Quality in humanitarian education

Reda Sadki Published articles

Humanitarian education is a huge undertaking. Each year, for example, 17 million trainees learn first-aid skills through face-to-face (FTF) training programmes run by the 189 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies worldwide. People of varied educational backgrounds join their local Red Cross or Red Crescent branch because they want to learn how to do first aid, how to prepare for or recover from disaster, or how to make their community more resilient. They also join to meet other like-minded people, building social ties and using the power of peer education to learn by doing.

FTF training has been efficient in terms of preparing volunteers to perform the tasks assigned to them, and social, peer-education training has also been an important component of the identity of volunteers and their sense of belonging to the organization. However, this formal way of teaching reproduces a one-way, didactic transmission of information, in which volunteers are given the knowledge they need to perform pecific tasks. Recent progress in massive open online courses challenge this model, although ques- tions remain about how effective and sustainable such learning approaches are (Daniel, 2012). This trend generates important questions for the IFRC concerning the use of educational technology while maintaining the purpose and quality of humanitarian education (Stracke, 2012).

In 2009, the IFRC published its first online course – World of the Red Cross and Red Crescent – to support the training of its international personnel. Experts developed courses on global health, security and other thematic areas. These courses were delivered through a single ‘Learning Platform’ which became part of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Learning and Knowledge Sharing Network in 2010. The network initially emphasized accredited learning, thus acknowledging that such learning remains the only valid currency in the professional world, even though Red Cross Red Crescent workers have acquired skills and knowledge in the field that deserve recognition.

By May 2013, less than 1 per cent of the world’s 13 million Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers had accessed the Learning Platform. The cost of internet access and the digital divide remain major obstacles. But the number of learners on the Learning Platform doubled in 2012 and its growth rate is accelerating. Users have completed nearly 60,000 online courses since the platform’s launch in October 2009, with more than 5,000 course registrations every month. At almost 50 per cent, the completion rate is a major success compared to the 20 per cent that is considered an acceptable rate in e-learning. Eleven National Societies already have more than 1,000 learners on the platform, with the Canadian, French and Swedish Red Cross among the early adopters. In November 2012, the Australian Red Cross, which had never used online learning in training, became the first National Society to adopt the Learning Platform for training all of its 3,300 staff members. It organized a nationwide roll-out and integrated online education into its workforce development strategy, with research already scheduled to document impact on performance.

For the first time, the Learning Platform enables volunteers to tap into a global knowledge community with no intermediaries prescribing or circumscribing what they should learn. By connecting to the platform, volunteers discover learning opportunities that relate to an essential aspect of their engage- ment: their thirst for learning as the means to changing their reality.

In 2012, following the Learning Platform’s success, the IFRC offered a ‘new learning’ programme using dialogue between learners and peer review to promote open, active learning. In its pilot phase at the Global Youth Conference, 775 people from more than 70 National Societies – four times more than the number of conference attendees – participated in learning ‘missions’ and ‘live learning moments’. Fifty-eight per cent of participants worked consistently on the learning activities, producing more than 140 pages of content. The same percentage said the programme improved their ability to think critically, analyse, evaluate and apply what they had learned about youth issues.

Questions arose about the learning effectiveness and impact of the IFRC’s online courses. Perhaps prompted by the legitimate demand that a new medium demonstrate its value, these questions also reveal an attachment to and assumptions about the comparative advantage of traditional learning modalities. However, researchers completed two comprehensive comparative meta-analyses in 2010. Their conclusions were definitive: since 1991, distance learning has delivered equal or better learning outcomes than traditional FTF programmes (Shachar and Neumann, 2010), while ‘blended learning’ (supplementing FTF instruction with online instruction) has not enhanced learning results (US Department of Education, 2010).

