#DMLBadges and Shifting the Overton Window on Learning

On Thursday, the Fourth Annual Digital Media and Learning Competition was announced with much fanfare at a large event in DC that included Arne Duncan, a high up at NASA, and leaders in the industry, non-profit and foundation worlds. The theme for the competition: Badges for Lifelong Learning. On the competition website, it states “Badges are a new assessment tool that will help identify skills mastered in formal and informal settings, virtually and in physical spaces, and in schools, workplaces and communities.” The competition, then, is to explore the possibilities of innovation in this area to see if it has some legs.

The announcement and theme received what would generously be considered a mixed response, visible within the #dmlbadges hashtag on Twitter during the event and on the blogs of many smart people who raise important questions about the use of badges and tease out nuanced dimensions of the issue. I’m not here though to discuss the initiative itself, or to weigh in with my opinion on badges and their potential to shift the educational landscape in positive ways, or not. What I do want to talk about is how I see the current conversation around badges being a positive thing for that landscape.

Let’s consider two things about the general public policy discourse around education in this country. First, where it thinks learning happens. Second, what it thinks counts as learning. Analyzing the overall rhetoric from educational reform organizations to the education blogosphere to reporting in mainstream news, one finds that the answers to those questions are deeply out of sync with reality. Just paying attention to these spaces, one would assume that school, and primarily the K12 school, is the only place that a young person learns. And one would also assume that the only things that count as learning are decontextualized bits of information that can be poured into kids heads (which is *impossible*, by the way) and then spat back out onto multiple choice tests that ensure us as a society that schools are “working”. It is especially important to know that schools are “working” since they’re the only place that kids learn, right? Naturally.

Now, I’ll be fair and say that there are people within the education discourse in this country that disagree with the above. People who are part of a “counter-reform” movement that see and understand that what kids need for the 21st century is not decontexualized bits of information but rather sets of skills, dispositions and ways of thinking that will allow them to engage meaningfully in civic, cultural and social life, not to mention pursuing work that’s important to them and to society. And those same people often understand that learning doesn’t happen just in school, that school is just one node among many that should aim to be better coordinated with others in order to serve young people. But let’s face it – those people, and I count myself among them, aren’t winning. Any look at educational policy will tell you that. And a big part of the reason is that these out of whack notions of what counts as learning and where it happens are so persistent, and they form the underlying assumptions that drive policy-making.

What I see in the conversation about badges, regardless of how that particular line of work will play out, is a shift in the Overton Window on learning, a shift in the boundaries of the debate, especially in terms of how people in positions of power are now talking in new ways. In ways that acknowledge all those spaces that kids spend time in out of school as a valid learning environments. In ways that validate practices and processes that school rarely is incentivized to foster – practices that are collaborative, creative, critical, and often civic in their nature.

So I’m taking the long view on this one. I don’t know whether badges will be good for learning. I have my own reservations, though also have confidence, from from prior experience with them, in the individuals that are running the competition to be thoughtful and grounded as they do that work. But I can already commend them for taking a positive step to change the frame of the conversation about learning in this country. And that’s no small thing.

8 Responses to “#DMLBadges and Shifting the Overton Window on Learning”


  1. 1 Jenna McWilliams September 18, 2011 at 10:57 am

    Thanks for this post. I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with your take on how #DMLbadges shifts the Overton window. On the one hand, the #DMLbadges announcement shows a mainstream embrace (finally!) of alternative assessment models and strategies for valuing out-of-school learning in digital communities. So that’s pretty cool.

    On the other hand, the concept of the Overton window is a fairly simplistic way of thinking about how public discourse emerges and is valued. In fact, a more appropriate way to use the Overton concept might be to think about a series of Overton windows, some overlapping, some not, in each general field. While the Overton window on alternative assessment and what counts as learning may have shifted in a way that I agree is positive, another Overton window–on, let’s say, strategies for valuing young people’s out of school learning–has shifted in a way that I feel is problematic.

    And I think a lot of people who are frustrated by the #DMLbadges announcement agree that while it’s nice that people like Arne Duncan are finally embracing alternative models for valuing and assessing learning, overall the shift toward a vocationally driven, credential-based system is deeply, deeply troubling for lots of really good reasons.

    • 2 g2-0e73e149d74f2cb08e06a544ae834f1a September 18, 2011 at 11:19 am

      It depends on what you mean by “vocational.” If you mean an MBA, you’re right; if you mean making something, you’re wrong. And vocational in k-12 means a whole ‘nother thing than it does in college! And yet another ‘nother in grad school! I strongly doubt that a MacArthur concept grant will transform an MBA, however, or displace an MD, PhD or even BA, when it comes down to it. A badge will be – at best – a rubric in a portfolio that denotes how a skill works in a real setting. That would be just fine.

    • 3 Rafi Santo September 29, 2011 at 10:12 pm

      Hi Jenna, sorry for the delay on this. I completely agree with you – there are many overton windows out there for various issues, and I actually think that each issue has multiple overton windows that hinge on the particular audience one is talking to. Eg – there’s a particular overton window about badges in the public perception, and another with the DML community, and yet a third within the more mainstream ed reform discourse.

      And while badges may be problematic to you within the particular conversation about strategies for valuing young people’s out of school learning within the DML community, I’d argue that the fact that that conversation is now on the map for communities that are more mainstream than DML opens up the possibility of having discussions about things outside of badges as a form valuing this learning that wasn’t there before.

  2. 4 monika hardy September 18, 2011 at 1:15 pm

    i love the positive spin.
    i’m wondering though if the time has come that rather than being thankful for steps to change the conversation, we boldly question the steps.

    we need a new mindset. i’m thinking, opening up to more variation on the same, perpetuates the old mindset as much or more than it lends itself to a new one.

    i really believe we’re in a time that people like Illich craved. a time they would die for.

  3. 5 Eric Lindland September 29, 2011 at 4:21 pm

    I like your plans to take the “long view” on this one. As you suggest, just who and where and how this might open up our discourse and thinking about what learning is, and how and why it happens, remains to be seen. I too see a lot of potential good here, especially in maybe helping flip (the new word we’re all playing with…) the motivational structure for learning and empowering children to some degree in the process. Then again, it does represent a new form of currency, and it’s far from guaranteed it will not become like most currency systems – with differential degrees of access, resulting in haves and have nots to the same or greater degree as the current system. So much remains to be seen. Let’s keep this conversation going.

    • 6 Rafi Santo September 29, 2011 at 10:19 pm

      I think the metaphor of currency here is exactly what is making so many folks nervous here in DML-land. I think it’s a particularly poignant issue to this community given the fact that people in this space both see the ways this commodification happens both in educational environments as well as in online digital ones. Diplomas certainly become currency, as do certain forms of online reputation, rank, and yes, badges. There are definitely haves and have nots in both of these worlds, and so proceeding carefully when using an innovation born in one to impact the other is incredibly important.

      The ideal situation I’d see coming out of this effort, as you allude to, is creating a situation where youth are more in charge of their own learning, and aren’t beholden to external systems and their myriad priorities in the ways they are now. Really this is happening to such a degree that I don’t think most kids would even know what to do if given more agency to direct their own learning. Hopefully that’s also something they could be mentored to find out.


  1. 1 #DMLBadges and Shifting the Overton Window on Learning | Badges for Lifelong Learning | Scoop.it Trackback on September 17, 2011 at 12:18 pm
  2. 2 Open Badges launch: rocket fuel, reaction and resources « o p e n m a t t Trackback on September 20, 2011 at 2:33 pm
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