Unpacking Badges for Lifelong Learning

Badges are complex. Nothing functions quite the way they do, and at the same time, badges function like a lot of other things. They’re versatile, which makes them interesting. And probably powerful.

In the past week since Badges for Lifelong Learning launched, people have written critical, constructive, and positive things about badges, but I haven’t come across anything that really unpacks what badges are. I’ve read that badges are like credentials, related in ways to diplomas and degrees. Grades are sort of like badges, but worse. Badges can function like currency. The word badge tends to elicit memories of Boy Scouts for guys. Badges are shorthand for skills achieved, and can convey rank and reputation. Badges can be completely silly and extremely serious. Gaming is having a good run with badges, and that bugs some people. People like to collect badges. Marketers are getting drunk on badges and should probably chill. Is there some core definition or badge-ness to explain what makes badges unique?


Being a nerd, I did a word look-up in the Oxford English Dictionary (sorry, Wikipedia), which says badges were a device to signal membership and rank within a group (1400s). But badges also signaled immaterial things like love and virtue (1500s) and knowledge (1600s). By the 1800s, one writer says degrees had “become social badges.” So badges have been around a while, doing some different things for sure, but mostly not causing a lot of trouble. When someone likes or doesn’t like badges in 2011, I’m curious what it is about them that triggers strong emotions.

If badges are like degrees, diplomas, grades, or currency — which many of us have collected and displayed and benefited from — what’s wrong with them? Why are badges worse or better? If badges are visual signs of rank, reputation, membership, and identity, and are just another way to show affiliation, why are they different than, say, titles, clothing, hair, language, accents, bumper stickers, friends, or an alma mater?

On Planet OpenBadges, Erin Knight invites people to talk through similar questions. In her helpful summary of four themes driving the badges conversation, it’s the assumptions about motivation mentioned in theme #3 and the latter part of theme #2 — that badges “will ruin our motivations for the things we love to do just because we love to do them” — that seem to deliver a punch.

Why? Because badges hinge on motivation. Most of the energy in the badges conversation seems to have roots in the different ways people think about motivation, and more specifically about motivation and learning. What motivates learners to learn? What de-motivates them?  If you work with youth or have your own, chances are you have some ideas about motivation and what works and why. If you motivate learners, what if it’s at the expense of something else? What if learners are motivated by the wrong reasons? What if we mess up what learners naturally love doing and blow it for everyone? Where’s the line between motivating a learner and manipulating them?

Motivation as a modern construct dates back to Darwin and Freud, just to underscore how colorful the conversation around desire, goal-setting, and achievement can be. In my own research, I’ve been reading about motivation (around participation in online communities), and it seems to me that diverse disciplines each have their own horse in this race. HASTAC exists for this kind of collaboration-by-difference conversation. Maybe we need a HASTAC Scholars’ forum to help talk through what we know about motivation and participation. Media studies, humanities, sociology, information science, education, social psychology, economics, who am I missing? Bring out your motivational theories. Discuss.

For me, the most interesting intersection of the Badges for Lifelong Learning conversation is where learning theories overlap with research into virtual communities, new collectives, commons-based peer production — whatever you want to call what we do online. A good deal of Internet research is about participation and motivation. If anything connects the badges community, it’s seems to be the belief that more participation is better. Collaboration is better still. Making and doing is best. Isn’t that what binds all these diverse disciplines and backgrounds engaged in this conversation? In the virtual community research I’m familiar with, it seemed to take a long time to recognize that lurking was a form of listening. We’ve finally begun to call it reading. And I’m willing to bet that the Badges for Lifelong Learning competition will get us closer to calling it learning. That makes it 15+ years to go from lurking to learning, which is slo-mo in Internet years, and super speed IRL.

We’ve only begun to get our heads around the shiny new Internet, and that goes for social participation and motivation, and in particular for learning. Human-computer interaction and social computing research and design tells us that big and small tweaks in socio-technical structure cause all kinds of interesting things to happen, changing how people participate and contribute online. Different groups, group size, kinds of individuals, individual skills, technical affordances, type of content, no policies, lots of policies, participation over time — changes in each of these areas causes changes in motivation and social participation. Can’t the same be said for motivation and learning online?

(If you do research in this area, maybe you feel flush with answers, but hello. It’s 2011 and the Digital Promise just got funded. ARPA-Ed is still in limbo. Funding for research and development of 21st century digital media and learning is a drop in the bucket compared to investments in other sectors. For now, we need to share what we already know and borrow as much research as we can from better funded areas.)

The communities of practice research links new collectives like Wikipedia with learning and identity, and authenticity is thought to affect people’s motivation to learn and participate and reach goals. Authenticity seems like a rich area when it comes to motivation and badges. Because of Mozilla’s Open Badges and the Badges competition, we’re playing in a bigger badge and learning sandbox than we’ve ever had, with the potential to acknowledge open learning on a scale that’s never been connected quite like this before. We’re entering territory where the 1 percent rule, Pareto’s principle ( the 80/20 rule) and other power laws are usually applied. I might need statistics friends to check my thinking here, but I’m curious: if the 1 percent rule (which some call the Internet rule) of the people contribute content online, 9 percent edit it, and 90 percent don’t contribute at all, how might an open badges system affect that rule, especially if we redefine participation and contribution in terms of reading and learning?

Not to get too nerdy here, but I hear there hasn’t been much research on collectors and collecting behavior. There’s this obscure ID Compensation theory that isn’t even on Wikipedia! yet! — a theory that suggests there is very little objective feedback in people’s lives to tell them if they’re doing well, which leads many people to seek out experiences or situations that offer frequent feedback. What if badges are just one more way to represent feedback? What if they’re the best, most versatile way to provide feedback, whether that feedback is many-to-one, one-to-one, or many-to-many?

I get that some people are down on badges in terms of game-based learning, and no doubt there’s research to show that extrinsic rewards like badges can demotivate learners and mess with what’s to love about informal learning. But frankly, many examples of extrinsic rewards and motivation to participate or contribute seem highly contextual. Research on incentives and participation in virtual communities tells us that small tweaks in design influences extrinsic motivation in surprising ways. When it comes to motivation, extrinsic rewards, authenticity, scale, group dynamics, new collectives, individual or social behavior and technical design, there’s so much we still don’t know. And that doesn’t include what learners have yet to tell us about reading, participating, contributing, collaborating, making, doing, learning, reaching goals and achieving skills on the Internet. And what if those learners were invited to design their own badge systems in their own communities of practice? We need to be thinking: When is a badge system good? When is it not? The critical, constructive, and positive comments on badges for learning have been so valuable (I’ve been collecting badge posts on HASTAC’s Scoop.it topic, Badges for Lifelong Learning, for those who want to read through the collection, plus there’s #dmlbadges and #openbadges on Twitter), but this is a conversation for the big tent. Badges for learning is an undertaking that’s ripe for sharing knowledge.

No doubt there will be Badges for Lifelong Learning applicants who present game-based systems proposals. Perhaps that’s an obvious fall-back, especially given that games for learning are having a moment. But badges were here before games, and I have no doubt there are bigger badge ideas out there, ones that have nothing to do with the G-ification word. If we’re fortunate, those bigger ideas will be inspired by the Badges for Lifelong Learning competition. Or they’ll emerge naturally once Mozilla’s Open Badge infrastructure launches and people start to imagine possibilities and build on early innovations.

Whatever you think about badges, I’m all for Erin’s approach: join the conversation, join the competition. Explore this with us.

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