Interview with the original BadgeMom: on Museums, the BadgeAlliance, and More

Erin Knight

Do you think you can pass the supreme BadgeGeek test? If so, good luck. Your challenge – make it through this interview. To appease my inner BadgeGeek I reached out to Erin Knight, the Executive Director of the Badge Alliance, and her fellow Badgemom-in-arms, Carla Casilli, the B.A.’s Director of Design and Practice. To conclude my four-part DMLcentral series on badges, I needed their help. I wanted to gain a better understanding into their fascinating new organization but, more importantly, how they might just have solved a major program with badge design I explored

Carla Casilli

in my previous post: the conflict between local versus network-wide badges.

PART 1: Getting To Know You

Thank you so much for joining us today.  Erin, please tell us about your history with badges and about your recent move from the Mozilla Foundation to the Badge Alliance.

Erin:  Sure. I’m Erin Knight and I’m the Executive Director of the Badge Alliance. I was involved with the early days of thought experiments around badging that began as early as fall of 2010. A lot of forces were colliding at the same time – Peer 2 Peer University, Mozilla, the DML community – all really looking at how we can recognize certain skills, certain out-of-school learning, and actually connect that to more opportunities for youth.

So we hosted a BadgeLab at the Mozilla Festival in November 2010 and that really kind of kicked off a bunch of discussion and work. Following that conference, I was hired by Mozilla to write an initial white paper to explore digital badging and an open badging ecosystem. And then I turned to building the Mozilla contribution to this movement.

Moving to the Badge Alliance was a natural evolution, both for me and the work. Mozilla built the foundations for the work, including the initial technical and social infrastructure. But its always been bigger than any one organization and that was even more the case as this has continued to grow. It requires collaboration across many types of organizations. It requires an ecosystem.  And that level of work is definitely where my heart is. So, it really felt like the right time in all of this work to really kind of double down on how we grow this beyond ourselves.

Once upon a time, when email Listservs first became popular, the person managing one and nurturing its community, were often called Listmoms. So are you sort of like the original BadgeMom?

Erin:  I am. I’m the first BadgeMom. There are lots of BadgeMoms now but, yes, I guess I was the initial one.

Thank you, Erin. Carla, let’s bring you into the conversation. Where do you fit in?

Carla: So I’m Carla Casilli and I am the Director of Design and Practice at Badge Alliance. I had a somewhat circuitous route to the Badge Alliance and also to Open Badges in general. And in some ways I think of my own career trajectory as a perfect representation of why badges would probably be really useful and effective for lots of different people.

I’ve found my way through different careers and areas of interest throughout my life. I had been working in the world of design for many years.  And I had kind of hit a wall.  I was like, “Is this all there is?” So I went back to school and got a degree in Media Psychology and Social Change, and then began looking for work in that area. I was making a transition out of one kind of type of career into another, and it’s not always a simple transition.  But I eventually found Mozilla and the Open Badges work, and I ended up working with Erin and being really excited about how Open Badges could touch so many lives, and change so many people’s directions, and acknowledge work wherever it was happening.  And the more people I talk to, the more I found that my trajectory was actually very similar to many other people.

When the Badge Alliance was being formed, I thought it would make perfect sense and it made sense for me to transition there because badge system design work is actually much more of an ecosystem-wide approach. So, here I am, working with some of the Badge Alliance working groups.  And I’m really excited about next steps.

PART 2: The Badge Alliance

That’s a great segue over to Badge Alliance. So what is the Badge Alliance? When did it start, and why?

Erin: The Badge Alliance is a network of organizations and individuals that are contributing and collaborating around this open badging ecosystem.  Ultimately the Badge Alliance is a network. And there are already close to 300 organizations that have indicated that they want to be members or want to participate. The dedicated Badge Alliance team functions as a sort of a stewardship entity of that network as well.

