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The Transcendent Potential of Digital Badges and Paradigm Shifts in Education

The Transcendent Potential of Digital Badges and Paradigm Shifts in Education

By Dan Hickey

In previous posts at HASTAC and Remediating Assessment I argued that we need to look beyond the intended purposes of digital badges and consider the actual functions of badges.  This builds on what Jim Greeno has convinced me what happens when situative views of knowing and learning are applied to assessment. A later post elaborated on the summative, formative, and transformative functions of digital badges. That later post also promised a subsequent post on what we might call transcendent functions.  I had written some about it in the original version but it was too long and I really could not wrap my head around it at the time.  The upshot was something like this:

Digital badges promise to allow some and force others to transcend existing paradigms of recognizing, assessing, motivating, and studying learning.

Beyond this prediction I could not really add very much beyond referencing Cathy Davidson’s suggestion that the 2012 competition might be the “tipping point” for the DML community.

But in the last couple of week, Cathy Davidson, Bill Penuel, Michael Olneck and others have initiated a really great discussion of this issue on one of our project blog posts at HASTAC on studying learning with digital badges.  These exchanges convinced me to return the notion of transcendent functions in light of the work over the subsequent year. Cathy’s closing question on her initial comment really helped move my thinking forward:

Is it possible that the chief importance of badges will be to push wholesale reform of existing credentialing systems?   Or is the present system too much rooted in an antiquated view of disciplines, competencies, expertise, authority, credentialing, ability/disability, hierarchy and data to be as useful as badging potentially is for new ways of defining the talents needed in the world we live in now?

I think the answer to Cathy’s first question is a definitive yes.  But I think that badges will go by the wayside if they don’t reform existing credentialing systems.  I am new to credentialing systems and don’t really know the paradigmatic research literature.  But Andi Rehak is digging into that literature around the principles for recognizing learning that she uncovered in the first year of the Design Principles Documentation Project. We are thrilled that Michael Olneck and others have been helping point to the relevant research literature. If you look at the detailed Q&A for the 30 badges projects HASTC just posted, there are many examples of recognition practices that transcend existing paradigms for credentialing learning.  In particular look at the answers to the questions near the bottom about impact of badge systems on organizations, learners, and badge ecosystems.  And that brings us to a major issue we all face…


Connecting Badges to Paradigmatic Research

We are all struggling to map the badge design principles that we are uncovering to the existing research literature.  Sheryl Grant and Kristan Shawgo were the first ones to face this challenge when they put together their excellent Annotated Research Bibliography on digital badges.  Since there is no “paradigmatic research” on digital badges, they had to make a lot of decisions about what to include and then had to work hard to connect that research to digital badges in their annotations. 


My team and I are struggling with this same issue.  Organizing practices into four categories of design principles has addressed some challenges and raised new ones.   There are bodies paradigmatic research on recognizing, assessing, motivating, and studying learning.  But the principles that emerged when we analyzed the enacted practices across the 30 DML 2013 badges awardees simply don’t fit cleanly into any of the established paradigms in each of the four areas.  This is why Andi, Rebecca Itow, and Kat Schenke and Cathy Tran decided to not include the relevant research when the drafted their posts on principle for recognizing, assessing, and motivating learning with digital badges.  I tried to bring in must some of the potentially relevant research on the principles for studying learning and it took me weeks to draft my post. But as you can see in the conversation, others are helping make connections with additional outside research.

A Specific Example with Motivation Paradigms

In order to help move along one of the other strands, let me elaborate a bit on this point with motivation principles that Kat Schenke and Cathy Tran uncovered.  I should start by acknowledging that I believe that conventional motivational paradigms based on variants of intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation are too narrow to capture some of the most important social forms of learning that happens in schools and elsewhere. Until now the running debates over “motivation in context” involving Sanna Jarvela, Richard Walker, Julianne Turner, and others have been mostly academic (here is a somewhat outdated summary). 

But now it seems that the prevailing individually-oriented paradigms of motivation really do need to be transcended if we want to coherently appreciate, study, and enhance the motivational potential of digital badges.  On one hand, the older behaviorist paradigm should be adequate for some of the drill and practice applications of badges.  On the other hand, much of the skepticism towards badges (e.g.,Mitch Resnick) comes from concerns about those model of learning (and by extension, those use of badges) that follows from constructivist and constructionist paradigms of motivation.  Mitch and people like Alfie Kohn are right.  An introduction of a behaviorist badge system into Scratch on the many other constructionist innovations at the Media Lab would be devastating.  To paraphrase Kohn, the lovely stuff that happens would be undermined by “grubbing for badges.”

