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A community effort is making badges practical in one city

digital-badgesThis summer, as schools let out, thousands of Pittsburgh students streamed into digital media programs, drop-in maker spaces, and paid internships across the city. As they shuffle back to school, or even enter into the workforce, many will be adding shiny new digital badges to their online portfolios as a record of their hard work.

The opportunity comes courtesy of Pittsburgh City of Learning, which is working with major community partners to provide more than a hundred different, mostly free, summer programs to about 5,000 learners. And digital badges play a big part.

“I think what’s really exciting is that as we all know there’s kind of this lack of meaningful ways of showcasing what students have learned, particularly in out-of-school time,” said Cathy Lewis Long, the executive director of the Sprout Fund, the nonprofit anchoring Pittsburgh City of Learning. “We see badges as a great tool for recognizing student achievement and in terms of the competencies that a student has, not just how they performed on a test.”

Currently, the organization is working on three major programs: A county-run summer youth employment program, called Learn and Earn; the mixed academic and digital literacy program, Summer Dreamers Academy, led by Pittsburgh Public Schools; and a summer reading program for students in grades 6-12 organized by the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

Next page: Badges are a community effort

For the Learn and Earn program, City of Learning works with the county and a workforce investment group to identify so-called “badgeable moments” — experiences in students’ jobs that show they are learning real career-readiness or vocation-specific skills.

Additionally, City of Learning is partnering with more than 40 different youth-serving organizations to help develop badges for programs, like one from the nonprofit Student Conservation Association, which engages kids in building trails and pop-up playgrounds in disadvantaged communities.

“The badging moment there is looking at on-the-job safety, trail building skills, and conservation knowledge,” said Lewis Long.

A digital badge is basically a graphic icon awarded to a learner, which is a sort of real-world equivalent to course credit. When learners complete an internship or can prove they know a skill, they’re awarded a badge that they can display on their online portfolio or add to their C.V. To develop the badges, City of Learning embarked on a collaborative, community-led effort over a six month period with input from more than 100 educators (“using a broad definition of the term,” Lewis Long said). The effort produced several competencies, or the skills, knowledge, dispositions, and focus areas that they would ultimately concentrate on.

“Those competencies really became the basis by which educators can develop badges,” Lewis Long said. “We have a whole series of training and workshops to help educators build the badges. The badges belong to the organizations that are issuing them, but we help facilitate that badge design.”

City of Learning focuses mainly on STEAM-related programs — that’s STEM with the arts — and tries to build badging opportunities around skills that are hot in the city’s tech scene, and thus likely to turn into jobs for participating students down the line (think robotics, media creation, and coding). A set of career-readiness competencies, which zero in on 21st century skills like collaboration and critique, round out their offerings.

The potential advantage for future job (and college admission) seekers is one of the big underlying pushes of the initiative — perhaps better summed up as the belief that badges representing real-world experiences and skills can, and should, augment the traditional C.V. and become an accepted currency among employers and colleges.

“We believe that badges can be a powerful tool for future job seekers and for employers who are looking for talented employees, and provide that new mechanism that showcase things like career readiness,” Lewis Long said. “I think with the audacious goal of ending the ‘tyranny of the degree.’”

Ambitiously, City of Learning has already begun to tackle the challenge. In Pittsburgh, they’ve convened business leaders and workforce development groups together with local employers to sell them on the idea of digital badging. Nationally, they’re working with companies like Bank of America and Best Buy. And recently, Chicago’s DePaul University began accepting badges from the Digital Youth Network in its computer science department and digital media school of design.

The summer programs themselves — often run by nonprofits such as museums or learning camps — don’t need much convincing, as they sometimes struggle to provide learners with traditional types of credit they can use. Getting school districts onboard, even in Pittsburgh, is “a harder nut to crack,” Lewis Long said, but she points to the summer programs as a solid way to introduce district leaders to the concept and open the door for possible future collaborations.

“Learning is not stopping for a young person because the summer started and the bell ended. There just hasn’t been a kind of rubric to both assess as well as recognize that learning,” Lewis Long said. “I don’t think [badging] is limited to the summer, but I think it’s a great place for communities to begin.”

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