Pretty Sure Badges Aren’t the Answer to Our Motivation Problem

With the convening of the DML 2012 conference, the conversation on my feeds has once again turned to badges. As I’ve outlined in this space before, I am somewhat of a badge skeptic. At first it was a general uneasiness, then I started thinking about motivational theory and what it might predict about the use of badges as they’ve been operationalized in various ways by the Khan Academy, among others. As I started thinking through motivational issues, I kept bumping up to the fact that both research and theory suggested that on the whole, there is a very real risk to intrinsic motivation when badges are used in learning.

Mitchel Resnick blogged about this issue again this week, in anticipation of his DML 2012 panel entitled “Are Badges the Answer?” Resnick outlines the same issues that I discussed in my earlier posts:

The problem, for me, lies in the role of badges as motivators. In many cases, educators are proposing badge systems in order to motivate students. It’s easy to understand why educators are doing this: most students get excited and engaged by badges. But towards what end? And for how long?

I worry that students will focus on accumulating badges rather than making connections with the ideas and material associated with the badges – the same way that students too often focus on grades in a class rather than the material in the class, or the points in an educational game rather than the ideas in the game. Simply engaging students is not enough. They need to be engaged for the right reasons.


As I dug into motivational research and theory, I think that this a very real issue. Consider this post about using Khan Academy in a Grade 5 classroom in the Los Altos School District, and these observations are coming from the students themselves:

A few months ago, Khan Academy added badges to motivate younger students to learn. However, the students now have ignored the exercises and videos, only to focus on badges. There are six types of badges, the Meteorite Badge, the Moon Badge, the Earth Badge, the Sun Badge, the Black Hole Badges, and the challenge patches. The Meteorite Badges are common and pretty easy to get. The Moon badges are slightly harder to get, but still are pretty easy. Earth Badges are much harder to get. The Sun Badges are increasingly hard to get, and the Black Hole Badges are pretty much impossible to get. In our class, most of the people already have Meteorite, Moon, and Earth Badges, but only 6 have Sun Badges. Many students corrupt their learning in attempt to gain a badge. [italics added for emphasis]


Out of the mouths of babes, indeed. So what’s the answer? Do we abandon badges altogether? I am not sure that’s warranted either. I think we just need to tread carefully, especially as folks get their badge systems up and running. I am great admirer of the Stackexchange communities, which often distribute badges based on community involvement rather than on discrete, lower-level skill sets (like watching X amount of videos or getting X number of questions correct in a row). I believe that if badges are used, they should be operationalized in a way that incentivizes social learning and community involvement. Community-designed badges are one way of doing this. The structure that the badges surround seem as important to me as the badges themselves: if we are using badges in a thoughtful way in conjunction with good pedagogy, then I could see it working. Still, the attendant risks make me queasy. For those of you designing badge systems now, God speed. Consider the risks as you go. What concerns me more is the rising use of Khan Academy in K12 schools as a replacement for (or as a supplement to) face-to-face instruction. It really might be doing more harm than good.




#openbadges and Motivation

MotivationThis semester I am taking Dr. Cary Roseth’s Current Issues in Motivation and Learning course. I have also been following the Digital Media and Learning Open Badges competition.  As I’ve been reading and thinking about different motivational theories, I can’t help but wonder about the ways that those theories might explain how the Badges for Learning idea might work in practice.  So I’ve decided that I will be putting these ideas to work in my final paper for my motivation course.  My plan is to take the motivational theories we’ve been reading about and use them to make predictions about how badges for learning might impact student motivation and possibly achievement (when appropriate for the theory).  My  paper is due in about a month, but as I develop these predictions, I plan to both blog about them in this space as well as post my final paper here (don’t worry, it’s supposed to only be 10 pages).

I do want to address one issue, however, before I begin. In the initial launch of the Badges for Learning competition and even in subsequent writings, blog comments, and twitter conversations around the web, I’ve noticed that there is a real tension as folks try to imagine how to implement Badges for Learning. It seems to me that the at the core of badges is to develop an alternative assessment structure for not only open courses online, but perhaps even more traditional, face-to-face classrooms. I keep seeing the argument repeated that badges are a way to highlight the self-directed learning that is occurring all over the web. Despite these intentions, the idea of badges as a potential motivator creeps into the conversation. While this may not be the primary intention of badges, I think that the idea of badges a motivator is tangled up in the conceptions of badges.  At first this horrified me: I worried that we were moving reward stickers and gold stars online, and I wasn’t impressed with how well those worked in the face-to-face classrooms. But as I realized how ignorant I am of explanations of what and how people are motivated, I thought it was worth keeping an open mind about.

The first action-research study I ever carried out as a classroom teacher  (back in 2002) looked at motivation and standardized testing. My questions centered on whether or not students’ own personal preferences for different types of assessments might impact their achievement.  My findings were pretty inconclusive, and as I’ve dug into the relationship between motivation and assessment, I’ve found that there has been very little research in this area overall. The impact of standardized tests versus performance evaluations or other non-standardized assessment practices on student motivation is still unknown.  Seeing the stress of my own students before the ACT or hearing stories from my friends about their second graders crying under their desks during testing weeks makes me wonder about it more.  This is all to say that I’m really curious about this issue: what if a student is highly motivated in school and the negative impact of standardized testing is short-circuiting that motivation? I think that most teachers can quickly think of examples of students for whom this is true. They are motivated, they love school, and their achievement on the big test is always low. It just doesn’t reflect what they know and what they can do. For these reasons, I’m all for some sort of alternative assessment structure.

So as I develop my ideas, I welcome comments and criticisms as I go.  The plan is to post a theory and prediction about badges every few days. Wish me luck!

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.

For more on the topic: