Making assessment work like the web

From the book jacket to Cathy Davidson's Now You See It

Cathy Davidson‘s comment on my last post about Open Badges — and her recent op ed in the Washington Post — get to the heart of an exciting shift taking place in learning and assessment. A shift where assessment is no longer seen as separate, standardized and external (first you learn, then you externally measure it). But instead, where assessment and feedback are baked right into the learning process, in a much more transparent, social and participatory way.

Assessment that’s social, transparent and participatory

Cathy’s view is that the process of collectively deciding what’s worth measuring — whether for learners, communities of peers, or organizations — represents a crucial learning opportunity in its own right, “as an exercise to engage all an institution’s members in thinking about what it wants to credit and why.”

It’s a fantastic exercise, in other words, in institutional self-reflection, self-evaluation.

My big “Now You See It” lesson is that, until we go through this preliminary step of thinking deeply together about who and what we are, who we want to be, what matters to us, and why it is important to know who contributes to our network and how, then we cannot even think about moving forward in open, innovative new directions.

The problem with an inherited system — whatever that system is: it comes with parameters already defined. To me, the most important thing about this badge experiment is it is an opportunity for a community to explore and understand what its own parameters are.

Media literacy badges from Global Kids

Assessment as a social act

This suggests that the process of deciding what “counts” towards a given goal, competency or achievement is, essentially, a social act — something decided on by communities of people, rather than by some top-down cathedral or gatekeeper. And that peer-to-peer assessment is a vital 21st century skill in its own right.

Standardized testing and other pre-defined yardsticks — which typically offer assessment models that are opaque, hard for many to fully understand, and handed down to you in advance, without discussion or community goal-setting — deny us this learning opportunity. And in many ways, are out of touch with a world where working collaboratively — which includes tactfully evaluating the work of peers, and assessing how well that work relates to larger shared goals — is increasingly important.

Excerpt from iRemix's badge framework

Peer-to-peer evaluation as a 21st century skill

We often talk about the need to assess and recognize “21st century skills” — competencies and achievements difficult for traditional institutions to recognize, because they’re new, reflect changing literacies, and evolve at a rapid rate that’s hard to capture.

Cathy’s point suggests that getting good at “social assessment” and peer-to-peer evaluation — helping to collaboratively set goals and translate them into metrics, being a fair judge of others’ work, collectively defining mastery, understanding nuance or levels of proficiency, designing processes and social mechanisms to work all this stuff out  — is an important 21st century skill in its own right.

Here at Mozilla, for example, we use “code review” to assess the quality of a given community member’s contribution. It’s important that the process is transparent (the criteria are clearly stated and understood), participatory (in that anyone can participate, and *everyone* is subject to code review — there’s no free pass for senior staff or the specially anointed),  and social (in that these reviews are done in the open by recognized peers, rather than some inscrutable gatekeeper).

What drives this approach is not naive idealism or some commitment to kumbaya values — it’s a form of assessment that’s agile, pragmatic and effective. Without these social and transparent elements, our global community would wither and our software would break.

Screen grab from Mozilla's beta1 "Badge Backpack"

“Gatekeeper credentialing” vs. “social proof” that you know what you know

For me, this emphasis on the social aspect of recognition and assessment — assessment as a social act — is crucial. It shifts us from the cathedral (a certificate or credential handed down from on high) to the bazaar (social proof that you know what you know, backed by communities of peers and shareable artifacts.)

In a fantastic online discussion with educators and ed tech innovators organized by Bryan Alexander, this point came up in the context of whether or not badges represent the “commodification” of learning — the reduction of complex human abilities into standardized little bits and pieces that can be plugged into the vagaries of “the market.”

It’s a question that is probably deserving of another post in its own right. But the social dimension of assessment that Cathy and others talk about seems key to me in this regard. The outward piece of badges you can see — the “display” layer, showing what you know — may ultimately prove to be only the small, visible tip of a much larger and more important iceberg: a paradigm shift in assessment. A shift that embraces more social, transparent and participatory models as a vital compliment to (or eventual replacement for) the standardized models we’ve inherited from the industrial era.

Breaking down the barrier between doing and evaluating

We’re seeing an explosion in this kind of assessment, whether it’s stealth assessment, portfolio-based assessment, peer-based assessment, micro-credentialing, or even (shudder) gamification — which done badly, represents gimmicky attempts to sugarcoat or apply simplistic models of human motivation. But as Cathy points out elsewhere, done properly, we can learn something from the best games — where doing and evaluating are not separate, they’re one and the same. When you’re playing a game, you don’t play for a bit and then stop and measure what you did, as a break from the action. Evaluation is woven seamlessly into the experience. Through constant feedback and heads-up displays that are clear, granular, and allow for continuous improvement and self-correction.

Similarly, learners at the School of Webcraft, for example, or iRemix may be earning recognition from their peers for being a great collaborator, team player or communicator — without even knowing it. Rather than teaching or learning to a test, they’re just doing it — working on projects, tackling specific challenges together, and producing shareable artifacts where the social proof is in the pudding.

Prototype community and peer badges from Mozilla and P2PU's School of Webcraft

Assessment that works more like the web

As Cathy’s book details, the old standardized systems of measuring ability — like multiple choice and IQ tests — were never originally intended to play the massive role they currently play in our educational system, and were shaped by a dominant technology: the assembly line. Now that we’re in a new age, with new technological and social paradigms, how can we adopt forms of assessment that tap our full human potential and bear greater relevance in the real world? If badges help accelerate that kind of experimentation and innovation, they’ll form the tip of a much larger and more exciting iceberg.


  • Very cool posting, Matt. I’d like to add and share a “prezi” ( about digging a bit deeper into some of the assessment issues – for those who want to dive in a bit more to explore the relationships with learning theory, portfolios and other learning records over time, and the affordances of digital media for stealth assessment and personal assistance. The prezi might fill in some detail in the part of the iceberg labeled the “assessment layer.” Its very exciting to see Badges taking off and stimulating a re-thinking of what matters in learning: belonging to a community, getting feedback from the community, acquiring knowledge that helps the community, and continuously improving as we build on our strengths, follow our interests, and fulfill our aspirations.

    • Thanks David! Great presentation — especially like the emphasis on Constructivism, project and challenge-based learning, P2P pedagogy, ePortfolios, etc. And on “measures and feedback that are multi-dimensional, integrated and revealed in performance over time.” (Walvoord & Anderson, 1998).

      To me that’s the most fundamental part of this shift, and the greatest impact the web and digital literacy will have on learning — a shift toward constructivism / engaged learning / active learning, etc.

      Or: a shift from learning as primarily about passively “reading stuff” to actively “making stuff.”

      What’s most interesting about that to me is: it’s not particularly new, and it’s not even particularly tied to technology. 🙂

      I also like the emphasis on your comment to community — it’s something we kinda struggle to communicate with Open Badges. People often ask: “but what gives a badge weight or value? how do we know it’s any good?” Only communities (communities of practice, social communities, professional communities) can answer that. The value is the value those communities recognize and create.

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