But as we see in the thirty badge project Q&As at HASTAC and hundreds of project elsewhere, digital badges are going to be used and many of the projects are explicitly using them to motivate engagement and learning.  What they really need are research-based guidelines for maximizing the positive motivational consequences and minimizing the negative consequences.   For example, one of the core cognitivist motivation paradigms that Kat and Cathy are looking at is Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory.  Nearly every Ed Psych textbook summarizes the very practical guidelines from that SDT theory offer about the way teachers assess learning and assign grades.  (Here is a nice summary).  It seems that a little bit of effort on our part connecting that literature to the specific practice and general principles for motivating learning with badges should be should be helpful.  In the short term this should help projects understand and shape their badging practices.  In the longer term this should help these efforts contribute to that larger body of research that embraces the SDT paradigm.

But many of the practices and principles for motivating learning with digital badges do not fit with either the behaviorist paradigm or the many variants of the cognitivist paradigm. I don’t think that there are enough innovators and researchers exploring newer sociocultural and situative views of motivation to call it a “paradigm.”  But this research certainly seems to show that new paradigms are needed to think about motivation to learn when the learning is “stretched across” networks of socially defined knowledge.  In particular, badges help reveal the limitations of aggregative approaches to social motivation such as Bandura’s notion of collective efficacyKeeping within his 40-year old paradigm of self-efficacy, Bandura argues that there is no “collective group mind.”  Rather, efficacy of the group is nothing more than the aggregated self-efficacy of the individual members. 

This is certainly not what I see when I look at the motivational affordances of existing crowd-sources reputation management systems and many of the badge systems that involve peer judgments.  Quite to the contrary, I see motivation to learn being constructed alongside the knowledge that gets constructed in those networks as people interact with and influence each other.  Just because we can’t fully appreciate these factors using existing motivation paradigms does not make them go away. 

Returning back to my earlier point, this is an example of how digital badges might allow some and force others to transcend existing paradigms of things like motivation.  Whether this occurs and we actually encounter a “paradigm shift” among larger numbers of motivation researchers remains to be seen.




Hello Prof Hickey,

I have in development an alternative model for the provision of higher education that I believe complements badge systems in developedment. I can certainly use help in its exploration and HASTAC looks like the place.

I will start a blog here and perhaps a group on the model (I am still learning the conceptual interface of HASTAC).

My profile has a link to my external blog. As initiation I recommend, A New Tender for the Higher Education Social Contract.

Succinctly, the idea is to offer higher education as attorneys, physicians, engineers, or accountants, in professional society and practice.  To my knowledge this model is not found in print or practice (though it has historical manifestations).

That said principles of recignition produced by the DPD can be served by a professional model for higher ed.

For iinstance, prinicples 3 and 4 are accomplished with a professional society that maps and endorses badges, with the expertise of educators - I term generally as, professional academics - as the logical last line of authority in such matters.  

Or principles 5 and 8 can be addressed in professional practice, where competition and diversity in interest (exercised with professional prerogative) results in a plurality of academic practices to service all segments of the population and styles of education/learning - or at least many more than the current institutional bottleneck of universities and colleges (on or off line) can effectivey accommodate.

Membership in professional association is not in principle or practice limited to those experts or even fields typically profiled in a profession. The American Bar Association has a variety of membership categories beyond "attorney" or  "lawyer," as I believe the US prefers. 

The model I have in mind can place credential and accreditation authority - essentially the authority to issue the liscence to practice higher education - in the hands of individuals in professional association, not in the hands of or awarded to institutions (universities and colleges).

Also, I estimate it can do this and much more for around 25 or 30% of the current total cost of higher education (not only advertised tution, but state allocations as well).

But I am a philosopher, not an expert in higher education, accounting, accreditation, unions, and much more needed to properly explore this alternative. I intend to tap these resources on the HASTAC.

You are my first hit. If you have the interest I would appreciate your thoughts on the professional model at this stage and how it might be aligned with the movement in badges or info on who might like a swing at this.

