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Faculty Innovators

Dr. William Watson

Associate Professor, Curriculum & Instruction

The Challenge

Measuring learning outcomes and producing career-ready graduates within a custom learning environment

The Learning Experiment

Create, award and display digital badges using Passport to recognize the breadth of learning.

When Bill Watson taught his first undergraduate class on computer and information technology, he was baffled by a lack of motivation he noticed in his young learners compared to their adult peers returning to school from industry. Each day he struggled to help the freshmen understand the course's concepts, as well as its application to their future careers, but the learners tended to remain unenthusiastic.

The experience was so startling it prompted Watson to change his research focus to explore educational systems and their pitfalls, as well as potential solutions.

"In society today, we need collaborators and resourceful individuals who can solve complicated problems they've not encountered before," Watson says. "Our goals in imparting knowledge need to reflect the needs of society, and we can no longer take a one-size-fits-all approach."

Now an assistant professor of learning design and technology at Purdue, Watson wants to help shift the educational system to learner-centered engagement and skill building, as opposed to knowledge delivery through traditional lectures, in part with new technology to support such a change. His vision was to use technology to help instructors transition from "the sage on the stage" to a mentor, coach and facilitator role in learning by emphasizing learner independence and freedom within limits.

Kyle Bowen, ITaP's director of Informatics, partnered with Watson to create a personalized educational system that provides four primary pieces for use in driving learning: record keeping, planning, instruction and assessment. They decided to use digital badges, icons that represent academic achievement or skills smaller than a college degree, as a way to acknowledge the breadth of learner learning.

Purdue's Passport platform makes creating, awarding and displaying badges much easier. It also integrates with the popular Mozilla Open Badge Infrastructure, including Mozilla Backpack. This system, developed by the same organization that develops the Firefox Web browser, allows the digital badge to include metadata such as who issued the badge, how it was earned and when it was earned; users display their badges through the Backpack site. 

Passport incorporates the idea of measuring learner success based on mastery of specific and pre-defined skills, as opposed to the traditional 4.0 grading scale, which denotes largely how a learner did compared with others in a class without a lot of context to show what they actually learned.

"We want to help students set independent goals and specific, detailed learning objectives that can be attained by doing real-world projects - collaborating, talking through content, online discussions, blog posts, podcasts, etc.," Watson says. "Then, at the end of the course, students have a portfolio of completed projects that demonstrate their competency through tangible achievements."

Watson recognizes the challenges related to such a systemic overhaul. But as universities continue to receive less state and federal funding, as well as mounting pressure from employers to provide career-ready graduates, Watson believes more people will support a change.

"We're talking about dramatic, transformative shifts in education, and developing innovative learning software like Passport will help lay the groundwork and ease the transition as instructors adopt these methods of learning," Watson says. "It's not going to be an easy task, but I'm convinced it's necessary, and it's going to take a lot of people pulling together across the system to make sustainable change."