These studies demonstrated that quality is not determined by the means of delivery; however, they did not determine or assess the quality of the pedagogies used, whatever medium or technology. Many online learning technologies of the recent past, including the IFRC’s first online courses, were modelled on top- down, legacy training systems – somewhat like early film-making, which started by recording live theatre. As Bill Cope at the University of Illinois explains: “In their basic approach and use in practice, these are heavily weighted to the transmission of centralized knowledge from the center to the periphery.” They are “frequently not effective” as the transmitted knowledge is “often abstract and de-contextualized”, while “the value of existing local knowledge, practices and understanding” is “not recognized or incorporated into the learning experience” (Cope and Keitges, 2013).

The IFRC is exploring how innovation in learning connects back to National Societies’ rich history and culture, how technology might support learning from the local knowledge of National Society volunteers to strengthen cross-cutting knowledge, skill and competency development, and how collaborative learning communities might be developed across language and other barriers for National Society volunteers. More than 50 online courses destined for the Learning Platform are now in the pipeline, with clearly established, open standards for technology, content and pedagogy, aligned to the ISO 19796-1 quality standard for learning, education and training. Every course is now required to have an evaluation framework in place, to collect data that will be used in an annual review process.

But for humanitarian education to truly be transformed, further pedagogical innovation is needed. For example, online educational resources should also be accessible from mobile devices, notes IFRC’s new guidelines. This opens up new pedagogical possibilities: non-traditional contexts for learning, reaching remote constituencies and allowing interaction both between teacher and learner, and between learners. New courses, like the public health in emergencies modules, use mobile-first responsive technology to deliver an immersive learning experience to any device (mobile, tablet or desktop) with a modern browser. These courses are grounded in the field experience of IFRC experts and the evidence base. The peda- gogical patterns emphasize application of knowledge, analytical skills and the ability to discover, analyse and interpret from a multiplicity of data sources through teamwork.

The ability to recollect information still matters, but developing the skills and competencies that will enable the learner to perform in the face of the unknown takes precedence.

Written by Reda Sadki. First published in the World Disasters Report 2013: Focus on technology and the future of humanitarian action.

The significance of technology for humanitarian education

Reda Sadki Published articles

Since the rise of the internet in the early 1990s, the most obvious benefit offered by educational technology has been its potential ubiquity or the ability to learn anywhere, anytime. In development contexts, sceptics have asserted that the ‘digital divide’ restricts this benefit to the privileged few, as only 40 per cent of the world’s population is online. But such analysis neglects the rapid pace of change in extending mobile (and mobile, 3G-based broadband networks) access in low- and middle-income countries.

In many nations, the majority of web users use only mobile phones; the countries with the highest rates include Egypt (70 per cent) and India (59 per cent). In Africa, 85 per cent of the mobile-only web users access the internet with a ‘feature phone’, a device offering some but not all of the features of a smartphone. In high-income nations, a large minority of mobile web users are mobile-only, including the United States (25 per cent). Where, in many low- and middle-income nations, the mobile-only tend to be aged under 25, in high-income countries, particularly the United States, many mobile-only users are older people and many come from lower-income households (ITU, 2013). These statistics imply that for educational technology to be deployed effectively in the contexts of low-, middle- and high-income countries, a mobile-first strategy building on open, low-cost standards and tools is needed.

Education researchers Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis (2012) have described the ways in which technology transforms the economy of effort in education, enabling us to afford (both literally and figuratively) not only to make learning available anywhere, anytime, but also to provide learners with formative assessment and recursive feedback as they work. In this economy of ‘new learning’ (see figure), learners use technology actively to construct knowledge, designing meanings using multiple media at their disposal. By working together collaboratively, every learner is also a peer and teacher contributing to collective knowledge and intelligence that can be used to further thinking and action as well as encouraging ‘metacognition’ (thinking about thinking). Unlike education in the industrial age, which levelled ‘one-size-fits-all’ assumptions, new learning can afford to differentiate based on pre-existing knowledge, competencies and skills.