Thank you for your time.




That is a very bold proposal, and one that is well beyond my expertise as well.   I am also not a philosopher.  I am a psychologist who primarily studies assessment (and secondarily motivation), and all of these issue about accreditation are pretty new to me. I am quite interested in it now, as I certainly realize that the learning that you choose to recognize, how that learning is recognized, and what that recognition is worth all have really big implications for assssment and motivation (and instruction and a lot of other things).

I am starting to learn a lot about educaitonal reform (or lack thereof from the comments and papers by Michael Olneck and others.  While I am not as pessimistic as Michael is about the possibility of true reform, I certainly appreciate how hard it is to make fundamental changes in school and colleges.  There are so many people with a vested interest in the status quo.  So I can't even begin to think of how one would enact the kind of radical change your are describing.

But to stay focused on badges and their potential role in transformations.... I believe they play an important role, sort of a catalyst.  Consider what happened at the Providence After School Alliance.  The article about PASA in Education Week made it seem like Badges were responsible for their pioneering effort to grant real high school credit for approved (but not accredited) after school activities. Frankly I think that our analysis of their intended and enacted practices using digital badges encouraged that viewpoint.  

But when I got to meet some of the PASA adminstrators at the DML conference and hear the full story I realized that there had been years of hard work and trial and error.  One woman (whose name I regret forgetting) explained that in schools, nobody is going to take you seriously until you have been around for a least a year.  I am still trying to get the full story but it appears that they worked at it seriously for over two years before they even heard of digital badges.

For me, badges are a catalyst for change because they (a) contain actual evidnece of learning, (b) are web-enabled, and (c) are easily shared over social networks.  I guess my point here is that badges in and of themselves are not going to catalyze much of anything.  But anyone who has seriously tried to design an OBI-compliant badge system will get a sense of the transformative potential here.  By seriously I mean deciding (a) what learning is going to recognize with badges, (b) how that learning is going to be assessed, (c) how that evidence is going to be represented in the metadate fields in the badges, and (d) what other work will be done to help people appreciate that evidence. This is the process Jim Diamond was referring to in his comment on my previous post and what many of the projects are still struggling with.   It is hard work.  If other pieces are not in place (the desire to change, resources to make it happen, etc.) it probably won't happen. 




Thank you for the response. 

I too have come to appreciate the centrality of evaluation/assessment authority and practices to the question of HE reform.  I only starting noticing badges 6-8 months ago, as I was developing other aspects of the professional model.  Like much that I do, out of necessity it is part time.

You identify the following as crucial to the development of a badge system in particular, but I think you agree any system of learning assessment:

"By seriously I mean deciding (a) what learning is going to recognize with badges, (b) how that learning is going to be assessed, (c) how that evidence is going to be represented in the metadate fields in the badges, and (d) what other work will be done to help people appreciate that evidence." 

These questions are generalizeable to other systems such as the credit, degree, certificate, or any other convention.  Or so it seems to this phiosopher.  

At this point you have asked the what and the how, but not the who - though it might be implied in the natrue of the decisions and explicitly on other writing.  As indicated by the DPD findings "expert" backing, if not required, is dessired (if only to graph badges onto the established assessment systems).  The model I have in mind shows promise of an answer to the who - a professional society of acdemics offering their services as attorneys, physicians, engineers and other experts do.

Neither institutions (universities and colleges) nor the accreditation they weild is required to provide higher education, as the badge systems are exposing and the professional model indicates.  But with no alternative to the institutional model badges are left on the fringe, without the backing of an authority struture composed of expertise.

I think there is an opportunity to combine the projects and bypass the need to graph or otherwise rely on the established systems.



That last comment got me thinking again I have been wondering about ever since MacArthur rolled out the badges initiative, presumably under Connie Yowell's leadership.  She wrote a paper 15 years ago that really helped shape my thinking about motivation.  And thinking about badges as a catalyst for change made me appreciate how that paper provides a way of thinking about social change that I believe can help uncover the catalytic/transformative potential of digital badges

In their Elementary School Journal paper Self-Regulation in Democratic Communities, Yowell and Smylie (1999) advanced a Vygotskian (i.e., contextual and sociocultural) view of self regulation as "the planful pursuit of goals that is flexible and promotes individual grown and social change".   I am going to use this paper to respond to a question from Stuart Karbineck, a leading achievement goal theorist at the University of Michigan.  In an article about badges in Campus Technology, I was quoted as saying that "the instrinsic/extrinsic motivaition model is outdated and too narrow."  Stewart wrote me and asked me to explain what I meant--all I said in the interview was that "the real question is, how does the introduction of the badge transform discourse?  Do students engagemetn more deeply?"  That was a pretty lame explanation and I assume what prompted Stewart to ask me to explain myself.  Let me return to Yowell and Smylie for a more complete explanation.

