Programmatic Foundations for Badge Portfolios

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How Design League came to DreamYard

Mouse created the Design League (DL) program and Design with Purpose curriculum several years ago as a way to teach the human-centered design process to its most dedicated participants. Last year, Mouse supported the first adaptation to the Design League program at the DreamYard Art Center in the Bronx, NY. While there are many values and goals that Mouse and DreamYard shared—including promoting creativity, collaboration, and digital equity—we were aware that there might be parts of the curriculum or implementation of the program that we would have to adapt to fit with DreamYard culture and pedagogy.

a group of youth sit in a circle on their knees concentrating on a project between them

The Mouse connection to DreamYard goes back several years. For over five years our high school, DreamYard Preparatory High School, has supported a dynamic Mouse team of students who use the Mouse model to support tech issues at the school, organize gaming events, and build community for students interested in creative uses of technologies. About five years ago, DreamYard also began to partner with Parsons School of Design (also a partner of Mouse) on an initiative called the Learning Portfolio Project. The goal of this project was to better support our young people to digitally document their learning and present evidence of their creative and academic accomplishments with more depth than grades or test scores allow. Faculty from Parsons worked together with in- and out-of-school educators from DreamYard to adapt their undergraduate digital portfolio process for a high school context. Educators experimented with a range of digital tools—including blogs, slides, and websites—to help their students digitally document both their process and products in their classes. In the most successful implementations, the resulting digital portfolios were highly individualized and creative, and offered a holistic view of the students’ successes, problem solving skills, and goals for the future. There are example portfolios, shareable curriculum, and other resources available here: http://dreamyard.parsons.edu/

In the fourth year of the partnership with Parsons, Mouse joined the project and created a six-part modular curriculum that supports the major areas of portfolio development. These areas include an introduction to portfolios and why they are useful; an introduction to UX/UI design; how to tell the story of a successful project; and organizing and curating digital documentation to share. The Mouse team was an instrumental partner for us at this point in the project because they offered both the expertise and capacity to develop curriculum based on the work Parsons and DreamYard had done over the previous years. This partnership worked because we shared the same goals of helping more students to tell their learning story and to develop the skills they need to digitally document their process and products. We also spent many hours meeting to share information, build trust, and give feedback on the curriculum as it was being created.

It is because of these previous partnerships among DreamYard, Mouse, and Parsons—along with the researchers at the Educational Development Center and our evaluator, Julie Poncelet—that the current NSF-funded Design League Badge Portfolio project came to be. DreamYard’s contribution to the project has been (1) to host a new implementation of the Design League program at our Art Center in the Bronx, and (2) to share our knowledge of best practices around portfolio development. DreamYard is new to the use of digital badges, though we’ve been aware of the conversations around badging and micro-credentials for several years. Because of our trusting relationship with Mouse, DreamYard thought the Design League collaboration would be a good way to learn how digital badge portfolios might support our young people’s learning.

How are badges introduced and explained?

a young man coaches students around a project table

In the case of Design League, DreamYard was adapting and implementing a curriculum and badge system that was already in place. Program administrators and facilitators from DreamYard and Mouse met several times before the program started in the fall of 2017 to better understand the existing curriculum and the related badges. DreamYard decided that the existing DL badges represented well what would be learned in the curriculum, and that we would not make any changes to the badges. Even though DreamYard decided not to make changes, it is important that Mouse offered flexibility around some of the badges and was willing to make changes if needed to fit DreamYard goals.

In the first few weeks of the DL program, participants are introduced to the Mouse Create platform, which is an online space that they use to learn, document their work, and receive badges. The Create platform offers step-by-step modules, which are used almost weekly by the participants and facilitator to teach human-centered design concepts, share examples, and prompt discussions or activities. The badges are awarded digitally once participants submit the required evidence from certain activities. The DL badges include Human-Centered Design, User Interviews, Brainstorm, Prototyping, and Pitch and Publish.

The first time that participants are introduced to the badges is during the Open House session—the very first meeting of the program, which is similar to an orientation for potential participants. During the Open House, potential participants are told about the program, shown example projects, and told that they will receive digital badges that can be used in a number of ways to unlock future opportunities. For example, the badges can be shared on a college application or on their LinkedIn profile to show other audiences what skills they have acquired in their DL Program.

