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Badges at Penn State

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Wondering what badges are? Wondering what's happening with badges at Penn State? Read on!

(My thanks to Ken Layng of ITS Training Services for much of the information provided here.)

What are "Badges"?

NoTBadge.jpgBadges are like digital extensions to an identity. They help learners to establish credibility based on informal learning. They are used to "certify" information that has been consumed by badge earners. This can be assessed or non-assessed learning, ad determined by the badge issuer. For example, we might issue badges to people who are present at a workshop, but we might also require some measurement of comprehension and retention before issuing a badge. 

What are "Open" Badges?

Open Badges is a project initiated by Mozilla to create a framework for badge infrastructure. Google has a similar project underway, but it is not nearly as mature. The Mozilla framework consists of three components: 1) Issuer, 2) Earner, and 3) Displayer. An "Issuer" is an organization that can 'award certified badges to learners.' An "Earner" is an individual that can collect badges to represent an accumulation of knowledge, skill or proficiency. Badges can be placed in an online repository belonging to the user called the "Badge Backpack." With this Backpack, earners can collect, manage, and display the badges they have earned. A "Displayer" is any online presence or service provider that can display badges. Examples of displayers include the blogs, social media sites, and even resumes. An optional fourth component is the "Endorser." An endorser is any organization or individual that signs the badge with their private encryption key, thereby attesting to the badge's value.

Here is an example of a simplified badge process.


Someone issues me a badge. In this case, Ken Layng of ITS Training Services issued me a "Project Leader" badge, using the tools provided at . I receive an email informing me of this. I go to, sign in, and send the badge to my badge backpack, part of Mozilla's Open Badges infrastructure. (BTW - I previously created my backpack.) Then I sign into my backpack and accept the badge. From there, I can choose to share it publicly or not, and can send/embed a URL for others to view my badge(s).

What are the Potential Benefits to Penn State?

Enhance Digital Identity

Badges enhance one's digital identity and reputation. This is great for e-Portfolios! Badges raise your profile within the learning community and peers and allow you to aggregate identities from across other communities. Specifically:

  • Provides a more complete picture of the learner: Badges provide a more granular and complete picture of skills and learning history for potential employers, schools, peer groups and others than a traditional degree.
  • Informal certification: Learners can get credit and recognition for the learning that happens outside of school.  e.g., in after-school programs, work experience or online.
  • Third-party validation: Attesting to competency and participation, rather than self-attesting, establishes credibility, trust, and legitimacy
  • Signals achievement: Badges signal skills and achievements to peers, potential employers, educational institutions and others.
  • Recognizes new hard skills and literacies: New  literacies that are critical to success in today's digital world--like  appropriating information, judging its quality, multitasking and  networking--are not typically taught in schools and don't show up on a  transcript. Badges can recognize these new skills and literacies.
  • Recognizes soft skills: With recognition of social habits, motivation, etc. badges are able to recognize a greater diversity of soft skills than traditional programs measure or even recognize.

Enable Global Perspectives

Badges allow one to share their skill set with the world. This fosters flexibility and connections.

  • Transfer learning across spaces and contexts: Skills are made more portable across jobs, learning environments and places through badges.
  • Build community and social capital: Badges help learners find peers or mentors with similar interests. Community badges help formalize camaraderie, team synthesis and communities of practice.

Better Instruction

Badges tap into some basic learning psychological principles for the learner.

  • Motivate participation and learning outcomes:  Badges provide feedback, milestones and rewards throughout a course or  learning experience, encouraging engagement and retention.
  • Unlock privileges: A test becomes a reward. For example, students at a school computer lab might be required to earn a "Digital Safety" badge  before being allowed to surf the web.
  • Allow multiple pathways to learning: Badges encourage learners to take new paths or spend more time developing specific skills.
  • Support greater specialization and innovation: Badges can support specialized and emerging fields that are not in traditional learning environments.

Better Instructional Management

Badges enable a better understanding of the individual.

  • Capture the learning path and history: With  degrees or cumulative grades, much of the learning path -- the set of steps  and milestones that led to the degree -- is lost or hard to see. Badges can capture a more specific set of skills and qualities as they occur  along the way, along with issue dates for each. This means we can track  the set of steps the most successful learners take to gain their  skills -- and potentially replicate that experience for others.
  • Assist in Accreditation: By capturing the learning path, meeting the documentation needs of accreditation agencies will be eased.

