Elevating Real-World Learning

Talk to students participating in Rhode Coders 2.0, an after-school program run out of the Providence Public Library, and you learn quickly that coding is just one of many skills they’re building. As a student reported, “I’ve learned that perseverance is important. If something is wrong with the code you have to test things.” Another added, “Creativity is a big part of the program. When they tell you to do something and you see everyone else doing the same thing, I think, what can I do to set myself apart from everyone else?”

In Rhode Coders 2.0 and other out-of-school-time programs in Boston and Providence, developing transferable, real-world skills like perseverance and creativity is a core component of the student experience. Multiple programs in both cities have been part of a two-year pilot to issue credentials—known as digital badges—to students who demonstrate critical competencies such as teamwork, engagement, communication, and critical thinking. Digital badges allow students to document their progress in areas that are often difficult (or impossible) to measure as part of traditional classes and assessments. 

To earn a digital badge, students enrolled in out-of-school-time programs work with instructors to define the target skill. Instructors then engage students in skill-building activities aligned with a clear rubric, allowing students to understand what they need to accomplish in order to earn the badge. Throughout the process, students’ attainment and growth is documented in an online platform. Once students meet the required criteria, the online platform automatically generates a badge that students can share through LinkedIn, social media, or other sites. They can also add the badge to a resume to share it with admissions officers and employers—as one student from Providence noted, “I’ve gone into college and work interviews and they’ve asked me questions about the digital badge.”

Digital badges represent a promising strategy for helping students build and communicate critical skills. To understand how they have been put into practice in Boston and Providence, the Rennie Center worked alongside project leads from Boston After School & Beyond, the Providence After School Alliance, and Youth on Board, documenting the lessons learned in order to share them more broadly. Our latest report, Elevating Real-World Learning: Two Cities’ Efforts to Credential Real World Skills through Digital Badges, offers important takeaways for programs and practitioners interested in implementing digital badges.

For Greta Massey, program director for Harlem Lacrosse at the Joseph Lee K-8 School in Boston, the process has “provided a real backbone for our own structure.” Harlem Lacrosse (which was founded in Harlem but now operates in five cities) focuses on empowering 5th to 8th grade students to reach their full potential. Program directors like Greta, who are embedded in local schools, spend time each day in the classrooms of participating students and then lead a study hall and lacrosse practice as part of an extended after-school experience.

The focus of Harlem Lacrosse’s skill-building process is leadership, specifically the three sub-components of commitment, respect, and hustle. Rather than explain each of these for students, Greta recognizes the importance of stepping back and giving students the space to build their understanding of these concepts: “Especially for 6th to 8th graders, they have a definition of leadership. It’s just about putting it into action.” Students coming back for their second year have also demonstrated their ownership of the learning process by explaining to new students how the program operates—and why they need to put in the time to build their skills as leaders.

Last year, a digital badging ceremony that brought together students, parents, and program staff for a potluck meal helped Harlem Lacrosse reiterate the importance of the skills that students learned. Ultimately, though, for Greta, the real culmination of the digital badging process will come when students have the ability to “see what they’ve been working on for the past few years and have things to put on their resume that show they’ve been putting in effort.” By making learning more visible, digital badges help students recognize and reflect on their own accomplishments, opening doors to new opportunities. In a similar way, by highlighting the lessons learned from digital badging in Boston and Providence, we hope to inform future efforts to implement this innovative strategy.