Recently I have been working on developing a badging system for the online courses we run at the JISC RSC Scotland, using the Mozilla Open Badges Infrastructure (OBI). This has required a bit of thought but before going into what I have been considering, it would probably be worth describing our approach to our courses and how we currently recognise participant achievement.
Our Learning OnLine (LOL ) courses build on a design I first developed about 10 years ago with Jenny Blair from the Robert Gordon University, while I was based at the University of Edinburgh. We were working on a national project to embed e-learning in social work education and developed an e-moderating course (using the terminology popular at that time) to teach the skills one might call on to facilitate an online community including a community of learners. The course was fully online, which was quite unusual at the time, and drew on Jenny’s superior knowledge of Gilly Salmon’s thinking around e-moderating and e-tivities as well as taking inspiration from the work of Etienne Wenger and Nancy White on developing online communities. The course featured both synchronous and asynchronous activities including a lot of opportunities for discussion, ‘sparks’ to get that going and individualised feedback. We wanted to demonstrate that learning online could be an engaging and social experience and not be a case of sitting in isolation, working through asynchronous activities, which much of the e-learning at that time often was.
The design seemed to work, creating an active group dynamic, with many previously self-confessed ‘technophobes’ commenting on how much fun they had participating in the course. I’ve been developing and delivering other iterations of courses using this kind of design ever since, adding elements you might find in a MOOC (such as opportunities for discussion using personally managed tools like twitter for backchannels during webinars, encouraging blogging, creating knowledge bases using wikis etc).
The Learning Online courses are being developed with Celeste McLaughlin and Joan Walker at the JISC RSC Scotland. They focus on topics relating to learning and teaching with digital technologies, which can be used for CPD. They promote communication, collaboration, peers building on and adding to each other’s knowledge, sharing expertise and feeding back to others so that each cohort should end up with course material pertinent and relevant to them. Some theory, resources and sparks are provided by my colleagues and me to prompt the discussion but much of the course content is created by the community, with feedback and signposts to other relevant materials or networks helping each participant to develop and extend their own knowledge.
This kind of course structure places a lot of demands on the facilitators and the participants. To encourage discourse, the facilitators need to create a comfortable environment for dialogue to take place within, where participants feel safe and motivated to contribute, they must encourage discussion, nudge conversations to encompass relevant points, provide adequate sparks and motivating elements. The courses are also richer, deeper and more rewarding based on the inputs of the participants. If the group won’t discuss and share, everyone gets less out of it. If they do contribute and share, each individual will benefit from the learning of the group as a whole but will also often take away personal tips, pertinent to their specific needs, that have been provided by their peers.
Influenced by David Nicol’s work on peer review and his argument that it is cognitively more challenging to give feedback than to receive it, we include opportunities for peer review, where the facilitators feed back on the review rather than on the participant-generated content that had been reviewed. To place a value on this kind of peer work and the creation of the course by the community, we wanted to recognise the efforts of those who contributed a lot and who influenced the depth and richness of the potential learning experience for their peers. So we developed a Peer Influencer award, which was first awarded during a course in May this year.
The award was well received. We provided pointers for course participants to think about and used an online polling system for them to vote for someone they felt had contributed significantly to their experience of the course. Anyone who got 3 or more votes, would get Peer Influencer stamped on their Certificate of Completion. Now we are trying to create a system to recognise this achievement further than just a stamp on a piece of paper.
I really enjoyed Stephen Downes’ recent blog post which considered assessment and recognition from the perspective of being rewarded for what you contribute and this has cemented my feeling that it would be worth making more of the Peer Influencer award. Accrediting our courses through an educational body would be quite a lengthy process so we are considering our own way of recognising and accrediting the achievement of those who complete the course. Participants gain the Certificate of Completion signed by the Manager of the JISC RSC Scotland but the question for us is how we convey the value of the award. What if people don’t know about JISC and our work? How does anyone know the level or quality of work participants had to demonstrate, in order to complete the activities? How do we add that kind of information to a bit of paper?
I don’t think we will. What I would like to do is make the course completion information and award more transparent, portable and visible and I think the obvious choice for this would be to issue open badges. By using the OBI, participants could add their Completer or Peer Influencer badge to their badge backpack (portfolio) and list it on any site that will display open badges (e.g. like this WordPress blog site).
Going down this route means the JISC RSC Scotland would essentially be the ‘awarding body’ and this places the onus on us to ensure and demonstrate the quality, criteria, validity, consistency and level of the award ourselves. How can we demonstrate these things? The courses are not currently formally assessed but the Certificate of Completion recognises that students have completed all the activities to a high enough standard, all of which is determined by the facilitators who developed the course and whose experience means we can make judgements on this. If we are going to be transparent about what has been achieved though, I think we will need to make the quality criteria more explicit, which we could do by creating more formalised matrices for course activities which would help with consistency and also make it easier for us to pass the delivery of the course over to colleagues. From what I understand of the OBI, access to examples of these matrices could be ‘baked’ into the badge so that anyone viewing a Completer’s badge, could look at the criteria for gaining the award, which will give them a better sense of the quality and validity of it.
The next step is to create a badge and as members of the team have recently moved their blogs over to WordPress, it is likely we will use the badges plugin for that and follow Doug Belshaw’s How to: Issue #openbadges in 5 steps using WordPress and WPBadger. Overall, I think the open badges will mean more to participants, even if the use of digital badges is at such early stages that the value of them might not be so apparent at the moment. Currently there aren’t many places to display badges and things are still being worked out around issuing them and displaying the metadata but I’m hopeful that they could prove useful for recognising the achievement of those participants who successfully complete our courses. My thinking is, surely something that can be displayed in a range of places online, can link to the assessment criteria and evidence as well as to information about the issuer (e.g. their website), will have more credence and be potentially more useful than a bit of paper locked away in a drawer?