Badges: The Skeptical Evangelist

I have been meaning to find a moment to write about learning badges for some time. I wanted to respond to the last run of criticisms of learning badges, and the most I managed was a brief comment on Alex Reid’s post. Now, with the announcement of the winners of this year’s DML Competition, there comes another set of criticisms of the idea of badges in learning. This isn’t an attempt to defend badges–I don’t think such a defence is necessary. It is instead an attempt to understand why they are worthy of such easy dismissal by many people.

Good? Bad?

My advisor one day related the story of a local news crew that came to interview him in his office. This would have been in the mid-1990s. The first question the reporter asked him was: “The Internet: Good? Or Bad?”

Technologies have politics, but the obvious answer to that obvious question is “Yes.” Just as when people ask about computers and learning, the answer is that technology can be a force for oppressive, ordered, adaptive multiple-choice “Computer Aided Teaching,” or it can be used to provide a platform for autonomous, participatory, authentic interaction. If there is a tendency, it is one that is largely reflective of existing structures of power. But that doesn’t mean you throw the baby out with the bathwater. On the whole, I think computers provide more opportunities for learning than threats to it, but I’ll be the first to admit that outcome was neither predestined nor obvious. It still isn’t.

Are there dangers inherent to the very idea of badges? I think there are. I’ve written a bit about them in a recent article on the genealogy of badges. But just as I can find Herb Schiller’s work on the role of computer technology in cultural hegemony compelling, but still entertain its emancipatory possibilities, I can acknowledge that badges have a long and unfortunate past, and still recognize in them a potential tool for disrupting the currently dominant patterns of assessment in institutionalized settings, and building bridges between informal and formal learning environments.

Ultimately, what is so confusing to me is that I agree wholeheartedly with many of the critics of badges, and reach different conclusions. To look at how some badges have been used in the past and not be concerned about the ways they might be applied in the future would require a healthy amount of selective perception. I have no doubt that badges, badly applied, are dangerous. But so are table saws and genetic engineering. The question is whether they can also be used to positive ends.

Over the last year, I’ve used badges to such positive ends. My own experience suggests that they can be an effective way of improving and structuring peer learning communities and forms of authentic assessment. I know others have had similar successes. So, I will wholeheartedly agree with many of the critics: badges can be poorly employed. Indeed, I suspect they will be poorly employed. But the same can be said of just about any technology. The real question is if there is also some promise that they could represent an effective tool for opening up learning, and providing the leverage needed to create new forms of assessment.

Gold Stars

One of the main critiques of badges suggests that they represent extrinsic forms of motivation to the natural exclusion of intrinsic motivation. Mitch Resnick makes the case here:

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.

I worry about the same thing. I will note in passing that at worst, he is describing a situation that does no harm: replacing a scalar (A-F letter grades) with a system of extrinsic motivation that is more multidimensional. But the problem remains: if badges are being used chiefly as a way of motivating students, this is probably not going to end well.

And I will note that many educators I’ve met are excited about badges precisely because they see them as ways of motivating students. I think that if you had to limit the influences of using badges to three areas, they would be motivation, assessment, and credentialing. The first of these if often seen as the most important, and not just by the “bad” badgers, but by many who are actively a part of the community promoting learning badges.

(As an aside, I think there are important applications of badges beyond these “big three.” I think they can be used, for example, as a way for a community to collaboratively structure and restructure their view of how different forms of local knowledge are related and I think they can provide a neophyte a map of this knowledge, and an expert a way of tracing their learning autobiography over time. I suspect there are other implications as well.)

Perhaps my biggest frustration is the ways in which badges are automatically tied to gamification. I think there are ways that games can be used for learning, and I know that a lot of the discussion around badges comes from their use in computer games, but for a number of reasons I think the tie is unfortunate; not least, badges in games are often seen primarily as a way of motivating players to do something they would otherwise not do.

Badges and Assessment

The other way in which I worry about computer gaming badges as a model is the way they are awarded. I think that both learning informatics and “stealth assessment,” have their place, but if misapplied they can be very dangerous. My own application of badges puts formative assessment by actual humans (especially peers) at the core. Over time I have come to believe that the essential skill of the expert is an ability to assess. If someone can effectively determine whether something is “good”–a good fit, a good solution, aesthetically pleasing, interesting, etc.–she can then apply that to her own work. Only through this critical view can learning take place.

For me, badges provide a framework for engaging effectively in assessment within a learning community. This seems also to be true for Barry Joseph, who suggests some good and bad examples of badge use here. Can this kind of re-imagination of assessment happen outside of a “badge” construct? Certainly. But badges provide a way of structuring assessment that provides scaffolding without significant constraints. This is particularly true when the community is involved in the continual creation and revision of the badges and what they represent.

