Posts Tagged digital learning

Digital Badges Bust Out of School-Defined Learning

Published by — “A badge is a verified, data-rich product, better than a resume.”

Damian Ewens sits in his snazzy office at BetaSpring, a Providence business incubator.  He’s mother hen to Achievery, a business that provides a platform for building “digital badge” systems.

And they are?  Well, they’re basically a high-tech version of Boy Scout badges, certifying that the young man sporting one of the iconic patches on his sash actually knows something about knot-tying, canoeing or cooking over a campfire.  The Scout manual explains what skills that badge certifies and the criteria for getting one.

Okay, but a “digital” badge?

Ewens takes his diploma, a Masters from Stanford University, opens the leather-like cover and starts swiping and touch-screening it the way you would an iPad.  “Stanford gives you accreditation.  But what you’ve got is a static piece of paper.”  With his fingers failing to get more information out of the diploma’s image, he says, “My daughters wouldn’t understand a static diploma.”  They’d be looking for the “About” or “Who we are” buttons to find out what the thing is.

While few would question the value of an M.Ed. from Stanford, in math no less, really, what does it mean?  Exactly?  Can he manage a classroom?  Teach algebra through computer coding?  Map lessons to the Common Core Standards?  We don’t know.  A digital badge might tell us.  We take the famous credential on faith, but badges give detailed backup to credentials with less name brand.  Furthermore, how does anyone verify valuable skills and knowledge that have nothing to do with schools?

Mozilla Corporation re-booted proficiency-based credentialing.

Ewens says that in the 1970s, educators struggled with how to reward academic competency and mastery, instead of seat time.  Today most high schools still hand out diplomas based on sticking it out and completing so-many Carnegie Units.  A “D” is passing.  No big competency there.

So after teaching high school in both California and Rhode Island, Ewens took over The Hub, a cool hang-out and alternative-learning center for high-school-age kids.  Its motto is:  “Learning happens anywhere, anytime.”  The Hub conscripts community partners — businesses, arts organizations, individuals — to act as mentors and internship sites so Hub kids can have “Expanded Learning Opportunities” (ELO).  Ewens needed to figure out how to arrange real high-school credits for these skills acquired out of school.  And even if a high school does grant credit, where does it go on a transcript?  What would a college make of it?

As  Ewens pondered his challenge, the Mozilla Corporation developed OpenBadges, an infrastructure for organizing what they call a badge “ecosystem.”  To populate what they hoped would be a diverse and ever-growing world of badges, they offered 30 grants to developers to make badges for specific purposes and to collaborate on creating the online universe to support them.

Two years ago Ewens landed one of those prized grants, launching him into a cyber-world that allowed him to marry real-world skills to a credentialing system that validate kids’ mastery and competencies.  Now he’s an entrepreneur building Achievery with a partner, Kerri Lemoie, a self-taught developer.

Ewens says, “The way we’ve structured school, there’s no bridge from there (to the real world).  The idea is to create an open global certification system that enables us to capture, enable and verify skills that happen anywhere.  If there were a digital badge that replicates any academic achievement, we could get away from the Ivory Tower.  A badge is a verified, data-rich product, better than a resume and endorsements from LinkedIn.  The person on the street can click the badge and see exactly what it certifies and what evidence backs it up.”

The anatomy of a badge

To qualify for display on Mozilla’s site, a badge needs certain specifics, which Achievery explains here.  An icon is essential, of course, but when the college or employer clicks it, they need to know what the badge means — its name, issue date, the party issuing it, the criteria for earning it, and so on.  Achievery works with clients to develop badge systems to capture employees’ trainings, workshops and achievements.  But Achievery also has a nifty do-it-yourself online kit that includes a free logo-maker.

Mozilla users can store badges in their own online backpack, effectively a hip, high-tech Boy Scout sash.  A 10 FAQ will get you going both if you want to issue badges or earn them as supplements to your education credentials.

Mozilla’s site emphasizes that it’s not an either/or — go to school or make your own education with badges.  Education is evolving, but right now it badly needs to bust out of its rigid 4 walls and 6-hour day as the only source of learning.  Schools can’t teach everything, nor should they try.

So if you’re applying to college and you’re an expert sailor, rapper or elder-care worker, those skills deserve to be credentialed, with a whole lot more punch than a mere self-reported list on an application or resume.

Especially for people who are highly talented but no good at school, badges are a godsend.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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Tech Teacher Wins New York City’s Startup Weekend Edu

Published by — The story of a social-studies teacher’s meteoric rise through the EdTech world.