As an alternative to the Bandura/Zimmerman model of self-regulation, Yowell and Smylie advance a multi-level model of self regulation consisting of three types and levels of interactions between people and contexts: (1) internalization and close personal relations, (2) empowerment and contingent enviroments, and (3) future orientation and social capital.  This is a very different way of thinking about hte "non-academic outcomes" of school and community-based programs; for me these levels of human change are necessary to recognize the transformative potential of badges.  That potential is not as apparent if one embraces prevailing Bandura/Zimmerman model of self-regulation or Deci and Ryan's model of self-determination.  

Consider for example their Vygotskian characterization of autonomy, within the first level:

Although autonomy is typically linked to motivation through self-determination, from a Vygotskian perspective automomy support represents the adults active encoruagement of a student's reflection and expression of spontaneous concepts.  The freedom to make choices and engage in self-directed activity may provide students with the opportunity to integrate bottom-up and top-down components of the zone of proximal development.  Such adult support may lay the foundation for mutual construction of the ZPD and facilititate intersubjectivity.  Thus authonomy support can becaome an integral component of adolescent internalization (p. 474)

It seems to me that badges offer a sufficently different way of transforming the recognitoin that they can provide this "freedom to make choice and self-directed activity" (the bottom up part) along side more formal recognition of knowledge and skills that are valued in the adult world (the top down part).  And this is just at the first level.  

At the second level, Emowerment and Contingent Environments, Yowell and Smylie expand thier characterization of context to take into account the way that learners experience environmental contingencies (i.e., positive and negative reinforcment, encouragement and discouragement, etc)  in their interactions with teachers and other mentors.  They remind us that Vygoskian views of learning in the ZPD (expecially Jim Wertsch) involve students transformating their definitions of situations into adult definitions.  They say

For students' takeover of adult situation definitions to occur, teachers must provide a stable, organized learning envirnonments, and tasks that afford students the opportunity to experience direct and personally meaningful connections between their actions (in classroom and non-classroom settings) and desired outcomes.  Such experiences provide students with an understanding of the instrumentality of culturally and socially appropriate behaviors and support students' beliefs in their own competency to execute these behaviors.

To go back to Stewarts question, this is what was behind my brief comment about intrinsic vs extrnsic models of motivation.  My comment suggests that I am not aware that goal theorists, SDT theorists, and SRT theorists have all moved beyond a simplistic intrinsic vs extrinsic dichotomy.  But it seems to me that all fo these perspective are ultimately variants on instrinsic models of motivation that are still define by their antithetical stance relative to behaviorist models and their focus on environmental contingencies  And that leads them to look past those contingencies or worry that they disempower learners.  I am not a behaviorist but I believe that behavioral contingencies powerfully shape the activities of individuals and communities.  We need to study them and understand them.  The most persistent critics of badges echo Alfie Kohn and his SDT-fueled opposition to the attachment of any contingencies to learning.  I believe that as a culture and as teachers and mentors it is our duty to offer meaningful contingencies for value forms of learning and I believe that badges are remarkably effective way of doing doing so.

I am going to stop here and invite someone else to unpack the relevance of digital badges to  Yowell and Smylie's third level of self-regulation.  I will close with a line tfrom Ian Dury and the Blockheads.  They only had one big hit, but I bet most readers know it:

Sex and drugs and rock & roll

Is all my brain and body needs

Sex and drugs and rock and roll

is very good indeed

People like sex and and drugs and rock & roll because it makes them feel good.  There are chemical, biological, and cultural contingencies that lead many young people attend to all three of them before the even begin to think about school and grown-up responsibilities.  We really need to kick out the jams and explore new ways of recognizing youth accomplishment of value outcomes.  For many of our youth and for many of our valued outcomes, our existing recognition systems are just not working.