Over the past few months, After School Matters has been working closely with Youtopia to pilot CSTEMBE digital badges in five STEM programs. We’ve been learning a great deal through observations of badging in practice, as well as through conversations with instructors who are implementing the badges. Two important things that have emerged are context and relationships, and both of these have impacted the design of a new 21st century badge that we are piloting this summer in two programs.
CSTEMBE digital badges require that learners, across different institutions and programs, submit evidence of completing certain criteria. How different programs make meaning of the evidence and criteria is context-dependent. So, for example, “building models” in a technology-driven journalism program manifests differently than it does in a robotics program. In order for learners to make sense of the criteria, we’ve observed instructors massage the language, provide guiding questions, explicitly discuss the criteria, and even build out worksheets. Some of this may seem obvious; in order for the badges to be integrated into the teaching and learning of a program, the badge criteria must reflect what is actually happening in the program. But it’s also important to point out that there is an important sociological implication to using the right language and providing the right context for a content-specific (e.g. STEM) digital badge. The apprenticeship model – which is used by After School Matters for its programs – is all about learning and acquiring the language, tools, and practices of a trade or discipline. So the vocabulary that is referenced for content-based digital badges really does matter and it needs to reflect the context (i.e. the discipline and community of practice).
In the CSTEMBE pilot, we observed how two programs provided deeper discipline-specific context for their STEM digital badges was by literally creating two new badges reflecting the language and priorities of the subject matter. For example, a journalism program developed a PSA badge using Youtopia on the spot, preferring to use that over the CSTEMBE badges because it was more relevant to their actual work. A second program created a digital badge called “Understanding Series and Parallel Circuits.” While the goal of CSTEMBE digital badges is to provide a cross-institutional platform for STEM skills, it is recommended that future implementation explicitly engage with the idea of providing context. After all, our learners are not broadly engaging with STEM, they are building capital in specific fields with distinct language and practices – robotics, engineering, journalism, app development, etc. In what ways can digital badges further capital within the context of a discipline or practice?
Relationships Matter, Too!
As we’ve observed, the evidence that learners submit for their badge criteria is a reflection and feedback loop with their instructors. Yes, learners are documenting what they’re learning, but this is linked to their communication with their instructors. It has been interesting to observe the teens submitting virtual evidence to their instructor, who is physically in the same room. We’ve observed back and forth discussions between learners and instructors as badging is happening. Ultimately, the badges do not exist in a vacuum; they are artifacts of learning and we know – particularly in the out-of-school time environment – that sociocultural interaction and relationships impact how learning happens. Given that, I hope to see more research on the question of how badging is mediated through social relationships with peers and the mentor/instructor.
Applying Lessons Learned
Over the summer, After School Matters will be piloting a skills-based digital badge with learners in two programs. To develop this badge, we invited a group of instructors to be thought partners with members of After School Matters’ digital badge committee on what 21st century skill development looks like in different programs. The CSTEMBE pilot was incredibly instrumental in guiding our approach to facilitating this working group. First, we wanted to find a common 21st century skill thread across programs, while acknowledging the importance of and need for discipline-specific context. Second, the rich evidence that accompanies skill development is embedded in the relationship between the learner and his/her peers, mentors, and instructors. So we wanted to ensure that the digital badge was actually strengthened by social interactions.
What has emerged is a Planning for Success digital badge that centers on setting and striving for goals. We aligned the badge to Illinois’ social/emotional learning standards, tapped into existing language around setting SMART goals, and purposely kept the evidence for the badge open with the intention of allowing instructors to define and drive both the context and social interaction required to actually set and achieve one’s goals. We’re excited to see what emerges from this small pilot and to further our understanding of digital badges in practice.