An Experiment in Open Badges Part 2: The Trust-building Process

Badge (5)Last week I described why I decided to take a chance and try open badges in my college course, #ED216 (Literacy in the 21st Century). I promised to return with the “How” this week.  What I have learned over the last few weeks in this course is that by and far, developing a badge policy and practice is a process of building trust and understanding between you and your students (if you were hoping to get a quick list of “how-to’s” on using badges in your courses from this post, I am sorry to disappoint you). Rather serendipitously, this story comes about at the same time as Jonathan Worth (of Phonor Nation) and I ready ourselves to lead up the Connected Courses unit on Trust and Network Fluency, which starts next week.  So, in this installation, I’ll share three things: (1) The badge policy I started with, (2) developing trust through conversation and policy-hacking, and (3) Our badge policy as it stands now.

In the Beginning: The Syllabus Policy

“Badging (experimental): About 20% of grades for activities and projects will come from badges. Badges can be given by students or by the instructor. In order for a student to issue a badge, they must first post a nomination on our google community, and receive a second nomination and approval from the instructor in order for the badge to be officially issued. Please take badging seriously – only nominate badges for individuals that really deserve them. If too many badges are being nominated, the acceptance process will become more rigorous.” (excerpt from ED216 syllabus)

My syllabus introduced the badges as “experimental,” in order to ease students fears about this assessment method that many of them had never heard of. Yet, it was real – and it was 20% of the grade. Experimental doesn’t mean much when 20% of your grade is at stake. One fear I had was that students would take advantage of the badging system. So, I put a “nomination process” in place. While this process was helpful, As you’ll read later, my fears about “too many badges” were quite misguided (our challenge was quite the opposite).

Beyond the description of badging, my syllabus included a detailed list of rules and regulations:

  • Each badge is worth 10 points.
  • If you earn about 11 badges and complete your other assignments successfully you will earn an A.
  • You can earn un-limited badges, but we stop counting points at 20 badges. Thus, you have potential for 90 points extra credits.
  • Badges are tallied separately from the assignments. You might have 4 badges for one assignment and 1 for another. That is okay, it all goes into the pot – in the end we count the total number for points.

Are you freaking out now?  Yes, the idea of badges is beautiful – recognizing each other for our unique and extraordinary gifts – but when you stare down at the policy on a page, it still comes back to “making the grade.” That’s the system I’m stuck in. I need to give a grade. Finding a way to bridge the two systems felt near impossible. Then I realized: WE need to make the system. The class needed to figure out together how to make a badging system we could believe in and trust. This badge policy-making was a community effort. I would give a it a few week weeks as is, and then check in.

Badge (1) (1)Hacking the Badges Policy: A Trust-building Exercise

After the first week of class, in which students made badges for themselves, badges became scarce. The ones that were offered by students were amazing – student-created badges like “Team Leader,” and “Connection Detection” helped me to learn what was happening behind the scenes in the class and what students valued about each other and their work. Yet, while I was fearfully preparing myself for the onslaught of badges and nominations, they appeared only in a slow trickle. I knew it was time to have a conversation about the badge policy.

I asked the students to anonymously write about what role the badges played for them as a learner and suggestions to improve the learning experience. There were three main categories of answers:

1. I don’t want people grading me!  (3 responses) For example,

“I have a mixed feeling about badges. I like them because I feel good about myself when I get one. I don’t like that our grades are semi-based off them. That puts more pressure on us to give each other badges. Personally, I don’t like relying on other people to determine my grade.”

2. It’s too much pressure to earn/give 11 badges. (5 responses) One student wrote:

“I’m not sure how I feel about badges. On one hand, they are nice for encouragement. On the other hand, they feel like extra work and are, quite frankly, difficult to make. In the long run, however, I think they are beneficial. I think, though, to make them better, there should be a way to guarantee that everyone had at least two in the class.”

3.  Badges are motivating and building community (8 responses) Some responses included:

“Badges are positive reinforcement. They make me feel like all my hard work is being appreciated – not only the aspects that are being graded. I don’t have any suggestions at the time but can we give out more than one a week?”