Boundary Objects

Badges provide the opportunity to represent knowledge and power within a learning community. Any such representation comes with a dash of danger. The physical structuring of communities: who gets to talk to whom and when, where people sit and stand, gaze–all these things are dangerous. But providing markers of knowledge is not inherently a bad thing, and particularly as learning communities move online and lose some of the social and cultural context, finding those who know something can be difficult.

This becomes even more difficult as people move from one learning community to another. Georg Simmel described the intersection of such social circles as the quintessential property of modern society. You choose your circles, and you have markers of standing that might travel with you to a certain degree. We know what these are: and the college degree is one of the most significant.

I went to graduate school with students who finished their undergraduate degrees at Evergreen State College, and have been on admissions committees that considered Evergreen transcripts in making admissions decisions. Evergreen provides narrative assessments of student work, and while I wholeheartedly stand by the practice–as a great divergence if not a model–it makes understanding a learning experience difficult for those outside the community. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a table of contents? A visual guide though a learning portfolio and narrative evaluation? A way of representing abilities and learning to those unfamiliar with the community in which occurred?

I came to badges because I was interested in alternative ways of indicating learning. I think that open resources and communities of learning are vitally important, but I know that universities will cling to the diploma as a source of tuition dollars and social capital. Badges represent one way of nibbling at the commodity of the college diploma.

Badges, if done badly, just become another commodity: a replacement of authentic learning with an powerful image. To me, badges when done well are nothing more than a pointer. In an era when storing and transmitting vast amounts of content is simple, there is no technical need for badges as a replacement. But as a way of structuring and organizing a personal narrative, and relating knowledge learned in one place to the ideas found in another, badges represent a bridge and a pointer.

This is one reason I strongly endorsed the inclusion of an “evidence” url in the Mozilla Open Badge Infrastructure schema. Of course, the OBI is not the only way of representing badges, nor does it intend to represent only learning badges–there is a danger here of confusing the medium and the message. Nonetheless, it does make for an easier exchange and presentation of badges, and importantly, a way of quickly finding the work that under-girds a personal learning history.

All the Cool Kids Are Doing It

Henry Jenkins provides one of the most compelling cases against badges I’ve seen, though it’s less a case against badges and more a case against the potential of a badgecopalypse, in which a single sort of badging system becomes ubiquitous and totalizing. Even if such a badge system followed more of the “good” patterns on Barry Joseph’s list than the “bad,” it would nonetheless create a space in which participation was largely expected and required.

Some of this comes of the groups that came together around the badge competition. If it were, like several years ago, something that a few people were experimenting with on the periphery, I suspect we would see little conversation. But when foundations and technologists, the Department of Education and NASA, all get behind a new way of doing something, I think it is appropriate to be concerned that it might obliterate other interesting approaches. I share Jenkins’ worry that interesting approaches might easily be cast aside by the DML Competition (though I will readily concede that may be because I was a loser“unfunded winner” in the competition) and hope that the projects that move forward do so with open, experimental eyes, allowing their various communities to help iteratively guide the application of badges to their own ends. I worry that by winnowing 500 applications to 30, we may have already begun to centralize what “counts” in approaches to badges. But perhaps the skeptical posts I’ve linked to here provide evidence of the contrary: that the competition has encouraged a healthy public dialog around alternative assessment, and badges represent a kind of “conversation piece.”

Ultimately, it is important that critical voices of approaches to badges remain at the core of the discussion. My greatest concern is that the perception that there are badge evangelists and skeptics is in fact true. I certainly think of myself as both, and I hope that others feel the same way.

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  1. Posted 3/6/2012 at 1:53 am | Permalink

    New post on the blog: Badges: The Skeptical Evangelist

  2. Posted 3/6/2012 at 6:33 am | Permalink

    @halavais is teh [sic] Skeptical Evangelist of Badges Do badges in learning need an apologist?

  3. Posted 3/6/2012 at 6:33 am | Permalink

    @halavais is teh [sic] Skeptical Evangelist of Badges Do badges in learning need an apologist?

  4. Posted 3/6/2012 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    Mr. @halavais has a fascinating take on badges, badgers, and learning environments:

  5. Posted 3/6/2012 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    Excellent discussion of pros & cons. RT @dmlcentral: Badges: The Skeptical Evangelist

  6. Posted 3/8/2012 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    Alex, Thank you for this excellent analysis and overview of the most dominant frameworks, as well as your well-placed use of the strike-through.

3 Trackbacks

  1. […] Halavais, Alex. (2012, March 6). “Badges: The Skeptical Evangelist”. A Thamturgical Compendium. Retrieved from:  […]

  2. […] a year ago I wrote a post about being a “skeptical evangelist” when it comes to the uses of badges in learning. This was spurred, in large part, by a workshop run […]

  3. […] Quinnipiac University – Alexander Halavais (now at Arizona State University) created digital badges for a master’s level Sociology course. According to this EdWeek article, students grades were simply based on how many badges they earned. He has gone on to publish a wonderful piece on the “genealogy” of badges as well as a thoughtful critique titled “The Skeptical Evangelist.” […]

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