Dawn Casey-Rowe (far left) and her team won Startup Weekend Edu with their business BetaMatch.

Social studies teacher Dawn Casey-Rowe has a power plant’s energy packed into a petite frame.  Her students at Davies vocational school come for the hands-on learning of marketable skills.  Last spring she started exploring ways to intrigue disengaged students with jazzier lessons, while aligning her work more closely to Common Core.  Her meteoric rise through the EdTech landscape began then.

And it culminated a week ago Sunday when she won first-place honors at the East Coast’s largest Startup Weekend Edu.  Startup Weekends are global events where entrepreneurs gather for 54 hours, competing to see who can build the most viable business plan.  So many entrepreneurs were interested in education technology, the EdTechies broke off into their own events.  Think: Iron Chef or Project Runway for nerds and teachers, without TV.   The judges at the March 1 were technology rock-stars, district superintendents and the like.

Casey-Rowe gave her two-minute pitch for a business called BetaMatch, worked with a team over the weekend, and flat-out won.  Meteoric.

Her story starts with an outdated textbook.  “Rather than charging the taxpayer to replace old textbooks, these days I can make my own.  I think that in the digital age, that’s my job.”

Fortunately Davies had just installed much new technology, opening up a cyber world of resources.  While asking friends’ advice about online learning, Casey-Rowe was invited to beta-test Learnist, which helps anybody, including educators, “curate” their own materials.  It was love at first site.

“Curating” mimics museum curation.  Instead of collecting hardcopies of Picasso’s early work, Deco artifacts, or treasures from ancient Mesopotamia, teachers can electronically collect them, along with supporting materials.

See Casey-Rowe’s unit on Protest for an example, with its documents, videos, songs, and links to other Learnist collections.  She wrote an excellent outline of the advantages of this electronic textbook strategy in “10 ways to use Learnist in the Classroom.”  Number 3 is “Make it Real,” which notes that the “boards” — curated collections — can include answers to kids’ time-worn question “Why do I need to know this?”  The board can show how the information is essential to certain real-world jobs.

It’s very cool; check it out.

But 66 percent of Davies’ students are low-income.  Won’t kids lacking smart technology at home fall further behind?  Casey-Rowe is emphatic, “I’m sick of using the digital divide as an excuse not to assign work that needs technology.  When students have absolutely no access to technology out of school, I’m flexible.  They can take extra time, or come in early in the morning, use the library, or borrow.  You can’t just let them not use technology.  The expectation of technology skills is industry standard for any industry.  If I’m not getting my kids ready to be hired, what am I doing?”

So refreshing.  Especially since the kids are loving this way of learning.

And when they and their teacher run into problems with Learnist, company officials call to pick Casey-Rowe’s brain for solutions.  “Learnist was using Facebook as their log-in.  Are you kidding?  Schools don’t allow Facebook.  (A hotbed of cyber bullying.)  But everyone else uses Facebook.  So without talking to a classroom teacher, how would they know?  They need to understand my needs in the classroom and to get feedback about how their product is working.  I call them up; they make it better.”

If only the rest of the education industry were so responsive.  Not that she’s complaining; I am.

In any case, that was the seed for her great idea:  Couldn’t we use technology to connect EdTech entrepreneurs to real classroom teachers — with something like a dating service?  Thus:  BetaMatch.

Yearning merely to immerse herself in the EdTech world, she decided to go to New York’s Startup Weekend.  But another friend urged her to go ahead and pitch her idea.  Ooooo.  Challenging.  Well, oka-ay.  On Friday night, Casey-Rowe was one of almost 50 people — teachers, entrepreneurs, developers, marketers — who got two minutes each to pitch their ideas.

Hers was among 18 ideas chosen for further development.  “I was really lucky.  Four developers joined our team; two marketing people, a front end designer.”

Late Sunday afternoon, the teams got four minutes to make a final pitch.  Then they waited, anxiously, eating dinner while the judges decided which was the best.  “Frankly, I thought our idea was the most boring.  Everyone else’s was about games and flash.”

When the time for the final verdict came, she and her team sweated through hearing about the Honorable Mention, the Second Place winner, and finally:  themselves.  They won!

“I was so honored they liked my idea.”

Amazing, isn’t it, that working classroom teachers are so isolated and undervalued, no one had previously thought to connect them to the hoards currently making educational apps?

“EdTech is awesome, but it has to be employed correctly. It does not substitute for quality lessons; it augments them. Whatever happens, I will continue to reflect about how it can improve my teaching.  As far as my future in EdTech, this year was such a whirlwind for me in terms of gaining access, falling in love, and realizing that I, one person, can make an impact here.” She’s pretty sure she doesn’t have time to start a new business on top of teaching.

