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William R. Watson, Ph.D.

When Dr. Watson first started teaching in higher education, he noticed he had two distinct groups of computer technology students: one was recent high school graduates and the other was working adults looking to further their careers. It was eye opening for him to see the contrast between the “learned helplessness” and passiveness of the younger group and the critical thinking and engagement of the working group. This drove Dr. Watson to start researching why the K-12 system was producing students who weren’t engaged in their own learning. “When kids first go to school, they are excited; they are naturally curious; and they want to learn,” says Dr. Watson. “But by the time they graduate, for some reason our K-12 system strips that away from them.” As a gamer, he felt educational video games would be one way to make learning more engaging, but he realized additional barriers made it difficult to implement technology and help students succeed.

Dr. Watson said one of the main barriers was that the education system focuses on comparing students to each other rather than individual progress. The system treats learners as if they are all the same, largely giving them the same amount of time to learn content regardless of differences in individual skill or knowledge. The students who can’t adapt end up falling behind or dropping out.

Dr. Watson and his colleagues published a vision of a new paradigm learning management system, called Personalized Integrated Educational System, or PIES. This initiated a collaboration with Purdue learning technologists resulting in the well-known Passport initiative at Purdue, an assessment system that uses digital badges to demonstrate user’s competencies and achievements.

Since Passport was launched in fall 2012, it has been licensed by 5 external institutions, utilized by nearly 15,000 individual users and awarded nearly 33,000 digital badges. The Learning Design & Technology program is adopting it for its online master’s program. This program, along with Purdue Polytechnic Institute’s transdisciplinary degree program, is using Passport to connect student learning to professional and academic competencies, and implementing digital badges as part of student e-portfolios. In addition, outside of academic coursework, groups on campus are using Passport for tasks such as professional development and assessing extracurricular learning in areas such as multicultural learning.

“Badges allow us to de-bundle our educational approach, so rather than the semester, time-driven approach to coursework, we can take a more modularized approach,” says Dr. Watson. “I envision more micro-courses in the future that customize education, and the badges offer a way to do that.” 

The badges also give students a leg up in an increasingly competitive workforce. Typically, when an employer looks at a transcript, all they can see are grades and courses — it does not speak to that student’s skills. Badges show an employer a student’s expertise and specific capabilities that may set the student apart from others.

Dr. Watson believes technology can be transformative, but we don’t always use it in a transformative way. To really create change, Dr. Watson says it’s critical to take a systems view of education, so he participates in organizations that make this their mission. For instance, he has been involved in the Association for Education Communications and Technology’s Division of Systems Thinking and Change for many years, previously serving as president. He also is the co-convener for the Systems Thinking special interest group of the American Educational Research Association, which holds the largest educational research conference in the nation. He says, “I’m passionate about working in these positions because it allows me to collaborate with people who understand these are complex problems and we need a whole new way of trying to approach education that makes it more customizable.”