Figure 1 principles of online learning

In a new learning system, learners create together, giving each other feedback (and even feedback on feedback), sharing their inspirations and discoveries. Within their knowledge communities, they are connected and can work at their own pace, according to their own interests and capabilities. They are inspired to create through embedding sound, image and video within their texts for digital storytelling, situation reports, operational plans and more. This collaborative, flexible, motivating, participatory and supportive approach is not simply a nicer, kinder and gentler form of learning. Its pedagogical patterns closely emulate the core competencies of 21st century humanitarian workers, who are expected to be able to manage complex, overlapping knowledge flows, to work in networked configurations (rather than command-and-control structures) and to use participatory methodologies to partner with affected populations. If the ways humanitarians teach and learn do not explicitly develop these competencies, then formal education efforts will become increasingly ineffective. The amazing economy of effort afforded by educational technology is the only sustainable way to transform learning systems to meet the challenges of today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world.

Written by Reda Sadki. First published in the World Disasters Report 2013: Focus on technology and the future of humanitarian action. Photo: Buddhist monks on a slow boat at the Mekong River near the border of Laos-Cambodia, during a workshop to increase awareness regarding dolphin and fish conservation. There are only 12 dolphins left in this area and a few more further down stream. The temples of Laos were once seen as “universities” for monks. Lao monks are highly respected and revered in Lao communities. Photography © Ben Thé Man/Flickr.com.

Ancient Mayan port city of Tulum, Yucatán Peninsula. Personal collection.

Community health into the scalable, networked future of learning

Reda Sadki Writing

“At the heart of a strong National Society” explains Strategy 2020, “is its nationwide network of locally organized branches or units with members and volunteers who have agreed to abide by the Fundamental Principles and the statutes of their National Society.” To achieve this aim, National Societies share a deeply-rooted culture of face-to-face (FTF) learning through training. This local, community-based Red Cross Red Crescent culture of learning is profoundly social: by attending a “training” at their local branch, a newcomer meets other like-minded people who share their thirst for learning to make a better future. It is also peer education: trainers and other educators are often volunteers themselves, living in the same communities as their trainees.

Although some National Societies have been early adopters of educational technology to deliver distance learning since the early 1990s – and IFRC’s Learning network has scaled up global educational opportunities since 2009 –, such initiatives do not appear to have changed the local, community-based, face-to-face training processes that start in the branch-as-classroom.

Quality in the history of Red Cross Red Crescent learning, education and training (LET) has been based on this combination of practical knowledge you can use, building social ties through face-to-face contact, and leveraging the power of peer education to learn by doing. No other humanitarian organization has ‘brick-and-mortar’ structures on a massive scale to embed public health education in each and every community.

The global volume of health training delivered by the Red Cross Red Crescent is indeed massive. For example, every year, 17 million trainees learn first aid skills face-to-face programs run by National Societies. These trainees then use their first aid skills to provide assistance to 46 million people.

In 2011, IFRC’s research into the social and economic value of its more than 13 million global volunteer workforce concluded that, while many volunteers work across multiple fields, the most volunteers – and the greatest proportion of value – are related to health promotion (IFRC 2011:7). Although the Red Cross and Red Crescent is “known mostly for its role in disasters”, this study highlighted that “the area in which most volunteers are engaged is health.” (IFRC 2011:8)

The social value of the health services delivered by Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers is particularly poignant in the context of a global, critical health workforce shortage. However, the recognition of our unique volunteer workforce is premised on our continued ability to ensure that they continually improve skills, knowledge and competencies to contribute to strengthening health systems.

In 2012, IFRC’s secretariat spent 18,485,821 CHF on a budget line titled “workshops and training”, roughly equivalent to 360,000 hours of in-person training – nearly a thousand hours per day. Every subject matter expert in IFRC’s Global Health Team includes the delivery of face-to-face training in his or her work plan, and many also develop training materials in the form of printed manuals or, more recently, online courses for IFRC’s Learning platform.

With the publication of these guidelines, the Global Health Team aims to recognize the significance of the pedagogical dimension of these training activities as the key determinant of quality in training. Indeed, it is only with a clear framework for how we teach and how we learn that we may know how to measure the learning outcomes, impact and effectiveness of such activities.