But keep on trucking, girl.  We need so many more like you.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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Most Kids Way Ahead of Us as Digital Learners, for Better and Worse

Published by  —  Adults need to encourage kids to use the promise of technology to tackle tough problems — just like an adult would.

An Associated Press piece about the 14 million Americans who’ve been searching vainly for jobs profiled Jon, a warehouse worker unemployed since 2008. Apparently employers even in that seemingly-low-tech field want people with computer skills. Now 55 and a non-techie, Jon laments that employers should offer people like him training in those skills. But in this buyer’s market, why would they?

A lot of plucky 20-year-olds would just say: sure, I can do inventory software. They would surf the net, learn what they could, and show up day one asking how this particular company’s system works. They are born-and-raised digital learners. They have confidence where Jon does not.

Herein lies the new “digital divide.”

The old divide was between the haves and the have-nots. Computer access was a luxury of well-heeled families and school systems. Now, most kids at least carry a cell phone with text capabilities. The new divide is between those at home in cyberspace and those who struggle with e-mail.

This divide separates adults from kids.

Education-tech expert Angela Maiers makes this distinction: “The 21st century will not be defined by the volume or speed at which you consume information. (That was the old way of being smart.) It will be defined by how well you curate that information, translate it and contribute information back in a way that your community can understand it. Teaching students to be competent curators is our main responsibility as educators.”

Huh! That’s different.

Traditional teaching trains kids to consume information so they can regurgitate it correctly, mainly on tests. This is the old banking theory of education: teachers deposit knowledge in kids’ heads.

But tech-savvy people are in the habit of acquiring content and skills in all sorts of ways. Even if they’re learning how to rip off movies and music, kids learn most of their digital skills independently. And that independence is giving them overweaning confidence in their own powers. This is like kids knowing how to rope cattle, ride horses and set up camp away from home, while the adults are just catching on. The adults aren’t WITH them out in the e-Wild West.

Maiers says, “Digital learning is changing what it means to be a reader, writer, publisher, editor. The essence of learning is still literacy. We still teach kids to read for understanding, to write with clarity, to pull the big ideas out and to rally others around important ideas. But e-books allow you to highlight, comment, take notes, research the content, and share all that with others. So literacy is changing from linear and solo to dynamic and immersive.” (Meaning “shared”)

So teachers need to cohabit the cyber world to guide this new literacy. The key will be harnessing kids’ innate passion for freedom and self-direction.

For example: Maiers is a Twitter buddy with Mrs. Krebs, a 7th-grade teacher. One of Maier’s tweets got Krebs so excited about Daniel Pink’s idea of “genius time,” she set asidetime for her students to work on a problem of their own choosing. Maiers and Krebs created lists of questions to stimulate the kids’ thinking. ( In short, what would they like to make better, and how? Long before they finish a Ph.D. or M.D., go solve a big problem. Just head into it, kids, and see if you can make a contribution.

Cyberspace allows kids to practice doing adult work – to save the environment, investigate corruption, contribute to their communities. Krebs will be on hand to guide them, to steer them from unreliable sites, from using rude language, from unbalanced sources and thinking. Inevitably she’ll point some students to the math, science or whatever they might need to get serious about pursuing their project.

Maiers notes, “The best teacher is always experience. You can see (a skill) modeled or explained. But if you’re not playing the game, you’re not learning. At school, we’re not building students’ competence or confidence for their jobs in the future. When you train for sports, you train for agility, flexibility and precision. Precision is kicking the ball through the goal posts. The way you learn precision is by practicing it over and over again. But the champion is the one who knows WHEN to make that kick, when to move, to pause to shut down, to go forward.”

Students need guidance applying their skills, digital and otherwise, in the realish cyber world.

“If you want the kids to pay attention, give their attention something worthy of it. We ask kids to do the stupidest things. We need to think about what they could be doing with their genius. Because if you don’t secure their hearts, you don’t have a shot at their brains.”

I’m totally with that on so many fronts.

Finally, Maiers cautions, “Everyone has to learn how to enter the ocean, because a wrong move can drown you. The second you stop honoring the force of the ocean, you’re in danger.”

The e-Wild West can be very dangerous. Kids get addicted to games, meet strangers online, and bully with lethal weapons.

Digital learning is a force to be dealt with. We’re only just starting. Adults need to get out there WITH them.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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Ed Tech Ignorance Wastes Millions Each Year

Published by — Education-technology leader Angela Maiers talks about the promise and future of ed tech — and how we integrate it into our classrooms.