“As a learner in this class, badges have been pretty motivational. You can see who is receiving a badge and that pushes you to want to do your best so that you can receive one too.  We are motivating and encouraging one another which creates an open and safe environment in the classroom.”

While on the one hand students were enjoying the feedback and community that was being cultivated through mutual badge-exchange, they were also anxious about the responsibility they had as badge-issuers, and in learning how to earn badges from each other. This feedback exercise was step one in opening up a dialog and building trust. Step two was “the talk.”

OUR new Badges Policy

We talked about it. It was hard; I tried my best to focus on just listening first, letting their voices emerge. Soon it became apparent that there were several shared ideas about how we could change the policy to eliminate anxieties and build a greater sense of trust.

Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 1.46.18 PM

One, the badges needed to be extra credit, not 20% of a their grade.

Two, there should also be a policy that everyone comments on each others’ blog posts at least once a week (badges are not enough).

Three, as instructor, I should create a set of “standard” badges with clear criteria that students know about in advance. They can still create new badges, but a standard set are helpful to know about and aim for.

The vote was a unanimous “yes” to the changes. Now we, as a class own this badges policy. There was a sense of relief and some smiles after the vote – we had re-built it together. Through the process of tinkering, trying-out, critiquing, questioning, analyzing, and sharing, we built a system we felt good about and could trust. As this is an ongoing process, I’ll follow up with a final report and reflection on how badges worked out in the class towards the end of the semester.

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15 thoughts on “An Experiment in Open Badges Part 2: The Trust-building Process

  1. Great post. I tried the same in a Coursera class, #massiveteaching, at a (seemingly) much larger scale and encountered the same problems but not really worsened because of scale. Have you read some literature on badges before starting this project? If so, what? I wanted things to have a heavy gamification angle (am not sure I truly asked myself the why of that), so I partly relied on the fact that there was a large contingent of students in my class who had taken a gamification class before.
    One notable shift was that I had to change the vocabulary from “gamification” to “personalised degree” to earn some trust and understanding from students.

    • Thanks for sharing your experiences – it’s such a new approach, it’s difficult to find people who have tried it out. I had talked with several k-12 educators that were using badges in their classrooms before giving it a try. Most of the articles out there are opinion pieces and don’t talk much about process. I did tell my students that this was a form of gamification – but our early discussions really focused on likening the badges to girl/Boy Scout badges (see my previous post) – that helped to build greater understanding of why we were trying it.

  2. Finally, my Coursera course included lots of discussion around the process as well. It was a very thoughtful experience with my students, but unfortunately I am not able to contact them anymore and neither them or me have access to the intellectual property we created together.

  3. I have less interest in badges than I do on the ‘how’ they were introduced by you Kira. People are people and feedback is feedback in any context – be it a badge or something else. You show that in introducing an intervention you are mindful of the group dynamics at play in order to build trust: Give students the opportunity to comment anonymously, then give them space to express themselves, actually have ‘the talk’ and that includes having tough conversations in a bounded and facilitated manner with a view to agreeing revised ground rules of application, like we agree a policy for blog commenting. A great example of best practice in facilitation. So much of the work that goes on in the context of connected courses and cMOOCs in particular leaves the process of trust building to self organise and with unclear, not agreed upon ground rules. This is in part the nature of ‘open’ and offers freedom, but it has a dark under-belly that is not spoken about often. How do we (as facilitators of learning) create spaces that ‘let the students voices emerge’? I fear it is so much more complex than we sometimes assume, as you so beautifully demonstrate in this post. It is an iterative process that involves tough conversations.

    You might find http://francesbell.wordpress.com/2014/02/07/cool-webs-for-rhizo14/ interesting. She has used a deep reading of a relevant poem with students to engage them in learning about what is needed for ‘courageous dialogue’ in tough situations.

    Thanks for the post and thanks Paul-Olivier for pointing me here.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I think an underlying reason that I introduced the badges was that it offered the opportunity for us as a class to co-create the learning experience together – I am pretty new to this, as are they, and so it forced us as a class to talk about our learning and problem-solve together instead of me just being sage on the stage. In a way, badges were just a conduit to foster trust-building and co-learning in the class.

