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Using Mozilla Open Badges to reward achievements in a university context

25 March 2013

With Microsoft, NASA and Disney already using Mozilla’s Open Badges system to recognise employees’ skills and achievements, the potential of the idea is indisputable. Ele Cooper reports on an event exploring whether badges could also be used to reward UCL students.

Mozilla Open Badges

Last week I attended an event organised by E-Learning Environments (ELE) to learn about Mozilla’s Open Badges scheme. From the diversity of the event’s participants, who ranged from Students’ Union and UCL Volunteering representatives to academics, it was clear that there’s a widespread awareness of the need for UCL to recognise the types of student achievements that don’t fall into formal assessment categories.

Admittedly, the Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR) allows students to document their extracurricular activities as well as their academic achievements, but nowhere are the softer skills that are developed throughout a university journey recognised: leadership, critical thinking, research skills and the like are all things that employers demand (and often complain haven’t been well enough instilled in fresh graduates) – and that’s where the badge concept could, potentially, help.

Mozilla Open Badges is a free open-source infrastructure which allows anyone to design and award badges. The badges are images which have metadata built into them, including a link back to the awarding body and badge creator (making them difficult to fake). Users can collect badges in a ‘badge backpack’ and display them on any website on which the Mozilla Open Badge plugin is supported*.

The badge concept is already being used to great effect by certain commercial organisations – eBay’s ‘top-rated seller’ badge is a good example of a company making a highly beneficial connection between behaviour and reward. And while UCL has very different goals, the ways in which badges could be used here are myriad, two obvious options being to recognise students' non-academic achievements and/or staff members' personal and professional development (PPD).

So, the event last week was designed to allow people from around the university to hear from others already using the system and discuss with each other how it might be adapted for use within our institution. Tim Riches from DigitalME, a not-for-profit organisation aimed at helping young people gain skills and confidence through new technology, was the first speaker. He told the group about Supporter to Reporter (S2R), an award-winning scheme in which school pupils become sports reporters and gain badges for their achievements.

Tim emphasised just how resistant to change the education sector is, (arguably particularly so in higher education), arguing that simply introducing computers instead of exercise books does not constitute real change(!). But with the CBI reporting that over 70% of teachers want employability to become a top curriculum priority, there is certainly an appetite for innovation – especially when its end goal is as basic and vital as finding students a job once they’ve completed their formal education. Tim talked about “using Open Badges as an opportunity to connect talent with opportunities” – an ambitious, but very positive, possibility for the future.

Next, James Michie, a secondary school teacher specialising in English and Media Studies, described Crit101, the six-week, open, online course he’s created for 14-18 year olds, which aims to build learners’ independence and accredit skills that aren’t always rewarded in education. He seemed keen on the potential of open badges, although he did admit that he had introduced them as something of an afterthought and advised people to think carefully about why and how their badges will be used before implementing them. James said that he received mixed feedback from his students about the badge element of his course, the principle concern being over whether they’d actually come in useful when it came to applying to university and so on.

The beginning of the afternoon session was devoted to badge design, with ELE’s Janina Dewitz giving each participant a different badge template to work with and setting us to work with felt-tip pens to create our own badges. As well as reminding us why we worked at UCL rather than as artists, it was an effective demonstration of the importance of good design, not only because it makes people keener to collect the badge you’re offering, but because any badge needs to convey simply and effectively the skill that it represents. (You can check out the group’s efforts in Janina's photo gallery below if you're interested.)

Towards the end of the day, ELE’s Steve Rowett asked the speakers what they thought were the key things that could make or break Mozilla Open Badges over the next year. Tim replied that getting universities on board was the key: the biggest thing UCL could do as an institution would be to commit to working with a (or a few) school(s) on a badging project. James agreed, pointing out that it just took a couple of big universities to endorse MOOCs and they’re now huge.

If the badges concept does take off, enabling employers to quickly and easily view students’ skills, (especially when they’ve been rubber-stamped by an institution such as a school or university,) could become a key way of helping people get jobs – and while this might seem pipedream-esque at the moment, it’s very much worth noting that NASA, Microsoft and Disney are using Mozilla Open Badges within their organisations already. If such major players have recognised the scheme’s potential, perhaps it would be worth UCL doing so too.

*While several sites including Moodle and Facebook support the Mozilla Open Badges plugin, LinkedIn doesn’t because it’s building its own equivalent. This could have implications for the future of the system, so it’s worth keeping abreast of this issue if you’re interested in using badges in your department.

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Page last modified on 25 mar 13 15:59

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