My Excitement for Digital Badges

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

What I Know to be True

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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.

After 10 Years in Tanzania, What Next?

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photo by Doug Levere

In a few weeks I will be returning to Tanzania with my dear friend and co-instructor, Dan Nyaronga, and a new group of students from the University at Buffalo. As always, we will be visiting with our various partners, exploring community initiatives and the complexities of women’s empowerment in this challenged but magnificent part of the world.

While our itinerary will be similar to past trips, this one will be different. I will be celebrating my 10-year anniversary, and (hopefully) ushering in a new phase of engagement.

When I remember the very beginning, the first time we visited in 2009, I am reminded of this video produced by Kevin Crosby, and the model we initially set out to create. Even then, we dreamed of collaboration built on shared understanding and respect, and a commitment to adding value and building capacity, leveraging our vast UB resources, while building synergies with community-based organizations within the Mara Region and beyond. We hoped to seed interdisciplinary efforts, working across silos to develop innovative solutions to improve the lives of women and their families, while stretching our models for university engagement and outreach.

As I reflect on our accomplishments, there is much to celebrate. Over the years we have helped to support the emergence of community leaders, the creation of new initiatives, and the early stages of collaboration among partners. But how to go even further; to transcend the expectations and constraints of traditional support and partnerships; to elevate the notions of collaboration and capacity building both within the community and our own institution?

This time I will bring the promise of an exciting new initiative that we are busy building- so busy that I have yet to write about or introduce it. We are creating a digital portal that will invite students to engage in collaborative projects, mentored by UB faculty and/or select alum and partners around the world- including (and especially) Tanzania. We will construct profiles introducing our partners and their work, inviting students to browse through pictures, videos and reports, learning about challenges and complexities, towards engaging in projects that will add value while helping to clarify and support their academic and professional goals.

For our partners I dream of expansion and empowerment, building their internal capacity around strengths and resources, leveraging engagement with UB and other partners around shared and synergistic goals. For our students I wish them the fulfillment that comes with the knowledge that they are making a meaningful difference and the sense of agency and infinite possibilities ahead.

For me, the portal offers a path to access and equity, allowing students to engage at their own pace and at no additional cost. The idea that anyone can activate their talents and interests, clarifying their sense of purpose, and making a difference in ways that will extend well beyond their own professional success.

This July we will be harvesting projects for our new portal, laying the foundation for future students to engage through collaborative projects. This idea of project harvesting is both compelling and profound.  When we begin to see challenges and needs as invitations for projects and collaboration, opportunities will emerge all around us, and technology will be the transformative tool that allows us to build, catalyze and expand our impacts in ways that we cannot know.

As I return to Tanzania I cannot help wondering what lies ahead. And as I prepare to celebrate my 10 year anniversary, I can’t help feeling (hoping) that this is still the beginning.

 

Education, Beyond Fight or Flight

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When it comes to education, we have gotten ourselves firmly stuck. The lack of a clear and compelling vision coupled with an insatiable thirst for assessment and accountability have left us trapped with little room to move or breathe. Our schools and students are being squeezed by tightening expectations and external scrutiny, thrusting us into a collective tailspin of vulnerability and threat. Naturally, our instincts of fear and self-preservation are kicking in. But unlike in our evolutionary past, the options of flight or fight are no longer sufficient to save us. Instead, trapped within the complexities of our own inventions, we must transform our manufactured constraints into something inherently freer and more expansive.

The how is clear. We need visions and commitments that are more powerful and resonant with the broader world, and we need to put assessment and accountability back in their appropriate place- not as drivers or engines, but instead as tools to help us clarify and strengthen our ability to fulfill our (individual and collective) promise.

Based on my experiences in higher education, K-12 and the community sector, our core commitments are rarely sufficiently clear, compelling, or grounded in core capacities to be measurable, actionable or ultimately meaningful. They are either too vague, too specific, or too vacuous to drive change within the complex and dysfunctional landscapes which they claim to address. It is not surprising that related assessment plans, no matter how sophisticated or comprehensive, cannot measure or inform movement toward some vision or commitment that has not been sufficiently operationalized, internalized, or infused. And yet, assessment has become high-stakes in virtually every sense and sector. Assessment based on externally imposed standards, expectations, and metrics drive investments, public trust and reputation.

Without a clear and compelling vision, these externally imposed standards and expectations become everything. We adapt and optimize our systems and resources to produce outputs that mirror those expectations. And if permitted, we go so far as selecting applicants (or inputs) that are closest to the desired output, minimizing variance and optimizing resources while celebrating our success and superiority.

Yes, we are in need of a compelling collective vision, but we cannot wait. Individual schools can clarify the best versions of themselves, their strengths and gifts brought by their students, histories, communities, staff- virtually any qualities or virtues that are inherently authentic, meaningful and important. They can check these against the ambient world- the needs, the challenges, trends and opportunities. And as they toggle between the processes of looking within and outward, they can infer the essence of what they uniquely have to offer, what they can promise, what they should expect. If they can achieve clarity to the point of knowing and feeling and articulating what they are about, they will be able to see themselves fully actualized, and identify the gaps and needs along the way. Once they can commit, boldly and absolutely, they can create spaces and opportunities for their communities to move toward that vision while finding the sense of security and support necessary to actualize their potential.

