Language Learning – Better with Open Badge eCredentials

I had the pleasure of presenting at the annual TEAM conference in Winnipeg this week. TEAM stands for “Teaching English as an Additional Language (EAL) to Adults in Manitoba”, a portmanteau term for an inclusive volunteer organization that puts on an ambitious program every year – there were 13 tracks in this year’s conference.
EAL is a key enabler of immigrant integration in Canada and I go way back with immigration: my father served as an immigration officer for 20 years and I spent some time growing up overseas. In my career, I’ve worked on several learning projects related to language learning and settlement at the federal and provincial levels, enough to know a fair bit about the immigration and settlement landscape here.
As usual, I adapted my evolving presentation about Open Badges and ePortfolios to language learning, using additional research. This was also an opportunity to talk about, the Open Badge eCredential service that my company Learning Agents has recently launched in Canada, in partnership with Discendum, of Open Badge Factory fame:
Here’s the presentation, embedded from SlideShare:
[slideshare id=62464008&doc=team2016v02aforupload-160527115949]
I blogged about the broader landscape of Newcomer settlement back in April: (eCredential Pathways for Immigrants and Refugees). This post is more about the language learning side – my chance to reflect on new and old thoughts that occurred to me getting the presentation out in the context of the TEAM conference.

Migration = transformation

Picking up your life and moving it to another country is a marvelous opportunity to re-invent yourself, especially if the Plan A you arrived with isn’t working out. Maybe you’re having trouble getting your credentials recognized, or your English isn’t as good as you thought it was, or you’re having trouble building a network.
It’s an opportunity to re-think your career, your life purpose, even your identity. This opens the door for transformative learning tools such as ePortfolio, where you can begin to reflect on your life experience, your gifts, your interests and your emerging opportunities. Open Badge eCredentials can work with ePortfolios in mutually supportive, recursive ways: ePortfolio evidence packages that lead to Open Badges that fold into new evidence packages, etc.

Transformation can be a long journey

Learning seldom happens in a straight line: it can take place on multiple fronts at multiple rates at different times. This can be confusing and hard to track. Or it can seem glacial – too slow to track.
In EAL, there’s often a learning plateau around the middle levels of CLB 5-6, where progress seems to slow down. This can be disheartening for people trying to achieve CLB levels 7-8, generally agreed to be the employability level.
IELTS certificate
Recognizing learning achievements with Open Badges can help language learners visualize their continuing progress as they move through these development doldrums.

Educators of newcomers also need to learn, and in similar ways

Language learners and their professional instructors both qualify as adults with adult learning preferences and needs. Both need a mixture of formal, non-formal, informal and experiential, connected learning opportunities.
The British Council’s English Agenda does a good job of capturing this in their document Going forward: Continuing Professional Development for English Language Teachers in the UK. This slide from my presentation summarizes the approach:


Language learners and their educators are already being credentialed

Learners enrolled in Language Instruction for Newcomers (LINC) programs can earn LINC certificates with sufficient hours of instruction.  According to South Eastman English and Literacy Services,  these certificates can be used for Citizenship and to register for college or university classes.

Internationally, many scans of  International English Language Testing System (IELTS) certificates can also be found on the Internet, such as this one posted on an immigration service website in India:

IELTS certificate
Get-Way Immigration Services

I think an Open Badge eCredential could do a more transparent and secure job of sharing this man’s language skills.Even better if it were in an ePortfolio.

Language learning is ripe for digital transformation

I was struck at the conference by the relatively low level of technology usage in the EAL community. There are some notable exceptions, and this was evident in the sessions about leveraging the affordances of mobile and web technologies for teaching. English Online comes to mind, for example.

But a speaker in the opening panel had to make the point  that “technology” is not a new “thing”: teachers have always leveraged available technologies to get learning happening. I have a great deal of respect for the passion and dedication of EAL teachers, but I do think that is is an area for improvement.

I suspect that most learners are ready for change…
Infographic: 5 Billion People to Use Mobile Phones by 2017 | Statista Statista

There was push-back at the conference about an online community portal called Community members complained about the difficulty of finding resources by theme. Looking at the incredibly poor user experience of seeking resources using “Browse by Topic”, I’m inclined to agree, though the site promises a better experience in a forthcoming “Tutela 3.0”. I just hope the community has the patience to wait!
But I detected a underlying desire for a single place to go to get a canonical, authoritative, “approved” list of resources that teachers can use. This feels a bit like the passive “teach me” attitude that many of the same teachers complain about in their learners. I don’t think it’s going to happen, at least to the extent that they seem to desire, i.e. for all levels and audiences, centrally approved, constantly updated, permanently maintained… Yes, resource search can and should improve, but many of the resources will come from  community peers and from strangers in other communities. Professional learning is a conversation, an ever-evolving stream of emergent and examined practice. This is what it means to be a professional.

