Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Motivating the Twenty-First Century Teacher in a Digital Badge Ecosystem

In collaboration with Donna Mahar, Ph.D.


SUNY Empire State College’s Virtual Teacher Incubator in the School for Graduate Studies hopes to implement a series of digital badges during the next year to increase the recognition of quality teacher practices, projects, skills, and experiences.  Traditional assessments of teacher development, .i.e. the Danielson model  (The Danielson Group, 2011), may miss specific teacher successes as it focuses on a closed-rubric of unsatisfactory, basic, proficient, and distinguished categorical distinctions (Danielson, 2011).  As a non-traditional assessment that focuses on individualized achievements, badges in the Virtual Teacher Incubator create another level of accredited validation of teaching abilities that have been demonstrated inside or outside of the classroom environment.  The digital badging ecosystem not only provides authentic recognition of accomplishments for performance evaluations and professional development, but also creates a motivating learning community of shared and evaluated teaching practices across New York State.

"A commitment to professional learning is important, not because teaching is of poor quality and must be "fixed," but rather because teaching is so hard that we can always improved it.  No matter how good a lesson is, we can always make it better.  Just as in other professions, every teacher has the responsibility to be involved in a career-long quest to improve practice." (Danielson, 2011)

What is Badging in the Virtual Teacher Incubator?

Badges in the Virtual Teacher Incubator (VTI) are a type of open assessment that strive to capture life-long learning, educational experiences, and skill development.  Badges are designed to keep the philosophies of open education and assessment in mind: educational practices, assets, and resources that are accessible, student-centered, shared, remixable, and innovative (Butcher, 2011, pp. 6-7).   Thus, badges in the Virtual Teacher Incubator are focused on the individual needs of novice, mentee teachers and experienced, veteran teachers.   Teachers may apply or be recommended for badges across skill levels (basic to mastery) and learning modalities (informal to formal learning environments).  A teacher may create a website that uses expert-level, error-free JavaScript for her art class assignments and group critiques and earn a badge for 21st Century Skills as recommended by peers who understand both the complexity of building a website and the quality of teaching involved (for example see Javascript Expert Badge Challenge, 2011).  This teacher may have learned these JavaScript skills informally through online tutorials, an open eTextbook, or a massive-open-online course or formally through a community or technical college, but can still receive recognition for life-long learning.  Her district may also not have the staff accessible to properly assess her website design and teaching practices, which the badge system in the VTI creates through a community of teachers and crowd-sourcing.  Teachers interested in creating their own websites or developing their 21st Century Skills will also be able to benefit from the digital badge ecosystem, since badges are shared and linked directly to the assessed project(s) as evidence.  If a novice teacher hopes to create a website using JavaScript for their World War I unit, they will be able to clearly see the skills, experiences, and knowledge needed to create a website and remix the materials for their own purposes by viewing an experienced teacher’s badge (Halavais, 2010).
The community of novice and veteran teachers, professionals in the field, graduate faculty, and badging experts encourages multiple entry points for badge assessment.  Instead of the static top-down model often employed by universities, teachers in the VTI can receive badge recommendation from a variety of authentic sources, which will increase motivation and encourage participation (Huling & Resta, 2001).  Antin and Churchill (2011) argue that badges are a way of motivating participants through “goal setting, instruction, reputation, status/affirmation, and group identification” (p. 1); factors which coincide with the methods of the VTI.  Besides recognizing skills, experiences, and knowledge that already exists, badges in the VTI promote life-long learning through a social community of teaching professionals.
Those participants assessing other teachers will also benefit from the process; “[a]s mentor teachers assist their protégées in improving their teaching, they also improve their own professional competency” (Huling & Resta, 2001, p. 2).   Novice teachers can assess the skills of their mentors, allowing immediate feedback on response time, student support skills, and clarity and knowledge of content area (Danielson, 2011).  Not only will this serve to motivate and refine the practices of veteran teachers, but also give novice teachers a voice in their professional development and decrease the one of the most common reasons new teachers leave-a lack of support and voice- as published by the National Education Association after surveying 7,000 teachers (Kopkowski, 2008).  Badges provide individualized assessments that go beyond the skills, experiences, and knowledge gained in traditional, static, brick-and-mortar teaching, to include life-long, informal education for and across a whole community of learners (Davidson, Unpacking Badges for Lifelong Learning, 2011).

How is Badging Different from Prior Learning Assessment?

Although prior learning assessment (PLA)-awarding college-credit to demonstrated college-level learning-does overlap with some of the ideals of badging, there are some stark differences particularly in what can be assessed or evaluated and who can do it.   PLA, mostly done at the undergraduate level, often requires students to capture their knowledge of a particular subject in a series of narrative essays and interview with an expert in the field.  Badges do not require a particular level of mastery, demonstrated learning, nor any association with college credit.  VTI participants can be recommended for badges by mentees, mentors, faculty, or badge moderators; it is not just a top-down model or a student-initiated model.   Badging does not attempt to replace graded courses, prior learning assessment, or traditional classrooms.  Each of these systems has a well-established place in education, and each performs an important role in evaluating and promoting learning.  Badging does, however, attempt to capture and motivate the intellectual/skill development, community collaboration, and experiences that are not currently being assessed inside or outside college walls (Davidson, Why Badges Work Better than Grades, 2011).  Davidson, a founding member of HASTAC, explains, “Why do badges work better than grades? Obviously they don't in all situations. […] Badges are simply another way, a more flexible way, of certifying a range of skills that our machine-age multiple choice mode of testing doesn't fully comprehend but that are crucial to the ways we live, work, and learn” (Davidson, Why Badges Work Better than Grades, 2011). Similarly, badges can certify that a novice English teacher has created a dynamic unit plan on the Romantics, shared it as an open source, edited it according to feedback from other English teachers across the state, and introduced it to her students using a Wiki; grades and PLA cannot fully evaluate all of those discreet practices in the same way, especially for teachers who are not enrolled in or have completed college or graduate school.

