We could all use some practice talking about our strengths and achievements. Here is a video workshop that is part of our ELN digital badge series). It’s great for students and professionals- we have students submit video profiles sharing their own stories about internships, study abroad, service or other types of experiential learning. I would love to hear your stories about all the great things you’ve done and hope to do in the future…
Like most colleges, we have had to cancel our upcoming Study Abroad trips. This decision has left students terribly disappointed. And while we hope to reintroduce these offerings in the near future, the disruption should give us pause to recognize the inherent fragility of travel-based learning and the need for more durable approaches.
Ironically, just this fall, we launched a new digital platform to engage students in virtual collaboration, connecting them with mentored projects including those featuring global engagement. In addition to accommodating mentored research and other types of traditional experiential learning, I needed our system to support the collaborative projects developed through our study abroad trip to Tanzania. Namely, as students have contributed their ideas and resources during and following their trips, other students, either unable to travel or seeking deeper engagement, have expressed interest in getting involved, contributing their talents and resources through ongoing projects. Finding ways to support and nurture these efforts while also leveraging digital media (pictures, videos and stories) collected through our travels, has helped to inspire and catalyze the design of our new Project Portal and associated digital badge series .
This notion of “leveraging” features prominently in our work and offers important guidance for creating more scalable and durable models. In designing our system, we created PEARL as a framework to guide and assess student engagement. PEARL stands for Prepare; Engage and Add Value; Reflect; and Leverage. As detailed in this brief video, these steps lead students through the process of activating the potential of an opportunity and integrating the experience with their academic and professional goals, toward greater impact and innovation. For students, leveraging is all about capacity building, scaffolding experiences toward higher-level contributions and understanding. But for institutions, including schools, colleges and universities, leveraging is about ensuring that investments yield multiple and maximal results, continuing to build impact over time regardless of circumstances or possible disruptions.
With regard to global engagement, relationships represent the most important investments on which we can build. The best study abroad programs are built on deep partnerships, friendships and collaborations, along with deep cultural knowledge and experience. Although student travel represents a particularly impactful and transformative vehicle for student growth and learning, technology platforms offer flexible tools for connecting students with people, places and issues around the world. But rather than simply connecting students for the sake of communication or understanding, they can use virtual exchange to collaborate and contribute as they deepen their own cultural competencies, sharing resources and talents toward some meaningful outcome.
Building course structures around virtual collaboration is neither difficult nor inherently complicated. In addition to content-focused frames, the UN Sustainable Development Goals, Grand Challenges, or various other aspirant frameworks can be utilized. And in addition to content-focused learning, students can engage in related research, innovation, or any other activities that are meaningful, compelling and resonant.
Personally, I cannot wait to return to Tanzania and bring another group of students to immerse themselves in the beauty and complexity of the Mara Region. But the next time I lead a study abroad trip, I will be especially focused on harvesting new projects, contacts and digital media towards engaging even more students and fostering deeper collaboration and impacts. Now, more than ever, I recognize the preciousness of these resources and opportunities.
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.
New Years can be a time of great excitement and anticipation but also one of angst and concern. Over this break, I have talked with many parents who are anxious about their children’s journeys at college, or their upcoming transitions into Higher Education. The conversations have reminded me of the countless discussions I’ve had with UB students over the years, trying to put them at ease while helping them clarify their goals and choices. For whatever reason, this type of mentoring seems particularly needed at this time, so I will attempt to offer some general insights and guidance in hopes that it will find and resonate with whomever is in need.
College is not an end in itself but a portal to opportunities and experiences
With so much emphasis placed on getting into the “best” schools, it is no wonder that students feel extreme pressure and also fear and anxiety. Through my experiences with my own children’s high school guidance process, there has been little discussion of how to prepare students to be successful once in college, or more importantly, how to access the resources and opportunities to best support their happiness, mental health and achievement. While gaining admittance to many colleges and universities can be challenging and certainly worthy of focus and celebration, it is by no means the end, but only a beginning. The notion of leveraging the opportunities and experiences that a particular college or university affords, calls for a different type of support, guidance and empowerment. Since many students select colleges and universities from a distance, that is, not necessarily going deep into respective offerings and opportunities, they must orient themselves while at the same time completing demanding coursework and requirements. Moreover, the process of exploration can take time as students begin to discover what they like versus what they thought they liked or wanted to pursue. If parents can see this exploration as an integral part of the college experience, rather than a failing of the student or the institution, students can embrace the journey more fully and often towards better outcomes.
Curiosity and excitement rather than fear
Intentions matter when it comes to education. Students who approach their experiences through the lenses of positivity and confidence fare better across a number of measures. They also show more resilience, persevering over time and experiencing more satisfaction in their accomplishments. In order to reap these benefits, however, confidence must come from a place of authentic interest, vision or a sense of purpose or belief in what is possible or important. The source must be deeper and stronger than simply wanting to achieve, perform, or make one’s parents happy or proud. It needs to be strong enough to guide students through failures, crises and other bumps in the road that invariably creep up during college. When students are caught up in fear, I try to help them “flip it”, to set some goals that connect with their curiosity and excitement. Helping students see the value of these intentions early on (in fact, as early as possible) will help them develop an internal “sensor” and an ability to make good decisions when they find themselves off course or in a state of dissonance (when their feelings or outcomes conflict with their expectations or plans).
