Teens—especially in Pittsburgh—have tons of opportunities to learn outside of school. They can make music with digital tools, experiment with circuitry, and program LED lights. With the help of mentors and others, they expand their horizons and learn new skills, while no doubt benefiting their schoolwork.

Yet most of that out-of-school learning goes undocumented. So how can we track which skills kids pick up when they’re away from the classroom? And once they’ve mastered those skills, how can we get better at helping kids build on them?

Educators and students will explore these questions and more on November 21 at the Pittsburgh Learning Pathways Summit. They will gather with librarians, artists, and researchers to explore innovative concepts, like digital badges and connected learning pathways, as a continued step in connecting in- and out-of-school learning.

A main item on the agenda is digital badges—a new way to document the whole gamut of kids’ learning. Badges are digital credentials that let kids document the skills they’ve learned. Because the badges are virtual, they can convey what the badge holder learned in much more detailed fashion. For example, if you want to find out what a badge like “audio production” really entails, you can click on it and read a description of the skills associated with it or hear the song created at various stages of production. Badges can help present out-of-school learning in ways that make universities and companies pay attention. Simply put, they can give young people credit where credit is due.

Digital badges aren’t just an idea. Massive open online courses (MOOCs), high-tech employers, K–12 programs, and more than 40 universities accept them. Even NASA uses them: “There are common skill sets that NASA and other organizations are seeking,” said Leland Melvin, NASA’s former associate administrator for education. “Badging can be used in a cross-cutting way to help learners, educators, and institutions meet the demands of the future.”

Other examples include:

  • TechShop Pittsburgh, which offered a “Maker Mindset” badge this summer that rewarded kids for learning to think like makers. Earning the badge meant the learner had started approaching problems with an engineer mentality while engaging in the entire making process.
  • The Young Adult Library Services developed a badge system to recognize, improve, and enhance the skills of library staff working with teens.
  • The Providence After School Alliance, which formally launched an open badge system that captures and publicly recognizes student learning in arts, STEM, civics, and other subjects. Students can even use badges to earn elective credits toward graduation from Providence public high schools and can include badges as part of their applications to local colleges.

Badges also help adults who design programs for kids. “I was really excited when I found out that this was happening in Pittsburgh,” said Rachel Shepherd in a ConnectedLearning.tv webinar last summer. Shepherd, the former youth and media program manager at the Steeltown Entertainment Project, explained that badges help her and her colleagues ask themselves what skills they’re ultimately trying to teach.

In a way, adding structure is what badges are all about. Badges can be the breadcrumbs along the pathways of learning, documenting what kids are learning along the way.