Is it a class, or is it a game? A badging system for mastery in New York City high schools.

Connected Foundations logoHow can you use technology to grab a struggling student? How does access to high-speed Internet open a world of learning? What combination of pedagogy and curriculum can deliver the magic blend of fun, interest, academic content, and the many component skills that lead to academic success—especially for students who need to make up for lost time?

NYC Connected Foundations is a digital literacy program funded by the US Department of Commerce’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) and managed by the NYC Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications and the NYC Department of Education. Through Connected Foundations, we provide over-age and under-credited high school students with courses that are academically rigorous, gamified, mastery-based, and designed to be offered in a blended learning environment.

Connected Foundations originates with the NYCDOE’s Office of Postsecondary Readiness—so it may not surprise readers that we spend a lot of time discussing college and career readiness: what it means, and how to give students the necessary experiences, skills, and orientations for postsecondary planning and success.

NYC DOE Connected Foundations

Photo courtesy of the NYC Department of Education

First and foremost, what is college and career readiness? It’s taking a specific and purposeful combination of rigorous courses—and passing with good grades. It’s mastering myriad skills and behaviors that are like insider secrets to academic and workplace success. It’s taking concrete steps such as visiting campuses, submitting forms, doing internships, and acing interviews. Some students’ families shepherd them through all this—yet many don’t, leaving students to fend for themselves.

The Common Core Standards, adopted by 46 states for grades P-12, are pegged to college and career readiness and mapped backward, in math and literacy, grade by grade, clear into kindergarten and even preschool. If preparing college and career ready students needs to start very early—and if you give the standards a considered look, you will surely see why the long trajectory is needed. How can we support today’s high school students to leap forward and up, over some possibly missing earlier steps in the staircase, to these higher expectations?

Connected Foundations strives to build and strengthen college and career readiness via the perfect blend: an engaging online course platform that uses social networking, gaming elements, and student-centered pedagogy in blended classrooms. Digital curriculum, web-based tools, and high-speed Internet serve as a rich context for students to learn to be good “digital citizens” capable of using the Internet to do research, communicate and collaborate with others, and produce and share their work.

DIG/IT logoIn summer 2011, we partnered with LearningTimes and other organizations to build our first course: Digital Literacies, or DIG/IT (“dig it”), a one-credit technology elective that contains four levels (or units of study): Live (digital literacy), Learn (college/career explorations), Earn (personal financial literacy), Play (culture, creativity). DIG/IT students earn badges and points in order to level up.

Students sometimes ask: Is DIG/IT a game, or is it a course? It uses gaming elements, but it’s definitely an academic course—offering tons of content and daily students deliverables, from one-paragraph analyses to multimedia presentations, depending on the quest the student happens to tackle on a given day.

DIG/IT is designed to be engaging and relevant for students, and to bridge how they already use technology in their daily lives with more formal, academic purposes. We provide all of our participating teachers with extensive professional development and classroom support to implement our model of blended, mastery-based learning.

Building on our experience, in summer 2012, we collaborated with teachers to build additional courses in core subject areas, such as a Regents-prep English class called “Conformity: An Exploration through Literature,” a science elective “Chemistry of Urban Life,” an ELA course “College Explorations,” and Social Studies courses “Government” and “Global Conflicts and Revolutions.”

Because of our student-centered approach to learning, all our course materials are both student-facing and teacher-facing, including this rubric  to help students and teachers to gauge outcomes for all quests.

All courses share a common set of Reward Badges that name and recognize skills and efforts that lead to academic success and college readiness: Flexible Thinker, Cool Keeper, Goal Setter, Problem Solver, Tech Strategist. These badges represent one way in which we work to build both content and academic skills in tandem.

In our next blog post for the Cooney Center, we will dive deeper into the badges our students earn for mastering academic content and also for demonstrating important component behaviors that lead to academic success.

Meanwhile, we would love to get your ideas. How do you use the Internet for learning in and out of your classroom? How do you recognize important competencies and motivate students to master them? How would you go about creating a compelling and rigorous learning environment for your students? Please comment below!

Resources linked (PDF files):

College and Career Readiness Benchmarks

Quest Evaluation Rubric
Connected Foundations Reward Badges


Joy NolanAs Instructional Designer for Connected Foundations from NYCDOE Office of Postsecondary Readiness, Joy Nolan works on course content, implementation, teacher supports, PD, & alignments. She’s a text complexity fanatic and a NYCDOE Senior Common Core Fellow, helping to align instructional materials to the Common Core Standards. Previously at Scholastic Education Group, she worked on Reading/ELA/Math programs focusing on Critical Thinking & College/Career Readiness for struggling students: Expert21, CCSS-aligned READ 180 NEXT GEN, MATH 180. She thinks badging is, will be, or should be the next gold rush of education.

Michael PrestonMichael Preston is the Director of Blended Learning Strategy for the NYC Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Readiness, where he directs programs to support student development of digital literacy skills and teacher use of blended learning and mastery-based approaches. Previously, he worked at the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning and taught at Teachers College, where he received a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology.

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