Can Digital Badges Motivate Learners? A Framer Looks At Badges

Can “Digital Badges” motivate learners to acquire necessary skills beyond the classroom? 

This is the question posed during the “Badges for Lifelong Learning” convening at the 4th annual Digital Media and Learning Competition.  I went into the meeting not knowing much about digital badges and came out intrigued about an emerging and increasingly important feature of the online ecology.

So what is a badge?  A badge is “a validated indicator of accomplishment, skill, quality, or interest that can be earned” in any learning environment – inside and outside of the classroom and across multiple learning locations and mediums.

Think Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts here — the idea of earning merit badges and the like as visual indicators of having learned a particular skill or successfully gone through a particular process.  Rather than pinned on shirts or blouses, however, these badges would live largely in the digital domain, on the Internet, and students (and adults) would have a location where they could display their various badges of achievement, skill acquisition, and learning.

The badges competition is being launched in concert with Mozilla, who is building the online open architecture to host the badges system and the badge ecosystem that will eventually emerge. The badges competition will play out over three stages, first for content, then design, and finally for a matchmaking of both content and design winners.  Final winners will be announced in January 2012. A separate research competition  is also being sponsored to generate research about how people understand and experience learning in non-traditional settings, like on-line communities and networks.

The effort to build a coherent badges system is an effort to harness and formalize a  trend that is already emergent on the Internet, as there are already a range of online locations that use badge systems, including in game spaces like World of Warcraft and social networking/consumer sights like Foursquare, as well as learning and community institutions like Khan Academy, 4-H and the American Museum of Natural History.

More broadly, a variety of means of demonstrating, validating, and assessing a person’s accomplishments are already becoming part of the ecology of the web, but (1) they are mostly distributed across a range of different websites, and (2) much of that distribution is outside of any given person’s control. The idea here is to create a badge infrastructure and system in which a student/person can consolidate and display their accomplishments in one place (what Mozilla calls a “badges backpack”).  It’s described as a way for a person to tell a story about themselves in a visual, and more powerful, way than a traditional resume or CV could ever do.

A Mozilla visual for how the badge system will work.

In light of our own research at FrameWorks on digital media and learning, I came away from the gathering thinking about a whole range of issues and questions.  Here are a few:

  • What are the associations that members of the public have with badges — both the traditional kind (scouting, military, etc.) and virtual?  How are they thought of relative to other forms of validation, reward, and assessment? Are they associated with certain kinds of learning and skills acquisition, but not others?  How and why so, and what would it take to broaden the applicability of badges?
  • The badges idea brings together ideas of assessment, validation, and incentive in interesting ways — ways that might very well resonate with members of the public.  Unlike grades, the focal idea of a badge is on the reward/validation side of things, rather than the assessment side, even though assessment is built into the process of earning a badge.  It kind of flips the whole process on its head — not exactly “flipping the classroom” (a la Khan Academy) but more like “flipping the agency” from the student’s perspective, from something that is top-down (“you are being assessed by someone above you”) to something is more emergent (“you are working to accomplish something of value”). This resonates with the turn towards “interest-driven” learning by experts and the public’s call for alternative forms of assessment.
  • It’s interesting to note that badges are a non-numerical and non-alphabetical way to display accomplishments and skills acquisition, and that clearly seems to be part of their appeal. They speak inherently to something gained (proficiency or mastery of a skill) rather than (as grades so often do) a deficit in learning relative to an idealized goal (A+ or 100%).  Badges can be earned in varying degrees of emergence, as skills improve – so theirs is a positive, cumulative effect.
  • Clearly one of the appeals of badges is that the learning of the skill in question can happen anywhere — at home and/or distributed across a range of learning institutions and locations.  Whether it’s a school rewarding badges, or an employer, or scout troop, or 4H, or town hall — and whatever the locational distribution of the learning — once a skill level has been reached and can be demonstrated, a badge can be earned.  In terms of opening up the classroom and breaking down the compartmentalization between “in-school” and “out-of-school learning,” that is clearly an important entailment. In this vein, the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, used an interesting term during his speech — talking about “lifelong and life-wide” learning — an interesting effort to open up the language of space as a way to talk about this new vision of open learning.  It would be interesting to explore some of the metaphorical entailments that could accompany that effort – or even what a member of the public would do with that term.
  • Previous FrameWorks research on education reform, executive function (in young children), and digital media and learning has revealed the preponderance of the journey metaphor as a way describe learning and skill acquisition (and assessment) processes [e.g. “That child hasn’t come as far as they should have by now, at age 6…”]  It’s interesting to think about how a push for a “badge ecosystem” will intersect with that dominant metaphor and the language of linearity in general. Currently, one of our concerns about the prevalence of the journey metaphor is that it’s conducive to being invoked in parallel with the model of the “self-making” individual – in which the individual child is attributed with primary or sole responsibility for their learning and skill acquisition.  Yet, it’s also possible that the metaphor could be used to focus attention on the people, places, supports, obstacles, and other features of an ecology that children encounter on their journeys – in other words, to cultivate an ecological/ecosystem view of things: e.g. “What can be done to build better roads and paths for children to travel on in their learning journeys?” Ideally, this kind of ecological sensitivity could be configured in a way that is consistent with an expert focus on personalized learning, on individualized learning trajectories for students, and on the idea that each child should be given a way to focus their learning in areas that interest them and where they can experience the rewards of learning. From a communications perspective, this is clearly one of the trickiest areas for us to take on — how to engage the expert hope for a more personalized system while not cultivating more “self-making” thinking on the part of the public.
  • This latter point raises a question: To what extent will this badge ecosystem be a place for groups — classrooms, learning groups, collaborative groups, etc. — as well as individuals to earn badges? Or will the focus be on building a system primarily for individuals?
  • The translatability of skills across sectors was a big theme, and the idea that badges could provide an indication of a skill-set that, while perhaps earned in one sector (as a student, or during military service) could translate well into other sectors (such as the professional world). One of the arguments made in favor of badges in scholastic settings was that – if the system were set up well – it could bring substantial buy-in from parents because they could potentially see a more direct link between badges and what they could mean for their children — that the value of badges might be more apparent than that of grades precisely because they would be skill-specific.  Issues of quality and trust are of course embedded here.
  • A badge ecosystem would clearly be a system of rewards, an incentive based system. In fact, a single value dominated the entire conversation at the meeting — competition — both in terms of needing to reform the American educational system to make it more competitive globally, but also the idea that the professional and occupational marketplace is competitive, and so people can benefit from a new way to market themselves.  In short, individual-scale and national-scale competitiveness are central to how the badges system is being both visualized and argued for.  That said, in thinking about how the system will shake up traditional notions of achievement, assessment, validation, and self-presentation, I wonder what other values could be used to productively frame the badges idea and ecosystem. Is competition necessarily the best or first way to frame the badges initiative?  What other values might play a role here?
  • On this latter point, many promoters of the badges idea see it as a means to provide children and adults with a powerful way to promote their reputations, and in a much more diversified way than is currently the case — to tell their life and learning story, as the Mozilla ED put it.  The vision is to build a fairly complex badge ecosystem, where all kinds of skills — traditional and untraditional, “hard” and “soft,” — can be validated, thereby opening up a space for kids and adults to promote themselves and their unique portfolio of skills and strengths. As someone Tweeted (critically) during the meeting, “…badges as the coinage of a reputation economy…”   A response to that was indirectly given by the Mozilla ED, who described the badge system as clearly about reputation, and argued that the system needs to stay open, complex, but structured (predictable), so that learners/students can be “in the driver’s seat”.  In this view, badges provide a potential means of empowerment, allowing students and others to take greater control of their reputations within what is already a “reputation economy.”
  • The concern with disparities was only briefly touched upon, and the default assumption seemed to be that in creating a more diversified and elaborated system for any given child/person to display their talents, that that would somehow serve as an equalizing force.  This is an assumption, however, that would seem to require further study.  One can imagine how a badges ecosystem might further the impacts of the participation gap by increasing the professional consequences of differential levels of digital use and literacy.

