Saturday, September 14, 2013

Badge MOOC Challenge 1: Define a Current Ecosystem

Who am I?
** Updated on 9/19 with more detailed personas**

Well, I will try to stay regular with these Mozilla Badge MOOC challenges (goal is it get them our each Saturday so I don't fall behind and other things get in the way).  I've decided that for the Badge Challenge I will start brainstorming on the topic of my ESL MOOC, that topic that's been floating in my mind as a potential PhD Dissertation topic.  These, of course, may change while I further process the topic, but someone's gotta start somewhere.


Prompt for the challenge (scroll down for my contribution):
Define a Current Ecosystem
At a basic level, we consider the ecosystem of three principal sets of stakeholders:
  • Learning Providers
  • Job Seekers
  • Employers
Traditionally, we have viewed these three principal sets of stakeholders as having a fairly simplistic, linear relationship: Traditional higher education institutions and other types of learning providers (e.g., trade schools) impart knowledge and skills to learners and issue credentials. Learners cum job seekers take their credentials to employers, who use job seekers’ transcripts and other work/life experiences to ascertain whether job seekers are suitable for employment.

Facilitating change begins with articulating where we are and what problems need solutions. Are employers getting the information they need, at the right level of specificity, to make good hiring decisions? Do current linear models (learning provider =>; job seeker => employer) provide good through-put? Are job seekers getting the value they need out of their education investments?

Consider an industry or community of practice where you anticipate that badges could have a positive impact. Describe the ecosystem of this industry or community and provide an overview of how it currently works. Describe the roles of the primary stakeholders in this ecosystem: learning providers, job seekers, and employers.Create personas/archetypes that represent each of the stakeholders.
Write one or more “before badges” user stories that articulate specific problems or areas needing improvement in this ecosystem.


Brainstorming on this challenge:
So the community that I am considering deploying badges to is an ESL learning community.  This, as I wrote above, is tied into a Language Learning MOOC (ESL MOOC) that I am considering building, running, and studying and analyzing for a potential dissertation.  I have picked the tag #eslmooc for this. Now, with language, a piece of paper that describes your skills in the language almost doesn't matter.  It may open some doors, as far as human resources or graduate admissions departments are concerned, but once you step through to the workplace or into your program of study, if you can't produce you can immediately be spotted and pointed out.

Teaching language does vary in depending on level (low, intermediate, high), country, and provider.  For example, when I was growing up in Greece we were taught French in elementary and middle school at my school district.  We also had the ability to attend private language schools for English, Spanish, French, Italian and German.  Those were the prevalent languages back then.  Now you you can probably find Russian and Chinese as well. During those years you could take exams (sort of like the TOEFL) in a variety of languages.  The TOEFL wasn't big when I was a kid, the two big English test were the "Michigan" and the "Cambridge". If you passed these two "Proficiency" exams you were considered capable of using the language.  While those still exist, there is Common European Framework for assessing language proficiency that is language agnostic.

Learners, thus, learn language skills in public schools or private schools, they take standardized tests using this common framework for assessment in Europe (or TOEFL in the US), and their certificates of proficiency at the various levels are accepted by employers or schools of higher education where these learners are applying. This is the environment in which the ESL MOOC will operate in, and where the badges will fit in.

There are three basic personas here in this ecosystem:

  1. The Learners: These are the people that attend courses.  Some courses are compulsory, such as those in K-12 language environments, and some are potentially optional, like those in private language schools.  The motivation of the learners does vary a lot.  There are learners who:
    1. don't know why they are bothering to learn another language, usually found in compulsory education; 
    2. know they need to be educated in another language but they have their reservations. Motivation for these learners can be positive or negative depending on what else is happening in their lives;
    3. who are interested in the subject matter and really want to excel regardless of immediate benefits that they may have.
  2. The Teachers: These are people who also vary a lot.  Some are in private schools while others in public.  Some are doing it because they love the discipline while others are doing it just for the pay-check.  Depending on the country, school district, or educational environment they are in they may have broad latitude to present materials and use evaluations of their own design to evaluate their learners; or they may be forced to use standardized tests. In cases like the Michigan, Cambridge and TOEFL exams, these are standardized by external entities.
  3. The Employers/Admissions Committees: These are people who either employ (or accept students to academic programs) that take previous evaluations of learners, conducted by the Teachers, to admit these students into academic programs, or hire them for open positions. In both instances the positions for academic programs or jobs are limited, and thus hiring managers or admissions committees need to make sage decisions about who their admit/hire. A bad admissions or bad hire does have repercussions down the line, and sometimes serious ones. Thus, there is a broad trust associated with the work that Assessors do further up-stream.