The value of negative evidence (when we are able to access it)
From the standpoint of helping us clarify our academic and professional goals, negative evidence is even more powerful than our successes. By negative evidence I mean “when things do not result in the positive outcomes we desire or expect”- I hesitate to use the word “failures” which is the obvious way to think about negative evidence. The notion of failure is so charged, especially in education, that we literally shut down when we feel ourselves in its gravitational pull. Instead, think of negative evidence as disconfirming input. If you try one method of studying and you get a poor grade, then your grade suggests that your method of studying is not effective- at least for that particular course or professor. If you get poor grades across a category of courses, then the pattern of performance may suggest certain weaknesses or challenges or perhaps a lack of fit. The point is that our methods and approaches to interacting with our world aren’t always successful or adequate, especially as the context and expectations around us change. Often we need to modify our approaches, and the more information we get, the better we can adjust and adapt. But the beauty of college is that we can pursue areas of study and work that align with our core interests and strengths. So while students will and should experience challenges that stretch and develop their capacities and toolkits, sometimes patterns of negative evidence suggest problems with “fit” and can provide opportunities for students to pivot and explore other pathways that may be better suited. I find the biggest challenge in helping students access the insights offered by negative evidence is their fear of parents’ judgment, disappointment, or insistence that they pursue a given major or complete their studies on time.
Everything is connected but it can be tricky to see the patterns
Students often find me when they have switched majors multiple times, either formally or in their heads. They share a sense of frustration and even desperation as they try to settle on a major, reporting that they have “tried” a number of options, but can’t seem to settle on the right one. As I listen to them list their pivots, I often hear embarrassment and shame, a sense that they have somehow failed and wasted precious time pursuing the “wrong” pathway. In these situations, my work involves disabusing them of this notion of failure and instead encouraging them to see their various efforts as valuable data points. The notion of trying something is exactly what we want students to do in college. In essence, we want them to become researchers on themselves- trying something based on hypotheses or expectations, and then they see how it goes- reflecting on the results and learning from outcomes, they can make modifications and adjustments toward some increasingly clarified goal or endpoint. The great news is that there are so many different career paths and professional pathways- more than students, and certainly parents, even know. And the fact that new fields of study and innovation are emerging all the time means that professional and academic opportunities are much more abundant than we are led to believe. If students are able to see patterns with regard to their interests (and their boundaries), they can find areas of study and work that align closely with their strengths and passions, setting them up for exciting and fulfilling careers and the ability to flex and pivot as the landscape continues to evolve and change.
You as a mentor
Ideally, the relationship between parent and child evolves as the they get ready to start college or university. As my own children get older, I think of myself more as a mentor, recognizing that their choices are largely their own, and that the best I can do is to help them navigate options and experiences, learning as they go towards finding their place in the world and hopefully living fulfilling and productive lives. Being a mentor is not always easy or natural for everyone, but it is a journey worth taking. Here are some points of conversation or exploration that I utilize in my own interactions with students – and even adults who are contemplating professional growth or change.
Start from what you love
I begin my conversations by asking students when they are their happiest, what activities they most enjoy, what they are really good at, or other types of questions that seek to clarify a point of positivity, excitement or joy. Unfortunately, it can be difficult for some students (and adults) to get there. Sometimes we need to look for “clues”, asking what their parents, siblings, friends or childhood teachers would say about their strengths or talents. However you get there, this place of positivity can be “mined” for valuable details about the why’s and how’s and what’s- why do you love to ………….., how does it make you feel, what is it about that activity or topic that makes you feel that way….. these insights can be pivotal in developing a sensitivity to “fit” with regard to careers, academic pathways, and learning experiences that might be worth exploring.
Explore emerging fields and innovations to see what inspires you
You would be amazed at how many students say they want to be engineers, doctors, lawyers (or virtually any other career) and yet show little or no interest in related stories, topics or articles. To be blunt, you cannot really fake interest- even if your parents expect you to. I find that many students, and adults, aren’t really curious about anything- or rather, haven’t discovered areas of curiosity, often because they are so busy meeting the expectations of their daily lives. With the demands of coursework, jobs and related commitments and social engagements, it is easy to become detached from curiosity and inspiration. Taking time to scan magazines, news sites or blogs is a great way to discover or rediscover your interests, a step that is critical to finding greater fulfillment and inspiration.