It seems we are about to witness a major push forward on the building of an online badges infrastructure — with a confluence of academic, foundation, governmental, and corporate sponsorship of the idea evident at the meeting.  I, for one, am excited to see the results of the competition, and to bear witness to the emergence of a new badges ecosystem, one that has the potential to dramatically transform the achievement, assessment, and reputation landscape of both our educational and professional systems.  At the same time, as the sponsors of this competition are themselves keenly aware, the consequences of this push are anything but self-evident and clear, and attention and effort must be directed at evaluating both the potential upsides and downsides, and winners and losers, of a new online badge ecology.

More on badges to come in future postings!


3 thoughts on “Can Digital Badges Motivate Learners? A Framer Looks At Badges

  1. Eric, great to more careful attention given to the framing issues associated with badges. One thing that I found particularly interesting about the announcement from a framing perspective was the incredible amount of chatter followed within the DML community as well as more broadly from progressive educators. You can check out a nice overview of the responses from Mozilla’s Matt Thompson, and HASTAC has been aggregating many of the responses here. Having watched the DML competition for three years prior to this one, there’s no question that this year’s announcement and theme had more chatter, and controversy, associated with this than past launches. So in thinking about these framing issues, I think we always want to ask not just how something is being framed but who is experiencing that frame.

    Given that my work with Frameworks has been focusing on what the nature of the educational reform discourse looks like not amongst the public but within the policy space, I had different assumptions in mind as I thought and wrote about the framing issues associated with badges. Would love to hear another framer’s perspective some of my initial responses:


  2. Rafi — Thanks for the links. Lots of great content there. I just left a comment over at your blog, which introduced me to a new concept and term – the Overton Window. That was a new one for me. As for badges, as I note in my piece, it’s clear that there is a lot of institutional energy behind this initiative, and that it will become a policy issue and agenda in many locations, both local and at the state and federal levels. I’m not expert here, but to the extent that the idea of a badges ecosystem potentially (shall I say “hopefully”?) sidesteps some of the thornier issues in ed reform (vouchers, charter schools, etc.), it would seem to hold promise as a way to garner broad interest and support. It’s hard to even speculate at this point though, right? as there’s so much to yet be determined about how this system will come together — how structured/open, wide/narrow, inclusive/exclusive…? Thanks for making contact. Look forward to future exchanges. Cheers.


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