Chicago Summer of Learning 2013: thoughts on developing a citywide badge system

Screen Shot 2013-07-09 at 10.27.37 PMFor the last few months we, the Mozilla Open Badges team, have been working together with a number of other groups and the City of Chicago to launch an amazing and exciting learning campaign: the Chicago Summer of Learning (CSOL). Here’s the Mozilla Blog post introducing CSOL and Erin Knight’s comprehensive discussion of it. CSOL represents the first intrepid step by a city to implement an open badge ecosystem across an entire city. That bears repeating. The third most populous city in the United States issuing open badges.

Thanks to our partners
CSOL was—and is—an incredibly exciting project with many different aspects and we were extremely pleased and honored to work on it with various fantastic people from the following organizations: the City of Chicago; the MacArthur Foundation, Digital Youth Network; Hive Chicago; Ci3 at the University of Chicago and The Creativity Labs at Indiana University.

A badge system design of this size and of this effort provides immense fodder for discussion, so this first post will be a brief recap painted with broad brushstrokes of some of our experience thus far. And suffice it to say that we have learned a lot—and we still have much to learn. Over the next two weeks I’ll follow up this post with additional posts that delve into more exacting detail on the system, its development and the rationale behind it.

But first a peek into the larger world that contains this badge system. Our design process included and addressed: issuing organizations, funding organizations, legal conditions, multiple audience needs, political considerations, academic concerns, standards alignment, distribution requirements, access capabilities, motivational discussions, socioeconomic problems, visual representation issues, employment possibilities, and varying levels of technical expertise. Certainly, not every badge system needs to or should address this many dependencies but it’s to be expected that as the size of the badge system increases, so does its propensity to surface increasing numbers of issues.

Learning: the primary motivation
Summer learning drop off is a problem that has plagued schools & students for years. The Chicago Summer of Learning was aimed squarely at this issue. Working closely with numerous issuing organizations (~100), we developed methodologies to ensure that the many disparate badges worked together as a system—both from a content standpoint as well as a visual standpoint.

The city chose STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) as the badge system framework. This relatively strict taxonomy helped to guide the architecture of the system by providing useful parameters for the smaller, more operationally challenged organizations new to badges while also presenting potential touch points for the larger, more established organizations offering comprehensive learning opportunities.

Beginning at the beginning
With such a large initiative, a significant amount of recruiting for participation preceded some of the badge system design. As previously noted, each participating organization had its own motivations and goals for their programs and subsequently for their badges as well. This made perfect sense since the composition of the system was both intentionally diverse and also serendipitously alike. Seeking to maintain this essentially organic badge ecosystem, we did not require any specific criteria in the creation of the badges. Instead we encouraged organizations to consider their basic values in relationship to STEAM and then badge along those lines.

To get everyone onto the same conceptual page, we, in conjunction with our partners, held several in-person sessions to talk through open badges: what they were, why the city was initiating the program, how they worked, what was expected of them, etc. After these face to face facilitated sessions Mozilla created a personalized google spreadsheet for each organization to fill in with their specific badge content (more on this in an upcoming post).

Even in very large badge systems individual badges deserve close reading and attention and that is precisely what we provided. Poring over each spreadsheet cell by cell, we reviewed each badge, asking questions, clarifying content and requesting revisions where we felt some alteration might improve the final badge. We followed up by email with every organization to ensure that all of the badges met organizational requirements as well as the content and metadata requirements for open badges. While the idea of badges was new to many of the participating organizations, every organization enthusiastically jumped into badge content creation.

Different lenses
Each entry level badge represents one or more of the STEAM categories and focuses on learning of some sort, so perhaps the most obvious lens we used on them was learning. A final tally of the issuing organizations revealed the following three categories for learning:

  • in-school teaching and learning organizations (formal)
  • out of school teaching and learning organizations (informal)
  • the City of Chicago organizations (governmental)

Badge pathways
Another lens onto this system comes from the hierarchy of badge progressions or badge pathways. We considered a number of possible badge levels and requirements before settling on a relatively straightforward progression. We arrived at a simple structure due to some significant aspects of the program: 1) the time in between school year end and school year beginning is surprisingly brief; 2) the number of opportunities to be had was wonderfully rich and we wanted participants to be able to experience as much of it as they were able to; and, 3) the technical considerations of linking a range of different systems proved quite complex in our limited timeframe. All of these factors—plus others—contributed to our decision to implement a streamlined badge system hierarchy.

The suggested path was as follows: earn a required number of entry level badges in any STEAM category from any organization, and when the required level is reached those badges in turn level up the earner to one of the City of Chicago awarded S-T-E-A-M badges; the earning of that city level badge in turn unlocks a series of STEAM-related citywide challenges & associated badges that can also be earned. Viewed through that lens, the system looks as follows:

Entry level badges

  • organizations offering entry level badges through face to face participation
  • organizations offering badges through self-paced activities
  • Ci3 offering The Source game badges

City level badges

  • the City of Chicago offering Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math city-level badges

Challenge badges

  • organizations offering citywide challenge badges

The system can be expanded outward from this framework. There were additional suggested badge pathway opportunities as well but this represents the germinal structure.

Still more to come
As noted above, this was a fantastic opportunity for the Mozilla Open Badges team to test out some of our hypotheses about badge design, badge system design, and technical considerations. CSOL provided us with wonderful circumstances ripe for creativity. We were honored to work side by side with individuals profoundly committed to improving the possibilities for the youth of Chicago through open badges, and we’re excited to see new learning pathways being forged by Chicago youth.

Along the way we conceptualized, designed and created a number of new tools that we’ll continue to refine: some for assessment, some for badge creation, and some for badge issuing. We found it tremendously educational and informative to work directly with organizations brand new to badging, and we were deeply moved when those same organizations were impressed with their own conceptual development and badge thinking. It’s been an amazing ride and it’s not over yet.

Many, many thanks to the Open Badges team who brought this dream to life. Together we salute the youth of Chicago and all of the people who help them on their journeys.

- – -

Much more soon.

related reference:
Earlier I happened across this interesting research on summer learning drop off by Rand Education, it seems worth including here.

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4 thoughts on “Chicago Summer of Learning 2013: thoughts on developing a citywide badge system

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