To expand a bit on the personas, here are some specific sample personas for our Language Learning Ecosystem:
The Learner: Meet Mario Andretti (no, not that Mario Andretti!). Mario is an Italian Graduate Student who applying to schools outside of Italy.  Mario loves languages and he has been studying English since he's been in elementary school and take the opportunity to skype with his relatives in the US and Canada to practice his English.  He has taken English language classes in public school, but has never needed to really prove that he "knew" the language. Being able to interact well in English language environments, including on websites, has been good enough for him.  Now, in order to  get into graduate school, he needs to prove his level of mastery in English to be accepted into school. Mario does not work, but he plans on being a full time student at a school in the West Coast.  He is particularly keen on getting into NYU or Harvard. Since admissions period is coming up, he really needs to get into gear and prepare for this language proficiency exam,a nd take is soon, or he risks not being considered for graduate studies this year.

The Learner: Meet Stella D'Agostino. Stella is an Italian Professor at the University of Milan where the language of instruction is slowly changing from Italian to English.  Stella has had the required compulsory education of English, as well as having done some studies abroad which helped her develop her verbal language skills. Since there is a shift coming at her university she would prefer to be able to demonstrate that she has sufficient mastery of English to teach and provide feedback to her learners in English, instead of taking time to go to unnecessary classes.   Her time would be better spent on research and publishing and honing those skills that she has some deficiencies in. She does not need to go to the entire course in English to accomplish her goals. Stella is also the type of person who is impatient with sitting in a course where she already knows the material, so it would be better to not force learners such as Stella into courses that they don't need, but develop a evaluation instrument to not only showcase granularly what she can do, but can also place her in appropriate mastery courses.

The Teacher: Lawson Blake is an Australian ESL teacher.  He lives in Milan and has been contracted by the University of Milan to help bring their professors up to speed with teaching in English.  On his spare time he is also a freelance ESL teacher helping students prepare for examinations such as the Cambridge exam. While Lawson is a very patient teacher, he really dislikes wasting people's time when they are in a course (his) when they don't need to be. He is familiar with the European Framework and wishes he were able to strategically target the areas that learners have actual need to improve in, instead of making them sit through the entire language training seminars that he runs. He would like to be able to have an instrument that is granular enough that lets campus administrators know the level of their professors proficiencies in a variety of ways, including things such as written language, academic discipline language proficiency, spoken ability, listening comprehension, and understandability (accent and cadence related).

The Admissions Committee: Leon Broznic is a Professor in the Sociology Department of NYU.  He is one of three members of the admissions committee of his department. Along with other academic requirements, like previous GPA and letters of recommendation, he is looking at the language proficiency of incoming candidates for their MA in Applied Sociology.  The program is very competitive because they only accept 10 students every year into their program. This program is rigorous in that it requires a lot of high level reading each week, and the courses are styled as small seminars so that learners interact a lot with one another and their professors.  As such, a high level of language ability is really critical to the success of learners.  The program accepts IELTS and TOEFL scores, but what they've found out, through past experience, is that these scores aren't always good indicators of language ability for their field. He wishes that there were other ways, more detailed, that learners had to demonstrate their capacity for academic language. Some of these tools might be testing for grammar, sentence structure, and vocabulary, but not necessary for the ability to comprehend (at a basic level) academic texts - a skill crucial in a graduate sociology course. Leon, is a patient professor and has worked with international students to improve their language ability while in the program, once certain issues crop up, but he wishes he knew the various levels of proficiency of students before they were accepted so appropriate support mechanisms can be put in place pro-actively and make sure that they are tailored to the learner.


Thinking of a before badge story isn't that hard.  I recently heard on NPR that Universities around the world are switching their language of instruction, at least for graduate programs, to English (either quickly or slowly) in order to remain globally competitive and to better prepare their graduates for jobs both within their own country but also for jobs outside of their own borders. While this has been met with some skepticism, the way to accomplish this switch to English as the language of instruction is to train the professors who teach those languages. This includes both advanced English skills (akin to C2 mastery of English using the European Framework) and the acquisition of language specific to their own discipline, so in a sense those learners will be learning the lingo of their profession in another language.  

Right now I am not sure what sort of certification there exists in this area, but I can see badges as playing a role in making specific skills more transparent, instead of just saying "C2 level proficiency." The NPR story was focusing on the University of Milan, so perhaps there is the potential of having a sample size to test this MOOC on Italian professors from there.

I do think that there are obstacles here with badges and alternative credentials like badges.  The one thing that is big is acceptance.  TOEFL, Michigan and Cambridge tests carry a lot of weight.  Perhaps internal training where the trainers are vetted by the higher-ups at the University also carry a lot of weight, but badges earned in a MOOC may have some hard time getting traction in a field so inculcated in the notion of the degree or certificate, such as higher education. Even if some of the badges correspond to C2 proficiency categories, I am wondering how widely accepted such language proficiency badges may be.

So what do you think?  Anything else I should be keeping in mind at this stage? This can be either MOOC related, or Badge related.


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