Digital Badges for Learning

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Digital Badges for Learning

Remarks by Secretary Duncan at 4th Annual Launch of the MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Lifelong Learning Competition

September 15, 2011

I'm excited to be here to celebrate the launch of the 2011 competition, and its potential to propel a quantum leap forward in education reform. We're on the verge of harnessing education's power to unleash the full measure of human potential.

I want to commend the MacArthur Foundation's thoughtful and forward-thinking approach to educational philanthropy. And, I applaud the collaborative partnership that makes possible this groundbreaking competition, now in its fourth year.

The MacArthur Foundation and its partners – Mozilla and HASTAC, hosted by Duke University and the University of California Humanities Research Institute – are working together to provide venture capital for technology innovations that can dramatically improve educational access and quality, in America and around the globe.

This year's efforts will expand the hub of digital media projects and products, and the record of success begun in 2007.

President Obama and I see building a world-class public education system as an economic, civic and social imperative. It's a mission he's championed since the earliest days of his administration. And, just last week, President Obama outlined his American Jobs Act before a joint session of Congress. His plan includes immediate investments that will help today's students compete in tomorrow's economy.

As the President said, "Every child deserves a great school – and we can give it to them, if we act now." The Jobs Act will provide $30 billion to support teachers' jobs, and another $30 billion to modernize and renovate schools. Both are essential ingredients to the President's plan to create and preserve jobs to move the economy forward. And, they will ensure that children get the preparation they need to compete for jobs in the 21st Century.

This administration has a systemic, cradle-to-career vision for reform. It begins with stronger, more inclusive early childhood programs, transitions to a world-class P-12 system, and culminates with college that must be more accessible and affordable for every student.

For nearly three years we've pursued this vision without swerving, in all our policies and programs, and with both formula and competitive funds. We've focused on increasing student achievement, built on a foundation of: better aligned and personalized instruction; more effective teachers and school leaders; safer and more learning-conducive school environments; as well as more engaged and supportive communities.

We know there isn't a silver bullet that will solve all our educational and financial challenges. But, we also know there is one sector with tremendous potential that has not been fully tapped: the field of education technology. As we upgrade the crumbling infrastructure of our schools, we must also invest in the innovative learning technologies that can transform teaching and learning.

The President and I are convinced that with technology, we have an extraordinary opportunity to expand educational excellence and equity, and personalize the experience for students. Technology can enable the high-quality teaching and learning that today's students need to thrive as citizens, workers, and leaders in the digital age, and the globally competitive knowledge economy.

That's the vision outlined in the National Educational Technology Plan we at the Department of Education released last year. Our plan, "Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology", aims to reframe learning as a process that is not only lifelong, but life-wide.

We're excited that, this year, this competition will serve as a catalyst to advance the potential of digital badges. Badges can help engage students in learning, and broaden the avenues for learners of all ages to acquire and demonstrate – as well as document and display – their skills.

Badges can help speed the shift from credentials that simply measure seat time, to ones that more accurately measure competency. We must accelerate that transition. And, badges can help account for formal and informal learning in a variety of settings.

Today's technology-enabled, information-rich, deeply interconnected world means learning not only can – but should – happen anywhere, anytime. We need to recognize these experiences, whether the environments are physical or online, and whether learning takes place in schools, colleges or adult education centers, or in afterschool, workplace, military or community settings.

In short, we must begin to see schools, colleges and classrooms as central points – though still very important ones – in larger networks of learning.

As we recognize multiple ways for students to learn, we need multiple ways to assess and document their performance. Students, teachers and administrators are hungry to move beyond fill-in-the-bubble tests, toward assessments that are more varied, immediate, and data-rich. Digital badges are an important step in this direction.

And, badges offer an important way to recognize non-traditional ways of learning. They're a way to give credence – and ultimately, credit – for the skills learners and teachers acquire in a broader set of learning environments, and a wider range of content.

Badges also empower students and teachers to play an even stronger role in their own learning and development – to seek out the right tools among many resources available, and in their fields of interest – and build a record of what they have mastered.

And here, let me emphasize how badges could help advance the careers and mark the capacity-building milestones of our nation's teachers. Teaching is one of the world's most complex, challenging and consequential professions. We see technology in general, and badges in particular, as a new way to support America's new and veteran teachers, and help them achieve the professional growth we know they seek.

Now, I want to speak about this competition's goals: investing in promising, creative solutions, creating a climate for innovation, and becoming a catalyst for the best ideas in education reform. MacArthur's innovative grant-making approach and the work we're doing at the federal level are absolutely aligned.

I challenge our Department of Education team every day, to move from being a compliance-driven bureaucracy to becoming an engine of state and local innovation. That is the right federal role.

Since we know the best ideas always come from the field, and not from us in Washington, we've launched competitions like the Race to the Top, Investing in Innovation, Promise Neighborhoods, and Early Learning Challenge Grants – to help seed and support change, to scale up what works, to increase student achievement, and to accelerate learning.

And that's why I'm so intrigued by the idea of digital badges. We're already seeing the impact of alternative, industry-recognized credentials at sites such as, which has opened up a significant new path for computer programmers seeking to demonstrate skills that qualify them for good jobs with high-paying salaries at fast-growing companies like Google and Facebook.

In this context, let's also consider the thousands of servicemen and women who return to civilian life each year, from posts at home and around the world. Many of our veterans bring back employable – and even exceptional – skills, competencies and achievements, gained all over the globe. Yet these talents can be overlooked in the civilian workforce, because they may not appear on traditional resumes and transcripts.

Here, badges can be a game-changing strategy. So today, I am pleased to announce that the Department of Veterans Affairs Innovation Initiative will join this effort with a commitment to award a $25,000 prize for the best badge concept and prototype that serves veterans seeking good-paying jobs in today's economy. The VA will join Mozilla, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Departments of Education and Labor to support and sponsor this part of the Digital Media and Lifelong Learning Competition, which will be called the "Badges for Heroes Challenge."

No one deserves these kinds of innovative opportunities to learn and demonstrate their knowledge and skills more than our veterans.

By promoting badges and the open education infrastructure that supports them, the federal government can contribute to the climate of change that the education, business and foundation sectors are generating. We can build new avenues for entrepreneurship and collaboration, and spark economic development at home and around the world.

And, while education is without question the key to the economic success of individuals and our nation, it is equally vital for preparing new generations to sustain our democracy and perpetuate the values that make this country great. As technology increasingly powers learning in America, it will power the American Dream for generations to come.

Technology is a critical tool to propel the vast increases in educational access and quality that this nation must achieve in the next decade. As the President pointed out in his speech introducing the American Jobs Act, "America should be in a race to the top. And I believe we can win that race."

With efforts like this competition, we can encourage breakthroughs in the types of free, high-quality online Open Educational Resources that lift educational attainment rates and foster renewed economic growth.

If we get this transformative technology revolution right, our generation will literally enable the greatest expansion in access to high-quality education opportunities in history. I'm confident that we can, and we will, get it right.

So let me once again thank the MacArthur Foundation and its partners for their leadership and generosity, and wish all the collaborators the best of luck with their proposals.

Through the vision of this competition's funders – and the creativity and results of its participants – our nation's learners, both young and old, will be the ultimate winners.

Thank you.