And by getting weird I mean going legit.

Mozilla’s Open Badges initiative is at heart about getting educators and technologists to design a trustworthy method of recognizing every kind of learning that’s so compelling kids can’t help developing new skills and policy makers can’t help but take notice.

And because badges are a populist, bottom-up method of achieving meaningful education reform (as opposed to attacking issues like standardized testing at the policy level), the people who have been working so hard on alternative credentialing are a real ragtag bunch of hackers, designers, and guerrilla marketers. 

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Professor Dan Hickey leads a workshop as part of the Badge Design Principles Research Project

They may not have institutional support or a built-in audience of millions, but the folks investing their time and money (okay, the MacArthur Foundation‘s money) believe to the marrow of their bones that badges are the first step toward righting some serious wrongs. The weird thing is, powerful players in education are beginning to agree, and that means badges are going mainstream.

People working on badges love working together.

“What kind of work are you doing with badges?” That’s the only line you’ll ever need to get a good conversation going with somebody developing an open badges project.

So while the residents of Chicago drank more green beer than there was green water in the river, I trolled the hallways, lecture halls, and coffee bars at the three day 2013 DML Conference inside the downtown Chicago Sheridan Hotel. And I talked shop with everyone who didn’t actively run the opposite direction. Here are some of the projects I learned about that make me so excited I could spontaneously combust.

  • MentorMob & Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana are teaching girls how to build Android Apps, then giving them the chance to show off their new skills by adding digital badges to a digital sash. It’s a project I’m tickled to be a part of.
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Vicki, Charles, Kristin, & Carlye of Team My Girl Scout Sash is an App

  • The HIVE Learning Network is connecting all the learning institutions within cities (museums, libraries, universities, and more) and facilitating hands-on, interest-driven educational projects like Chicago’s Summer of Learning.
  • The indefatigable Todd Edebohls and his team at Inside Jobs are helping high school students select learning and career pathways that correspond to their interests. Imagine! Kids preparing for a career they’ll be good at and like doing!
  • NASA wants to get you hooked on space games. And they will.
  • The Department of Veterans Affairs is going to be serving even more young veterans returning from war zones this year. And potential employers have GOT to be educated on how military training translates to civilian skills. (Because they do!)
  • Youtopia is making it easy and fun to get rewarded for giving back—and to show off how much better you are than your coworkers.
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An icky and awesome Chicago tradition: we dye the river green

  • Sweet Water Organics is teaching kids about everything from sustainability to biology—all while they’re up and about and moving around. (Which is how kids learn best, wouldn’t you say?)
  • Design for America at Northwestern University is exposing the Human Centered Design process to college students, which is how things that are easy and fun for humans to use get built.
  • BuzzMath is the new Math Blasters. Its design is so friendly it makes this English Literature Major want to give numbers another chance.
  • Carnegie Mellon’s Computer Science Student Network not only boasts an intricate leveling badge system—Ross Higashi and Sam Abramovich have already published research on it. Talk about being ahead of the power curve.
  • Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fair is motivating a new generation of kids to become the problem solving scientists we need.

And this is only a small sampling of the amazing work that’s going on right now in education disruption and open badges!

2013 is going to be a good year for life long learners everywhere.