Many schools encourage students to get real-world experience outside school walls. But very few offer course credit and digital “badges"—virtual records of skills and achievements—for those experiences.
Now, the Providence, R.I., school district is in the middle of an initiative that appears to be breaking new ground in giving academic credit and recognizing skills and achievements out of school.
A collaborative project between a nonprofit organization, the Providence After School Alliance, or PASA, and the 23,500-student Providence district is allowing students to engage in for-credit, badge-earning learning experiences outside school. Examples range from developing and pitching business plans to local venture capital firms to learning how to make Android phone applications at Brown University.
While Providence’s approach—to encourage connections between in- and out-of-school learning and get students more engaged in school—is gaining steam both at the state and district levels throughout the country. The district stands out as one of the first to bridge the two goals by having students receive badges and academic credit for out-of-school experiences.
“Districts are challenged in balancing the need to meet fiscal realities and policy regulations, while addressing the academic needs of students and making certain they have access to the types of courses they need to be prepared for college and a career,” said Paula Shannon, the district’s chief academic officer.
“But good learning is learning that is relevant and rigorous that takes place in and outside of school,” she said. “Expanded learning opportunities provide real potential to move the needle forward in education by blending the line between the two worlds.”
Testing the Model
Last school year, 30 students from one Providence high school, Juanita Sanchez High School, participated in a pilot project to test the model. Independent evaluations found promising results, and student and teacher responses were favorable, encouraging the district to expand the program.
A Providence, R.I., school district initiative offers students the opportunity to gain credits and digital badges for activities outside school in the following programs:
ART AND DESIGN LAB
Students create, collaborate, present, and study works of art at the Rhode Island Museum of Art.
CVS BIOTECHNOLOGY CERTIFICATION PROGRAM
Students participate in science internships in the community to enrich the study of biotechnology, supported by CVS Pharmacy.
ECO YOUTH-GREEN DRIVE
Students learn about environmental issues, challenges, and policies with the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island.
Students improve English skills participating in hands-on language-skill exercises with a local organization, Inspiring Minds.
JSEC DEBATE TEAM
Students work on public speaking and debate skills in a debate league, assisted by college mentors from Brown University.
Students participate in a discussion group on civic engagement and service with Serve Rhode Island, a community-service organization.
Students create articles, photos, and videos about their community and schools, while working with Inspiring Minds.
PHOTOGRAPHY, VISUALS, PERFORMANCE, COMMUNICATIONS
Students learn video-editing, photography, and Google-sketch skills in an arts education program called AS220.
PRINCIPALS’ LEADERSHIP PROGRAM
Students receive training from Young Voices, a youth-advocacy organization, on leadership and communication skills.
PROGRAMMING FOR ANDROID PHONES
Students learn how to create Android phone applications in a computer science program at Brown University.
Students participate in a dance-technique class with a local dance company, Fusionworks, including potential rehearsals with local dance companies.
ROCK & REEL
Students learn video production and editing skills at the Rhode Island Film Collaborative.
YOUNG SOCIAL INNOVATORS
Students work with Social Venture Partners of Rhode Island to develop business plans and pitch ideas to investors for seed funding.
WING IT: EVERYTHING CAN FLY ONCE
Students learn engineering skills while designing projects related to flight, at Brown University.
SOURCE: Providence After School Alliance
Fifty-five students enrolled this past fall, and about 55 more are expected this spring, now from two high schools.
Next school year, the program will expand to four high schools and serve 150 students. The goal is to eventually expand the program to all eight high schools in the district, said Ms. Shannon, though the district will need to find additional community partners and work out a number of technical and logistical details.
PASA, an organization that also supports after-school programming for middle school students, among other expanded-learning work, collaborated with community partners to create out-of-school courses for students. The organization worked with district teachers to ensure the classes had academic relevance and were aligned with the Common Core State Standards.
While the courses have differing schedules, students attend their out-of-school courses a minimum of once a week for two hours, over a span of 10 weeks, and all student learning is assessed through collaboration by the community partners, PASA staff members, and district teachers.
Students are also required to participate in an online forum, located at www.hubprov.com, where they discuss what they are learning, bolstered through blogging and multimedia projects, such as the production of online photos or videos.
The new use of digital badges, recognized both in and out of school, really sets Providence apart from other efforts undertaken by schools and organizations to recognize out-of-school learning, said Damian Ewens, the director of high school initiatives at PASA.
To launch the badging project, PASA won $75,000 in funding through a digital-badging grant competition sponsored by the Mozilla Foundation, a nonprofit based in Mountain View, Calif., that supports open-source Web content and the Firefox Web browser, and the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which has spent more than $80 million so far to support innovative digital-learning initiatives.
Competency vs. ‘Seat Time’
In addition to having their badges displayed on the PASA website and recognized by the school system, students are able to post them on social-media sites such as Facebook, and use them wherever else they see fit, such as with college applications.
Rhode Island College, in Providence, has agreed to accept badges on college applications as a testament to the value of learning experiences and skill acquisition.
“Digital badges are designed to recognize learning that happens anytime, anywhere,” said Mr. Ewens, adding that badges can have a powerful impact on students themselves, helping them take greater “ownership” of their learning.
“Academic credits sit on a transcript with an abbreviated title and a letter grade,” he said. “Whoever sees a digital badge can also learn [through a full description] what a student did to get that badge; it supplies a tremendous amount of information that adds more value to the student.”
The district hopes eventually to use the badges to help students gain credit within classes for relevant work outside the classroom that reflects mastery of academic content.
For example, a student could take part in a robotics club on weekends and gain a badge that he or she could use to show mastery of an algebra concept that would fulfill the requirements for a traditional assignment or test on a unit, according to Ms. Shannon.
The Providence district’s work on the digital-badge program would not have been possible without changes in state education policies, which have made it easier for districts to recognize out-of-school learning and link it to classroom instruction.
Rhode Island, like some other states, has high school students gain credits for showing proficiency in academic courses needed for graduation, rather than by the amount of time they take to complete a course, known as “seat time.” Increasing numbers of states are moving to such “competency-based education” models, in which schools want students to demonstrate knowledge of subject material in new ways to show they have mastered it to move forward, according to Jennifer Dounay Zinth, a senior policy analyst at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.
About 40 states now have policies that allow high school students to gain academic credit through competency-based assessment systems that run the gamut state to state. Some of the most progressive credit-gaining opportunities are found in states such as New Hampshire and New Jersey.
The motivation behind the efforts comes from the acknowledgment that today’s students learn in many new and different ways that aren’t connected to how much time they spend in a classroom, said Betsy Brand, the director of the American Youth Policy Forum, a Washington-based advocacy organization that supports college and career readiness and expanded learning.
“The competency-based education model can be for anyone that feels hampered by the time- and seat-based system we have,” Ms. Brand said.
“But everything you learn outside of high school is not going to get you credit,” she said. “Schools have to determine what is rigorous enough and what meets the requirements they deem important.”
Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2013 edition of Education Week as R.I. Students Gaining ‘Badges’ and Credits Outside of School