Summer program encourages learning with novel 'digital badges'

With the goal to extend the learning process for students during the summer, the Los Angeles Summer of Learning is a citywide effort featuring hands-on opportunities in science, technology, engineering, arts and math.

What’s more, students can earn “digital badges” which serve as indicators of their accomplishment, skill or interest — an ultra-modern take on the merit badge. 

The program operates under the umbrella of Beyond the Bell, a division of the Los Angeles Unified School District that ensures students have access to high quality academic, enrichment and recreational programs that inspire learning and achievement beyond the regular school day.

“We don’t want students to fall behind, so we are extending the learning process during the summer as well,” said Alvaro Cortes, executive director of Beyond the Bell.

Participation is free of charge in the Summer of Learning, a program in which students are involved in academic, recreation and enrichment activities.

Launched last summer with support from the City of Los Angeles, the Chamber of Commerce and Mayor Eric Garcetti, the program focuses on several high-risk areas including South Los Angeles, Boyle Heights, Pacoima and the East San Fernando Valley.

Summer of Learning treats the whole city like a campus, Cortes said. “The effort brings together a unique coalition of the city and school district, county agencies, community based organizations, philanthropies, public and private companies and the mayor’s office, to offer students enhanced opportunities for summer learning and better prepare them to enter the workforce.”

The curriculum is open to those aged 5 to 18 and offers options in both academic pursuits as well as work-readiness skills.

The program was made possible through public, private and non-profit partners, including JPMorgan Chase & Co., the California Endowment and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. 

Students completing classes that range from cooking to computer program coding earn badges. They’re also earnable at parks, libraries and schools, as well as museums and cultural institutions, such as the Getty Center and Aquarium of the Pacific. 

“They earn badges for very specific activities, such as a visit to the museum,” Cortes explained. “The visit becomes more of an enriching educational experience rather than just time spent at the museum because they gain recognition for what they learned.”

Of the over 55,000 students enrolled in the Summer of Learning last year, more than half earned badges. While the badges only exist digitally, they can be used to represent achievement tiers and also appear as positive points on students’ school records.

Cortes said the badges serve as a motivator to participate in not only the summer programs, but also activities outside the school day.

For instance, students in marching bands practice daily, and students in the academic decathlon spend endless hours studying outside of school.

“We’re hoping to recognize them,” Cortes said. “Students should receive recognition for these things because they put in a huge number of hours.”

The district is working with other community-based organizations along with the city to ensure program remains true to its standards, Cortes said. Students are responding, using the merits to further their scholastic endeavors.

“When students earn a badge, it’s based on quality involvement,” he said. “There are colleges that are accepting digital badges along with college applications, giving students the opportunity to impress colleges and universities.”

Alicia Doyle, Brand Publishing Writer

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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