From Mara to Mara (1)

We are in the middle of a pandemic. Like everyone around me, I have gone virtually nowhere in the last few weeks. An occasional walk or quick errand in the car. No need for coordinated outfits or dressing up. And yet, this morning, I organized my closet, initiating the great migration of my spring and summer wardrobe and putting my heavy winter things into storage. For me, this is yearly therapy. Despite the usual disappointments of spring in Buffalo, NY, and the looming frost that mocks my impatience, I boldly prepare with color and vibrancy. Of course, this spring I need it more than ever.

When I opened my summer totes, I was overcome with emotion. I realized that for the past 10+ years this ritual transcends seasonal anticipation. As I looked at the clothing before me- the dresses, skirts and colorful cloths- memories of Tanzania washed over me, the trips themselves but also their preparation, selecting items that would be good for travel- the long plane rides, the dusty roads, and bumpy safaris. I chose long skirts for the villages and special dresses for our dinners by the sea. These experiences- complete my with thoughts, conversations, and moments- had permeated the clothing and continue to emanate now, as I sit here typing on my bed, staring at my open wardrobe, feeling blessed beyond words.

It is true that my May trip has been postponed for how long, I cannot know. But rather than sadness, I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude, thankful for my relationships and my ability to live vicariously through the movement and growth that continue. Ironically, while I was sorting through my summer clothing, I received a call from Stephen Marwa, who was checking in from Tanzania. Although we had been maintaining weekly conversations, we had fallen off, due to the virus. I have to admit that I was hesitant to answer Stephen’s call, unsure I could hold my usual energy and attention. I am so thankful I answered.

We talked briefly about the Corona outbreak, exchanging updates and news. But the conversation quickly moved to the week ahead. On Monday, they will begin the community survey work, using the instrument that we helped create through collaboration. Although we intended to send funds associated with our students’ project, everything had come to a halt. Luckily, I was able to organize an informal fundraiser that went forward even in the face of social distancing. Through the generosity of colleagues and friends, and the power of GoFundMe, I was able to send $450, which in Tanzania still goes far. Stephen assured me that he would use these precious funds wisely, since there is no way of knowing when external funding will resume. We agreed that the work must continue, and the need for nimbleness, leadership and tenacity are greater than ever. Stephen shared that the heavy rains have washed out many roads, making his initial plans to focus on Musoma Rural untenable. Instead, he will conduct the survey on an island in Rorya, traveling by boat, joined by students from Buhare Community Development Training Institute who are eager to be involved. Any remaining funds will be used to start the mapping work.

I asked him about soap making, which is growing in popularity as communities worry about Corona and learn of the importance of hand washing. We spoke briefly of other projects, emphasizing the importance of a new website that will be designed by a UB student, showcasing ongoing initiatives and building capacity for collaboration and support. I mentioned that I would come as soon as I could, but that was a given and didn’t need to be said. Stephen mentioned his appreciation, but only quickly, since it was also understood. We are well beyond these formalities and both recognize that our journeys are forever interconnected.

How ironic that things are moving more quickly in Tanzania than here in New York. It’s as if we are in a state of suspended animation. Perhaps right now, I need Mara Tanzania more than they need me. But I am grateful that I can come along, sharing their growth and movement, brought to me through Stephen’s voice, social media posts, and my beautiful summer clothes.

I hope to share these updates with you, whoever and wherever you are. I have a feeling that I am not the only one in need of movement, connectivity and relevance. In reality, we are not so far away, and we are all in this together.

Telling Compelling Stories about Ourselves and Our Achievements

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…

Digital Badge Systems and why we Need Them

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.

Traveling WAY beyond Global Learning

Photo by Doug Levere

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.

As our universities deepen investments in experiential learning, we need students who are ready and able to play

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?

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

IMG_3595

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?

giraffe

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.