These Guidelines for face-to-face training provide detailed instructions first in how to assess learning needs to determine whether these can be addressed by face-to-face training. Only once this is established should training be developed using a rigorous methodology based on available evidence of how adult volunteers learn in Red Cross Red Crescent contexts. Last but not least, training activities should be evaluated not only with respect to improved knowledge and skills, but also improved performance for both the individual and the organization.

By adopting an approach based on needs analysis, these guidelines also highlight the potential for innovative approaches to training that leverage the amazing economy of effort achieved by appropriate use of educational technology and broadened approaches that synergize learning and education with training. A paradigm change is needed for training if it is to remain relevant to delivery science, primarily because of the changing nature of knowledge in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world.

In 1986, according to research by Robert Kelly of Carnegie-Mellon University, 75% of the knowledge needed to do your job was stored in your brain. By 2006, Kelly’s research found that this percentage had dropped to 10%. 90% of the knowledge we use depends on our connections with others. This is in part why, more than ever before, most of what people do in their jobs is currently acquired through experience, regardless of the amount of formal training received. If learning is less and less about recalling information, what then should training focus on?

This dilemma is compounded by the diminishing half-life of knowledge. As learning theorist George Siemens explains, “courses are fairly static, container-views of knowledge. Knowledge is dynamic—changing hourly, daily. [This] requires an understanding of the nature of the half-life of knowledge in [a field, to select] the right tools to keep content current for the learners.” (Siemens 2006:55). How do we train when knowledge flows too fast for processing or interpreting?

If improving performance of health workers in a rapidly-changing world rested solely on more structured, better-designed curricula, this would primarily reveal the underlying assumption or notion that the world has not really changed. Attempting to do more of what has been done in the past is not the answer. We need to do new things in new ways.

As acknowledged in IFRC’s Framework for building strong National Societies (2011), “in a world of changing needs, expectations and opportunities, our knowledge, skills, and competences must keep up to date to meet new demands. We need to address familiar problems by being more proficient in applying what works as well as by using the innovations and insights from new research and technologies that have the potential to bring better results.”

Traditional approaches are unlikely to be scalable. With 13.6 million Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers, no classroom is large enough. No individual is smart enough to tame the knowledge flows, no intervention is complete enough, no training program lasts long enough, and no solution is global enough.

The skills and processes that will make us health workers of tomorrow are not yet embedded in our educational structures. We do know, however, much of what is needed: The capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known. The ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill.

These guidelines recognize the value of existing local knowledge, practices and understanding, and that incorporating them into the learning experience is a key challenge. Our local branches form a vast, global network of brick-and-mortar structures which can be used to anchor public health activities, but they currently reside at the bottom of each National Society’s top-down vertical pyramid. They are rarely linked to each other.

Strategy 2020 calls for IFRC to “draw inspiration from our shared history and tradition” while committing to finding creative, sustainable solutions to a changing world. Meeting the challenge in the future – to reinvent Red Cross Red Crescent health education in order to strengthen National Societies – may well depend on connecting branches to each other to extend our learning culture’s social, peer-based learning to form a vast, global knowledge community. In the 21st Century, such connections may no longer be a ‘nice-to-have’, and may well prove indispensable for anyone working for change at the community level, most obviously on global public health issues with local impact and consequences.

Branches connected to each other could support new forms of community-based public health practice in which local volunteers are linked to international delegates and public health and medical expertise in fluid, real-time, two-way knowledge conversations. Such networks will open new possibilities for a new learning system where community and global health workers create together, giving each other feedback (and even feedback on feedback), sharing their inspirations and discoveries. Within their knowledge communities, they will work at their own pace, according to their own interests and capabilities. They will use digital storytelling to explore and implement solutions, embracing complexity and adapting to volatility and uncertainty in ways that rapid health assessments, operational plans, and other current tools simply cannot. We will be lifelong learners, teaching each other practical skills and refining not only the methods but also the conduits for teaching and learning through constant practice.