      • Same objectives for me really. Trust is key to community building… and that’s the sort of thing i’m always looking for. I’ve found that badges tend to get away on me, as they take something ephemeral (kindness, trust, help, critique) and attempt to make it concrete. I would personally try and keep the badges to things that are easily counted – like attendance.

        I’m currently exploring a renegotiation of the social contract for learning for inclusion in my learning contract. Hmm… maybe i should blog this, i don’t really have a reference for you. Broadly speaking… the social contract we’ve inherited is intrinsically tied to the technologies and environments available to us. We’ve had Oral contracts (think mentor relationships) ‘T’ext contracts (think holy books (academic and religious) to be recited and committed to memory) and scripted contracts (think textbooks with prescripted learning paths). We need a new one… and that one will borrow a little from all three of these, but, i think, should build more heavily on the oral contract and add in a little more independence.

        This doesn’t make much sense here 🙂 sorry about that. You’re blog post has got me going and I thank you for that. I’ll see if i can get a post out today or tomorrow and I’ll get back to you. I’d love your input on it. (Kira and Mariana both 🙂 )

      • My students pointed out the limitations of feedback with badges too – that’s why they suggested the requirement of replying to at least on other person’s blog post once a week – they wanted richer feedback. So thoughtful. I do a kind of social contract too (I call it “community promises”) but it could use some work – would love to read more about how you go about doing it. I’m so grateful for all this thoughtful commentary and discussion – it really keeps me going. Looking forward to reading your post – when it’s up please post a link here or tweet to me @kjbd thanks!

  4. I was asked by @podehaye to comment on this post. Thanks for sharing your experience and reflection, Kira.

    The badges are here being used to encourage participation, as food for motivation and social connection. This is a good use of badges in many settings, I suppose. But I’m more interested in badges that are meaningful to the individual earning it because of their signaling value, rather than badges that are meant to promote behaviors. You could say that the first is more learner-centered (but this is becoming a cliché!) and the second more centered on the goals of the badge issuer.

    I’m interested in badges as valued micro-credentials that work in the presence of learner variability, because the learning pathway can be different for each person and the achievements can be unbundled or modularized. University courses are for the most part over-stuffed with content, and grades are often curved to give a “pass” to more than half the learners, and the passing grade could mean that they half-learned everything but can really apply almost nothing. I imagine an assessment system where learners really (but really) master only a fraction of the bulging curriculum, and their badges show what modules they mastered. So what if it’s half of the content? They achieved mastery in something rather than mediocrity in everything. In this image, badges seem like a valuable icon.

    Another feature of badges that I’m interested in is their potential for linking to concrete learning objects created by the earner, i.e., including evidence on the badge of what you did to earn it.

    What I like most about your experiment & post, though, is the process of co-building the policy; I can just imagine the improved morale that it created.

    • Lorena, thanks so much for your reply – it gives me a lot to think about. I would ultimately like to develop a system that recognizes unique skills and achievements earned by learners, but I have more to learn to get there. What I think I may do as a first step is share your comments with the class so we can think on it together! The benefit of this in a teacher ed class is that I’m modeling the kinds of collaborative practices and thinking that I hope they will try in their own classrooms one day.

  5. In #ccourses, we are told to always make our “why” explicit. So let me start with that. I this post I will ask a question that progressively dawned on me during the preparation and delivery of the Coursera course “Massive Teaching: New Skills Required”.

    I want to bounce on something Dave said: “I’ve found that badges tend to get away on me, as they take something ephemeral (kindness, trust, help, critique) and attempt to make it concrete.”

    Making these things concrete also means making them more monetizable. Has anyone thought of the ethical implications of an educator/platform actively using badges to effectively segment learners into different pools? One could then imagine peer feedback mediated through a badging system to easily devolve into a marketplace for peer-to-peer tutoring, especially when the instructor is long gone or overwhelmed by class size (xMOOC style).

    I also appreciate the discussion, thanks to all for participating!

  6. Pingback: 8 Things I Learned About Teaching with #openbadges | Kira J Baker-Doyle, Ph.D.

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