E-portfolios and badges for the common good

I learned several things at the e-portfolio and identity conference (ePIC) 2014 that I attended 9th and 10th July.

1. People agree it’s political

The response to my presentation (What will we need to learn and have evidence for? on Slideshare) reassured me that many of the excellent people at the conference shared something like my sense that the world of learning, education, e-portfolios and open badges is more political now than it has ever been in the past history of this conference. It is not simply well-meaning educators helping “their” learners to a richer, more fulfilling education, learning and life (a great aim though that remains). It is, to me, increasingly about what kind of society we want.

Inuagural Open Badges (Scotland) Working Group Meeting

Bill Clinton isn’t the only one creating a buzz about the open badges movement at the moment. Perhaps with slightly less coverage than the Clinton initiative, yesterday saw the first (Scottish) open badges working group meeting.

Organised by Grainne Hamilton at RSC Scotland, following the success and interest shown at their recent Open Badges Design Day, the meeting was very well attended with a group of really enthusiastic practitioners from across the Scottish education sector, many of whom are already implementing badges. There was also good representation from key agencies such as the SQA and the Colleges Development Network.

What struck me about the meeting was how much real buy-in and activity there was for badges from schools to colleges to universities. Whilst there was a lot of diversity in approaches (most people implementing badges are still at pilot stages), there were also a number of common themes of interest for future developments including badges for staff development purposes and the sharing of implementation of “badging” through VLEs in particular Moodle and Blackboard.

One of the great selling points of badges is their potential to bridge the gap between achievement and attainment of formal qualifications and give people (and in particular students) more opportunities to present things which aren’t recognised through formal qualifications. This was a prime motivator for many at the working group as they want to be able to allow students more ways to showcase/sell themselves to potential employers, and not have to rely on formal qualifications. This of course links to developments around e-portfolios.

There was also a lot of interest in using badges for staff development within colleges and universities. RSC Scotland is already paving the in this respect as they have developed a range of badges for their online courses and events, and a number of colleges are beginning to use badges for staff development activities.

Over the coming months a number of sub-groups will be forming around some of the key areas identified at yesterdays meeting, setting up a shared workspace and of course, most importantly sharing their work with each other and the wider working group, and of course the rest of the community.

If yesterday afternoon was anything to go by, there will be lots more to share around the development and implementation of badges. I’m certainly looking forward to being part of this exciting new group, and thanks again to Grainne and Fionnuala and the RSC for bringing this group together and their commitment to supporting it over the coming year.

Future Learners, new Opportunities and Technology

The wider CETIS community has often appreciated meeting up, with others sharing the same “special interests”, in “SIG” meetings. That kind of meeting took place, including old “Portfolio” SIG participants, on 11th Dec in Nottingham, and many interesting points came up.

The people who came to the meeting would not all use the label “portfolio”. We billed the meeting as exploring issues from the viewpoint of the learner, so neither institutions, nor providers of learning resources, were the focus. The e-portfolio community has indeed had the learner at the centre of thinking, but this meeting had many ideas that were not specifically “portfolio”.

Indeed, the main attraction of the day was Doug Belshaw talking, and leading a workshop, on the Mozilla Open Badges concept and technology. Badges are not in themselves portfolios, though they do seem to fit well into the same “ecosystem”, which perhaps may come gradually to supplant the current system of the established educational institutions monopolising the award of degrees, with those being necessary for many jobs. And Doug converted people! Several attendees who had not previously been convinced of the value of badges now saw the light. That can only be good.

For those with doubts, Doug also announced that the Mozilla team had agreed to introduce a couple more pieces of metadata into the Open Badges specification. That is definitely worth looking at closely, to see if we can use that extra information to fill gaps that have been perceived. One of these new metadata elements looks like it will naturally link to a definition of skill, competence, or similar, in the style of InLOC, which of course I think is an excellent idea!

The “lightning talks” model worked well, with 10 speakers given only 5 minutes each to speak. The presentations remain listed on the meeting web page, with a link to the slides. Topics included:

  • board games
  • peer assessment
  • students producing content
  • placement and employability

My own contribution was an outline argument of the case that InLOC is positioned to unlock a chain of events, via the vital link of employers taking non-institutional credentials seriously, towards “reinvigorating the e-portfolio landscape”.

So learner-focused learning technology community is alive and well, and doing many good things.

