When I first heard about Reimagining Recognition, I worked at an organisation developing a self-help webpage for young substance users. Since then, it has been such a learning journey! We created online training based on the badge system for our young volunteers. During the four weeks of training, they received badges for completing each step, till the main credentials showed that all their work was done. As the course ended with residential activities, we could also give feedback through Open Badges. This way, many of these participants could validate this training (thanks to the badges!) in formal education to gain study points. As we are working with NEET and kids from difficult backgrounds, we used the system with very diverse people. The basic idea — to give learners something easy they can experiment with, works with everyone! No exceptions. To give another example, I also contributed to the development of training for young event organisers in Finland. Badges were useful here to support learning, as young people scanned the code, and had fun evolving through the small tasks!
Have you ever thought about attending a school without marks or grades? How about developing your skills in a place where your accomplishments are not measured by numbers? If your answer is yes to any of these questions, you will adore the Open Badge system, a free, online tool to validate (especially, but not only!) non-formal learning.
Many of us are involved in the life of our communities without recognising that we are doing good things. If we are conscious about our participation, it becomes meaningful participation, and gives us real opportunities for personal and professional development.
Discover more about this SALTO Award 2021 winning project! Alexandra Isaicul from the Moldovan Millennium Training and Development Institute (the project coordinator), Vitalie Cirhana (one of the trainers in the project as well as director of the organisation) and their Finnish partner Sami Sorjonen (a youth worker for the project) have shared their experience with us.
Recognition is usually not the first issue discussed when it comes to education. Why did you decide to focus on this?
Our Lithuanian colleagues, who are Erasmus+ trainers, introduced me (Vitalie) to the badges at a tool fair as a system to support the learning process of participants in youth work. It made me think that recognition is often underestimated in our field. Therefore, I started to use the badges in my training in a spontaneous way. At the same time, we also wanted to dig deeper into its conceptual application. This international partnership that we developed, Reimaging Recognition, enabled us to do so.
How did you build up the collaboration?
The initial idea came from the Lithuanian team who had already developed a platform for recognition badges, and had the expertise. After discussing with other colleagues, we identified and invited potential partners to join the consortium. Some of them already knew the tool, and all shared the will to explore and apply it in their work. After extensive brainstorming about our needs and the different national perceptions of recognition, we created the framework for the project.
How was the project structured?
Our activities took place from November 2018 to September 2020. The first phase was about research, including a study visit to Lithuania to explore badge-based recognition practices. Then prototyping and testing followed, using Design Thinking methodologies. After a training course on digital youth work, national groups created and tested digital Open Badges with their local youth workers and educators. For example, in Ukraine and Armenia young people contributed to the design of badge systems for various non-formal activities. While in Moldova, we mostly applied them in volunteering projects. Using Future Search methods, we created policy recommendations for the validation and recognition of non-formal learning in Eastern partnership countries. The process was concluded with evaluation and reporting.
What were your major findings?
Our research has shown that while in each country recognition was considered important, it was not really applied in education settings. Marks are given, but they create stress, instead of encouragement. Badges do the opposite. They do not punish, but motivate — particularly in non-formal education and youth work. And they target the common problem of schools and universities still failing to recognise non-formal learning as a valid experience. Badges make non-formal learning visible and understandable in formal education settings too.
How do badges work?
A badge is a colourful, fun representation of your achievements. It can be obtained online, after scanning a QR code and fulfilling a small task. We differentiate between four basic badges. First, they can be provided for membership, for belonging to a group or organisation. In Moldova, we use these badges to encourage volunteers. Second, badges for participation value involvement — i.e. how much someone is engaged in one or more activities. Third, capability badges show that you have reached a defined standard, developed competencies or skills — for example during training. Finally, mastery badges demonstrate excellence in a specific area.
In practice, how do young people use badges in a mobility or learning activity?
In Moldova, we started by promoting the membership and participation badges to encourage volunteers to plan their participation more consciously, and consider what they can both offer and take-away. Having to complete a small task when applying for a badge proves that their learning was real. On the other hand, it assures us, the organisers, that participants are following the thread — understanding where they are going and how far they have come. The act of designing the actual badge system enables us to offer the volunteering experience not as a service but as a learning experience. Participants can also be invited to use badges in their individual reflection process while in training. It helps them understand what they learnt and helps us, trainers, understand how we can improve.
How do you encourage young people to use the badges?