As the DL program continued at DreamYard, we found that some of the participants were having trouble keeping track of the badges they were earning and what activities they had to complete to earn them. Our facilitators, Charles and Maggie, decided to create an analog visual representation of the badges to hang in the space. The visual was large and colorful and presented the badges and their related activities in a grid format. Each participant’s name was also on the grid, and as they completed activities and received badges, the facilitators would mark the progress with a post-it. This visual chart became a quick and easy way to (1) share the badges with the participants, and (2) see who needed more support in completing the badges along the way.

How do we help young people understand what the badges represent and how they can use them for future opportunities?

a group of students working on a project around a table

In the Design League program, participants are introduced to a number of concepts they may never have heard of: human-centered design, prototypes, adaptive technology, and digital badges. With so much new information, it’s important to scaffold how new concepts are introduced and to repeat new terms and concepts over the course of the program so they can be understood and applied in new contexts.

The idea of receiving badges is introduced in the very first DL session, but it might take until the end of the year for participants to understand why badges can be important for their future. Some young people might know about physical badges from participation in a club or a Scouting organization, but issuing digital badges is a newer concept. Video games might be the most relevant context where some young people have received badges or medals for achievements. It is important for the DL participants to understand that they are learning the skills that the badge represents, and that once they have the badge it is something they can use in other places and share with others to represent their skills and experience in DL. The badges clearly identify the skills that are being learned and practiced—which offers the young people language they can use when talking to others about the program to name the skills they acquired.  

Young people might be more used to having a grade or test score to represent what they’ve learned. These traditional ways of measuring are also more familiar to colleges and employers. Digital badges are finding their way into the mainstream—via job training programs and some college tracks - but there is still a ways to go before they are commonly understood. This means that badge recipients must be ready to explain why they received a badge and how to share the digital documentation or evidence they used to earn it.

Once a young person understands what a digital badge is, and how it can be shared, they also should be supported in understanding what opportunities it might help them unlock. In the case of DL, the skills the participants are learning are foundational to many areas in the STEM fields, as well as the related fields of Art and Design. The DL program curriculum includes several aspects that support these connections, including providing tech mentors, trips to colleges, and connections to the STEM industries.

two students stand next to each other proudly displaying awards

Mouse worked closely with Parsons School of Design to endorse its DL curriculum. The Parsons endorsement shows a connection to the large STEM and design fields, and helps the participants know what to expect if they continue on a pathway in these areas. The participants who earn the DL badges digitally document their process and products along the way, which gives them ample evidence and language to include on college applications—and, in particular, digital portfolios, which are often required for design schools. In addition, the DL facilitators connect the various skills associated with human-centered design to different college pathways, including engineering, design, or computer science. They may use their own experience in college or help the participants to research different college majors or areas of study that might help them take their skill-building to the next level.

In addition to college connections, the DL program uses the badges and associated skills as conversation starters about possible careers in STEM and design fields. One way this happens is when tech mentors are brought in to support participants in the second half of the program. Tech mentors are people who are either studying or working in a STEM and/or design field. Each group of participants works with the tech mentor to support the more complicated technological and project management aspects of their projects. As the participants are working toward their Prototyping and Pitch and Publish badges, tech mentors support them directly with project details, but they also share their own stories of pursuing a career in technology. These conversations help the participants understand the many pathways into STEM careers. In addition, the DL curriculum and badges give the young person the useful language to talk about the design process and how it relates to different careers. This, in turn, could support their ability to identify as a person interested in STEM and to see how what they are learning in DL connects with the skills necessary to succeed in STEM.

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As most organizations explore the potential of digital badges and credentials, there are several things to keep in mind. First, when adopting an existing badge system, put in the time and effort to understand whether or not there is program alignment. Also, it is important to develop badging systems that are flexible and modular, as some organizations might need to modify them to fit with their context. Once badges are put in place, there are many ways young people can be supported to both understand their value and connect them to opportunities. Educators and mentors should actively discuss both the meaning of the badges and how they might be valued by other audiences. Badges can be an important tool for drawing connections between the skills young people are developing and opportunities in higher education and other career opportunities in STEM and design fields.