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Badging for Higher Learning

Developing digital badges to define student arts portfolios for college admission

Cooper Hewitt and the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design (AICAD) are working together to design a flexible badging prototype for student arts portfolios–creating a relevant model that can be used and replicated across Hive Learning Network. The prototype will incorporate the different credentials needed for earning AICAD badges and the criteria (skills mastered, concepts demonstrated, exercises and activities completed) for awarding these badges. The prototype is a single meta-badge comprised of three main elements: Language, Forms, and Visual. Students will be able to earn a series of badges in each of these categories. The AICAD badge will be awarded after earning the required badges for all of these key elements. Cooper Hewitt education staff award badges after reviewing student work.

In October 2014, Cooper Hewitt piloted the badges with a group of 11 students who participated in a Portfolio Prep workshop. After the workshop, changes were made to the model based on the observations and feedback regarding student needs (for example an easier way to sign up for the badging system, a clearer understanding of what digital badges are, more time during class to work on badge activities).

In January 2015, the prototype was presented to a group of 18 people from 15 Hive organizations (including MOUSE, Parsons The New School for Design, the YMCA of Greater New York and the American Museum of Natural History) who were excited by the possibility of badges being validated by an outside organization. This helped to determine commonalities across organizations, capturing quality feedback about alignment opportunities and student need on a broader scale.

The first iteration of the prototype will be piloted with Cooper Hewitt DesignPrep students in early 2015. In spring 2015, a select group of top-tier art and design schools, including Cornish College of the Arts, Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and Columbus College of Art and Design will begin beta testing AICAD’s pilot online portfolio system. Students applying to the selected schools will use the online system, and can opt to include the digital AICAD badges to enhance their applications.

AICAD is a consortium of 42 leading art schools in the US and Canada, including Columbus College of Art and Design, Parsons The New School for Design, Minneapolis College of Art and Design, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Cornish College of the Arts, some of whom advised on the project. Participating Hive NYC organizations also included Groundswell, Urban Arts Partnership, Reel Works, and DreamYard Project.

Project Implementation and Discovery

Outreach and dialogue with high school youth, AICAD representatives, and Hive NYC organizations resulted in valuable feedback, providing insight into the perception of the project and opportunities for potential implementation or growth. Along the way recurring themes and agreement between groups was discovered.

Stakeholders expressed concern not only about getting kids accepted into school but also helping them to be successful and graduate. This concern was raised both by Hive member organizations and AICAD representatives. Looking at ways to provide additional support and resources, both groups recommended designing badges that would follow students through the first year of college. Initially badges had been seen purely as a way to scaffold the college admission process, but these suggestions prompted deeper investigation into ways that badges may provide feedback and continued support as students make the crucial transition between high school and college.

Students and Hive educators (especially those directly involved in college guidance work) noted that applications to art and design schools are particularly complicated and highly irregular. AICAD schools are not included in the common application and each one has slightly different application requirements, demanding additional time and a significant amount of preparation. Most students’ high schools are already under-resourced (particularly Title I schools). Even when high school advisors are available, they tend  not to be familiar with this challenging portfolio application process and are therefore unable to provide substantial (or even accurate) guidance for students wishing to apply. This feedback prompted a redoubling of the effort to focus on the steps necessary to complete the application process, ensuring that the content and structure of the badges would be instructional for students and their mentors/advisors.

Organizational Impact

The partnerships Cooper Hewitt has developed with AICAD schools and other Hive organizations through the badge development process has been one of the greatest impacts of the project. The relationships created an open and ongoing dialogue centered on youth needs and strategies to foster their success. Utilizing digital badges in this way has transformed the badge development process from a siloed endeavor to a bridge-building tool that enables Cooper Hewitt to endorse and support the students in a more meaningful way.

Target Audience

High school students participating in youth programing across the Hive network who are interested in applying to undergraduate art and design programs. AICAD and Hive organizations are secondary audiences in the process of structuring badges to suit their needs and program/admissions models.

Challenge and Resolution

As part of the Smithsonian Institution, Cooper Hewitt must move through multiple levels of approval before undertaking a web development project of this nature. The plan to build a working digital prototype for students to utilize and provide feedback on had to be postponed in order to obtain the necessary approvals for the project as a whole to move forward. This is currently in progress and work is set to begin March 2015.

Participant Feedback

Student participants noted the ability of badges to represent their specific personal skills and abilities, painting a more representative picture of an individual’s work.

Cooper Hewitt digital badges represent an exciting opportunity and we have been thinking along the same lines for some time. – AICAD School provost

A portfolio is important to distinguish and identify a person through their work from that of their peers, or fellow competing applicants. With this, it is important to promote individuality as much as possible, all the while corresponding with the goals of the school and reviewer. As such I feel that it’s important to display my own goals, interests, and character in my portfolio through the form of storytelling.– DesignPrep Student badge submission

I want my portfolio to demonstrate my painting skills. More specifically how I blend colors and my brush work. I also want to show my attention to detail in my pencil work. – DesignPrep Student badge submission


Hundred of teenagers attend the NYC Teen Design event with Tim Gunn

Lead Organization:
Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Partner Organizations:
Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design

Project Goal:
Create a replicable prototype for digital badges that can be used by Hive organizations to enhance student applications to art and design schools.

Project Tags:
Arts, Design, Youth Development & Leadership

Project Portfolio