In addition to checking out books this summer at the East Liberty branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, students were experimenting with photography. Some were natural photographers. They’d been taking shots and using PhotoShop on their owcarnegie-library-of-pittsburgh-the-labs-photography-360x360n time for some time. But the workshops at the Labs @ CLP, the library’s digital space for teens, gave them a chance to take that learning to the next level.

Experts say the learning kids are doing on their own time, outside of schools, needs more attention. How do we recognize this learning? How do we take better advantage of the new kinds of information and online collaboration available to today’s young people?

One possible answer that got some traction in 2014 is Open Badges.

Digital Badging 101

Digital badges have been around for some time now, but 2014 was a big year for badging—though they weren’t immune to a few bumps along the way. If you haven’t been following the evolution of digital badges, here’s the rundown of what they are and what they’re intended to do.

the-ellis-school-3d-printing-explorer-360x360At their core, badges are a digital way to document learning that happens outside of school—a way to document and show the world (and potential employers one day) what you know and how you came to know it. Or, as Taiji Nelson, naturalist educator at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy who issued badges to students this summer, put it: “It’s like scout badges meet LinkedIn.”

Last summer badges hit the mainstream in new ways, through several City of Learning programs across the country, including here in Pittsburgh. Cities of Learning knit together many out-of-school learning opportunities for kids, ranging from programs in museums to pop-up fashion shows.

Badges were an integral part of at least three cities’ programs last summer, including Los Angeles, Dallas, and Chicago. In Pittsburgh, about 3,000 children participated in 20 programs that offered 71 distinct badges. Youth earned approximately 1,800 badges by summer’s end.

pittsburgh-parks-conservancy-beginner-tree-id-360x360“Right now grades belong to the institution, your institution issues your transcript,” said Cathy Lewis-Long in a recent interview, “Whereas with badges, a learner can earn badges throughout a city.

It’s not only Cities of Learning that are rolling out badges. For several years now, organizations as varied as NASA; the University of California, Davis; the National 4-H Council; the Manufacturing Institute; and the Department of Veteran Affairs have been using badges.

Yet, although the roster is impressive, badges have not quite hit prime time yet.

Bumps in the Road

Badges have had their share of bumps along the road, including challenges with infrastructure in the Cities of Learning programs. Badges have also been met with a few raised eyebrows among the digital learning cognoscenti, like Henry Jenkins and Mitch Resnick.

techshop-pittsburgh-maker-mindset-311x360Some of the reservations are insightful and challenging. Do badges, for example, risk becoming nothing more than an empty “achievement selfie” for kids, chronicling every achievement but stripping the intrinsic joy from learning? Resnick, for one, equated badges to those who climb the Appalachian Trail to earn “peaking” cred (attaining as many peaks as possible on a day), which seems to miss the point of being on the trail in the first place.

Others, like Jenkins, worry that adult-proffered badges kill the quasi-subversive joy of informal learning—“no adults allowed!”—especially in this already overscheduled, blue-ribboned world.

Others wonder, do we really need yet another credential to join certifications, nanodegrees, microcredentials, licenses, points, Scout badges, and more?

All of this is to be expected when a new model tries to establish itself (“disrupt,” if you must) amid an established way of doing things—aka grades or resumés.

Part of the criticism also stems from the “open” in Open Badges. As of yet, there’s not a lot of clear structure to earning badges. Kids can earn and showcase badges from a variety of stand-alone sources—a museum here, a YMCA there—and for a variety of skills and talents. But few organizations as of yet have created a series of badges that build on one another across the different organizations.

Photo/Ben Filio

2014 Open Badges Summit to Reconnect Learning. Photo/Ben Filio

Paving a Way Forward

Pittsburgh may have a solution. In addition to piloting badges through the City of Learning initiative,The Sprout Fund has recruited about 120 educators and subject matter experts across seven different focus areas, such as Making, coding, STEAM, or career-readiness. Like curriculum designers in schools, these working groups are developing a shared set of competencies for learning outside of school, or “learning pathways.” The working groups are also developing which artifacts kids need to create to prove mastery, like an audio recording to earn a badge in digital recording.

Afterschool providers across the region could conceivably use these competencies for awarding badges, and to identify gaps in programming where essential competencies or skills are not currently being offered in programs.

As Ryan Coon, program officer at the Sprout Fund, explained, “In a way, we’re asking them to think like curriculum designers in schools. The process is also helping some of these smaller providers professionalize their planning and offerings. It’s helping them set goals for the kids and for their own programs.”

RMLDC  Remix BadgeBadges could help to make these pathways clear. Kids can earn badges as they progress along the curriculum that the working groups have created, and organizations can sharpen their thinking about what kids should learn in their programs and how.

Marijke Hecht, director of education at Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, which has created five badges for their Young Naturalists summer program, said that the process of issuing badges has helped them better understand their mission. Hecht said badging helped push her and her colleagues to narrow in program delivery, goals, and how to best evaluate student learning.

“The benefit was that it encouraged us to look really closely at the learning goals that we had for this out-of-school experience,” Hecht said. “When we do our school programs, we go through a lot of depth in tying lesson plans to state standards. But with informal learning, you don’t always have to do that. This pushed us to go a little deeper on criteria.”

For Hecht and others starting to dabble in badges, there’s still some work to be done to make badges easier to use and understand.

“We need people thinking about where do these things live and how do they get communicated. I really hope that gets cleared up, because I think there’s so much potential with badges. I think our kids would really like there to be clear recognition for the kinds of things they do out of school.”

Kathleen Costanza contributed to this story.