Learning Happens Everywhere. How Do We Make it All Count?

By Patricia Monticello Kievlan

Patricia Monticello Kievlan has spent the last decade as a writer, a teacher, a school leader, an edtech evangelist, and a crusader for equal access. She serves as Program Associate, Community Building at The Sprout Fund, and she also writes for Common Sense Media's Ratings and Reviews, where she evaluates apps, websites, and games for teachers and parents. Previously, she spent eight years working as a teacher and administrator in independent schools.

One of 12 LRNG Cities nationwide, LRNG Pittsburgh is led by The Sprout Fund, Pittsburgh’s leading nonprofit agency supporting innovative ideas, catalyzing community change, and making the region a better place to live, work, play, and raise a family. Sprout stewards the Remake Learning Network, a professional network of educators and innovators working together to shape the future of teaching and learning in our region.

Remake Learning has been nearly 10 years in the making and we see the network as a model for other communities interested in building collaborative education innovation networks. Recently, we published the Remake Learning Playbook to share the inside story of our experience and provide other communities with a practical resource to guide their work.

Remake Learning supports learning opportunities that happen in all kinds of settings, from museums and libraries to schools and after-school programs.  We believe that learning happens everywhere, and our community is committed to recognizing and fostering learning experiences for all students, wherever they are. Our region values Connected Learning experiences that build on interests, connect youth with their peers and with mentors, and make learning experiences relevant to students’ lives and future work.

We see LRNG as an opportunity to make progress toward these critical local priorities, especially through the use of XPs, Playlists and digital badges. XPs are learning experiences, and can take place online or offline, such as this XP on investigating historic mapping. Playlists are sets of XPs that are organized around a topic, skill or theme, such as this App Design Playlist. Both XPs and Playlists help young people find and follow interest-driven learning paths throughout the community and online, making learning opportunities visible and accessible.

Alternative credentials like badges, meanwhile, enable formal and informal educators to recognize and reward these kinds of transformative learning experiences that aren’t traditionally recognized with a grade.

In Pittsburgh, Sprout has led the charge on digital badging for several years. We’ve led a community-wide process to develop shared learning competencies and we’ve engaged regional employers to connect badges and workforce development. In 2014 and 2015, we served as the anchor organization for Pittsburgh City of Learning, a program that has since evolved into LRNG Pittsburgh. In 2015, 7,000 badges were earned by 1,800 participating youth. This summer we’re excited about several programs that are using LRNG to create local Playlists and issue digital badges that recognize Connected Learning. Here are a few great examples.

In Schools

Summer Dreamers Academy  is a summer camp that serves more Pittsburgh Public Schools students in grades 1 through 8 each year. This free six-week program features English Language Arts and math classes in the morning and afternoon activities like dance, robotics, filmmaking, and more. Summer Dreamers students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade can earn three badges: the Reading Rebel and Math Maniac badges recognize students for completing creative enrichment activities that build on their ELA and math classes, and the Summer Dreamers 2016 badge rewards students for modeling kindness and good citizenship during camp. These activities explicitly connect students’ camp activities to their lives. One math XP, for example, asks kids to investigate how much it really costs to buy a car, while one XP on the ELA Playlist asks students to create their own “found” poetry from language they find online or in print. Our goal with these Playlists is to imbue traditional school activities with Connected Learning. We want to help kids find personal resonance with their schoolwork and hopefully discover ways to use their schoolwork to propel them to future success in the things that interest them most.

In the Workforce

Students in Pittsburgh can earn digital badges through Learn & Earn Playlist, developed in partnership with the mayor’s summer youth employment program. The Learn & Earn 2016 Badge rewards students for completing activities that align with the career readiness competencies that all participants are required to gain during the program. Students at all 30 Learn & Earn provider sites have the opportunity to complete the XPs that lead to this badge. Some XPs are simple — like listing the steps for your commute on the way to work —  while others ask students to reflect more deeply on a critical skill, such as gracefully receiving constructive criticism from a supervisor. Students are also encouraged to complete one of LRNG’s “national” Playlists: the Be Payday Ready financial literacy Playlist developed by LRNG partners in Chicago. Students who complete the XPs in this Playlist can earn a badge by demonstrating several key skills, like setting up a bank account and filling out a timesheet. In addition to earning badges connected with these critical career readiness competencies, Learn & Earn students can earn badges related to their roles at their job placement site: Some great examples include the Urban Farmer badge, which some Learn & Earn students can earn through a partnership between Homewood Children’s Village and Grow Pittsburgh.

In the Community

When kids visit lrng.org/pittsburgh, they can explore XPs, Playlists, and badges from more than 20 local youth-serving organizations. There are great programs and events from dance groups, makerspaces, museums, and more. There’s an especially strong collection of XPs from organizations focused on environmentalism and sustainability. Students at the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens can earn XPs related to building a healthier, more sustainable future; students participating in the Student Conservation Association’s Community Conservation Crew can earn a badge that leads to an internship. The Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, and Propel Schools also feature XPs that connect critical STEM topics with activities in the natural world.

What Happens Next?

As we’ve introduced hundreds of children and adults to digital badging over the years, we’ve seen some critical questions emerge — most importantly, once you’ve earned a badge, what happens next?

Here in Pittsburgh, we’re interested in the critical handoffs that make badges meaningful and useful for the students who earn them and the organizations who might issue and recognize them. In other words, if a student earns a badge in one program, how can they “level up” their experience in another program that dives deeper into the same subject?

This year, Sprout provided funding to support six local projects that will create cross-disciplinary, badge-enabled learning “pathways.” These funded projects will launch during the 2016-2017 school year, and they’ll enable students to explore themes like digital media, robotics, and architecture in out-of-school learning programs at cultural institutions and youth-serving organizations across the region. We hope that these first five pathways will help organizations make it easier for students to pursue their interests in schools and beyond.

In addition to supporting new programming, we’ve also worked to bring key regional stakeholders into conversations around how digital badging might transform workforce development and higher education. In summer 2015, Sprout hosted the Digital Badges Forum for Pittsburgh Employers. This day-long event invited participants from more than 80 major regional employers to consider how digital badges might impact workforce development and hiring processes in their own organizations. Later this year, Sprout will host a similar event for admissions representatives from local colleges and universities. This forum’s participants will discuss how digital badges might impact higher education admissions practices and graduation rates.

As we roll out LRNG in our community, we’re reminded of the tremendous opportunity we have to re-design how learning works for students in cities like ours. LRNG gives us a platform to connect kids with the rich and rewarding learning opportunities Pittsburgh has to offer and to make that learning count toward each student’s future. Ultimately, we’re motivated by the promise we see in our young people, and the sense of duty we have as a community to honor every student’s potential. The future of our city depends on it.

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