To be clear, even in this ideally clarified and resonant state of identify, vision and mission, schools will need to meet external expectations, including metrics that are neither sufficiently clear nor meaningful. Leaders will have to ascertain what is necessary and non-negotiable and what can be relaxed or stretched or translated through more meaningful and textured metrics and stories.  But as the clarified and resonant vision and mission become internalized and permeate through the culture of our schools, those leaders and students and teachers can begin to stretch the spaces and expectations around them, feeling courageous bold and secure in the knowledge that they are successful in ways that are inherently meaningful and important.

It is only in this state of relaxation and movement that we can escape our threat responses, emerging from the traps and cages we have created, and finally enjoying the possibilities that will be catalyzed through our expansion.

 

 

Nimbleness, Resetting and Getting Unstuck

In this video I share a process for resetting your community development work that can be used when you are feeling stuck or out of alignment. By using the modeling framework described in my previous video, I discuss 5 design elements that will allow you to identify changes or challenges and make the necessary adjustments to get your initiative back on track toward greater success and sustainability.

Why Modeling is More Powerful than Strategic Planning

Although traditional planning exercises can be useful, they’re inherently limited and flat, and of little use as we try to navigate the challenges and changes that swirl around our work, lives, and efforts to add value. In this video I make the case for “modeling” as a dynamic and powerful tool to support all stages of creating movement, building capacity and getting unstuck.

Be Brilliant Video Series: Introduction

Through this new video series I will share strategies and reflections for building capacity, getting unstuck, and creating movement toward more impactful results and relationships. These tools can be applied to organizational, programmatic or individual efforts and accompany the “Be Brilliant” eBook available through this site. Join my blog site (button on right) to receive new posts and videos directly. Please share feedback and requests for additional videos and exercises focusing on specific topics or areas of brilliance. I hope you find these useful- Mara

Refocusing Experiential Learning for Greater Equity and Impact

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photo by Doug Levere

Well-designed experiential learning offerings support deep and transformative outcomes. While this is true, it is potentially misleading- suggesting that the primary (or only) flow of learning moves from the experience- designed and delivered by educators and institutions/organizations- to the student. In reality, the student plays a more powerful role, one that is certainly not passive or secondary in nature. Even the best-designed experiences require students to activate their potential, bringing a sense of openness, curiosity and knowledge along with other skills and dispositions that affect short and long-term impacts. While the best programs and implementers work to foster these critical student attributes, they often rely on the selection of students to ensure ideal fit and the ultimate success and sustainability of programs.

However, if we were to shift our focus from program design and implementation to preparing students to embrace and leverage experiences in their most diverse and varied forms, we would reach a startling realization. If students were truly empowered with the mindsets, tools, and processes to transform (their) experiences into the greatest impacts, then power would shift away from the institutions and structures that have traditionally controlled the opportunity landscape. It is not that schools or teachers would become unnecessary or unimportant, but instead, that their influence would be tied to their ability to support and integrate student experiences (both in and out of school) with academic learning and development.

This shift in power- from institution to individual students and groups of students- would be even more profound if we were to sharpen our focus on the types of experiences deemed valuable. If we take our lead from the Global Challenges, 21st Century Learning/ Professional Skills, and other efforts to identify critical areas for growth, leadership and innovation, we would begin to prioritize those most closely aligned. And if we were to acknowledge the value of Design Thinking and Innovation, we would observe that those who are the closest to the most pressing problems are the best positioned to lead their respective solutions. Accordingly, we would begin to value authenticity of experiences and prioritize the students who are most compelled and inspired with the necessary credibility and “social capital” to dig in. If we were to empower students who met these new definitions of “readiness” to transform their experiences into innovation and problems solving, imagine what they could accomplish and how communities could benefit from their growth.

I want to make this point clear, because I think it is quite profound – not in terms of my own insight, but instead the associated implications. If experiential learning truly represents a gateway to deep student impacts and opportunities for academic and professional success, and we allow institutions of education to be the only way to access recognized experiences, then we are missing the point, and promise of this paradigm.

Experiences, by definition, are highly personal and contextualized. We do not own them, should not control them, but we can and must support them.

Some may find this assertion/realization troubling in that it challenges the status quo in ways that may (will/should) threaten our existing structures and systems. It is true that in order to remain relevant and viable, institutions of higher education and schools will strive to offer more high-impact learning experiences for students. And those who have access will hopefully continue to embrace them. However, once we acknowledge that this is not the only pathway, we must begin the work of clarifying and developing the tools and resources that will help students (wherever they are) transform their own experiences into high-impact practices. It is through this simultaneously top/middle-down and bottom-up approach that we can begin to realize the true potential of high-impact experiential learning and the exciting expansion and innovation that it will catalyze.