer. The program engages students in:
Exploration of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
Focus on a specific SDG through a selected faculty lens (topical, geographic and/or cultural)
Participation in a storytelling module
Engagement in a mentored project with a featured global NGO
In this 6-week program, students work through curricular OER (open educational resource) content developed by SUNY faculty focused on specific SDG lenses and storytelling methodologies. They apply their learning through the PEARL process and group projects with global NGOs, including our Tanzanian partners. This model represents a systems-level approach to leveraging individual faculty expertise and global relationships through the creation of OER (open education resources), allowing the material to be repurposed beyond the life of the course, encouraging further innovation around the SDGs and global engagement.
These three variations demonstrate the curricular versatility of mentored projects, and the ability to maximize return on investment through ongoing engagement. It should be noted that in addition to our own investments in our Tanzania projects, our global partners are also leveraging their engagement to build further capacity for their work and communities. Engagement with our students has resulted in significant impacts and new opportunities for external collaboration. This adds an additional facet of versatility, positioning mentored projects as a vehicle for community development and empowerment.
Although we look forward to the return of face-to-face experiential learning activities in the near future, we strongly believe in the potential of virtual projects to catalyze meaningful impacts that are both versatile and scalable in design. It is through challenging ourselves to develop and test these models and their impacts with regard to our students, institutions, and global partners that we fully activate our collective potential.
We are a month into the stay at home orders and I feel compelled to reflect on the status of our project model. How strange that the circumstances leading to widespread fear, sickness and isolation have also activated the potential of our model to be both generative and antifragile. Clearly it is delicate business focusing on the good and promising in the midst of a global pandemic, but it is also important to document what seems to be working as we will surely need powerful models to see us through.
Although our projects span diverse topics and activities, I will limit my reflections to our Tanzania partnership since we have over 10 years of experience on which to draw. With the development of ourProject Portal in 2018, we had- for the first time- a “place” to synthesize, showcase and nurture the various ideas, initiatives, and visions that were moving along at varying paces and awaiting support of any kind. I of course started with projects that were in some way already real; bicycles that had been donated in hopes of someday creating a community lab, women who were learning to sew and using their handiwork toward economic empowerment and self-sufficiency, a project in its nascent stages in need of a business plan, storytelling, or some other tangible resource. Once a few projects were up on the Portal, new ideas began to flow, needing only a description, a compelling photo, an invitation for students to engage through sample activities and contributions. New projects began to come quickly- a new website to showcase the various initiatives and invite travelers to come and see and engage; a water and sanitation project to support community research establishing needs and capacity, and a reusable sanitary pad project that had been started by a former student and was in temporary stall.
The design of our Portal requires a common project structure that insures consistency across project types yet allows for maximal flexibility. To be included, projects must be mentored, collaborative and result in some tangible product. These are the only constraints, allowing for virtually any type of engaged activity to qualify. Upon reflection, the very existence and design of the Portal itself began to catalyze new Tanzania projects, even before the stay at home orders were in place. Yet, at the same time, the ambient conditions surrounding student engagement were not yet fully conducive to activating the true potential of the platform. Namely, because our model, which was designed to be maximally accessible, invited students to engage outside their coursework through co-curricular digital badges, participation conflicted with other competing demands and coursework, which inevitably took precedence over projects. Although we saw strong interest with many students initiating Tanzania projects, there was little follow-through and related impact. Yet, with everyone staying at home (however geographically defined), we began to see more engagement, including students who had started projects and wanted to re-engage, and new students searching for meaningful global opportunities. The remote and virtual aspects of our model invited broad and diverse engagement, and through this expansion of participation, we are beginning to see the benefits of our model through lenses of generativity and antifragility.
With regard to project-based collaboration, the notion of generativity speaks to the expansion and acceleration of projects as engagement deepens. We hypothesized that as utilization of the Portal increased, with the addition of new collaborative projects and associated impacts, the speed at which new projects were generated would increase, with new synergies and partnerships evolving, and new possibilities emerging. We have seen this generativity both within individual student engagement and over time as new students join existing projects and contribute new inputs and outputs. An example of within student generativity is the work of a student who was interested in capturing the stories of young women engaged in a new Batik dying project led by our partner, Hope Revival Children’s Organization (HRCO) in Musoma. Through communication with the project leader, Stephen Marwa, the student eventually obtained photos and hand-written profiles exploring the importance of the Batik project for the participating women along with their hopes for future entrepreneurial opportunities and the impact of the Corona Virus, which was just beginning to spread throughout the country. Although the resulting profiles represented the completion of the student’s project, she was eager to continue her engagement towards finding new ways to support the women’s efforts through further communication and engagement.
