The delight of Discover(y)

I’m thrilled that #MozillaDiscover has officially launched!  Discover is a collaboration of Mozilla and Achievery, funded by the Gates Foundation and led by Chloe Varelidi and a talented Mozilla team.  I’ve been following this endeavor since the planning launched last fall, knowing that it had the potential to help advance the badge-based movement in very meaningful ways while also appreciating the complexity of it.  Kudos to Chloe and Mozilla for investigating and executing so thoughtfully!

I learned a lot about the project through today’s Mozilla Open Badges Community Call, which is invariably a great resource for knowledge-exchange (and which I’d like to try to bring to the formal learning sector, as I don’t sense that many traditional district- or school-based folks are participating.)

Mozilla's Discover project helps youth identify great careers by profiling the learning experiences of working professionals, and allowing them to map their own path to a rewarding job tailored to their skills and interests.

The Discover tool prototype connects Open Badges to students’ interests, education, experiences, and personality traits. Combined, these convey a collage of the skills students’ have -- and where they need to grow -- to attain future job opportunities, volunteer positions, and badges.  

Three careers were focused upon in this first round: Technology, Healthcare, and Service.  Key principles guiding this work for Mozilla were that these career pathways be highly malleable, remixable, customizable, playful and playful—-akin to puzzle pieces youth can re-arrange and remix

In order to create a taxonomy for a system such as this, the Moz staff interviewed tons of professionals and mapped skills connected to them to create taxonomy.  Repeatedly, the same soft skills kept coming up, like positive outlook on life, readiness to explore, initiative and leadership skills, ability to interact in various environments, and the team made sure to honor these within the taxonomy

Discover ultimately came up with a number of different kinds of badges—technology, web literacy, service, healthcare, cross-career—and created a directory/database of badge classes which contain information about the badge like name, image, description, criteria, tags. .

Example: Eagle's View

Description: You stay on top of things with an outlook like an eagle in the sky. Thoughtful in how you approach your life, you can always be relied upon.

Requirements: To get this badge you need to:

  • Feel you have control over your life decisions most of the time.
  • Demonstrate that you can be relied upon when taking on responsibility to fulfill a certain task or take initiative.

I have lots of questions about how students will quantify and express these things in a way that feels internally meaningful and externally valid, but I like the brevity and clarity of such descriptions as a starting point.

Youth can use Featured Pathways created by instructors (sample here), remix an existing one to customize it for their context, or make their own pathway by choosing/favoriting badges they wish to pursue.  This seems like a VERY good way of providing direction while allowing for choice and creativity.  The team has done a nice job making them playful without being childish—sample badges include “Pro Prototyper,” “Less Yack More Hack,” “Jack/Jill of all Trades” “The Skills Play the Bills”

Each badge has hashtags indicating skills and qualities reflected in the badge—for the Eagle’s View example above, those skills include #Self-Control, #Honesty, #Organizer, #Helper.  Some of the skills, like #Conventional, aren’t completely self-evident and will require use of a lexicon at least at first, which kids may or may not like.

While the badge-labeling around skills seem clear and compelling, labeling “soft skills” is trickier, and I applaud Mozilla for valiant effort in this vein.  Soft-skills seem to be referenced as “cross-career badges"—SO much better than referencing them as “non cognitive skills” or "21st century skills."   From there, Mozilla chose an animal theme for all the badges offered which I’m not sure I love, but that may be baggage from being in the “Dolphin” reading group in elementary school (which everyone knew was just a cheesy adult euphemism for the highest-level readers.)  Some of the animal designations are clear and compelling, like Head of the Pack, Curious Cat, Wise Owl.  Others probably need a bit of explanation for kids, like “Chameleon” for “You adapt to ever-changing situations like a chameleon chilling under a rainbow. Being flexible and adjusting to changing circumstances comes naturally to you.”  Yet others seem pretty opaque, like “Hummingbird”— “Humming is only one of many ways you show enthusiasm and engagement with your work”—or “Loose Mongoose”—You are not afraid to fail in the pursuit of awesomeness. Like that time you tried breaking open an ostrich egg with your forepaws. Hmmm.”  I personally didn't know that hummingbirds are enthusiastic, and that mongooses are risk takers--or in truth what a mongoose is!--but perhaps it's a good way to broaden the knowledge of city kids. 