So, myself, Carla, and our four other teammates, Meg Cole, Director of Communications, Jade Forester, Community Manager, Sunny Lee, Infrastructure Program Director and Chris McAvoy, Director of Technology, are a small team. That’s by design. We’re the facilitators and stewards of that broader network of organizations, and managing work across that network. The ultimate goals of the Badge Alliance are to push the open badging ecosystem forward. A big piece of that is digging into issues, areas that still need answers, and find use cases that we need to explore or research. So, the model that we were building the Badge Alliance around is called The Constellation Model For Social Change. Work is done through emergent working groups. So, we form working groups around key issues; for example, the Open Badge Standard, badges for educators, and acceptance by employers. Any member from the network can join a working group. The goal is  that each working group is defining a clear set of goals and deliverables within an initial cycle.  So, it’s not just about sharing ideas, it’s not just about talking – it’s about moving the work forward.

 We say all the time that this is going to require an ecosystem. It is that ecosystem itself that really needs to get involved and contribute in order to really move these issues, and badging in general, forward.

Are there museums participating in the alliance?  And if so, what are they looking to get out of it?

Erin:  Yes, there are museums. The Smithsonian, for example. I’m not sure if you signed-up yet, Barry-

Yup!

Erin: A lot of the museums are participating in these Cities of Learning that we’re doing. They are interested in how you do things at a local level but then connect efforts city-wide across museums.

Beyond that, right now, the main interest in the Badge Alliance from museums is around the particular issues tackled in the working groups; for example, endorsement or globalization of badges. I think part of the beauty of the Badge Alliance is that, hopefully, organizations can focus on the goals that they have and the issues that are most important to them. Our job, then, as a stewards of this network, is to connect them into a broader conversation so that we can help move their interests forward without really taking their eyes off the goal in their own work. So most of the interests that we’ve seen, in the Alliance itself, is around particular issues that museums have been struggling with.

You just referenced Cities of Learning. What is that?

Erin: Cities of Learning is the next evolution of the Chicago Summer of Learning that we did last summer. It captured all of the learning across the city of Chicago over the summer through digital badges and helped connect youth to deeper pathways of learning. The learning was then carried back into the schools and local community after the summer.

That work had a lot of successful elements. And so Chicago is doing that again. And there are now five other cities that are also going to do a pilot of badging across their cities this summer, with another four to five that are already starting to work on 2015.

Which cities are planning to do so?

Erin: Chicago, L.A., Dallas, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C. Other cities that are working on similar systems include Casablanca, Boise, St. Paul and more.

Wait. Did you just casually say Casablanca?

Erin:  Mm-hmm.

Morocco?

Erin:  Yes.  Casablanca is the sister city to Chicago apparently and they are really interested in piloting some learning opportunities and badges.

Oh, wow.

Erin:  Pretty cool, right?

Well, so it’s not just in the U.S. It’s spreading outside of the U.S. as well?

Erin :  It is.  There’s interest from Vancouver, from Quebec, a number of U.K. cities. The initial pilots are all mostly English speaking, but that obviously is a big kind of issue that we’re going to be working on for 2015 and beyond.

So when you introduced Cities of Learning, you said “we” did that. Can you clarify the relationship between the Badge Alliance and Cities of Learning?

Erin:  So, the Chicago Summer of Learning was a partnership between Mozilla, Digital Youth Network and the City of Chicago, as well as the McArthur Foundation and DePaul University. Carla and I, and the rest of the Mozilla team did a bunch of the work on the technology and badge system design. Now, moving in to the broader Cities of Learning, the bulk of that work – partnership, ecosystem development, badge system design – is now the role of a dedicated Badge Alliance working group lead by the Digital Youth Network.

Carla, Is there anything you wanted to add to Erin’s overall description of the Badge Alliance?