In addition to students’ leveraging their initial projects toward deeper impacts, we have also seen generativity build across student engagement. Through a Water and Sanitation Project, it became evident that students were especially interested in issues of sustainability and eager to engage in related initiatives. In working to identify a specific project that would be suitable for student engagement, we settled on a community-based survey that would establish needs, resources and infrastructure related to water and sanitation within target villages. A graduate student helped to develop the initial survey instrument in collaboration with our partners and compiled the results in a comprehensive report to be shared with possible funders and community stakeholders. This project is quickly growing, and generating new opportunities for students to explore specific areas of the survey, conducting their own research, suggesting innovative technologies and interventions, and working with village stakeholders to contextualize findings and identify new opportunities for collaboration.
In addition to evidence of generativity, we are also seeing our relationships strengthen, moving toward a state of antifragility; namely, outcomes improving and becoming stronger with engagement, even when (or especially when) interactions are uncomfortable or in some way dissonant. This point may seem esoteric to many, but I think it is inherently important to understand and follow. For many years, our Tanzania partnership felt fragile and even dangerous to pursue. I had begun efforts in support of a particular school project that was being led by a group of nuns. Because of our singular point of focus in terms of project goals and partners, and the singular definition of success for our endeavors, there were multiple threats and points of fragility along the way. At best, we could hope to add value toward the construction of the school, and found ourselves in a delicate space with little room for movement or alignment with our core mission. As we expanded our engagement, developing multiple relationships throughout the Mara Region, and further clarifying our engagement model, we opened up new possibilities for collaboration. With successful projects emerging and building momentum, and students benefiting in ways that supported their academic and professional goals, the space for new synergies and further collaboration began to expand. And through the utilization of technology-supported platforms and engagement tools, access began to grow exponentially, in turn fueling further synergies, projects, and opportunities.
After 10 years, I can assert that my partnerships and associated projects no longer feel fragile or dangerous. Instead, they beckon us to challenge their boundaries and assumptions, pushing on our collaboration toward growth and learning on all sides. To me, this is what antifragile looks and feels like, and I find myself inspired to push even further. In the last several weeks I have been asked by my partners for money to help them survive the COVID pandemic. While I have gotten used to such requests from my Tanzanian friends, this time I pushed back, suggesting that they utilize their existing resources to prepare and build internal capacity. I mentioned the importance of masks, and highlighted a mutual friend, UB librarian, Cindi Tysick, who has been designing and adapting masks to accommodate different needs and functionalities. Upon interest, I connected my friends with Cindi who quickly shared mask patterns and resources to help get them started. Within days, we received photos of early mask prototypes (including the featured photo), and are currently adding a “Masks for the World” project within our Portal, inviting students to work with Cindi, supporting related efforts among our global partners and new organizations that seek to get involved. I think this is a beautiful example of generativity and antifragility at work, and I can’t help thinking (hoping) that it is only the beginning.
Since 2009, I have been visiting Mara Tanzania, bringing groups of students, faculty and community members toward the goal of building collaboration around women’s empowerment and community development. Admittedly, my vision for collaboration has been ambitious from the start- far different from the types of sponsor or funder relationships that are so common in this part of the world. Instead, my version of collaboration has always focused on the idea of adding value to existing or emerging initiatives through the sharing of knowledge, ideas, or engagement, essentially doing what we do best as a University community, but doing it with our partners in Tanzania, both in person and remotely.
I have come to recognize that this notion of collaboration is ambitious even within our own community, let alone one so far away with regard to distance, culture, and history. Not surprisingly, this concept of collaboration has yet to be fully embraced or understood by most of our Tanzanian friends and partners. Although we made significant early contributions to the school project in Rorya, the initiative that first introduced me to Mara and brought me to Tanzania, the needed fundraising far exceeded the limits of our engagement model, causing us to step aside and continue our search for more collaborative projects. With persistence and the help of Dr. Dan Nyaronga, a Buffalo professor who happens to be from the Mara Region, we eventually made progress, establishing relationships with organizations and leaders through a yearly study-abroad course, laying the foundation for collaborative projects that continue to grow and evolve today.