Badges at Penn State

Well, they don't really exist -- yet. Ken Layng of ITS Training Services began investigating badges several months ago, and I've been following the data stream on them for some time. Most of what you've read above comes from Ken's work, so kudos to Ken! Ken organized a Yammer group to invite interested folks in to start looking at this in April 2012, and once we had some preliminary groundwork down, we initiated a meeting with Chris Millet and Chris Stubbs of Education Technology Services, with the hopes we could work together to investigate this from an "all-PSU" perspective. As an aside, this aligns nicely with a desire from ITS senior leadership to approach new opportunities like this from a matrixed organizational view, as opposed to our traditional siloed approach.

At Training Services, we're investigating two potential ways to serve badges. One is via a company named BadgeStack. They offer a complete, nearly turnkey solution that includes a humble content-management system. The other is via a cloud provider ( that offers a simple interface to serve badges. Both have potential, but it's just too soon to draw any conclusions or recommendations.

ETS is working on a meeting with folks both inside and outside of ITS to gather perspectives, and Training Services will be part of that conversation. Hopefully we'll come away from the meeting with a better perspective on directions to pursue with this great opportunity. 

Moving Forward...

There are no conclusions yet, just plenty of questions and investigations. So stay tuned all - this is an exciting new way to capture your learning (and assessment of it), validate it, and display it to the world!

What is an e-Portfolio, anyway?

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I had an interesting morning chat with Dave Stong of ETS about the changing nature of e-Portfolios. He asked me what was different about them from the ones that have been around for some time.

My immediate thought was that an e-Port is no longer a one-way communication channel. You can set your e-Portfolio so people can comment on what you post and chat about.

My second thought was that an e-Port can provide a more holistic view on an individual. It's not just about the stuff you produce, it's also the journey you took to get there. You may write about your personal life and how it shapes you.

The ability to show who you are, not just what you can do, and the ability for others to chime in and start conversations are for me the most obvious changes that is happening in this space.

Then our conversation drifted into how e-Ports for students can be domain-specific. Each discipline has a unique set of things they expect to see in an e-Port. How can a unit like ETS possibly hope to know all these domain-specific conventions? We can't. Instead, we need to rely on content experts in a domain to guide students in that domain in the development of their e-Port. ETS is making headway here by testing a simple model out. We're bringing in a grad student, providing the needed technical skills training so he can use and teach others the tools available at PSU for creating e-Ports, then sending him back to his department/college so he can work directly with faculty to diffuse these innovations. I have high hope for success of this model, and hope we can replicate it in many places.

What about involving business and industry here? What do they look for an an e-Port? I don't know what efforts at PSU are underway to assist students so their e-Ports will mesh with prospective employer's expectations, but it is a critical need.

Then another turn in the conversation led to student awareness of how their e-Port might be used to drive college and university agendas forward without their knowledge. For example, a student's e-Port, if in public space, might be used by colleges for accreditation purposes. In this case, would the student even be aware of it? Should they be? The obvious answer for this particular example is "It's in public space." and thus is open for this use. Hopefully we'll soon have a private space option for blogs and students can easily be made aware of the differences between the two spaces, and when they can and should use one versus the other.

There is a larger issue here of university use of student creations/assets without their knowledge. As far as I know PSU policies cover this, but I wonder about the field of higher education in general - who's guarding the door?

Starting an e-Portfolio

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While I've had an e-Portfolio of sorts for years, it is very Web 1.0 in nature, and was begging for some time for an update to Web 2 technologies. The Blogs at Penn State seem to be a great vehicle for this transition.

So, over the next several weeks I'll be adding to this space, transferring some things from the old site, and adding new things. This ties into a charge from John Harwood, the Senior Director of Teaching and Learning with Technology with Information Technology Services at Penn State to me to update my resume, and a related movement at Education Technology Services for all staff to tie their professional development, in part, to this space.

It should be an interesting journey, and one I invite you to take with me! Help me reinvent Brett Bixler. As I add things here, please take some time to comment on the information I place. Help me clarify things, and position myself as a leader in the field of education technology. I'll be busy here too, posting my thoughts on instructional design, the initiatives I'm working on, etc. Being an effective instructional designer means being humble, so I'll take your good, bad, and ugly comments in stride in an effort to improve my outward appearance. I'm feeling a bit scruffy here - time to polish my act!


My Gamer DNA

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