Self-described Ed Tech expert Angela Maiers just returned from a 3-day authorspeak Conferencein Indianapolis. In total, ninety-nine education-related authors gathered to hear innovation-expert Daniel Pink give the keynote. They broke into normal conferency sessions to discuss 10 different “idea strands.” But they also blogged, tweeted, and did whatever ed-tech nuts do to communicate internationally with 12.1 million other people, mainly educators. Techies keep track of such numbers. Together they talked, shared their books, stories and work, and modeled techniques for e-teaching right there on the spot.

Interestingly, the 10 “idea strands” were education’s most hardy perennials – assessment, special populations, instruction, leadership, school improvement. The usual.

The “21st-century skills” strand has been a hot topic since the late 1980s. Big deal.

But Maier makes the point that for all the talk about technology’s impact on the classroom, educators and policy-makers pay little attention to what’s barreling down at us from the e-horizon. Who knew smart phones were coming? And what happens when kids can learn whatever they want, on the go? Most adults past a certain age didn’t grow up reaching for a computer instead of a map, a recipe book or a dictionary. These folks – including me – automatically try to fit new technologies into our existing mental framework for teaching and learning. Square mindset in a round portal.

Maiers says, “We make millions of dollars of stupid decisions, because the decisions are related to technology and not to learning. The people making decisions about school technology and how to use it are not themselves digital learners. We aren’t looking at impact of the new technologies on the web itself. We tell teachers to bring these devices into their classes without having a clear idea of what’s happening out in a very dynamic, dramatic landscape.”

So districts spend big bucks for shipments of i-pads, shiny new computer labs or Maiers’ favorite bete noir, whiteboards.

“The number one trend in learning is the rise of mobile. Mobile means ‘on the move.’ Now learning can take place anywhere, anytime. But we buy these expensive, 300-pound things (whiteboards) and mount them on the wall. They are archaic dinosaurs designed to deliver content – glorified monitors. They are not transforming learning.” Mostly, teachers use them as tools for stand-and-deliver instruction, just like they would use a periodic chart or show a movie. However shiny, this is passive learning.

Today, Maiers says, “computing is ubiquitous. You don’t go to a pencil lab. You carry the pencil with you. As educators, we need to help kids adapt to the ubiquity of digital learning. This is not about technology. It’s about being fluent with multiple tool sets. Sometimes the best tool is a pencil. And if you took my post-it notes away, I would be crazed. But when I forget my phone, I limit my ability to participate as a learner.”

The tools – the hard and software – are only part of the e-changes. Consider the kids. Right now virtually every kid has a mobile device in his pocket. In Central Falls, Rhode Island, a town of distilled poverty where I consult, the kids all have phones.

Even phones that are not “smart” are powerful portals to the larger world. Student learning isn’t dependent on teachers or textbooks; they can always text someone for an answer. Phones connect kids to networks of flesh-and-blood pals. Ubiquitous information feeds kids’ interests in cars, music, politics.

Granted, the phones are fabulously annoying to the adults. Way too many kids use phones to stay connected to anything but the world of school, distracting everyone from the work at hand. It’s hard enough to grab kids’ TV-trained, 4-second attention span without competing with texting under the desk. Sharing test answers across the school and within the classroom is now almost impossible to stop. Online bullying is a new social disease.

But these things aren’t going away. Maiers says, “We put these devices in kids’ hands and teach them no competencies. Those most at risk of being influenced are those who most need to know how to receive information.”

Allow me to jump back into my own comfort zone for a moment. We need to collaborate WITH the kids to figure out how adults, kids and smart phones are going to live together in peace. Until we do that, those phones are just AK-47s in kids’ fight for adolescent freedom. The fight is developmentally appropriate, but technology changes the rules of engagement. Without the kids’ participation, we’ll never successfully create moral or social codes regarding phone use in public and at school.

Besides, those phones could be powerful learning tools. Maybe. At least, Maiers insists, the issue demands study.

She recommends starting with the Horizon report. Since 2002, a consortia of thinkers has studied the e-landscape, forecasting what will be available in one year, three years, and even into the sci-fi land of five years from now. This year their report focused on education. Their examples and mindset skew towards higher education. But if the goal of K-12 is success in college and post-secondary training, now is when all educators need to prepare for a technological future.

But what does it mean to be a digital learner anyway? I thought I knew. Next week we’ll return to Maiers and her colleagues to see how they describe it.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at

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