IU School of Education faculty member awarded grant to study online expertise

Study considers models of digital badges and how well they work for online communities

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A one-year study by an Indiana University School of Education assistant professor will help provide insight into how systems for recognizing skills and knowledge work well or need revision for use in online social communities.

The HASTAC Digital Media and Learning Competition has awarded Sean Duncan, faculty member in the Learning Sciences program, a nearly $100,000 award to examine "digital badges" in spaces such as Twitter and Reddit. His study "Connecting Badges and Expertise in Interest-Driven Affinity Spaces" starts in May as part of the School of Education's Center for Research on Learning and Technology.

HASTAC -- Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory -- is a consortium of individuals and institutions that examines ways of learning, teaching, communicating, creating and organizing local and global communities. The Digital Media and Learning Competition is supported with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and is administered through the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub at the University of California-Irvine.

Duncan's study is focused on how the credentialing system of digital badges works for users of "affinity spaces," or online spaces such as Twitter and discussion forums. Digital badges are a Web-based token demonstrating accomplishment or expertise in a particular area.

"In this grant, we're looking at everything from hobbyist forums to large social networking sites and seeing how people in those spaces exhibit expertise," Duncan said. "Then, we'll examine how they make meaning about existing badging systems in those spaces."

Digital badges are relatively new, but many instructional sites have begun using badges to designate achievement or confer credentials. HASTAC launched the Badges for Lifelong Learning Competition, to create new badging systems last year, including a grant to IU School of Education Learning Sciences professor Dan Hickey to document digital badge design principles. The Mozilla Foundation began the Mozilla Open Badges project to create a common system for issuing, collecting and displaying digital badges in 2011.

Duncan intends to dig more deeply into what's actually happening as badges and similar systems are used within informal online communities where, unlike a formal online course, more interest-driven forms of learning often take place. The information could help create better and more useful badges, while also better connecting badging initiatives to the forms of learning that take place in interest-driven online spaces.

"I want to characterize how people in those spaces think about the badging systems within those contexts," he said. "The goal here is to better understand what people already do within online communities as a way to drive the next generation of badging systems. This is so we don't just look at online communities, take elements of them and then haphazardly design things. I am aiming for a deeper understanding of how badging systems live and breathe in these dynamic online communities."

The research Duncan has conducted looks extensively into affinity spaces. Last year, he co-edited the book "Learning in Video Game Affinity Spaces," examining how people can learn though engagement with video game culture and how learning takes place within gaming affinity spaces. With such learning in mind, Duncan said, digital badges shouldn't simply be imposed uniformly on these communities.

"I want to make sure we're not stepping too heavily on the informal practices people take part in within these spaces," he said. "I want to make sure we're taking the learning that occurs in these spaces for what it already is, not imposing some sort of new school-like structure on these interesting and exciting online communities."

The study will gather data from several sites, which may include Twitter and Reddit, and which will be determined through consultation with previous badging system design award winners. Using both large-scale quantitative and qualitative analyses, Duncan will discern how participants identify and recognize the mastery of skills as well as how such expertise may shape and influence learning in online spaces. The results will be summarized in a final white paper to be published on a dedicated website hosted in the Center for Research on Learning and Technology. The website will also host a project blog and public forum to continue dissemination, analysis and discussion of the results.

This study continues Duncan's research into games, learning and related behavior online. He has conducted research into design thinking in online gaming communities, childhood digital gaming practices and collaboration, as well as computational thinking in board game contexts.