Digital Badges at the Agricultural Sustainability Institute

At last month’s DOLCE Meeting, Joanna Normoyle presented on the interesting work she’s been doing at the UC Davis Agricultural Sustainability Institute. They recently created a new undergraduate major, Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems. Because their curriculum focuses on experiential, out-of-the-classroom learning (they require a 12-unit internship and have labs or field work associated with the majority of their courses), the team needed to find an innovative way to help students capture their experiences and share their accomplishments. In the end, they developed a digital badge system based on the skills, knowledge, and experience students develop in the major, which has a curriculum design based on a Delphi Survey done in conjunction with the School of Education.

The badge system functions as a competency-based (rather than credit-hour based) model of learning. The program has developed a set of competencies for the major—to name a few, systems thinking, experimentation and inquiry, strategic management, civic engagement, personal development—and each competency correlates to a “badge” that students work toward by collecting experiences.

To collect experiences, students first create a profile in the online system. Then, after they’ve completed an experiential learning experience, they post an entry to their profile that summarizes their experience and includes any artifacts (photos, videos, etc.) that support the experience. For instance, if a student has been working on the Student Farm learning how to fix the transplanter, they might write up a reflection on the experience and include photos or a visual diagram depicting what they learned, which may include social skills or problem solving skills in addition to the basic skill of fixing the machine.

Throughout the program, students collect a large number of these experiences, which can be combined to earn a badge. To earn a badge, the student has to demonstrate his or her “learning pathway” that shows an arch across a series of experiences and justifies the badge.

Importantly, the student decides which experiences demonstrate his or her competency and thus determines his or her eligibility for a badge, which helps students make sense of their learning and gives them ownership over it. It also means that one student’s learning pathway may be very different from another student’s pathway, which allows for more personalized education.

Students in the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems program can earn as many badges as they like (they can even create new badges!), but they will be encouraged to focus on earning the seven competency badges tied to the major’s learning outcomes as a part of their capstone experience.

Normoyle and the folks at the Sustainability Institute are still working out how to evaluate whether a students’ learning pathway truly earns a badge. For the moment, the system is still in the user testing phase, so no badges are being formally awarded. One of the reasons is because Normoyle and her colleagues recognize that evaluating student badge submissions is a complex process and requires multiple types of input to make the review a reflection of the student’s true skills or competence. Peer, faculty, expert and self assessments and system analytics will likely all factor into the final review process in some way. 

It’s always exciting to hear about such educational innovations happening at UC Davis! If you have similar innovations happening in your departments or programs, we invite you to share your story.

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2 thoughts on “Digital Badges at the Agricultural Sustainability Institute

    […] on the way, I’m sure.  Instead, the article describes a modest badge system adopted by the Agricultural Sustainability Institute.  The article also links to a curation with a broad introduction to the concept in […]


    (June 18, 2014 - 4:36 pm)

    This is an interesting article! I’m planning to have my own farm one day, and I have often thought about using badges or “achievements” based on competency in various tasks to motivate my workers and standardize compensation. I think this strategy will be particularly effective with people born from the late 80s on, because badge systems are common on the internet and in video games. I’m very curious to see how it works out with college students.

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