Open Thinkering


Month: June 2016

How to use metaphors to generate badge-based pathways

Participants busy doing activity

A few days ago in Denver I co-facilitated a pre-ISTE workshop around badge pathways with Ian O’Byrne and Noah Geisel. Thanks to the power of the web, Bryan Mathers joined us remotely from his man shed back in London! It was a three hour session, with a wide range of participants, from those who had only just heard about Open Badges, to those who had started to design badge systems for their particular context.

Watch Ian’s archived Periscope recording of this session (~40 mins)

As part of the workshop, I used an approach from a couple of weeks beforehand when working with a client. It worked really well both times so, I wanted to document it so that you can benefit too! Many of you will have done similar kind of ‘human-centred’ design processes before, but for some it may be new.

As Marshall McLuhan famously said, “we look at the present through a rear-view mirror” and, as a result, “march backwards into the future”. In terms of badge system design, this means that we’re often constrained by what we’ve seen and experienced ourselves as both learners and teachers.


The aim of this activity was to help people break out of the constraints and they didn’t even realise they had before getting started with designing badge pathways.

I’m a big believer that, consciously or unconsciously, we live a lot of our life through metaphor. We have mental models that help us make sense of the world and our place in it. One of these is what it means to ‘progress’ at something. While as educators we would freely admit to learning as being a messy affair, when it comes to demonstrating, mapping, or visualing ‘progression’ we tend to default to linear approaches.

Education may be linear but learning isn't

5-step overview

  1. Prepare – Before you begin, ensure you have lots of post-it notes and pens (e.g. Sharpies) that will show up clearly. You’re welcome to use the illustrations from this post so long as you credit them (as I am!) CC BY-ND Bryan Mathers. He has other images you may also want to use at
  2. Input – Spend five minutes explaining how education may be linear, but learning certainly isn’t. Move on to explain that as educators we tend to stand on one side of the river, inviting students to walk across stepping stones. If they fall in, well they have to start again. Move on to describe the Trivial Pursuit model (pre-defined chunks of learning, but can be done in any order) and Constellation model (user entirely in control of pathways through ecosystem – make their own sense)
  3. Scribbling – Explain that participants will be expected to come up with as many metaphors as they can which could be used to demonstrate progression. One per post-it Take examples from the room in terms of what people are interested in. For example, if someone is into photography, they might use the ‘aperture’ settings on a camera as a metaphor. If someone drives a lot, they may use GPS as a metaphor. It could be as simple as a flight of stairs or a maze. Ensure that participants feel that it’s quantity, not ‘quality’ that counts, and that any suggestions will be accepted.
  4. Grouping – Depending on the confidence / cohesion of the group, you may want to first get them to compare notes where they’re sitting. The important thing to do now is to get those post-it notes up on a wall in a place where everyone can stand around. The post-its should be placed at random. Go through each one, reading it aloud, clarifying where necessary. Explain that the group will now spend time grouping the post-its together, however they think best. There are no right/wrong answers, just whatever they feel goes together.
  5. Classification – Once activity begins to slow, give participants a little more time, then go through each cluster of post-its, asking what each has in common. For example, one might have various metaphors that all involve there being a single destination, but multiple ways to get there. You’re then looking for a single word or phrase that will sum up the cluster. Write this on a different coloured post-it (if possible) and move onto the next cluster. As you go along, encourage people to move post-its, if they see fit.

Badge Pathways

Next steps

Once this activity is finished, you should have around five words or phrases that relate to different types of badge pathway. The group’s next activity could then be to come up with a subject to go with that metaphor. For example, if one of the pathways was ‘Surprise’ or ‘Discovery’ (perhaps the metaphors included peeling back the layers of an onion) then they could pair this up with building a badge pathway about taking care of online privacy. There are infinite possibilities!

Facilitator notes

  • It’s important to ensure participants feel that they are in a ‘safe space’ so they can share ideas without being criticised. One way of doing this is to encourage everyone to use, “Yes, and…” as a way of responding to one another.
  • You’ll need more post-it notes than you think! Factor in around 20 for each participant for this activity, just be sure you’ve got enough.
  • It’s worth modelling the behaviour you want to see by doing the activity with participants. You could go around different tables writing down a couple of examples on each. This helps those that may be a little stuck (or lacking inspiration).
  • Ensure you give enough time to do this activity without rushing. While it’s important to inject pace when appropriate, if it feels like a march towards an inevitable conclusion, participants are likely to be less forthcoming.
  • Be as inclusive as possible. There are some people who, because they’re underconfident or sceptical, may add ‘jokey’ suggestions. Don’t ignore these, but include them in the clustering. For example, in the pre-ISTE workshop, there were quite a few around alcohol and drug use/misuse which we repurposed as ‘self-care’ or ‘looking after each other’.
  • Encourage participants to take photographs. This means that when you transition back to seats, you can take the names of the five or so badge pathways with you quickly and easily.

Illustrations CC BY-ND Bryan Mathers


Do you like this example of working openly? You’ll love! Follow us on Twitter or come and hang out in our Slack channel. All welcome!

My ebook, ‘The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies’ is now pay-what-you-want (including nothing!)

As I promised when first making it available for sale, I’ve steadily reduced the price of my ebook, The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies, until it is now effectively zero. I’ve given people the option of paying if they’d like to, but other than adding an email address at checkout, it’s free of charge.

For those not familiar with the origin of this book, it started life as my doctoral thesis, which I then updated and re-wrote in less academic language. People bought into it as I was writing using the OpenBeta process I devised (this was before Leanpub existed!). The earlier people bought into the writing process, the cheaper it was. They got updates all of the way up to version 1.0.

Once it was ready for general consumption, I sold it at full price (£7.99) and then steadily decreased the price around every six months. Although I don’t think it’s ‘dated’, I did have the idea of what George Siemens called the ‘half-life of knowledge’ in his 2006 book Knowing Knowledge. Another reason was that the financial aspect of the book was to motivate me to continue working on it: writing for an already-established audience is a great motivator!

I’ve been delighted that my ebook has been used as a core text in colleges and universities worldwide, including (quite awesomely) the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. University libraries have also ‘stocked’ it, making use of Creative Commons license I released it under.

So, what’s next? I haven’t really decided, really. I was planning to write a book including classroom activities for improving digital literacies but, for whatever reason, my heart wasn’t really in it. I’m still keen on doing work in the new literacies space, but am thinking of what kind of format would help people most. Perhaps a drip-feed email series? A series of webinars? A course? I don’t know. If you’ve got ideas, please do let me know.

All that remains is to thank those (hundreds) of people who believed in me enough to invest in the book before it reached v1.0, for those (500+) people who have bought it since, and for those who have given me feedback since it was published. If you’ve got comments / suggestions, I’d love to hear them.

If you’d like to use the ebook with your students, you might find the accompanying wiki helpful. It includes the hi-res diagrams I used, as well as space to be able to critique the contents with your students. For a great recent example of this in a Masters-level setting, check out this page on the wiki!

Weeknote 25/2016

This week I’ve been:

  • Dismayed. The result of the EU referendum will reverberate for years. I’m still in shock.
  • Sending out Issue #220 of Doug Belshaw’s Thought Shrapnel, my weekly newsletter loosely focused on education, technology, and productivity. Many thanks to 9Sharp for sponsoring this week’s issue! (Note: I’m still looking for sponsors for July and September)
  • Recording and releasing Episode 55 (‘Stronger Ink(ing)’) of the Today In Digital Education podcast, my weekly podcast with co-host Dai Barnes. We discussed the EU referendum, reading the news, Microsoft Surface devices and ‘inking’, Minecraft Educator edition, teaching novice programmers, contextual identity on the web, and more! You can discuss TIDE in our Slack channel.
  • Spending time with my family before a week away from home. I took my time preparing slides, tied up loose ends, and did some reading.
  • Flying to Denver via London for the Badge Summit and an ISTE pre-conference workshop. My flight was quite delayed but, due to a booking system error, British Airways ended up upgrading to Business Class.
  • Keynoting the Badge Summit. You can find my slides here and Ian O’Byrne (my evil twin) kindly recorded my talk via Periscope (skip to around 22:30). I really enjoyed the event, organised by Noah Geisel, and found it a positive, optimistic, and energising day!
  • Going out for dinner with various people from the Badge Summit, introducing Ian O’Byrne to some of my favourite whiskies, and drinking my first (and perhaps only ever) root beer float.
  • Co-facilitating a pre-ISTE workshop on Open Badges ecosystems and pathways with Ian O’Byrne and Noah Geisel. Bryan Mathers also got involved with some live illustrating via Twitter from his man shed in London! you can check out the agenda and slides we used for the session, as well as a flavour of the workshop via these three Periscope videos: 1 / 2 / 3

I’m writing this from my hotel room in Denver on Saturday afternoon (local time). I’ll be here until Sunday night, then flying to London. After I’ve recovered from my jet lag and watched England’s EURO 2016 game, I’m facilitating a Digitalme event around employability on Tuesday. Then I’m off to Jersey to meet a potential client. Back home on Thursday night after a week away!