I worry that badges like these might seem babyish to teenagers, and would have preferred to see badges designed by, say, top-end fashion designers that look slick and professional, but I remind myself that this is the first foray that will hopefully open the floodgates for future iterations and improvements in badge design.  Getting the "what" right is more important than getting "what it looks like" right, though ultimately the latter will be key to teen uptake.  The badges haven't yet been widely youth-tested, so it’ll be good to hear what feedback kids have and perhaps the cutesyness won’t be a deterrent, like how Hello Kitty was wildly popular with Japanese teens a few years back (though of course Japanimation helped with that)

Another salient point raised by folks on today's call is that though this taxonomy is well-designed for k-12, it won’t translate seamlessly to industry and will be worth creating a parallel pathway or translation for careers--for ex, translating “Loose Mongoose” into “Risk-Taking.”  I think that should be pretty straightforward, and a good “teachable moment” with kids around “code-switching.”

Discover has provided examples of a variety of adults badge pathways, some more linear (like the Nursing Unit Director) and others less (a Senior Engineer at Mozilla who demonstrates engagement in far more creative pursuits than one would anticipate of a coder) 

Businesses can create pathways—for ex, UPMC creating a Nursing Pathway, indicating the courses that one needs to take, whether there’s any particular order, etc, which is really important and exciting.  

I like that Moz has come up with a way to differentiate Core Badges—ones you HAVE to complete to be taken seriously and attain a job.  Flexibility and choice are good, but it’s important to also be honest and explicit with kids about the real work they need to do to get what they want.

Mozilla is very clear that not everything is “badgeable” and that narrating and navigating the journey can’t be done solely through badges so they’ve built in a way to add notes through ‘storybits” so that youth can create more narrative accounts of their learning along the way.  It will be very cool to see how kids delve into the narrative possibilities.

It was so valuable to hear the creators’ reflections on the process, lessons learned, and aspirations for the future on the call.  Chloe did a great job of summarizing what i know was a very complex, multi-dimensional, fast-paced endeavor.  Carrie from Achievery contextualized this as part of an effort to build towards directory of worldwide badges.  Mike from Mozilla added that Discover will ultimately link up with Badge Backpack to enable students to keep track of their progress, to find ways to link up with other students working on similar pathways, and more, which makes my spine tingle with excitement.  I appreciated learning more about the methodology and sources they drew upon to create a strengths-based taxonomy—for ex, drawing upon The Holland Code to link career choices to personality types, intended to provide a means of helping people understand what types of areas of work they might  enjoy most.

One of my biggest questions—about how badges will be assessed—hasn’t yet been answered.  Right now, there’s the opportunity for self-assessment and there are plans to add layers.  Consistency of standards is another sticky wicket that they—and we--need to figure out as a field.  

Another findings shared is that many of the people interviewed about their careers HADN’T reflected much upon their pathways in this way—in terms of skills they’d accrued, how/why/where they’d accrued them, how they fit together, etc—and found value in so doing. It's great that this process can promote metacognition for adults as much or more than for youth!  I was also happy to hear  that pioneering Badge Issuers took well to the notion of creating career-focused badges as it gave them a better way to do something they’re already doing or aspiring to do.  This is key, as industry buy-in is an essential part of generating currency for badges--the absence of existing "value" of badges being one of the biggest complaints and concerns about them, yet one I’ve felt confident will come more quickly than we think, at least in some spheres.

Other important Open Questions include figuring out whether/how to create shorter pathways, since the current ones are more framed around longterm “life trajectories” that may be daunting to youth and figuring out how much consistency vs flexibility is desired —a perpetual struggle for educators.  I think the ideal is creating UNDERSTANDABILITY around the badges without too much UNIFORMITY.

Towards the end of the call, I asked about the degree to which these badges have been piloted with secondary schools and/or whether there are plans for them to be.  Some students were involved in user testing but not with protracted use, which I hope is a next step and would be eager to assist with.  These badges were designed with high schoolers in mind, but I’d like to experiment with using them with middle school students in CityPathways as we perceive of badges such as this as a key ingredient of the ecosystem we’re trying to create.  Through making clear— to students and adults—what skills and experiences can best propel youth to success in learning and livelihood, what criteria constitutes quality and competence within an experience, and how to identify and engage in experiences that constitute pathways towards longer term goals we can really begin to rethink where learning happens, when it happens, how it happens, and with whom it happens--my mantra :-) 

I’m elated about the possibilities that lie ahead with this, and grateful to Mozilla for taking the lead in such an enlightened way.  As a bonus, they’ve provided a good bibliography of the research and reading that informed this work (some of which I suggested when interviewed for this project late last fall :-)

Here’s to helping youth #Discover!