Technology can help with crowd-sourcing the development of professional resources, such as in the example I provide in my presentation above about VIF International Education, a global education PD initiative, where teachers who develop robust learning resources are recognized by Open Badge eCredentials, killing two birds with one stone.
But the notion of crowd-sourcing and the culture of autonomous, blended  learning in physical and virtual communities needs to be fostered for professionals just as it needs to be fostered for language learners.
Another clue that the community needs to embrace technology more: paper language portfolios. The pushback mentioned above was specifically about lack of tools and resources for Portfolio Based Language Assessment, a primarily formative, “assessment FOR learning” approach to tracking learner progress, ideally based on learner artefacts, but often on instructor “micro-assessments” of learner tasks.
[slideshare id=17462787&doc=pbla-maximizingafl2-130321113611-phpapp01]
Now I think PBLA is an awesome idea and I’m very proud that it was invented in Manitoba (as Collaborative Language Portfolio Assessment), but the recommended PBLA portfolio is still a 3-ring binder, albeit with some allowance for electronic archiving via CD-ROM. Several sessions at the conference were devoted to PBLA and some shared tools for delivering it, but the default technology was paper.
This seems odd in this day and age, especially when you consider that two of the four skills are Listening and Speaking. It seems to cry out for  multimedia in an online Personal Learning Environment.
And this PLE doesn’t have to be a single-purpose language silo: it can later adapt to support employability and career development needs.

Start with Professional Development

Venn diagram - teacher PDCASSP – Collaborative Australian Secondary Science Project

This blog is about Open Badges and ePortfolios as key enablers of transformative learning and there’s a lot of early traction in Open Badges for Educator PD, albeit mostly in the K12 sector:

I suggest that “Teaching the Teachers”, or at least helping them learn is a natural first step. This could build on development frameworks such as the British Council’s I quoted above, and/or the Competency Dictionary of the BC Settlement and Adaptation Program (despite its past linkage to ELSA):

You could even leverage the Scottish Social Services Council’s Open Badges strategy, which is built on their professional development frameworks:

Early areas for development could include PBLA implementation, technology-enabled language learning and recognition for resource development and mentoring – in addition to the easy stuff like conference/workshop recognition and certification.

Concluding remarks

We’d be thrilled if the language learning sector in Canada began using our recently launched Canadian eCredentialing solution, because we think it’s ideally suited for the job:

… but we’d be only slightly less thrilled if the EAL sector in Canada showed significant signs of going digital by adapting the global examples provided, using ANY solutions for ePortfolios and eCredentials. We launched our service to help accelerate adoption in this country. After all, it’s 2016!

Problems with "Badges for Food"

This post is about a digital badging practice that I think can be damaging to learner motivation and to our badging community in general.
In a recent Twitter chat about badges for K12 I learned that a large school division, who’s been an early adopter for digital badging has now issued over 100,000 digital badges.  I thought to myself: “Great!” And then I checked out their website after the chat. I watched the promotional videos about the program and thought to myself: “Yikes, shades of B.F. Skinner!”


By Andreas1 (Adapted from Image:Boite skinner.jpg) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve transcribed below  significant content from the two videos I watched. I’ll  let them speak for themselves first (with a bit of bolding on my part), then discuss below:

Interview with an Assistant Principal

The 9th Graders are automatically enrolled in this (citizenship) program and to exit… they have to meet certain criteria. Some of it is grades, some of it is joining a club or a sport or being involved in a very rigorous program that requires extra time such as band, FFA (Future Farmers of America), ASB (Associated Student Body), things like that. Or, if they choose not to join a club or sport or one of these programs, then they can attend events and we require ten events. Events can be anything from Saturday School to a sporting event, to Open House, any kind of event that may be going on campus that shows that they’re getting involved. Then they are “passported out”, which means they get to sleep in Wednesday morning.
Then of course, with every accomplishment they’ve achieved they earn points and with the points they can redeem for prizes we have in our Points Store….
[How do you populate the inventory for the points store?]
We reach out to some of our local supporters, we have good relationships with a lot of our businesses here….. The pizza place that’s down the street, they’re actually fairly new in town and we knew they were looking to market their business, so we got in touch with them and they donated a certain amount per quarter. Subway is another huge supporter…. so far we’re having a pretty steady influx of students redeeming their points and prizes.

Interview clips with students

It was just like shopping online. You just hit ‘Add to Cart’…
It helps motivate us because the more badges you get, the more points you get, the more prizes you can get and the more fun you can have.
It’s pretty great because it’s just like a big sticker book. And you get stuff for it.

I see a big problem here. What are the students talking about? Citizenship? Learning?  Looks more like programmed compliance to me. Push the lever, get the treat. They’ve gamified a learning program and in doing so have commercialized it. The learning program is rewards-based: it relies on extrinsic motivation.
How will these kids fare when they can no longer cash in badges and points for pizzas and subs? Will they still want to learn and get involved as citizens? What has this transactional approach done to whatever intrinsic motivation they might have had?