Through an ongoing relationship with Buhare Community Development Training Institute (BCDTI), in Musoma, we were first introduced to an organization that has evolved into Hope Revival Children’s Organization (HRCO), led by Executive Director Stephen Marwa, who has become our main partner and liaison for the region. Stephen has proven to be an outstanding collaborator in the most ambitious sense, and has embraced every resource, connection and opportunity that we have shared, transforming ideas into projects and initiatives, demonstrating amazing leadership and serving as a mentor and inspiration for us all. When our students and community members shared ideas for projects, including a reusable sanitary pad sewing initiative, and a bicycle lab for girls who lack access to school, Stephen quickly brought these projects to life, galvanizing community support and engaging local women and youth, cultivating new leaders and building capacity from within. And even beyond the Musoma community, Stephen has been nurturing connections with our collaborators in Tarime, through the Mogabiri Farm Extension Center (MFEC), expanding his network and building synergies for greater impacts and outcomes.
Meanwhile, back in Buffalo, we have been making significant progress as well, trying to actualize the promise of collaboration within our own university community. For me, my Tanzania efforts have served as a laboratory of sorts- allowing me to test what is possible and then reflect on implications and innovations. Like Mara Tanzania, there are so many communities and potential partners eager to collaborate, building on ideas and support to leverage internal assets and opportunities for growth. But how to connect students in ways that are meaningful and appropriate, how to add value without overextending our reach? Over the past year, we have built a new infrastructure to support the type of collaboration we have been seeking. In fall 2019, we launched the ELN Project Portal http://www.buffalo.edu/eln/students/project-portal.html– a web-based interface for connecting students with mentored projects of all types and focus, both local and global, including Tanzania projects featuring our partners. To guide students through their engagement, helping them get the most from their project experiences, we created a series of digital badges that follow our PEARL framework (prepare; engage and add value; reflect; leverage), guiding them through the process of engagement while helping them weave connections with academic and professional goals. And at the heart of this exciting model are the experiences afforded through engagement with partners like Stephen, MFEC, and our collaborators across the Mara Region.
As we prepare for our students to return for the spring semester, I am excited to engage them in what I see as the 2nd phase of my Tanzania collaboration journey. It is clear that there is movement and momentum in Tanzania. Many of the projects that we have discussed over the years and have tried to nurture and support are now evolving and developing under the leadership of our partners. Now it is time for us to help document the growth, to help give it form, whether written or digital. We will follow the lead of our collaborators, working to add value and offer meaningful engagement. This was the vision for our collaboration, and it is truly an honor to be engaged in this important work.
For Spring 2020, our students will focus on the following projects in collaboration with Stephen Marwa (HRCO)
Water and sanitation: cultivating sustainability ecosystems in Mara Tanzania.
-partnership with Friendly Water for the World and Stephen Marwa
-piloting a new model for community engagement around sustainable technologies
Students will support initial feasibility study for pilot communities, working with Stephen and Friendly Water to document community assets and gain understanding of needs towards establishing a foundation for growth and the formation of a new model with deepened community engagement. Students will also document the stories and strategies associated with successful sustainability activities in the region toward sharing best practices and tools for success, while supporting GIS mapping and community geography work.
Tailoring, batik and reusable sanitary pads: community empowerment through social entrepreneurship
– Individual projects underway in Musoma and Tarime (MFEC)
– Exploring new markets, training programs and synergies
Students will document evolving projects in Musoma and Tarime, interviewing participating women and program leadership, and showcasing the products toward building capacity and sharing model with other interested communities.
Bicycle lab project
-Pilot project underway with bikes donated by Spoke Folk (Dunkirk, NY)
-Plans to expand program and start a community bike lab
Students will work to document the stories of the girls who have benefitted from the community bicycle project and how the bicycles have impacted their education and future opportunities. These efforts will help build resources and support for future iterations of the program.
We look forward to sharing our progress through student projects and posts. Please follow along and check out our portal for more exciting initiatives.
I am getting an increasing number of calls about digital badges. Colleges and universities, K-12, adult education, and community programs all wanting to explore the promise of this new pedagogical tool.
The interest is exciting and I am always happy to discuss the potential of digital badges. I see them as a powerful design tool- allowing us to clarify our missions and visions, supporting our students in leveraging our resources in working toward their highest potential. I must be compelling in my enthusiasm, or maybe the promise of badges speaks for itself, because by the end of the conversation or presentation, the leaders are usually ready to sign-up for a system of their own, wanting to discuss next steps and a quick path to implementation. This is the point that gets a little awkward as I explain that there is no one to sign up with- certainly not me, and no template or program to follow or purchase.