Examine your own experiences through this aspirational lens
Once your student gets excited about some field or area of innovation, help them examine their own experiences through that lens, identifying any accomplishments, skills or experiences that are at all related. Students (and adults) often miss authentic experiences that may not be tied to formalized jobs or programs. In the world of experiential learning, authenticity is the gold standard. So even hardships, struggles or negative evidence can be transformed into assets and resources related to academic or professional opportunities. Having a strong foundation on which to build is the best place from which to approach growth and opportunity.
What are the key gaps between your current capacity and where you’d like to be?
Once you have a point of inspiration that connects with your curiosity, passions or sense of purpose, and you can see your core capacities and resources on which you can build, now you can identify gaps and areas for cultivation and growth. Notice that approaching our “deficits” in this way is neither threatening nor demeaning. It is simply recognizing a pathway toward a goal or vision that is inherently meaningful AND possible to achieve. This approach is more likely to encourage risk taking, resilience, and grit while supporting mental health and general wellbeing than the alternative approaches often embraced.
Now look at the systems you have access to
Once you have a general sense of directionality and areas for growth, it is time to revisit the systems you have access to- including college or university. I often say that my own university – and really all US colleges and universities- are like grand buffets, with an amazing array of opportunities, programs and resources all waiting for students to activate. Of course, each college and university has a unique assortment of resources, both in terms of formalized programming and unique culture and setting, with people, places and experiences that can be accessed and leveraged. When we lack a clear sense of purpose or inspiration, we often fail to recognize the full array of opportunities that are available and instead see only the negative, pulling us into “the weeds” and undermining our success, fulfillment or growth.
Developing powerful narratives
Realizing that this post is already way too long, I will end with the importance of developing powerful narratives. Stories are undeniably powerful- both the stories we tell those around us, but also the stories that play out in our heads as we go through life. One of the most exciting things about college is the opportunity to develop powerful and resonant narratives about ourselves that emerge as we meet diverse people and ideas, challenge our core assumptions and beliefs, and explore and test different career options and ways of life. As we gain insights about ourselves and our place in the world, we can practice talking about who were are and hope to become. Sharing this evolution of ourselves with families, parents and friends, can be exciting when others recognize the vulnerability that comes along and respond with care and support. I can tell you that colleges and universities are full of faculty and staff, like myself, who are ready and eager to help your child navigate this process and leverage the buffet of resources and opportunities that we provide. When I contemplate the future of Higher Education, I am unsure whether our institutions in their current states of abundance will be able to continue to thrive. But I do know that they are a gift to our children, our communities and our world, offering riches beyond what most of our students and parents recognize or understand. In addition to helping our children gain access to Higher Education, we need to help them leverage and navigate the opportunities and resources within. I hope these insights and suggestions are helpful.
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.
Increasingly, I see my University as a vast playground filled with experiences and offerings of vibrant shapes, texture and variety. Our playgrounds call us to create, to fill their spaces and open their walls, inviting in and reaching out as we become more experiential, global and integrative.
While our playground is indeed spectacular, I wish there were more students willing and able to play. Instead, many are too busy; consumed with multiple majors, accelerated programs and matters of importance. Others feel squeezed by competing jobs, responsibilities, and day-to-day obligations; and other students simply lack the curiosity or interest to explore.
I know that many of our students will eventually find their spark, but it often takes time. I am increasingly meeting students who wait until their senior year to explore internships or projects, often creating a “gap year” after graduation in order to gain experience and clarity before applying to graduate school or seeking employment. In the meantime, we all stand ready- developing new programs and opportunities, waiting to support students’ interests, passions, and sense of purpose as they become clearer; waiting to connect them with the world and the world with them. I just wish they would come more ready to play.
But how would they even know about our playground? With two college-aged children of my own, I am all too familiar with the seriousness of college preparation. Taking advanced courses, preparing for standardized tests, competing to get into the best colleges, there is virtually no talk of play or leveraging the bounty of experiences once they arrive on a campus.
When I explain to students all that we have created just for their benefit, they seem surprised and somewhat confused. The idea of finding their purpose through travel, research, internships or mentored projects, seems somehow foreign and perhaps in conflict with the prescribed nature of their formalized curriculum. How do we expect them to conform to expectations and competitive standards, while at the same time stretching and soaring, diving into complexity and embracing challenge and ambiguity?
I explain that achievement and mastery are undeniably important, but are not to be sought in isolation, or as drivers of learning. They are not powerful enough to sustain our interest or commitment over time and challenge. Instead, we must seek inspiration, a sense of curiosity, purpose, a drive to innovate, or a passion to lead- goals that are bold and personal, and will provide us courage and comfort when we need them most. These are the ideas that will inspire us to play.
Perhaps it is our responsibility to introduce learners of all ages to our new playgrounds much sooner, inviting them to engage and explore the benefits for themselves. Maybe we can (should) help the community build experiential learning playgrounds of their own. For if we truly believe that experiences can empower students to take their place in a rapidly changing world, then don’t we need to stretch beyond the constraints of traditional programs and curricula, awakening and leveraging our collective sense of purpose and play?
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.