These collaborative, flexible, motivating, participatory and supportive approaches are neither wishful thinking nor simply a nicer, kinder and gentler form of learning. Their pedagogical patterns closely emulate core competencies of twenty-first century humanitarian workers, who are expected to be able to manage complex crisscrossing knowledge flows, to work in networked configurations (rather than command-and-control structures), and to use participatory methodologies to partner with beneficiaries.

By asking questions about why we do training, by exploring why and how training can improve performance, these Guidelines represent a milestone on the road to the reinvention of the Red Cross Red Crescent delivery science that underpins how we service the health needs of vulnerable people.

Preface to the IFRC Global Health Team’s Training Guidelines (2013)

Image: Ancient Mayan port city of Tulum, Yucatán Peninsula. Personal collection.


View from the Learning Executive: Reda Sadki

Reda Sadki About me, Interviews

This article was first published by the ASTD’s Learning Executive Briefing.

By Ruth Palombo Weiss

Q: Why do you think the Red Cross Movement has a deeply rooted culture of face-to-face training for its 13.6 million volunteers?

A: There is a deeply rooted culture of face-to-face training at the Red Cross because of our unique brick and mortar network of hundreds of thousands of branch offices all over the world. What drives people to the branches is that they want to learn a skill, such as first aid, disaster risk reduction, and we’re really good at teaching those things.

In the future, educational technology might enable us to connect branches to each other. Imagine what the person in Muskogee, Oklahoma, can learn from the Pakistani Red Crescent volunteer who lived through the Karachi, Pakistan flood in 2010, and who participated in the recovery efforts afterward. That sharing of knowledge and skills would be an enriching and valuable experience. Technology will enable us to put such connections at the heart of the volunteer experience.

Q: What are the challenges in connecting the 187 national Red Cross/Red Crescent societies and using social, peer-based learning to link them to each other in a vast, global knowledge community?

A: In the 21st Century, such connections may prove indispensable for anyone working for change at the community level, most obviously on global issues with local impact and consequences, such as climate change. We need to improve lateral connections by bringing technology into the branches. We also need to find ways to reassure the headquarters of each of these national societies that local, community-based, volunteer networks are a good thing and not threatening to existing hierarchies. Currently, our web-conferencing still feels like a sub-par experience compared to getting volunteers together.

We’re waiting for web-conferencing to create a presence similar to the power of face-to-face training. Google engineers have been trying to recreate the fireside chat with Google Hangouts. What makes the branch experience so powerful is you get to know people and spend time with them after the training is over. Some of the challenges are parallel to those of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and on-line education. Part of what’s at stake is can we recreate not only the knowledge transfer, but improve on the advantages of face-to-face encounters.

Q: Tell our readers about the online courses for specialized disaster response teams, how they are formatted, and how effective they have been.

A: The recruitment and preparation of IFRC’s specialized disaster response teams have ramped up their use of educational technology in the last three years by developing online courses. In 2009, we launched our first online CD-rom course: The World of Red Cross/Red Crescent. The intent was to show that eLearning was a serious thing. It’s a very information-heavy course in which there is little for the learner to do except try to retain enough information to pass the quiz.

We’re now doing scenario-based online courses where people have to problem-solve, make choices, and see the consequences of those choices.  We have moved to a technology that uses HTML 5 and responsive design, a technology that enables a course to reformat and resize, so it can be used on a tablet, smart phone, or desktop screen. The pedagogy is based on things that connect to our learning culture. The technology is based on the reality that people in emerging countries, if they have access to the Internet at all, are accessing it through a mobile device. For example, in Egypt, 80 percent of people have Internet access only though their cell phones.

Q: How has this pioneering use of online education as didactic prerequisites to lessen the information load during face-to-face training led to a broader conversation about the purpose of training and questions about the quality of current learning systems?

A: In 2010, the IFRC spent almost $24 million dollars at the Secretariat in Geneva on workshops and training, almost all of which were face-to-face. Initially, people questioned the legitimacy and efficacy of online learning. Then we realized we had never evaluated our face-to-face training. A big part of our efforts involved comparing online and blended learning to face-to-face learning. We referred to two meta-analysis studies published in 2010 comparing online with blended learning. These studies found that online learning gets a slightly better outcome, and showed no benefits from blended learning. Such evidence helped us shift the debate. There are many more complex and interesting issues we can explore, but the argument of which modality is better has been settled.

Now we can focus on when there is value to moving bodies and materials at high cost: what materials do we move, and what do these bodies do once they’re there? Our emergency health public coordinator has explained that when volunteers are in training, they hang out, get to know each other, and become friends. In the heat of an operation, when one volunteer has to tell someone that he is doing something wrong, that is likely to be accepted because of the friendship. So the question is how do we build such connections using educational technology.

Q: How has the Red Cross Learning Network stimulated new thinking in the humanitarian and development field and increased the magnitude, quality, and impact of humanitarian service delivery?

A:  To start, it has enabled volunteers to tap into a global knowledge community with no intermediaries prescribing or circumscribing what they should learn. We have found there are increasing numbers of people on our learning platform and those numbers are growing every month. There is a dynamic through which national staff and volunteers all over the world discover the learning platform on their own, and they see value in it for themselves. We have a completion rate of over 50 percent for the information transmission modules.

The learning platform tries to do two things. One is to encourage those who are eager to learn, to manage their own learning. That is at the heart of social learning. At the same time, we’re looking at helping learning and development managers to be able to use these tools. The message I give when I go to the various Red Cross headquarters is your staff and volunteers are already completing courses: would you like to know which courses they’re taking and how well they’re doing?  Would you then like to be able to prescribe a learning focus for teams that have performance gaps? We need both a structured and managed approach to learning as well as a people-driven approach.

Q: Are your new eLearning platforms cost-effective and how well do they work?

A: To deliver one-hour of training online through the learning platform costs a licensing fee of $0.50. Delivering one hour of face- to-face training is roughly $50 USD. Clearly, it’s 100 times cheaper to deliver learning online. This is the argument which gets senior management’s attention. It’s cheaper, but can it possibly be as good?  Because we haven’t in the past evaluated the face-to-face training, there is no secretariat-wide effort to evaluate training for all 187 headquarters. Comparing online to face-to-face is tough, and we are currently building an evaluation framework for both kinds of learning, where all new courses are required to include a follow-up evaluation.

The cost effectiveness is complicated, because the development of an online course is more expensive than that for face-to-face. With face-to-face, someone develops a power point, we give him a plane ticket, and he gives the lecture. You can have multiple branches funding that kind of training, and it can be spread out over time, so any time a national society has a budget, they organize a new training module. However, over time the cost really adds up.

On the other hand, if you want to design a new online course, you have to think through the pedagogy, the technology, the content, and that’s all front-loaded work. Finding the money for that work on the promise of effectiveness has turned out to be challenging. We want to keep all of the good things about the face-to-face culture, but we also need to make sure every dollar is used to maximize the services to vulnerable people, which is the heart of our mission.

Q:  How might a collaborative learning community be developed for volunteers across language and other barriers?

A:  Crowd sourcing is the easy answer. We already have virtual volunteers doing amazing things, such as crisis mapping, entirely online.  An example is the Haiti earthquake. There were thousands of people online (such as rescue teams) who voluntarily collected and analyzed data. There is a lot of debate in the humanitarian world as how to use that, and one of the problems is that we need to be massively multi-lingual. Our learning platform is being translated into 38 different languages, and we’re using a needs-driven approach. When a Red Cross unit says they need a course in the local language, then we’ll mobilize resources to provide the content.

Q: What were the results of the pilot “new learning” program, based on research on open learning and MOOCs, to promote global, open, active learning (GOAL)? 