How to begin? I try to explain that the badge or micro-credential part of the system is actually the easiest. There are online platforms that walk you through the creation of badge icons, which are simply interactive digital files. You brand badges with your organization’s name and information, the respective title of the skill or competence, and the specific expectations and evidence associated with the skill. On the administrative side, the platform allows you to issue or award the badge, sending the file to the student once you approve their evidence.
But the rest is up to you/us- what do we hope the students will do with the opportunities provided, how will they translate these into success or readiness, and how will they communicate their skills and competencies to the world and to the audiences that matter most? These clarifications and the associated mapping work will frame the next stage of our collective evolution, and digital badges already provide the necessary design tools.
With a little time the “how” to build and support badging systems will become less mysterious. As organizations begin to play with these platforms, we will begin to see the possibilities. And as employers begin to endorse certain badges, or emphasize specific skills or competencies or types of evidence, the market will begin to shift in response. Soon, apps and start-ups (or perhaps Amazon?) will market badges directly to students, allowing them to sample from both formal and informal educational programs and experiences, weaving preparation with projects, accomplishments and endorsements into compelling digital narratives and portfolios of evidence.
In this way, education will eventually flip. But in reality, students are already the designers, with a bounty of resources and opportunities at their disposal. As the keepers or deliverers of these resources, we should embrace opportunities to help our students translate our affordances into success and further opportunity. Yes, in activating the potential of digital badges we will, ourselves, have to stretch and grow, building capacity to connect our own resources with changing opportunities and expectations. How ironic that in figuring out how to create digital badge systems for our students, we would benefit from working toward digital badges of our own.
Can you feel disruption happening? I can. Higher Education is changing from within, and it is only the beginning.
In the new version of the game, degrees and credentials are still essential, but no longer sufficient. Experiences and contributions are the new differentiators, with employers expecting to know and see what candidates have done- what they can and will do, if hired.
Some are already playing the new version of the game, leveraging projects to open doors and access opportunities. They know that projects are undeniably powerful. At their best, they can activate ideas, theories and competencies, allowing students to reflect and demonstrate impact through compelling media and testimonials. Imagine students not just saying they are interested in a profession, but instead demonstrating their commitment, their journey to develop their knowledge and skills, their promise viewed through tangible contributions and products.
This is already happening with our top students- those competing for prestigious fellowships and scholarships. The narratives they weave for applications and interviews demonstrate they are already on their way to becoming change agents- they are safe and worthy investments, having leveraged the opportunities and resources afforded them- not just through their colleges and universities, but their unique lives, challenges, and personal stories.
Individualized experiences are clearly part of the answer. The good news (for us) is that we are still necessary. Universities and colleges offer treasures of expertise and knowledge but also the relationships and connections that undergird the best experiences and opportunities, those that support innovation and growth. The same faculty and staff who lead courses and programs can frame-out experiences that prepare students for emerging fields and systems in need of innovation and change. In addition to instruction, they can be facilitators, mentors and guides, opening up their own academic, professional, and even personal journeys for students to explore and leverage.
But how to actualize these latent resources in ways that elevate students’ access while supporting the continued viability of our educational institutions and systems? This question is quietly (in some cases silently) percolating within Higher Education, with implications that are profound and deeply threatening to the status quo.
Clearly, the new version of the education game excites me. For it is no longer one of traditional prestige or privilege, but instead access and authenticity. It also deeply challenges our notions of leadership- calling on new skills and competencies that are largely yet to be developed or accepted. For in this new version of the game, leaders must re-imagine and re-engineer our systems, moving us from structural constraints and limitations to catalytic possibilities and growth.
As someone who has long worked to disrupt from within, I can feel the energy of this seismic shift. Students and employers are wanting more, and young faculty are neither afraid nor reluctant to meet the call. As we dip our feet into project-based collaboration, virtual exchange, and other pedagogical innovations that open up our university while connecting students with the world in personal and profound ways, we cannot help wanting and pursuing more.
Yes, the game is definitely changing, and many of us are beyond ready to play.
With less than three months into our new Project Portal, I am excited on so many levels. Student interest is high and new projects are coming in from all directions. Our digital badges are yielding important data and the resulting stories are already compelling. While there is much to dig into and explore as we build out our new model over the coming months and years, there is one facet that begs immediate attention; global collaboration.
To say that there has been strong interest would be a gross understatement. Inquiries have been coming in almost daily. The students are from diverse backgrounds and areas of study- engineering, communication, public health, psychology, statistics, and computer science; students from the local community and others from countries and regions around the world. But perhaps even more remarkable than their diversity, is the consistent manner in which they are asking to join the projects; articulating a genuine and moving interest in making a difference through their engagement; a desire to give something back or make lives somehow better.
