Blog Post

The Borg and Badges

Star Trek: First Contact - "We are the Borg. Lower your shields and surrender your ships. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile.”

Psychologists have conducted numerous studies on the pull between Assimilation and Accommodation. For those unfamiliar, when people are presented with a new concept or idea they often either:

  • change their way of thinking, accommodating the new concept into their thinking,
  • change enough of the concept so that it fits into their established way of thinking, assimilating the concept or idea into their established beliefs

As more people begin to earn, implement, and investigate badges, there is a danger that what is unique about badges will become assimilated into established, and often flawed, practices rather than people accommodating the benefit of badges into their own thinking.

For example, there is an ever-pressing push by all sorts of educational stakeholders to create more ubiquitous assessments***. While one of the clear benefits of badges is their ability to serve as representations of mastery of skills or knowledge, there is also the potential for them to be co-opted and become simply a synonym for certificates or diplomas. I believe that some of the skeptics of badges beleive this is already happening.

So how can we prevent the Borgification of badges? I believe that one of the best ways is to investigate how badges are different than other established pedagogical and assessment practices.  In my next blog post, I will talk about different motivational constructs and how they might provide insight into what's unique about badges.


*** It's important to note that I am by no means degrading the concept of assessment. Formative and Summative Assessments have tremendous value to pedagogical practice. However, the desire for assessing almost every aspect of education and learning can have detrimental effects on motivation.




Thanks for introducing "Borgification" to the badge conversation! Your point about assimilation and accommodation is excellent. I think we spend a lot of time describing badges metaphorically, which both helps and hinders understanding, and seems to both inspire and inhibit badge system design as well.

Between Antin & Churchill's Badges in Social Media: A Social Psychological Perspective and Barry Joseph et al.'s Six Ways to Look at Badging Systems Design for Learning, we're starting to get a sense of what makes badges stand out as unique despite their many facets and functions. And of course, Dan Hickey is digging into this at the assessment level: Intended Purposes vs Actual Functions of Digital Badges

Last year, I took a closer look at how we have defined badges (pre-Internet) in Unpacking Badges for Lifelong Learning. Badges are very old and familiar, and also disruptive and game-changing, so clearly badges = eye of the beholder. Since writing that piece, I've noticed that -- at least by quick and dirty content analysis -- badges as credentials gets the most press and the most sensational headlines. But in terms of practice, badges in the gamification sense is the default idea for badges system design. That's unfortunate. 

I'm looking forward to your next post, and any research that helps us understand what makes badges unique. The key piece is that their ability to convey identity and membership, or transport reputation, is a largely unexplored piece in the motivation conundrum. 


I found your post very interesting. My first reaction was to think how badges represent a symbol for social competition too. I have read some papers about gaming and use of games for learning and quite often the dimension of "badges" appear linked with aspects of merit recognition, motivation and social competition.

Clear goals and progress indicators, Level ups, Badges, Leader boards, aren't those variants towards similar direction? For me it seems that there are elements of cooperation, but also elements of competition to drive motivation. Hard to generalize what is the meaning of work and what encourages each individual to keep doing things (such as learning).


I have been asking faculty consider how badges work at motivators (I know this sounds like the "Borgification" of the opening article). However, I concur with the comment about a sign of social competition that 18-24 year olds respond to AND badges do not carry the baggage of grades AND they can be awarded at the learners own pace.

All three of these reasons are my motivation for encouraging the use, not as "a synonym for certificates or diplomas.."

Great opening and I appreciate this discussion.