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: