Badging the “Soft” Skills

For 21st century learners, skills like patience and problem solving are proving just as critical as technical know-how.

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]ll summer, kids in the four cities that make up the Cities of Learning movement have been collecting digital badges for skills they’ve picked up at makerspaces, libraries, and other amazing informal learning spaces in their communities. Or as writer Nancy Scola at NextCity recently explained, badges are “giving kids an evidence-based way to complete their obligatory ‘What I Did This Summer’ assignments.”

Although organizations’ badges are often awarded based on technical skills, such as laser engraving or microphone fundamentals, organizations also offer “dispositional” badges for demonstrating certain “habits of mind” or “soft” skills picked up along the way. For example, when building a mountain dulcimer, patience and problem solving are just as critical as the technical skills involved.

But what, exactly, does a dispositional badge look like?

TechShop is offering a “Maker Mindset” badge that rewards kids for learning to think like a maker. Earning the badge means the learner has started approaching problems with an engineer mentality while engaging in the entire making process. That emphasis is different than, say, TechShop’s “High Voltage Power” badge, which shows that the learner knows how a Tesla coil works.

The Labs at Carnegie Library is holding a mix of photo, electronics, and installation art workshops. But teens and tweens earn “The Labs Regular” badge when they consistently engage with The Labs and become part of the community. Youth obtain the badge only after they’ve made a habit of seeking learning opportunities in the space.

The same goes for the “Young Naturalist” badge offered by the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. Kids earn the badge by recording thoughts and observations in nature journals and studying plants, animals, and nature’s processes through keen scientific observation.

Ideally, these badges are more than only summer trophies, such as scraped knees and sunburns. Because of the way the digital infrastructure was carefully designed, badges can follow kids for life.

[one_third][blockquote]TechShop is offering a “Maker Mindset” badge that rewards kids for learning to think like a maker. [/blockquote][/one_third][two_third_last]

“It’s an online symbol that you have acquired a particular competency,” said Khalif Ali, the program manager of the Badges for Learning project at the Sprout Fund. “And the metadata in the badges is verifiable because there might a be a link to a YouTube video of a you building a desk or facilitating a meeting. It’s a permanent record of what you’ve achieved.”

In other words, even if a kid doesn’t have a shining GPA or has never touched a pair of soccer cleats, badges could one day illustrate the spot-on video production chops or passion for robotics he or she has honed for years.[/two_third_last]

Of course, several questions remain about how and when colleges and employers will use badges as certification. So although using badges on a large-scale may be down the road, a few universities, such as Purdue, DePaul, and Carnegie Mellon, have already integrated badges with their admissions processes and curriculum. Plus, the number of badge-issuing organizations has ballooned at super speed. In March 2013, Mozilla estimated there were 98 badge issuers and approximately 1,000 badges. In 2014, those numbers have grown to 2,200 issuers and 250,000 badges.

Some educators behind the scenes of the Cities of Learning project are already thinking about how this summer will set the stage for using badges in the future.

“We’re focusing on badging these particular programs this summer and I think it’s going to be a good way to figure out how best to do this going forward and speak to the skills teens are picking up in our space—everything from filmmaking to graphic design,” said Corey Wittig, the digital learning librarian for Carnegie Library, in a webinar earlier this summer.

Of the growing number of badges here in Pittsburgh and nationally, dispositional ones are particularly unique because “soft” skills are enormously valuable to employers but trickier to assess than are technical skills. (If technical skills were all employers needed, an interview wouldn’t hold the weight it does.) The ACT offers a test designed for employers to measure soft skills. But a test can’t paint a picture vivid enough to match a “backpack” filled with badges demonstrating all the activities that have required teamwork, problem solving, adaptability, and initiative to complete.

Not long ago, the only documentation of a learning-filled summer was a pizza coupon from the library if you successfully checked out one book per week. (Or was that just me?) This fall, though, when Pittsburgh’s kids file back into classrooms, they’ll have a 21st-century method to prove the modern skills they spent the summer learning.

Published August 20, 2014