What projects are attracting such strong interest? For now, they are all associated with my Tanzania collaborations. They involve clean water and sanitation, women’s empowerment, early childhood education, and an emerging community bicycle laboratory. They feature long-term partners who are on the ground in Tanzania, extraordinary people who are committed to the work and eager to collaborate with our students, to engage their ideas, talents, and opportunities, and the resources that may follow.
If you visit these project profiles, you will find articulated learning outcomes that are both familiar and highly regarded. You will see cultural competence, global learning, communication, problem solving and other ideas that represent important skills and competencies valued by 21st century employers and deemed important for a well-rounded liberal arts education. While undeniably important, let’s be clear that these learning outcomes are not what is speaking to our students. Instead, it is the chance to connect with real communities and people, to touch the world, to make a difference, to fulfill a sense of purpose and hope, and to experience the challenges and rewards of collaboration.
I have been experimenting with the complexities of collaboration for over 16 years, and acknowledge its ambitious and perhaps aspirant nature. Even within our own communities, it is difficult to navigate the implicit power imbalances and differences in culture and perceptions that undermine our attempts to collaborate. But as we search for goals that will challenge and stretch us toward innovation and relevance, I believe that global collaboration is worthy of our pursuit. Put simply, it is inherently meaningful and resonant with the best that we have to offer.
As I look ahead to the future of experiential learning, I am both inspired by the adventures in collaboration that lie ahead and reassured by the knowledge that our students are profoundly ready.
Through my work at the University at Buffalo, we are embracing digital badges in an exciting and innovative way. We are using them to guide students through mentored projects- helping them prepare, engage, reflect and leverage their experiences in support of their academic and professional goals. (visit site)
As I present on our new Project Portal, both inside and outside the University, audiences seem to get the importance of what we are doing. But as soon as I begin talking about digital badges, the “back end” of our model, I find their attention waning or their cynicism kicking in. Those who have heard of digital badges and micro-credentials immediately dismiss them as the newest trend, or a shallow repackaging of traditional curricula, or even a desperate attempt at sustained relevance. Yet despite these responses, I find my own enthusiasm heightening, and an eagerness to defend their promise, to map out potential designs and demonstrate their latent potential.
What are digital badges? Badging involves isolating specific competencies, dispositions, or skills that are valuable/valued and providing opportunities for students to “earn” them, working toward a threshold of mastery/attainment. The digital part of the name denotes their online format, and the issuance of a branded digital icon- or badge- once expectations are met. Students can display their badges on social media or their digital resume. And when a viewer clicks on a badge, they can review the evidence indicative of the achievement, usually a project or a tangible representation of that skill.
You can badge just about anything, including many important skills and competencies that remain elusive yet important. Professional development, capacity building, workforce readiness, character development, professionalism, integrity, mindfulness…. I could literally go on forever. Virtually anything that can be named, unpacked, and assessed, can be badged.
Even the process of growth can be badged, if we take the time to define and support it. This is exactly what we are doing with our new Project Portal. In an effort to help students get the most of their mentored projects, we are isolating various steps in the process of project-based collaboration, using our own PEARL framework to serve as a foundation (link to PEARL). In addition to helping the students get and give more to their projects, our digital badge sequence also allows us to assess their progress and share their products along the way. You see, from an assessment standpoint, being able to clarify what you mean and what you expect is critical to effectively assessing it. Without that clarity and definition, assessment is meaningless.
If you can use badges for almost anything, then why are they so exciting? Here are a few of my favorite features that make badging such a valuable design tool:
By badging skills or dispositions, we can bring qualities that have been largely invisible or at least fuzzy into the light. Soft skills, social capital, workforce development, capacity building- these are all critical to growth and equity, but have remained difficult to formalize and access.
Individual badges can be “stacked” or traded up for larger or higher level skills and competencies. Learners can begin with more basic understandings anwork toward more sophisticated applications. By stacking up badges toward “uber badges”, we can create ecosystems that are inherently generative and catalytic.
Because badges are not tethered to credits and are presented through digital formats, we are not limited to traditional curricula or pedagogical design. We can leverage the flexibility and creativity of digital media, and allow students to demonstrate their learning and competencies through personalized platforms and projects.