A:  The Global Youth Conference brought together in Vienna, Austria, 155 youth leaders from all over the world. We had 775 people from over 70 countries working together online – four times as many learning online as gathered for the conference events. The Vienna event lasted three days, whereas online, people worked together for six weeks on the same four thematic areas. We asked people to self-assess how much they learned, and 58 percent reported working consistently on the open learning activities. We had more than 40 percent who spent at least one hour each week on the learning activities, and 58 percent reported they had learned a lot. Many of those people have kept the connections they’ve established during the program. We are now seeing young people organizing their own learning activities on issues such as nuclear disarmament, using the tools they discovered in the GOAL program.

Reda Sadki is the Senior Learning Systems Officer in the Learning and Research Department of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

Source: http://www.astd.org/Publications/Newsletters/LX-Briefing/LXB-Archives/2013/08/View-from-the-Learning-Executive

Teaching logistics with haptic feedback

Reda Sadki Video

EPFL’s Professor Pierre Dillenbourg heads the Center for Digital Education. He demonstrates the use of a Simpliquity Tinkerlamp to teach logistics training, and explains how research has moved from developing an expensive, specialized device to using a simple webcam and paper. Note: interview and discussion are in French.

Are you nuts?

Badges for online learning: gimmick or game-changer?

Reda Sadki Thinking aloud

As I’ve been thinking about building a MOOC for the 13.1 million Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers, I’ve become increasingly interested in connectivism. One of the platforms I’ve discovered is called P2PU (“Peer To Peer University”), which draws heavily on connectivist ideas.

Surprise: on P2PU there is a debate raging on about badges, of all things. I initially scoffed. I’ve seen badges on Khan Academy and have read that they are very popular with learners, but did not really seriously consider these badges to be anything more than gimmicks.

It turns out that badges are serious learning tools, and that makes sense from a connectivist perspective. A white paper from the Mozilla Foundation summarizes why and how, drawing on an earlier paper from P2PU’s co-founder Philipp Schmidt.

George Siemens’s (2005) connectivism theory of learning is said to go “beyond traditional theories of learning (such as behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism) to include technology as a core element”. So badges in this theory would use technology itself ot make connections between learners.

First, it is claimed that badges can capture and translate learning across contexts, with more granularity (detail) than degrees or cumulative grades, with a badge for each specific skill or quality — and showing off progression over time as badges accumulate (like medals pinned to a soldier’s chest or a general’s stripes). Therefore badges could signal achievement and be matched to specific job requirements.

Second, badges are meant to encourage and motivate “participation and learning outcomes”. They are feedback mechanism — both gateway and signpost — on a learning path, ie showing what can be learned and when, as in Khan Academy’s Google-style map going from basic addition to multivariate calculus. In addition, they can also cover or highlight informal or soft skills of the kind that formal education doesn’t account for. And, in fact, making new badges available can be done in real time, fast enough to keep up with the pace of the fastest-changing fields (like IT or web development).

Third, badges are thought to formalize and enhance social connections, as they can be considered a mechanism to promote identity and reputation within a learning community. By doing so, badges may in fact foster community, bringing together peers to formalize teams or communities of practice.

There’s quite a bit of enthusiasm online for badges as successors to pre-digital forms of accreditation and authority, like university diplomas and CVs. For example, Jacy Hood, director of College Open Textbooksdeclared in a blog comment:  ”We are optimistic that Mozilla Badges will become the new international educational currency/credentials and that traditional education institutions will recognize, accept, and award these badges.”

Edutech blogger Mitchel Resnick explains that he is an increasingly lone voice to express skepticism about badges:

I worry that students will focus on accumulating badges rather than making connections with the ideas and material associated with the badges – the same way that students too often focus on grades in a class rather than the material in the class, or the points in an educational game rather than the ideas in the game. Simply engaging students is not enough. They need to be engaged for the right reasons.

