The following piece originally appeared on October 27 in Momentum, a publication of the Gates Foundation.
Last year, Laura Fleming, the media and technology integration specialist at New Milford High School, launched Worlds of Learning @ New Milford High School—a digital badging platform that’s ushering in a new era in teacher professional development at the New Jersey school.
The digital badging platform, which offers teachers resources for learning and using digital technology in their classrooms, is among the first of its kind to reward teachers for their informal professional learning. Because of the flexibility of the platform and the support of school administrators, New Milford teachers earning the digital badges have more control over their professional development than ever before.
Today, every teacher at New Milford High School voluntarily uses the digital badging platform, and thousands of educators and non-educators worldwide have used the website. As the concept of professional development continues to evolve, digital badging could play an important role in how educators learn and receive recognition.
In September 2013, Fleming joined New Milford High School with a plan to revitalize the school’s media center and introduce students to digital technology. Digital badges—electronic records of achievement—could encourage students to learn new skills, she thought, but only if she could get teachers on board.
Before she could gain their support, however, she needed to introduce the faculty to the concept. “I realized no one at my school was familiar with digital badging,” she says.
Within a month, Fleming had launched the Worlds of Learning website—a digital badging platform for teachers interested in learning and applying digital tools in their classrooms. The site, she thought, would give teachers a chance to “walk the walk”—experience firsthand the benefits of digital badging as a learning tool.
Once registered for the website, teachers can choose to pursue up to 13 badges that reflect professional learning related to different elements of digital technology. The website provides resources for learning how to use digital tools and for applying those tools in the classroom. After implementing a new technology, the user submits proof—possibly a lesson plan or a textual description of how he or she used the tool—and the badge is added to the user’s digital backpack, an online display of the user’s achievements.
Fleming designed Worlds of Learning with usability in mind. The website is easy to navigate, and teachers typically need to spend no more than 10 minutes on the website to learn how to use a digital tool. “It was my hope that they would spend a larger chunk of their time integrating the tool into their practice,” Fleming says.
RECOGNIZING PROFESSIONAL LEARNING
Once the digital badging website was up and running, teachers took to it right away. Fleming presented the platform during faculty meetings, and Eric Sheninger, the school’s principal at the time, spoke to teachers about ways to use the digital badges to showcase their learning during annual evaluations.
While New Milford’s teachers are not required to use the digital badging platform, the school recognizes teachers who choose to do so. During annual evaluations, teachers present portfolios that showcase their professional learning over the year, and the digital badges provide a perfect source of evidence.
“We were able to connect and align the digital badging platform with our existing evaluation tool, and it just became a natural complement and support structure for what we were trying to accomplish,” Sheninger says.
Teacher choice—whether to use the digital badging website and which badges to pursue—has been a primary factor in the success of the initiative. Traditionally, professional development has been something “done to people,” Sheninger says. By re-conceptualizing the professional development requirement to reward teachers for training they independently pursue, he says, administrators can inspire a new attitude toward professional learning.
“A hybrid approach that blends formal and informal is the holy grail of professional learning going forward,” Sheninger says.
As a former teacher, Fleming sees enormous benefit in rewarding teachers for informal learning. Teachers have always devoted their personal time to learning new skills, but digital badges are a way to make that professional learning visible. “I think that our teachers were happy there was a system in place that would acknowledge those skills and that learning,” Fleming says.
THE IMPACT OF DIGITAL BADGING
New Milford’s digital badging initiative has contributed to “a monumental shift in teacher learning,” Sheninger says. “It turned into a healthy competition where not only were teachers getting the digital badges that were going into a digital backpack and portfolio, but they were printing the badges and showcasing them on the outside of their doorways.”
Soon after the website launched, teachers weren’t only earning badges—they were helping create them. Fleming awards digital leader badges to teachers who provide guidance to help other teachers learn new tools.
Teachers are also showing interest in digital badges for students. As is the case with teachers, Fleming anticipates that students will benefit from compiling evidence of skills that support career readiness. “The open badges stay with the learner all through their learning, no matter where they go and beyond high school,” she says.
THE FUTURE OF PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT
Sheninger, who now serves as a senior fellow and thought leader on digital leadership with the International Center for Leadership in Education and Scholastic Achievement Partners, sees digital badging as just one component of a needed shift in teacher professional development. Today, he advocates for self-directed and flexible professional learning frameworks as a means of improving the quality and cost of professional development.
“It’s difficult, time-consuming, and financially constraining to go through traditional pathways for professional growth,” Sheninger says. “Now, with new platforms, people can learn in their pajamas, they can go outside, they can do it when it’s convenient for them. Most important is that they’re learning and they have something to show for their learning.”
Since launching the digital badging website a year ago, Fleming has received hundreds of requests from users hoping to replicate the platform. In response, Fleming has made its materials freely available for download. While building a similar website requires some technical expertise, Fleming admits that her own experience was somewhat limited when she began the process. “I knew in my mind what I wanted, and I had to take some risks in order to get there,” she explains.
Due in large part to her resourcefulness, Sheninger considers Fleming “the most significant hire” he has made. “I knew that bringing her in as a new type of librarian would provide that missing piece for our transformation efforts.”