The Badges of Oz

ybrAlmost 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 by Mitch Resnick at DML2012 that was critical of the focus on badges. This year Resnick was back, as part of a panel, and the designated “chief worrier.” Then, as now, I find nothing to disagree with in his skepticism.

To provide what is perhaps too brief a gloss on Mitch Resnick’s critique, he is concerned that the badges come to replace the authentic learning experiences. He illustrated this by relaying a story about hiking the Appalachian trail, and having people talk about “peaking”–hitting as many peaks as possible in a given day. This misses the reason for doing the hike in the first place. He worries–as Alfie Kohn did about gold stars–that badges will be used to motivate students. He showed a short conversation between Salmon Kahn and Bill Gates in which they joke about how badges shape kids’ motivations. I am really glad that Resnick raises (and keeps raising) these issues. When badges end up replacing learning, rather than enhancing it, we are producing an anti-learning technology. We need to not be creating a technology of motivation, but one that provides recognition, authentic assessment, and an effective alternative to traditional credentials and learning records.

Which brings us to Oz, and a charlatan wizard from Kansas. You may not remember this, but when Dorothy and her friends show up to get their hearts and minds, the wizard instead awards them with badges. To go back to the source:

“I think you are a very bad man,” said Dorothy.

“Oh, no, my dear; I’m really a very good man, but I’m a very bad Wizard, I must admit.”

“Can’t you give me brains?” asked the Scarecrow.

“You don’t need them. You are learning something every day. A baby has brains, but it doesn’t know much. Experience is the only thing that brings knowledge, and the longer you are on earth the more experience you are sure to get.”

“That may all be true,” said the Scarecrow, “but I shall be very unhappy unless you give me brains.”

The false Wizard looked at him carefully.

“Well,” he said with a sigh, “I’m not much of a magician, as I said; but if you will come to me tomorrow morning, I will stuff your head with brains. I cannot tell you how to use them, however; you must find that out for yourself.”

“Oh, thank you–thank you!” cried the Scarecrow. “I’ll find a way to use them, never fear!”

“But how about my courage?” asked the Lion anxiously.

“You have plenty of courage, I am sure,” answered Oz. “All you need is confidence in yourself. There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger. The True courage is in facing danger when you are afraid, and that kind of courage you have in plenty.”

“Perhaps I have, but I’m scared just the same,” said the Lion. “I shall really be very unhappy unless you give me the sort of courage that makes one forget he is afraid.”

“Very well, I will give you that sort of courage tomorrow,” replied Oz.

“How about my heart?” asked the Tin Woodman.

“Why, as for that,” answered Oz, “I think you are wrong to want a heart. It makes most people unhappy. If you only knew it, you are in luck not to have a heart.”

“That must be a matter of opinion,” said the Tin Woodman. “For my part, I will bear all the unhappiness without a murmur, if you will give me the heart.”

“Very well,” answered Oz meekly. “Come to me tomorrow and you shall have a heart. I have played Wizard for so many years that I may as well continue the part a little longer.”

In the end, he gives them tokens in the book which the three companions take to be real. But in the movie, these mere tokens are replaced by their modern equivalents: the diploma, a testimonial, and a purple heart.

Now, as someone who sees badges as useful and helpful, it may seem odd to raise this as an example. After all, the Wizard keeps his eyes wide open about the value of things like military badges or diplomas. He has no illusions about the ways in which these things are abused in the strange world of “Kansas.” And, as I said, he is a faker.

On the other hand, the Wizard’s actions are about recognizing the achievements of the three. The viewer, of course, knows that the three already have demonstrated their desired abilities, through their journey along the YBR, and their experience meeting with a significant challenge. They have already achieved more than they themselves knew. Badges represent recognition, and as those in the badge community who like the game mechanics metaphor (I don’t) say “leveling up.” In this case, the badges are being used not just to let the world know about the protagonists’ achievements and experience, but also to open their eyes to their own accomplishments–to mark that learning as important.

There will continue to be a tension between motivation–stepping up to meet others’ achievement–and recognizing the achievements of learners. It’s an important tension, and I think there needs to be a significant amount of focus on how we can effectively walk that line. How can we avoid the worst kinds of badging?

I don’t have a good answer to that, but I have two suggestions:

First, the evidence behind the badge should not–cannot–be ignored. Right now the “evidence link” is optional for the OBI. I am happy it is there at all, but I wish that it were required. Of course, it’s wide open–that “evidence” could just be a score on a quiz. But there is the potential for backing badges with authentic assessment. I would love for badges to essentially be pointers to portfolios.

Second, I think it’s vital that learners be involved in the creation of badges. People often drag out the apocryphal quote from Napoleon about soldiers giving their lives for bits of ribbon. There is a significant danger that the future of badges will be dictated by the state (at whatever level) or standardized curricula. I think it is important to keep badging weird. One of the best ways to do that, and to undermine the colonization of badging by commercial interests and authoritative educational institutions is to makes sure the tools to create and issue badges are widely available and dead simple to use.

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One Comment

  1. Trudi Shine
    Posted 5/9/2013 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    Totally agree Alex. Thanks for articulating this so well. The Oz analogy gets to the heart of it.

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