My daughter is enamored with a certain line of plastic minature dolls these days. I won’t mention the name but suffice to say it comes in a bright plastic ball with three layers (for real!) of shiny plastic wrap all carefully placed by robotic arms to protect a small, colorful plastic toy inside. I watch her open them, balanced between the happiness of her big smile and the sinking feeling that I’m now personally responsible for one more thin colorful plastic layer in the dump.

It’s a strange connection, but I’m starting to have a similar feeling towards the certificates and badges traditionally awarded for participating in e-Learning courses. Colorful. Nice to look at. But in reality, just digital litter filling up a desktop folder here, an iCloud drive there.

Ideal students take courses to learn, so they can do. In the best situations, a badge or certificate is a proxy, a signifier pointing to the can-do power attained through some hard work (which in our day is mostly conducted in the arena of attention taming more than the gymnasium of domain knowledge). The modern student says “I want to do, and I’m learning how to do. Don’t believe me? Check out this pdf proof that I’ve been learning.” Yes, there are the certificate-seekers, clicking madly through any kind of required assessment, typing enough reasonbly-coherent text in open assessments, to finally reach a ‘pass’ and get a new certificate. But for the most part they’re outliers. In my experience students really want to learn.

It’s time, however, to rethink the promises made to those students. The promises for their effort. Why do we have these digitial proxy-goals? These pdf symbols of their participation with nice ribbon images and their names rendered in badly spaced letters?

I say, make certificates and badges incidental, minimal, almost annoying. Hide them in the user’s profile. Ok, there if you want them, but c’mon really, who cares? In a new world of ROOCCCs – Reasonably-sized, Open, Online, Collaborative Communities of Creators – every course has a work product that students create for themselves, with the help of their peers. Every course promises to guide and cajole a student towards this product, while organizing the collaboration that will be so helpful and useful in that creation.

In every course, the end-product is the goal. Don’t make it a course if you can’t think of a work product. Finishing the end-product is a pass. The end-product is the student’s reward. It still signifies the can-do power achieved by the student, but it is much greater than a pointer towards new skill and knowldge. It has value in itself because it is a newly created tool and it has usefulness to that student the day after the course ends.

The team at iBiology Courses has already started moving in this direction. Both of their featured courses have an end-product offered as the main reason for participating. One course helps students create a research plan, meant to be useful far beyond the end of the course. The other offers a similar plan for conducting experiments. In each course certificates are offered. But they’re not the main purpose. The purpose is to create something useful, for yourself, together with peers who have similar aspirations and are willing to help each other learn. As a team we’re discussion how to make these work products more collaborative, and more useful the day after the course ends.

Forget MOOCs, man. ROOCCCs for the win.

(A first post after being inspired by two crappy pages a day, which translates here as two crappy blog posts a week.)