In parallel with the badges workshop, a small group including me talked over more subtle issues. For me, a key point is the need to think through the bigger picture of how badges may be used in practice. How will we differentiate between the likely plethora of badges that will be created and displayed? How will employers, for example, distinguish the ones that are both relevant to their interests, and issued by reputable people or bodies? Looking at the same question another way, what does it take to be the issuer of badges that are genuinely useful, and that will really help the labour market move on? Employers are no more going to wade through scores of badges than they currently wade through the less vital sections of an e-portfolio.

We could see a possible key idea here as “badging the badgers”. If we think through what is needed to be responsible for issuing badges that are really useful, we could turn that into a badge. And a very significant badge it would be, too!

The local arrangements were ably looked after by the Nottingham CIePD group, which seems to be the most active and highly-regarded current such group in UK HE. Ever since, under Angela Smallwood, Nottingham pioneered the ePARs system, they have consistently been in the forefront of developments in this area of learning technology. I hope that they, as well as other groups, will be able to continue work in this area, and continue to act as focal points for the learner-centric learning technology community.

And the Winner Is … The UK

I have spent this week at the IMS Learning Impact Conference in Long Beach California. I’ve enjoyed the conference and sensed a remarkably fresh approach, amongst delegates and IMS alike, to standards and their role in educational technology. Overall I’d suggest a strong re- affirmation that the direction of travel we have been following in CETIS is very much on course. Lots of talk of openness, collaboration and Learner centred approaches (I’ll reflect on this in my next blog post). As is custom at this event the final activity, before workshops and working group meetings, is the annual Learning Impact Awards. It was something akin to the British (music) invasion of the early 1960′s with the UK dominating the platinum awards across all categories winners included The BBC for their accessibility tool kit ASK, Pebblepad and the Nottingham Xerte online toolkit Three out of the four main awards to the UK with two of these being accessibility tools.

We’ve come a long way but …

I consider myself extremely fortunate indeed to work within an organisation, JISC CETIS, that is as progressive as it is, one that fosters a spirit of enquiry and in a collegiate environment where open, honest and frank exchanges are encouraged. Our funders, JISC in the words of Chief Executive Dr Malcolm Reed “are there to take the risks (with technology) institutions could not independently”. I’m involved with and support JISC activities that are highly innovative in the application of technologies within educational settings, professional, informed and enthusiastic colleagues surround me and work associates at the “bleeding edge” of education technology.

Independent of (but related to) my work in CETIS I have a senior board role with a large educational institution within the sector; this role exposes me to the “pragmatic challenges” facing institutions at a policy level and the role technology plays is supporting the “business” of the institution. The duality of the roles provides me with insight both into the benefits of the work we undertake for the sector and equally serves to highlight where impact in the sector is limited.

Two recent examples have emerged of the limitation of impact.

JISC recently published the highly regarded Designing Spaces for Effective Learning; which can be downloaded from http://www.jisc.ac.uk/media/documents/publications/learningspaces.pdf the publication highlights the good work being undertaken within the sector. The institution I am involved with used the principals highlighted to design a new learning space and indeed provided a case study to the JISC, which has been used in other JISC publications. To my dismay after a little over twelve months of usage the builders were in constructing walls and converting a large part of the space into a conventional “Student support Centre”. My initial enquiry as to why was largely treated with derision but further enquiry (Estates usage survey) revealed this (primary) space was not being utilized for teaching and learning.

Ofstead recently published policy guidelines relating to student safety (particularly in respect to the 14-19 agenda) and how these guidelines would be reflected in future inspections, the response of the institution (No doubt prompted by the MIS department) to lock down student (and tutor) access to all social software sites; problem solved at least from the regulatory perspective. Only a number of students had been using social web solutions as integral elements of their e-portfolio and reflective practice, from publicizing events on facebook through to using Blogs (wordpress) as reflective practice covering the period of study. Tutors I spoke to left with the problem of no access to students work for assessment purposes (Yes they could of course access the work via their own personal technology).

We encourage our students to use a variety of tools to support their learning; the concept of the Personal Learning Environment (PLE), has been developed around the notion of students own tools indeed government policy has gone to great lengths espousing the value of personalization as part of a rich learning experience. New work is also emerging around the concept of the distributed Virtual-learning environment.

I shouldn’t be surprised by either example they relate directly to the age-old adage that without supporting professional development and cultural change strategies our interventions, however well researched and intentioned, may be doomed to failure.

Neither am I critical of those responsible for the decisions to take action in either case; in both cases the decisions and action taken can be substantiated with “empirical evidence”.

As I say we have come a long way but…