In a recent blog post, Cathy Davidson described her evolution from a badge skeptic to badge evangelist. Indeed, it seems that almost everyone is now a badge evangelist. Go to any conference about learning and education, and you’ll be surrounded by discussions about the transformative potential of badges.
So why do I remain a badge skeptic? I have great respect for Cathy and many other badge enthusiasts. And I certainly appreciate the value of badges as credentials. It is often useful to have an external indicator of what you’ve achieved and accomplished, so that others can understand what you’re capable of.
The problem, for me, lies in the role of badges as motivators. In many cases, educators are proposing badge systems in order to motivate students. It’s easy to understand why educators are doing this: most students get excited and engaged by badges. But towards what end? And for how long?
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. Simply engaging students is not enough. They need to be engaged for the right reasons.
When we develop educational technologies and activities in my research group, we explicitly try to avoid anything that might be perceived as a reward – what Alfie Kohn characterizes as “Do this and you’ll get that.” Instead, we are constantly looking for ways to help young people build on their own interests, and providing them with opportunities to take on new roles. In our Scratch online community, for example, members can become curators or moderators. These roles are different from badges or rewards, since they are associated with specific responsibilities in the community. People take on these roles because they want to contribute meaningfully to the community.
Will badges always, necessarily be perceived as rewards? Will they always, necessarily crowd out other sources of motivation, undermining opportunities for learners to develop sustained engagement with the underlying ideas and activities? Perhaps not. But, at a minimum, I think it’s critical for badge designers to think carefully about the motivational consequences (sometimes unintended) of their badges, and to take steps to reduce the likelihood that their badges will become the central focus of motivation.
We’ll be discussing these issues at this week’s DML conference, in a session titled “Are Badges the Answer? Perspectives on Motivation for Lifelong Learning” (Thursday, March 1, 2:30-4:00). The session is organized by Natalie Rusk (who has deeply influenced my thinking on these issues), along with Avi Kaplan and Amon Millner. If you’re at the conference, I hope you’ll come join the discussion. If not, I hope you’ll share your thoughts in the comments below.