We don’t need to! When we introduced the badge system to our volunteers, they were literally running to complete the tasks and get the badges. Also, the volunteering programme at the Central Municipal de Tineret Chișinău, the municipal youth centre of our capital, is based on this badge system. They are using more than 30 different badges. Badges such as “leader in the community”, “ideas generator”, “top manager”, or “best reporter”, for example, can be assigned to only one person — so the young volunteers are competing. In a way, it is a gamification tool to recognise the things that they normally do, and motivate them to continue doing them.
What difficulties did you face in the international partnership?
In the middle of the two-year project, lockdown hit and everybody was shut inside their homes because of COVID-19. Previously, we had been thinking about designing the badge system for our residential training courses. But at that moment, we suddenly understood that the internet could be used for interaction, youth work, and learning. And so could the badges! Working with this online tool helped us maintain connection with youngsters, youth workers and project partners. Another challenge came up at the beginning, before the training and the study visits — how to explain to participants what the badge system is, as it was still very new to us too. Luckily, participants passed this barrier naturally, as their interest in and knowledge of the topic was growing.
What did you learn as an organisation?
The application of Open Badges is super versatile. In Finland, for example, today they are used by employers to introduce a job to new employees or interns! Newcomers can claim 6-7 different badges, through which they find out certain pieces of information about the job. They interview colleagues, look around the office and do research. It is much better to form an idea about the organisation this way, rather than through boring, pre-prepared welcome materials that they would probably throw away without reading.
In Moldova, we understood that sometimes less is more. One of the first badge systems that we developed for a training course was too complicated. So, after the initial excitement we moved on to further analyse and rationalise, to think critically about how many badges we should optimally provide for an activity.
How did you promote your activities?
All of us used youth portals and the platforms of our organisations. However, we faced obstacles when trying to attract the attention of the media. Despite reaching out to them, they did not find our new tool interesting enough. Indeed, the best method of promotion turned out to be using badges in different activities. In Moldova, we involved youth centres who began to introduce the system to many people. In Finland, we presented the tool to a wide audience at a digital youth work seminar, with participants ranging from decision-makers to youth services, which was a big achievement for us.
Who were your main targets?
Youth workers, youth clinics, NGOs, volunteering organisations, municipal youth centres, volunteer coordinators and associations for creative development. We are very proud that our Moldovan team was asked by the Ministry of Youth to help create online educational courses for youth workers, using badges as the tool for recognition.
In Finland, the project team was invited to deliver a training session for a university course about working digitally with kids, using game development and photography. Students already knew another platform connected to our concept, Cities of Learning, but didn’t really understand how to put the theory into practice. After our session, they were able to set up learning environments, and create badge systems.
What can you recommend to people or organisations who have an innovative idea for learning?
We went from small scale to big scale. The accessible and handy platform was already there, tested and used in Lithuania, so it was a great foundation to build on. We got feedback from people in different organisations, saying that they were surprised how easily and fast they learned to use it! No fancy skills were needed in order to start. We understood that while the fear of new tools is naturally there, we can always combine unfamiliar digital tools with more well-known techniques.
What helped you to keep together and coordinate such a huge international partnership?
Building a strong network brings challenges. In extremely difficult conditions like the pandemic and the war, trusting ourselves and our partners helped us through. When one of the persons in charge of one of our partner organisations left, we understood that it is useful to be in contact with several people. This way it becomes easier to share all the knowledge about the project and help the new colleague to get on board. Also, we needed to trust the tool! In the beginning, even some of us doubted the impact of Open Badges, but after trying and retrying, we all fell in love.
Sami Sorjonenyouth worker, participant from Finland
Recognition should be one of the key things to think about when planning and organising learning activities. This project succeeded in passing on not just this idea, but also a very practical tool for decision-makers and schools to implement. This also helped highlight the importance of non-formal learning, which otherwise often gets overlooked — building a bridge between formal and non-formal learning.
About the project
Erasmus+ / Cooperation Partnerships
EU Youth Programme Priority:
Youth Participation / Youth Sector Development
Hundreds of young people, youth workers and youth leaders from 7 countries were involved through youth research, prototyping and testing activities. The number of young people who have benefitted from recognition through Open Badges in live action is even higher and still growing.
Institutul de Instruire in Dezvoltare “MilleniuM” (Moldova), Espaces Centre of KASA Swiss Humanitarian Foundation (Armenia), Nuorisokeskus Marttinen (Finland), LEPL Children and Youth National Center (Georgia), Better Internet Centre (Ukraine), Lietuvos neformaliojo ugdymo asociacija (Lithuania), Ard Aoibhinn Community Initiatives limited (Ireland)