Carla:  Sure.  One thing that I would like to mention is that in addition to working with youth during this summer, we’re also finding some huge amount of interest in the world of workforce development and people who have exited from the academic environment. I think this is one of the opportunities, one of the places, where places like museums and libraries can have significant impact on the development of badge systems. So for people who are learning in these (what some might consider to be) unconventional places, badges can transfer that learning out in a way that they might get jobs, or it might have social opportunities presented to them.

So, we wanted to make sure that when people talk about badges, they talk about lifelong learning.  There’s typically a tendency for people to talk about youth when we’re talking about badges.  But it also includes this much, much larger, broader group of people in general, right? We’re thinking about early childhood all the way up to people who have exited the workforce and maybe are retirees. There are lots of really interesting ways that badges can be used from that standpoint.

PART 3: Local Vs. Network-wide Badges

Barry: [I’ll name myself from this point on] Thank you both for providing an introduction to the Badge Alliance, as well as the Cities of Learning. With that as background, I wanted to ask a question that follows from the recent posts I have been writing for the DMLcentral about badges.

So you both know I’ve been involved with developing digital badging systems for many years.  And there’s always been a relationship between the immediate benefits that we can actually achieve with learners and the aspirational benefits we hope will develop overtime.  The immediate benefits includes things like increasing youth’s motivation for learning or the ability for youth to develop language around their new skills and knowledge.  And these are things we can actually see and can measured within a program.

And then there are the aspirational benefits, the hope that with badges youth could transfer something outside that original learning context, outside that museum, outside that library, outside that after school program.  That badges will be a value and a benefit when viewed by someone in a college admissions office or by someone reviewing their resume for a job.  And those aspirations have continued for some time and been part of what we’ve always hoped for, that badging systems could achieve this once they move from outside individual learning contexts and move across networks that can connect them.

We’ve talked for many years about the possibility of such networks, and how we might build them, but they don’t yet exist.  So part of why I’m excited about the Badge Alliance is because it is the biggest effort yet to achieve this goal, and I think it has the best shot at pulling it off.  That was part of why I wanted to speak with both of you today.

But one of the things that I’ve grown concerned about, as we’ve put badges into practice, is a divide between our ability to design badging systems which offer value to learners within an institution versus our ability to create badges that have value throughout an ecosystem of learning settings. My concern comes from a conceptual level. A big part of the value of a badge exists within a particular learning context.   That is where its value comes from. It is situational. As a result, is is hard to bring that value outside that context. When institutions build badges, they build what they need for their particular institutions, for their particular context. But then, when I see networks form and people are thinking about skill sets that are being addressed across multiple institutions, across a city, across a body of knowledge… at the end of the day, they will be implemented at the local level and will find their full value there.

So I am concerned about our ability to take the local value of badges and transmit them across a network.

But then, last March at the Digital Media and Learning Conference, I spoke with someone who participated in the Summer of Learning and heard what I think might just be one of the most significant innovations I’ve come across in badge design this year, and that might just be the answer to solve this challenge.

The person I spoke with said that last summer they focused on their own badges, for their own institution. There had been encouragement for different organizations to collaborate in the development of badges across institutions, but that was hard and didn’t work for her.  This just confirmed my concerns. But then she said something else. She said that now what’s being discussed is something different, that there are a series of categories. Each organization will still make their own badges, their own specific badges needed in their local system, but… and here’s the secret sauce… tag them or associate them with these larger categories.

So essentially, people can still make badges localized for their own immediate needs, but they can put metadata on top of them, to give them value across the Chicago network. They don’t have to create badges that match the tags – some badges will ONLY live within their local network – but anything that CAN be tagged allows those local badges to be standardized, or globalized.

At least, that’s what I was told. A large reason why I wanted to speak with you both today was to learn if this was true, and how it was now impacting the larger Cities of Learning project?

Erin:  So, yes, you heard that correctly.

Barry: Hurray!

Erin: Within the Open Badges standard, there’s a field for tags.  It has been there for awhile and anyone can use it any way that they want.  But what really came out of the Chicago work last year, and around the thinking about network level badges, was a need to at least scaffold the use of tags, and think through what a taxonomy might look like for that network.