From a design standpoint, digital badges provide a dynamic canvas for supporting growth, empowerment and innovation. They also allow us to release the restrictive constraints that have defined and limited formalized education. Whether within or outside traditional systems, we can empower learners to steward their own growth and development, earning badges that are inherently meaningful and valuable, while owning and demonstrating the associated evidence and impact. In a way, badges can flip the system, providing students with opportunities and structures to leverage the offerings and affordances that are all around them (us), building their own capacity toward more powerful constructs and competencies.
I am back in Buffalo- having just returned from our 10-year anniversary trip to Mara Tanzania. And just like that, 10 years of my life and professional energies have been wrapped up in a bow; celebrated, honored and commemorated by my dear friends and partners who made me feel special and cherished beyond description.
And now I strain, eager to get my head around the many lessons and insights, allowing me to shift into the next phase of my work, whatever it may be. Why the urgency- you might ask. Although our partnerships are in many ways impressive, I know that they are inherently precious, and perhaps still fragile. You see, our Tanzania project was never an institutional priority. I was never asked to develop or sustain it. In fact, over the years I have had to be tenacious, finding ways to keep it going, often under the radar, buying time until the landscape shifts and new opportunities emerge.
And even now, as the benefits are both obvious and resonant, I am still working to think ahead, identifying the next manifestation that will allow our investments to keep growing and multiplying. This work of continuously nurturing engagement is both taxing and frustrating, moving at its own pace and rhythm, always precarious, never secure. Perhaps in an effort to coax it along, or instead to simply grasp for those who understand the significance and struggle, I will share some resonant truths in whatever form they offer themselves.
Capacity building is real– both as a challenge and an opportunity, especially in developing regions like Mara. Literally everywhere we look there are assets and resources but if they cannot be harnessed and leveraged, their communities and people (especially women and children) will remain vulnerable. There are organizations and leaders ready and poised to have an impact. But without sufficient infrastructure, incentives, levers of change, they will remain alone and unable to activate their potential. Investments will not trickle down and lives will remain cruel. But if we can weave structures and networks around these assets and leaders, connecting them upward, inward and outward, we can leverage their individual resources toward greater impacts, eventually catalyzing growth and collaboration from within.
Grants and donors are not the answer– no one funding opportunity or single initiative will save our most vulnerable communities or populations. When I see new non-profits or small community organizations waiting and searching for the golden funder, or praying that it’s me, I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I see the precious resources they expend trying to court the funder or win the grant- ready to pivot to whatever initiative or remediation is being endorsed. And when partial funding is offered, they eagerly accept, getting started right away, even when funding is insufficient to cover required costs. And then they are back in the weeds and the cycle continues.
Collaboration is key, but it requires strategic support. It’s amazing to see so many organizations and communities dealing with the same challenges and offering such similar programs. And yet they often fail to connect and certainly to collaborate. Instead they compete. Collaboration can be fostered and nurtured, but it needs to be facilitated by skilled mediators and designers. The best place to start (in my experience) is with new opportunities and themes that can add value to individual efforts while not competing, interfering or adding complexity. This can be achieved through identifying broader themes and commonalities that resonate with external trends and resources, and expanding and creating new opportunities rather than relying only on known resources.
Technology can be a game changer, but the “how” must be translated- everywhere we go there are computers and cell phones, and requests for more technology. But most of the computers are not working, and there is little understanding of how technology can be leveraged for individual and collective growth. We have had multiple requests for our students to design and manage websites and provide other critical support. But when we ask to work with individuals who have related job responsibilities and or skill sets we have had no success. Since technology and connectivity are featured in virtually every strategic plan for developing countries and regions, building capacity and expertise among key professionals and youth is absolutely critical.
Higher Education has a pivotal role to play– this is where it gets tough. Because I am part of this system, I cannot go too far. But I can say unequivocally that we can do much more. Our students want to get close. They want high-touch experiences. And our faculty have so much expertise and resources to offer. Our leaders must recognize that this work is not “extra” or outside our core mission. Instead it is the pathway to continued (or perhaps renewed) relevance- it is worthy of scholarship, research and innovation. It is inherently noble and important.
I hope that these insights are not construed as negativity or defeatism. On the contrary, I find myself more excited than ever to continue our relationships and our collective efforts to build capacity through collaboration and engagement. In fact, as I write this post, our students are formulating projects based on their own experiences with our partners in Mara. Their projects will be open to students from all backgrounds and majors who are eager to work on real-world issues and challenges, and to contribute their talents and resources in meaningful ways. What will come of these efforts and the foundation we have built over the past 10 years? I have no idea- but am hopeful beyond words.