Thoughts on Badges for Learning

This morning I was actively engaged in the backchannel for the Digital Media and Learning competition announcement. This year’s competition focuses on Badges for Learning, which seems inspired in part by Mozilla’s Open Badge initiatives and P2PU.  I fully admit to spending most of my time on the backchannel really trying to understand where the faith in badges as tool for fixing issues with education comes from. Is it based on anecdotal evidence from places like P2PU and Khan Academy? From gaming influences? Specifically, I wondered about the empirical evidence or theoretical basis for this interest: had someone done this well on a small scale? Is this rooted in research on performance assessment or motivation?

There is a lot to unpack in these questions, so for today I think I will focus on trying to best summarize both what the advocates say and what some of the critiques/skepticism around badges are.

Why badges?

  1. In different contexts, badges can be evidence of various competencies. There was a lot of specific discussion of examples of this. The basic process is that I learn something, show that I’ve learned it, and then am awarded a badge. The process of how I was taught and what I did to prove I have the skill/knowledge is entirely open.  This is in contrast to grades in which an A in English may or may not tell you much about my writing ability, for example.
  2. Related to point 1, badge systems would have to also be standardized in some way in order to assist in hiring decisions.  Badges would also assist potential employers because (and I’m paraphrasing) “Google would be your new resume.”
  3. Additionally, NASA discussed that earning various badges could be tied to other competition, i.e. being entered into some fabulous space contest.
  4. Additionally, it was repeatedly stated that what we were doing currently is not working. So why not spend time and money finding something that anecdotal evidence suggests holds a lot of promise? After all, lots of folks play video games, check-in on foursquare, and even learn calculus in order to earn badges.

Why are people worried about badges for learning?

There were a number of very valid concerns mentioned in the discussion. Here are a few:

  1. Open badge systems run the risk of watering down the meaning of badges. It seems that it would be quite difficult to ensure the “pedigree” of a badge, i.e. how to make sure they are not only not counterfeited, but that my PHP badges are from quality issuers and that I  have actually demonstrated the competencies associated with the badges.
  2. There is a lot of concern that this is just our current assessment/grade system dressed up in a novel way. Novelty wears off and assessment is fraught.  Neither do a very good job of encouraging learning.

Next my own concerns about badges for learning:

  • I don’t feel as if I understand the theoretical basis for the research questions around badges for learning. Some of the anecdotes used to demonstrate the value of badges seemed more like performance assessments, while others seemed like typical mutiple-choice tests where a badge is delivered at the end rather than a score. Additionally, examples were given that directly positioned badges as a motivating device, which is hugely problematic (see this).  I do agree that more research needs to be done on the ways that motivation and learning is impacted by the types and/or presence of assessments we give.

I have a lot more thinking and reading to do before I feel like I can have a real opinion. I’ve also dedicated my current semester project for one of my courses (Motivation in Learning, see the twitter hashtag #cep910) to potential theoretical lenses by which we might better understand how badges function in some of the learning environments that already employ them.

Please let me know in the comments if I’ve misunderstood the arguments on either side, other resources you know of, or your own thoughts on this issue.

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7 thoughts on “Thoughts on Badges for Learning

  1. You raise some good questions. One that occurs to me as I read this is who the badges are meant to serve. Is this meant to be a way to make it easier for (potential) employers to screen candidates for positions? And if so, how does that relate to that thorny motivational question.

    I suspect one of the underlying issues is what you think learning is for, what education is for, and what “credentials” (of any kind) are for.

    • I think that in the case of this competition, from what I understand, is that some folks are thinking of badges in terms of credentialing (Mozilla’s argument seems to me to be about credentialing), while others may be thinking of badges differently.

      I love your point about what we think education and credentials are for: the badges issue seems so tangled up in all of these other issues that are in and of themselves complicated and unclear. Part of the competition is to imagine how badges might be used in the face of this and I suspect that the funded projects will have a particular bent; be it turning educational activities into more of a game play environment to high-tech sticker systems to addressing the credentialing/hiring situations. Like anything with education, very little is clearly bad or good, but it is in the implementation that we see the positive or negative outcomes. Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful comments!

  2. I appreciate the thoughtfulness of your response. I’d like to offer a small correction: When one of the speakers said that “Google is your resume” he was not speaking of this in a positive light. This was underlined by the next speaker who said “I’d rather have an employer look at badges than a Facebook page.” The point was that Google (and Facebook, etc.) is currently functioning as a person’s bio, and this is a problem since we have no control over what is shown there and readers cannot verify its accuracy.

    The two concerns you state (not your own) which are roughly “how can I trust these badge issuers” and “isn’t this just dressed-up grades” are two sides of the same coin. Because this comes from Mozilla, it has an inherently open and peer-to-peer approach, which does mean that different badge issuers might have different standards (although this might not be the case for the DML Competition badges) but that is exactly the point. I might not care if your high school thinks you can write good code, but I do care if my favorite geek community does. Different badges and badge issuers will be right for different situations, and different credentials will be accepted (or ignored) as is appropriate. So if I’m an employer, I could advertise which credentialing authorities I look at in hiring, for example.

    The research part is what I know least about, but there are several aspects of the competition that invite scholarly work on the subject, so hopefully this will be a good opportunity to explore the ideas more rigorously.

    • Thank you, Ruth, for that correction. I find a little amusing that I thought that the Google mention was a good thing, which shows you that I don’t have too many racy facebook photos out there to worry about. I recognize that can’t be said for everyone, especially our young people. The accuracy issue is also a huge problem for potential employers.

      I share your hope that there will be some good, theory-based, empirical evidence to support the assertions that badges will improve and/or positively impact. student learning. I really appreciate that you took the time to both read the post and offer your thoughts on it. Thanks!

  3. Nice post. I really enjoyed the twitter discussion today, although it took a turn for the nasty there for awhile. I don’t think anyone is saying badges are a silver bullet or that we should get rid of all assessment and grades and replace with badges, but that we need to keep exploring new ideas and finding new ways to showcase what people know. This is already happening as high schools and community colleges increasingly offer industry credentialing and other certificates.
    I was surprised to see the number of ed tech type voices expressing negative concern and am not sure what they are so concerned about…I hope they choose to continue to participate in the discussion in a meaningful way.

    • Thanks for the comments, Terri. I didn’t notice the nasty comments, but it could be because I was watching the announcement and had a few different back channels going. What I saw were a number of people questioning the accuracy of the statements that were being made by the presenters, some of which were linking badges with all sorts of positive outcomes, links that I don’t think are supported yet. I am not surprised that ed tech folks were the most outspoken: where there is money, there are snake oil salespersons and the ed tech world has suffered for that. There have been many a reform movement in education that have promised to revolutionize learning, yet by almost every measure we are not doing the best we can for our students in this country. I think what we were seeing with the criticism was a bit of a “prove it” mentality, and rightly so. A good idea will cause debate, and free thinkers can make a lot of change happen.

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