Last year in Chicago, the taxonomy was around STEAM (STEM plus Art), as well as a particular type of badges. Carla actually can speak to this much better than I can because she designed the system.  There are participation badges, that you got based on showing up. Skill badges tied to an assessment demonstrating a particular skills. Achievement badges which were a kind of combinations of skill badges.

So what a STEAM badge meant – what it meant to have to be categorized as STEAM — was standardized, as well as what the types were. Carla did a ton of work with over a thousand badges that came from different organizations, to map them against this taxonomy so that we understand both their content and connect them into other learning opportunities for youth. We want to have some sense of how to evaluate them or rank them. So obviously a participation badge was weighted slightly differently than an achievement badge, which was more robust and heavily assessed.

We did that for Chicago to make sense of this crazy deluge of badges that we had. And that worked really well for being able to pull together such disparate pieces across so many different organizations.  And I think there is a lot that we learned. Just categorizing things as science or technology or engineering was a little bit too abstract. It didn’t often highlight the nuances within the learning opportunities.

So, where are we going with Cities of Learning? Chicago is building the taxonomy further. It’s much, much bigger at this point. We’ve talked a lot about it and about how we scaffold the other cities.  And the decision is really, you know, obviously not to impose a single taxonomy on every city, or on every network, but to simply help them work towards their own taxonomy. So I think that’s big.

I’ll say a warning, however, and then I’ll let Carla respond to this as well. You know, there have been people that have been asking for a taxonomy since day one, and really wanting Mozilla at that time (who was kind of the main player in the early days) to define the taxonomy.  Mozilla resisted that, and I think even at Badge Alliance we still, at this point, pretty firmly resist creating one taxonomy to fit all, because the whole point of badging is to be flexible and innovative.

That’s not to say that taxonomies are not important. I think what we’re still finding with the network-level badges is that to be able to define them within this network or broader community is very valuable, but without forcing the whole ecosystem into a particular bucket.

Barry: What I’m hearing is that people are not being told what badges to use but, rather, are being offered a taxonomy of categories within which they can situate their badges. So if there are science institutions around the city, they’re not being told to use the same badge for those who learn cladistics. Instead, they will each make their own cladistics badge, in whatever way is meaningful within their institution, but all of those badges might then be associated with each other by being tagged within the same location within the city-wide taxonomy. As a result, this larger system can know that that same or related content is being addressed across those institutions. And then you can create scaffolding within the overarching system that can build on that aggregated data to offer a learner recommendations, or to connect them with others who are also interested in a science learnings across the city.  Am I understanding that correctly?

Carla: In addition, part of the idea of the constellation model is just to start to have these conversations happen and in ways that feel a little more organic. For example, Workforce and Access to Higher Ed are two separate working groups. They are each diving deeply into what they need to address, and that makes a lot of sense. And then the Badge Alliance can be used as a sounding board, and later, in a perfect world, as a steward for the ideas and relationships that emerge.

So we’re encouraging people to focus on the environments that they think need the most work or help or insight. And then saying to them, “Okay, that’s great. Now, let’s see how it maps to other thing across the entire ecosystem.”  And I think that’s the real beauty and potential of the Badge Alliance. It’s starting to do that interesting pattern matching across different industries and areas.

So if somebody wants to learn more about any of the projects you talked about or want to get involved, we’re should they go?

Erin: If people are interested in the Badge Alliance, we have an initial website at badgealliance.org which links you directly to a form where you can indicate your interest. You can sign up for one of the nine working groups that we have, or suggest a new one, or simply just request to be kept updated on the news.  Or people can reach out to us directly to continue the conversation.  We are at badges@badgealliance.org.

Carla, Erin, thank you both so much for talking with us today.

Carla:  Thank you, Barry. It was a lot of fun.

Erin:  You’re welcome. Thanks for having us.

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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