For Resnick, it is the perception of a badge as a reward that throws back to behaviorist thinking:

When we develop educational technologies and activities in my research group, we explicitly try to avoid anything that might be perceived as a reward – what Alfie Kohn characterizes as “Do this and you’ll get that.” Instead, we are constantly looking for ways to help young people build on their own interests, and providing them with opportunities to take on new roles.

However, it really depents on the “Do this” component: what is the learner being asked to do? If it can be performed without engagement, then Resnick may be right. This implies that the reward component may not be the sole function of the badge itself but will depend on the activities required to obtain it.

I started writing this as a badge skeptic. Yet, I’m already starting to think of additional benefits: in a visual online world, badges are visual indicators, rather than text on a screen. They can therefore mobilize visual symbols to trigger our cultural and emotional sensibilities, without requiring reading effort on our part. By looking a badge, we can recognize its shape, colors and design and identify its meaning. This is pretty powerful stuff for learning.

What do you think?


Thinking about learning technology: is the product metaphor obsolete?

Reda Sadki Thinking aloud

In my work, I am constantly discovering and evaluating new web sites and online services related to learning in some way. Increasingly, I’m wondering if there can be an underlying method for assessing them that is different from the prevailing consumerist, product metaphor.

What I mean is that we tend to look at a learning technology as if it were a product that we will consume if we adopt it in our learning/teaching practice. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Ultimately, we do have to make pragmatic, practical decisions: do I use Schoology or Edmodo or Scholar for my project? It seems to me like we are quite “naturally” thinking as *consumers* of learning technology, as we do in our daily lives making choices about whether we use Facebook or Twitter (or neither), keep our e-mail on Hotmail or GMail, etc.

One limitation I see with this product approach is that thinking about learning is quickly reduced to listing and comparing technical features. The traditional IT approach in choosing a technology involves building 1) use cases and 2) requirements and then trying to find the software package, platform, or service that most closely matches these. I have seen the most disastrous outcomes from this classical kind of analysis.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t think about feature sets, requirements or use cases. I just question that they come up first in discussion. I think this happens because “detecting” the underlying learning theory that underpins a learning system is much more difficult. And it’s not only about understanding what the project proponents grounded themselves in, but also looking at the gap between the intended theoretical underpinning and the live product. A good example is Moodle: I love the concepts, the history, the open access and the open source. But I fail to recognize the constructivism claimed by its authors when I see how mechanistic, do-this-get-that it quickly becomes. Doing peer review is outside its boundaries. Multiple-choice quizzes are inside. Scary — and not very constructivist, sorry. From reading Moodle case studies, I can see that good teachers are able to squeeze constructivism out of Moodle — but a good teacher can probably do that with just about any system, and I fail to see how Moodle is making it easier.

From my own experience in search of the holy grail of learning systems, I’ve drawn the frightening conclusion that we live in a world in which we can expect an exponentially growing number of online systems for learning, propelled by various ideas which have less and less to do with learning, more and more with corporate takeover and control of education, and less and less likely to meet our specific needs, much less be grounded in the specific remix of learning theories that we see as relevant to our learning community.

One implication: we need to give up on the idea of a centralized platform that can meet all our needs — and be grounded in coherent learning theory that leads to sensible teaching and learning practice.

Fortunately — and not just because I tend to be an optimist — I also believe that as the online world becomes increasingly fragmented, we are also developing the tools to pick and choose useful tools from the chaos, to which we can then creatively add identity (this is where visual design is important, as with the badges, etc.) to make a stable learning system. Most important, we need make these choices informed by a specific set of theories which we use as tools to make decisions on how we set up a course, how we determine its content, who “we” are (is it teachers, students, or both?), etc.

Philipp Schmidt from P2PU.org recently showed me The Mechanical MOOC, a good prototype for this kind of thinking and its application. It is a mashup or remix that relies on multiple platforms and tools, with technological scaffolding to glue the tools together, branding to give it identity. We know about *scaffolding* learning. We may want to think about *scaffolding* technology. (NYT article about this latest P2PU project)