Category Archives: CSOL

Chicago Summer of Learning blog posts

Chicago Summer of Learning: thoughts on badge design

Screen Shot 2013-07-09 at 10.27.37 PMIn my initial post about the Chicago Summer of Learning (CSOL) badge system, I quickly sketched out the rough outline of it. In this post we’ll talk through the components of CSOL badge design and the rationale that led to our decisions about them. First, a quick two sentence recap of what CSOL is and what it seeks to accomplish. The Chicago Summer of Learning is the first citywide implementation of an open badge system. It includes in-school badge-issuing programs as well as out-of-school and governmental badge-issuing programs—all of them focused on combatting the summer learning drop off.

As I’ve discussed in previous posts and as I noted during this week’s Open Badges Community call, there are a number of considerations associated with design and badge design in particular. While it can be argued that content defines a good deal of the social value of a badge, visual appearance also plays a significant role.* Visual processing accounts for half of the human brain’s operational capacity so it follows that how something looks can alter how it’s perceived. With that in mind, as I imagined the visual badge system that would arise from a panoply of organizations issuing disparate badges, my years of experience in design consulting told me that a strong shape with a required set of elements would bring conceptual cohesion, reduce visual confusion, and provide a much needed sense of family, a unifying principle if you will, to the group.

A template to the rescue
With these desires in mind, we created a badge design template that was hexagonal in shape with a banner draped across it that included 2 blue stripes and 4 red stars.

badgetemplate

The banner design referenced the iconic elements found on the City of Chicago’s flag. This template served a variety of purposes:

  1. it identified each of these badges as Chicago Summer of Learning badges;
  2. it created a cohesive and easily understood family of badges despite being assembled from very different organizations;
  3. it provided the city with an easy way to find, reference, and display badges as a full set not only during the experience but afterwards as well;
  4. it branded the badges as Chicago specific; and
  5. it provided a way for issuing organizations to indicate to the public and to future funders that they had participated in the groundbreaking experience of CSOL.

Our goal with the template was to provide a Chicago flavor to the badges and indicate a family feel while allowing enough room for organizations to customize badges to suit their needs. So, how did this fly? This template arrived in a way that may have seemed like an edict to some and yet it was perceived as a gift by others. Nevertheless, with the imposition of such a strong requirement to participate in the system—and it was an absolute requirement for all entry level badges—there were additional issues for the team to work through together. Some organizations already had pre-existing badges that didn’t fit the new template; some organizations had no access to designers; and some organizations had no strong design style or branding to implement.

A badge design tool for all
Since one of our goals for the template was to ease folks’ fear of design in general—particularly those who were organizationally or financially challenged—we also developed a badge design tool. The beauty of this tool, Badge Studio, developed by Atul Varma & Jess Klein, was its adaptability. If an organization had little to no design expertise, using it one could pull together a respectable looking badge that had all of the required elements. On the other hand if an organization had experienced design staff or access to professional designers, the template could be manipulated quite easily to accommodate unusual visual elements or objects that extended beyond the hexagonal shape.

For the organizations who already had existing badges, we suggested resizing them and dropping them into the hexagonal portion of the template—or we provided them with an Illustrator template. Since all of the organizations with pre-existing badges had design staff or access to professional designers, this option worked out quite well.

Issues of branding
Since Mozilla was tasked with addressing the first two badge levels of the CSOL experience, entry level badges and city level STEAM badges, we focused solely on a family appearance. To that end, we did not develop standards for color use or typography—two important mainstays of a branding system. However, we did provide some recommendations regarding type use. That suggestion was to avoid using type unless it remained readable & legible at highly reduced sizes. We also suggested avoiding type as the sole indicator of different badge levels, e.g., beginner, intermediate, advanced.

Indeed, we shared with the badge issuing organizations that badge design is akin to logotype or mark design in that it has similar constraints. Badges need to read at both small sizes (50 x 50 pixels) and larger sizes (600 x 600 pixels). Happily, most organizations succeeded in making their own branding work comfortably with the new badge template wrapper.

As for the city level STEAM badges, they hewed to the hexagonal structure and incorporated the word Chicago in them. Using her previously designed entry level badge template as a starting point, Mozilla’s Jess Klein designed three sets of beautiful S-T-E-A-M badges. After a comprehensive review and discussion, the larger team selected the style that hearkened back to the Chicago Summer of Learning identity program.

CSOL city-level STEAM badges

See the lovely results above for yourself. Each badge visually references the subject area that it represents; take a moment or two to admire the layered meaning embedded in each one of these badges. They’re wonderful examples of badge designs that function as well as a group as they do independently.

As to the top level badges of the CSOL experience—the city-wide challenge learning experiences badged by Hive Chicago and the Digital Youth Network—they function in a somewhat separate aesthetic because the use of the badge design template was not a requirement for their development. Subsequently, the shapes and colors of the challenge badges issued by these organizations may appear significantly different than the entry level or city-level badges. They do not all retain the Chicago flag banner and they may be shapes other than hexagonal.

Retraining the focus
After all of this discussion of the visual design of the badges, it’s important to consider why this badge system came into being. The learning is what’s important here: the badges act as various representations of that learning. We are really pleased to see the beautiful, mixed bouquet of badges that resulted from working with a simple standard template combined with the challenge badge accents. This summer provides a test bed for not only open badges but also summer programs and the nascent tie between in school and out of school learning. We could not be more excited.

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As always, I welcome your thoughts. In the next few blog posts we’ll cover the badge system hierarchy including the type of badge system CSOL represents, thoughts on assessment, team requirements, plus an examination of additional tools built for this endeavor.

So yes, much more soon.
carla [at] mozillafoundation [dot] org

notes & references
*It’s worth noting that while I strongly suggest that design play a role from the beginning of the process, obsessive concerns about the appropriateness or inappropriateness of the visual appearance of a badge can stunt or entirely inhibit development. Still, content + design = a whole that is unmatched by its individual parts.

During the July 10, 2013 Open Badges community call, I paraphrased a quote by Massimo Vignelli (1998), designer of the iconic NYC subway map and wayfinding, that I found in an intriguing book of interviews, Design Dialogues. You can find that quote below.

There are two kinds of graphic designers: One is rooted in history and semiotics and problem-solving. The other is more rooted in the liberal arts—painting, figurative arts, advertising, trends and fashion. These are really two different avenues. The first kind is more interested in looking to the nature of the problem and organizing information. That’s our kind of graphic design. To me, graphic design is the organization of information. The other kind is interested in the look and wants to change things all the time. It wants to be up-to-date, beautiful, trendy.
(M. Vignelli, 1998)

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.

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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.