By Hungry Dudes [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons


Problems with the “Reward Economy”

One reason I’m reacting like this is because of an article I read recently in The Atlantic. The author is a family psychologist who describes a similar problem with sticker charts,where kids get stickers for good behaviour and can “spend” them on prizes, based on a system their parents set up for them.

It can be pretty effective in the short term. The problem is:

… reward economies promote a transactional model for good behavior: Children come to expect a reward for good behavior and are hesitant to “give it away for free.”

Studies have shown that offering children tangible rewards in exchange for caring behavior may diminish future helpful behavior and can erode children’s innate tendency to help others….
Insights from behavioral economics help explain this effect. From that perspective, the problematic attitude of children raised in a reward economy—“What’s in it for me?”—is a predictable response to the collision of social norms (the invisible forces that shape how humans act) with market norms (a system of payments, debts, contracts, and customers).
In experiments studying the effects of these two norms, the behavioral economist and Duke University professor Dan Ariely has found that when the two come together in the same situation, market norms tend to overpower social norms, shifting the focus from relationships to commerce.

Here’s an example from the article demonstrating the impact :

One mother who was initially pleased with the results of her sticker-chart system said that when she asked her 8-year-old son to stop what he was doing and help his younger brother clean up a spill, he responded: “What will you give me?”

Is this how we want students to view learning about citizenship? “How many more tasks for an extra slice of pepperoni?”

Alfie Kohn: Punished by Rewards

I’d already been sensitized to this issue in relation to Open Badges a couple of years earlier at ePIC 2014 by Alfie Kohn , author of of Punished by Rewards:

Here’s Alfie’s thesis, from the book blurb from his website:

Promising goodies to children for good behavior can never produce anything more than temporary obedience. In fact, the more we use artificial inducements to motivate people, the more they lose interest in what we’re bribing them to do.

Serge Ravet, organizer of the ePIC conferences, had read the book and was very enthusiastic about Alfie’s point of view. He blogged about it in 2013 and invited Alfie to appear at ePIC 2014. Although Alfie did not have direct experience with Open Badges, Serge had explained how they work and he agreed to present some thoughts designed to help Open Badges avoid being digital “doggie biscuits”.
Here’s a video recording of Alfie’s ePIC presentation via Skype:

Serge Ravet

I like this quote from the video in particular:

I’ve seen plenty of kids who are in awful reading incentive programs, where they get points, or levels, or pizza parties or prizes of various kinds for reading books. And these kids are bragging about it: “Look how great I am. How can I get more of these?” But these kids in a fundamental sense are being lost as learners because their desire to do the learning itself… their interest in reading for its own sake is evaporating before our eyes.

Alfie wound up his remarks with six criteria for reducing harm Open Badges. I should say here that I don’t fully agree with Alfie’s criteria. For example, he rejects gamification as being too controlling and he lumps milestone badges in with that.
Dan Hickey, one of the most active researchers out there in the field of Open Badges, is well aware of Alfie’s work and also has issues with aspects of these criteria. We gave Dan an opportunity to engage Alfie afterwards in a debate over Skype. Unfortunately,  that recording is painful to watch due to audio issues, and Dan was not at his best because he was recovering from a mountain biking accident, so you’re probably better off reading the blog post that Dan wrote about the event a few weeks after, which he ran by Alfie before posting.
Mostly, Dan suggested that the field has moved on in the last 40-odd years: learning is now recognized to have social and cultural aspects that go beyond the individual constructivist model and these need to be taken into account, particularly in a social media ecosystem. Open Badges are well positioned to exploit these social and cultural aspects – not necessarily at the expense of learner autonomy and personal pathways.Badges can be gateways to new learning. (I’d add here that they can also be signposts for the recognition of learning, to help learners consolidate their progress and to demonstrate mastery to others)
Dan cited a couple of examples from his Design Principles Documentation Project:

I’d add that Cities of LRNG is also now experimenting with more nuanced approaches learning in social and cultural contexts based on Connie Yowell’s notion of Connected Learning, which seems support Dan’s reference to intentional learning as described by Bereiter and Scardamalia: engaged learning to solve problems, rather than treating the learning itself as the problem.
Alfie makes a good point about working with rather than doing to learners and I think it’s safe to say that Alfie and Dan agreed that behaviourist “rat mazes” populated with incentives like food (“do this, get a slice”) are not conducive to learning.
Alfie Kohn represents a strong point of view that is useful as a reference point when you’re developing badge systems, but as you can see, it’s not the only one.
In order to improve my badge system design skills, I think I may critique Alfie’s list of criteria in a future post. I’ll do that after looking in more detail at the references that Dan makes in his post and after reading Punished by Rewards right through; I’ve got a library copy that I’ve been skimming for this post.
But please, please, please let’s all agree to stay away from this:

… it’s just like a big sticker book. And you get stuff for it.


Closing plug: join us at the 2016 Digital Badge Summit

I’m looking forward to participating and speaking at the Digital Badge Summit on June 24th, just before the massive ISTE 2016 conference. There’ll be something for everybody there: K12, Higher Ed, Teacher PD, …maybe even gamification!