So You Want to Drive Instruction With Digital Badges? Start With the Teachers
opinion

So You Want to Drive Instruction With Digital Badges? Start With the Teachers

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You can’t have a conversation about the future of public education these days without some mention of digital learning. And when you talk about digital learning, the discussion often turns to badging.

The concept is simple: individuals earn badges for demonstrating the acquisition of key knowledge and skills. Think Girl Scouts. When you marry the concept of badging with technology, you get digital badges that allow a person’s portfolio of badges to be stored in one place and provide a record of subject or skill mastery. This could have a significant impact on awarding credentials or certificates to students, and perhaps even creating an implementation framework for competency-based learning.

While badging for students shows real promise, a partnership between the Houston Independent School District (HISD) and VIF International Education demonstrates that in the short run the best approach to scaling digital badging is not to focus on students, but on their teachers.

Beginning this past fall, HISD launched a global learning initiative in 28 elementary schools. The district will expand the program to a total of 51 elementary schools for the 2015-16 school year. To ensure program quality for our students, we partnered with VIF to provide our teachers with globally themed online professional development and a customized digital badging system. Within the professional development platform, they also have access to curricular resources and a community of fellow educators to spur and support collaborative projects and innovative approaches. But the core of the system is the badging approach to professional development.

Participating teachers advance through a series of inquiry-based professional development modules. Teachers are awarded a digital badge for the successful completion of each 10-hour module. To accomplish this, they must complete the following steps: 1) study module content, 2) participate in a focused discussion with peers working on the same module, 3) create an original inquiry-based global lesson plan that incorporates new learning, 4) implement the original lesson plan in the classroom, 5) provide evidence of classroom implementation and 6) reflect on and revise the lesson created.

The final product of every module is a tested, global lesson plan that articulates learning objectives, activities, assessments, and resources for each stage of inquiry. Upon completion, teachers may publish finalized lessons in a resource library where they can be accessed by other educators. As designed, the HISD badging system will be a four-year, 16-badge approach that equates to 160 hours of professional learning for teachers.

Like other web-based professional development, the HISD badging system provides flexibility for HISD teachers to access the modules online at any time and place and to complete them at their own pace. This flexibility is critical to help teachers balance their everyday demands with the expectation to build new expertise in content, pedagogy and new technologies.

What makes the digital badging system different from more traditional forms of professional development are five key features that taken together increase significantly the likelihood that the learning experience for a teacher will lead to results in the classroom for students — which, after all, is the point of professional development. The five features:

  1. Badging requires demonstrating understanding and implementation of a target content or skill. To complete a module successfully requires more than just moving through the content. Teachers must learn it; confer with peers; develop, implement and show evidence of a lesson plan using it; and reflect on the experience.
  2. Badging provides recognition and motivation. Badges represent both tangible and public symbols of both demonstrated learning, as well as the knowledge and skills that a teacher has yet to develop. They create a recognizable pathway to demonstrating proficiency that teachers can understand and own.
  3. Badging allows for knowledge circulation among teachers. By requiring the development of lesson plans and evidence of implementation, digital badging systems create instructional materials that teachers can share and build from with each other. Digital badges accumulate in a teacher’s online profile, can be shared via social media, and acknowledged by schools, districts and states.
  4. Badging can be tracked and assessed. The HISD system provides tailored reports on the progress of teachers through the badging process. This function allows principals and district instructional support personnel to not only track the completion of badges and review developed materials, but to assess the impact of the modules on teacher and student learning.
  5. Badging is a scalable enterprise. Once the modules and overall pathways are set, teachers can be added at whatever scale the district wants. The online platform scales to whatever number of teachers the district seeks to involve.

For teachers, digital badges could have use value beyond their work in HISD. It allows them to build a badging portfolio that reflects the skills and knowledge they have developed, as well as evidence of classroom impact. That portfolio is portable. It remains with them whether they remain in the same school, move to another school within HISD, or to another district altogether.

For school and district leaders, the badging system creates a platform for at least two future endeavors. First, personalizing professional development pathways with modules and badges reflect an individual teacher’s learning needs. Second, it develops a career advancement system based on demonstrated expertise through badging.

The HISD-VIF digital badging system for teachers offers a professional development experience that teachers have been seeking: one that is flexible, job-embedded, and collaborative, and provides actionable strategies for use in the classroom. It is like wheels on luggage. You are left wondering why it took so long to put this system in place. 

Dr. Terry Grier is the superintendent of the Houston Independent School District.

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