How are Badges Issued and Displayed?

Since badges do not have to be associated with a college or university, and therefore, can represent achievements outside of the classroom, badge earners in the VTI can earn and display their badges in a variety of ways beyond a degree or transcript.  The VTI badging ecosystem is designed to allow for multiple entry points-any participant can recommend any other for a badge.  This system lets a mentee teacher both identify the support and communication skills of a mentor teacher and distinguish a first-year teacher in the Rochester who has successfully completed several classroom management strategies.  A mentor teacher and badge moderator can recommend another mentor for a Moderator badge for an expert Second Life webinar on the advantages of badging, while recommending a mentee teacher for an introductory Virtual Learning Environment badge for attending.  In this system, participants in the VTI also learn about the badging process, which they can incorporate in their classrooms.  Badge moderators will award badges based on these recommendations and the badge criteria.
After a participant is recommended for and awarded a badge by the VTI badge moderators, they will have the option of pushing the badge to a personal or school website, digital resume, social networking site, or organization, using Mozilla’s digital badge backpack (Mozilla, 2012).  A middle school teacher may want to display an adolescent literacy badge on her school’s website during Banned Book Week or on a digital resume to show that she has attended an American Library Association conference specifically addressing how to teach The Lord of the Flies and Of Mice and Men.  This also allows earners to group badges together into a meaningful collection before they are displayed or only display a particular badge or group of badges to specific individuals.  Teachers can group all of their badges applicable to the Living Environment curriculum together or badges related to classroom management and group work during lab assignments.  The VTI will not release badges to the public without the earners permission in compliance with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), and instead, let badge earners decide how and where their badges will be displayed.   The possibilities for earning, recommending, and displaying badges are limitless as participants in the VTI can create and use digital badges that fit their individual needs while still exemplifying the high standards at SUNY Empire State College.

What Do Badges Look Like?

                Participants in the VTI will be able to earn a variety of different badges including major badges, minor badges, and self-created badges.  For example, the major Teacher Toolbox badge could consist of three or more minor component badges that demonstrate specific skills needed in the classroom such as Theory & Research, Content Knowledge, and Classroom Management.  While some major badges will have specific, pre-designed standards, badge earners can approach them in a myriad of ways or create self-designed badges that focus on their individual abilities and experiences.  To earn the Moderator major badge, which allows VTI participants to award badges to others and self-perpetuates the badging ecosystem, participants must have first earned the Mentor badge, but may demonstrate their capacity to assess, communicate, and support mentees and mentors differently.  A veteran teacher who wants to earn the Mentor badge may create an online, support network of teachers in urban areas, earning him a self-designed Urban Issues badge.  Another teacher may earn the Mentor badge by peer recommendation after advising a mentee through a complicated series of ePortfolio rubrics.  These experiences may also be indicative of 21st century skills, another possible major badge and a factor in the core curriculum standards in New York State schools.  These experiences with badging and the skills demonstrated in these component badges may lead to the Moderator badge, but there are multiple entry points to complete it.  Badging in the VTI hopes to capture the diverse ways that teacher learn, demonstrate, and experience achievement.

Conclusion & Future Uses

The potential of badging in the VTI may translate to other educational practices and projects within SUNY Empire State College.  Although badges in the VTI can represent more than prior knowledge, they may lead to the development of a prior learning assessment request.  Using the skills and digital work acquired during the badging process, students at SUNY Empire State College may further develop their knowledge of a particular topic into robust learning narratives and dynamic evaluator interviews.  The development of the digital badge ecosystem in the VTI may also lead to an authentic way to assess quality writing, editing, and remixing skills in an open educational resource (OER) repository.  Following the badge model in the VTI, OER contributors would be able to recommend each other for badges based on a variety of skills and content quality.  Adding to the badge ecosystem will promote the badges awareness and further motivate participation in the VTI.  As teachers continue to require ongoing professional growth and development through demonstrable skills, knowledge, and practices, the digital badging ecosystem in the VTI allows for assessment and accreditation of their work by peers, veteran teachers, graduate faculty, and badge experts from across New York State.  Through badging teachers can meet the individualized needs of their school districts, grade-level, or education by designing, earning, and displaying badges in a variety of ways.


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Butcher, N. (2011). A Basic Guide to Open Educational Resources (OER). (A. Kanwar, & S. Uvalic-Trumbic, Eds.) Vancouver: Commonwealth of Learning.
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Davidson, C. (2011, March 21). Why Badges Work Better than Grades. Retrieved March 13, 2012, from HASTAC:
Halavais, A. (2010, December 2). What Makes Up a Badge? Retrieved March 12, 2012, from A Thaumaturgical Compendium:
Huling, L., & Resta, V. (2001, November). Teacher Mentoring as Professional Development. ERIC Clearinghouse on Teaching and Teacher Education. Retrieved March 12, 2012, from
Javascript Expert Badge Challenge. (2011). Retrieved March 12, 2012, from Peer to Peer University:
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Mozilla. (2012). What are Open Badges? Retrieved March 15, 2012, from Open Badges:

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Motivating the Twenty-First Century Teacher in a Digital Badge Ecosystem by Amy McQuigge is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.  

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