Signs Of Change: American Alliance of Museums’ Digital Badges

Digital badges might be the next frontier in association education. The American Alliance of Museums is trying a few on.

Digital badges might be the next frontier in association education. The American Alliance of Museums is trying a few on.

What does it mean to have learned something? What, exactly, qualifies as a classroom? And how should what you’ve learned be acknowledged, to yourself and to others?

Elizabeth Merritt spends a lot of time thinking about these questions.

Merritt is the founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums (CFM), an initiative of the American Alliance of Museums that’s designed to seek out new ideas to serve its membership. (She calls the Center the Alliance’s “bratty younger cousin.”) In the past two years she’s become increasingly interested in digital credentialing—a form of online education in which the student receives a publicly visible “badge,” or number of badges, for completing assignments.

That’s not the same thing as a webinar: Merritt has led those for the past five years but found them poor fits for broader topics and engagement among participants. And in-person training programs can only reach about 80 people at a time. “I have been frustrated for at least a decade with how to do training if you’ve decided it’s essential,” she says. “If you’ve decided it’s really necessary, you can’t say it’s OK to do it 80 people at a time.”

So early this year, with the support of an ASAE Foundation Innovation Grant, CFM stepped into digital credentialing by hosting an online course on strategic foresight. The topic was attractive to Alliance members, museum leaders who need to adapt to volatile forces in their fields.

How’d it go? As with a lot of things in the world of online learning, the answer is complicated.

“I have been frustrated for at least a decade with how to do training if you’ve decided it’s essential,” Elizabeth Merritt says. (photo by Matthew Furman)

New Learning, New Learners

Adult education has undergone a sea change in the past decade, from for-profit universities to peer learning to massive open online courses (MOOCs) that distribute learning globally. For associations, which often base their credibility (and revenue) on education, it can be as difficult to figure out how to leverage these new models as it is impossible to ignore them.

“One of the most important trends is how self-directed people are about their own learning,” says Jonathan E. Finkelstein, founder and CEO of Credly, a company that develops digital badging platforms. “We’re very accustomed to learning what we need to know on a completely on-demand, just-in-time way. The vast majority of the learning we actually do is not in formal settings, yet it’s formal settings that produce a credential, a diploma, or a degree.”

That idea runs counter to traditional association education. “Our adult learners now are reacting more from the immediate gratification of earning something,” says Tracy Petrillo, CAE, chief learning officer of Educause, an association of IT professionals in higher education. Its EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative began experimenting with digital badges at its 2013 annual conference, awarding more than 1,400 in 12 categories related to participation, presenting, and community service. That allowed participants to satisfy their interest in broadcasting their accomplishments: “I think the future of the resume is the public resume,” Petrillo says.

Transferring that concept to education is important but trickier, she says. “We have to look at bite-size learning, bite-size participation.”

Elizabeth Merritt’s course in strategic forecasting was engineered for bite-size learning. The course was split into four levels, with up to six assignments per level, and badges were offered for completed assignments. Each level (hosted on a WordPress BadgeOS site configured by LearningTimes, an online education company) opened with a video recorded by Merritt, followed by additional information, then a written assignment, which the participants who tested the program could complete at their own pace. The site is password-protected, and participants were encouraged to share thoughts in discussion forums. (The class offered two badges for different types of such participation, in fact.)

Identifying how much information to include in each lesson, how to structure the assignments, and how to judge the participant’s work presented challenges. “What I learned is that I have to break down my logic about why [an answer] is right or wrong and have a very clear rubric for what I expect you to do, then for scoring it,” Merritt says.

Right: scoring. The credibility of the course rests on its rigor, and the rigor is defined by what it demands of students. If the assignments involve time-consuming grading, the time it saves over in-person sessions is negligible. But Merritt sees an opportunity to leverage the Alliance’s volunteer peer reviewers, who already help the organization certify museums. “If you want a different type of engagement, or you’re not able to travel that much, you could be an online peer reviewer, and you could score assignments within our badging system,” she says.

Merritt spent the remainder of 2013 trying out improvements with another group of “test pilots,” and she’ll work with the Alliance’s director of education early next year to decide on next steps. One point she stresses from the experience is that, for all the appeal of online badges, online education needn’t be exclusively digital. “People act as if the learning is all online,” she says. “No. Instruction is online. That doesn’t mean the learning has to be online. I think this could foster localized, face-to-face learning.”

Different Credit

That jibes with the experience of Tracey Berg-Fulton, registrar at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture and one of Merritt’s test pilots. She says she has “some pretty substantial doubts” about whether a digital badging system can replace traditional learning formats. But as conversations with her fellow participants moved to Twitter and later to an in-person conference that a few of them happened to attend, the experience gained more heft.

“The activity that earned you the badge in certain sections wasn’t necessarily that challenging, but the discussions it generated made that badge more worthwhile and more robust,” she says.

And the format may help bring more learners into an association’s fold. “There’s a democratizing aspect to these types of microcredentialing,” says Angie Kim, a member of the Center’s Advisory Council who also took the course. “There is a latent potential in microcredentialing that’s not only about your traditional student or professional development audience, but also the people who have been left out but who we should be serving, can be serving, but have always underserved.”

Bite-size learning may not be the path to a major certification; Credly’s Finkelstein makes a distinction between the “gold seal” that a credential represents and the “gold star” that a less formal digital badge provides. But he suggests that digital badging can strengthen an association’s community by making its members’ accomplishments more visible. The challenge is to decide what accomplishments are worth showing off.

“What we’re really looking at here is a new form of lifelong credit,” he says. “The core questions are, would somebody be pleased to receive this acknowledgement? Does it have value to them? Would most of the people who earned it want to let others know that they earned it?”

(Highdog/Getty Images)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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