I’ve been involved, somewhat peripherally, with the Open Badging Initiative for the last six months or so. Initially, it was a way to start thinking about breaking the LMS (Integrated Learning Platform? aw, screw it, I don’t know what the thing is called anymore) out of the box it’s in and communicating what the LMS does well with other parties. I thought it could be a way to communicate skills, think about developing a short-hand language through the badge to communicate with other people. It’s really a way to check all the boxes that get me excited currently. Open standards? Yep. Mutating a system to do something other than what was intended? Yep. Visual design an image that communicates a value to another party? Yep. Explore the value of a systematic education? Yep.

The problem is that I essentially stopped programming in 2004 when I really didn’t need it anymore. Sure I’ve done a few things like hack together a PERL script to parse out values in a text file, and dump it into a database, but using badges at this point, or at least at my institution, I need to get up to speed with programming and handling JSON, XML if I’m going to start tinkering with our LMS and implementing badges. Ouch. Thankfully, I’ve got a few friends and colleagues who’ll help me get there.

For those of you who don’t know, badging is a way of giving value to something by awarding an image that represents that value. At it’s simplest, it works like the Scouts – demonstrate something and get a badge for demonstrating that you know something. It’s basically the same proposition as what grades are in higher education. The neat thing is that the badge doesn’t have to be tied to a number that’s arbitrarily set by someone (a teacher) or something (a computer, schooling system…). It can be tied to evidence or not, depending on the issuer of the badge and what they demand for getting the badge. That’s where badging is cool for me.

When you earn a badge that conforms to the Open Badges Standard, it can be pushed to your backpack. This is the central repository of badges for you. I’ve embedded below a portion of my backpack for you to see how one might display achievements.

What makes badges a little better than a grade value is the evidence of learning which is listed as part of the criteria. Now in many cases this is not as transparent as it should be. For instance, I’ve been working through CodeSchool’s Javascript introduction and JQuery courses that issue badges. Their criteria is displaying on a page that “confirms” I completed a module. Wouldn’t this page be much better if it shared exactly what I did to earn the badge? That would be powerful. I realize that there’s all sorts of considerations for student privacy, and ideally they would be able to control what is shared with the badge (maybe an on/off switch with each badge issuer to allow for a simple description of what earned the badge or a more detailed results page). That might lead to badges being more than a symbol of learning that doesn’t communicate clearly to the viewer what was learned.

Reflections on Week 1 of Udacity’s CS101

Udacity’s CS101 is a beginner programming course, which I’m taking (even though I’m fairly well versed in programming, having done web programming for years prior to getting into e-learning). I’m not all that interested in the content, however the introduction to Python will be interesting, and the project, building a search engine, is very appealing.  Python is a language that I’ve never learned, and always felt I should – it strikes me as a handy complement to PHP (which is bloated) and Perl (which does text processing well, but suffers in other areas).

I am in the course because I’m curious how the course works. When you have a course the scale of this, what checks and balances are there? I’m sure there’s analytics behind the platform that describe how much time the viewer spends on each page. What’s really interesting is the students in the course – many of whom have professed to be excited for homework for the first time. I’m sure the vocal ones will be pumping the tires so to speak, and there will be many who are not excited for homework, or found that the first week was just a bit too much for them – those people we’ll never hear about, because they’ll just stop and do something else. The ones who are excited for homework (and no doubt will be a soundbite that Udacity uses over and over to legitimize their approach) are excited because they are motivated (some for the first time). They signed up, they chose this course because it suits their needs, and frankly, they should be excited and motivated. It’s not often higher education gives something away.

I haven’t done the homework yet, but here’s some criticisms of the videos, and general approaches to the teaching. For those not taking here’s how a week works – several topics are broken down into chunks – usually 5 to 8 minute videos interrupted by a quiz, then another video, then an example code chunk to write, which is the best part. While the videos are good, they do take up the whole screen, so YouTube in their infinite wisdom, obscures things drawn on the screen in the video with their branding, and controls (should you want to rewind). The production values for the course are par for education, which means they could be improved by a bumper at each end, with some visual written title to further accentuate what we’re watching.  As much as I like the instructors, I don’t think their two talking heads interlude, congratulating the student, is necessary. Your students should be motivated, they signed up, they are watching – wait to motivate us (and do it in an authentic way, not wooden as this video comes across). I think the course could be vastly improved if we could have the development window and the video at the same time – that way experimenting as the video explains. I understand that cognitively, it’s not ideal, but it would be useful to actually write out the code that’s being explained and run it.

My biggest peeve is that any work done in their interface is not downloadable – at least isn’t clearly downloadable. I wish I could take those example scripts and build on them. Again, this would save me time doing the homework… something I am not surprised I do not want to do. I guess it shows how much I value an essentially useless piece of paper that will be unlikely to be recognized anywhere as an accomplishment of anything. Another issue, while this isn’t a big problem, I know how to write a couple lines of Python – but shouldn’t I actually be taught early on how to write a whole python script? You know, something as a standalone file with a dot py extension? Isn’t that the point of this – and fundamental to the use of Python (and modularity in programming…)?

At best I see this as a replacement for HR training for some – so that labour costs can go down again (hiring laypeople who are just out of high school, then run them through a series of training courses over a few weeks to get them trained how you want the job to be done, with no transferability). Maybe that’s overly critical. Udacity’s model is clearly rooted in a very American approach to education, which as a whole is outdated and certainly ripe for revolution. That’s not Udacity’s fault in any way, but as long as jobs require degrees, this will not be socially transformational for the majority of the population – unless Udacity figures out the accreditation part of the deal.  Which I suspect will require some sort of money.

With all those criticisms aside, they’ve done an admirable job in developing a free course that seems to be scalable.  They do attend to ones needs, and are quick to respond to bugs and errors that are found. The community around CS101 is quite impressive for being about a week old, and that’s in part to the efforts of the Udacity community representatives.