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Unpacking Badges for Lifelong Learning

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?

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 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 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.



Thank you for this very thoughtful wise perspective, Sheryl.  


I am going to refer to Justen's blog for this response.

You'll find my comments below on the matter. Make sure to watch the video posted by Jenna about the science of motivation, funded by Federal Reserve. These are very superficial, external motivators. 

The only badges I could see worth earning are ones promoting peace, service or collaboration by building libraries. Adults could earn and model for kids their achievement in these areas.

Then kids will model back to the adults the intrinsic motivation that is such a foregin concept to adults set on grades, scores and badges (money).


Thanks for pointing me to Justen's blog, and to the great discussion going on in the comments section! I'm not sure that badges are simply a form of reward, though. I do agree that rewards as extrinsic motivators can have a de-motivating effect, and I think Dan Pink's video does a good job explaining why. But one reason badges are unusual is that they pack more than one function. If badges are used simply as rewards, then to my thinking, there's been a failure in the badge design and delivery system. If they're used as substitutes for gold stars, why not just use gold stars?

Instead, I agree with Michael Josefowicz's comment that the more interesting (and original) function of badges was recognition. When we start introducing identity into the system, we are talking about something fundamentally different than a reward. We start getting into conversations about agency and authenticity. That's what I was trying to convey in my blog post -- badges are different. They're versatile. And their power changes depending on the system in which they were designed to function. If you design them to act like grades, they will behave like grades. If you design them to behave like rewards, they will behave like rewards. But if you design them to behave like badges -- with all the effects of reputation, recognition, identity, and even currency that they carry -- you're in powerful territory.



I'm going to have to say that Michael Josefowicz has hit a nail on the head (not "the" nail, because I think there are a lot of relevant nails here to be hit, but definitely "a" nail) - at least looking based on your paraphrasing.  Making the same argument from an anecdotal perspective, earning badges as a Boy Scout had meaning because you were placed in a system where everyone understood the value of a badge and could recognize your accomplishment.  Beyond just your own troop of 20 kids the same recognition existed at camps with hundreds of kids.  Having a badge made an indisputable claim of authority, and it was recognized in a large (if insular) social circle.

These badges were organized in a manner such that a certain accumulation of merit badges (with some additional other requirements) would result in gaining a new rank badge - which carried with it the same sense of social status (qua social mobility within this scouting society).  Looked at this way merit badges weren't even ends unto themselves, but just means to acquiring other types of higher order badges.

Is there anything wrong with that?  I might liken it to an undergraduate curriculum with a lot of electives.  Even if the sole motivation to get merit badges was to get rank badges (which was motivated by many things including competition, desire for prestige, &c.) the process still involved the scout in sampling a lot of different skillsets.  If the motivation to get a lot of badges caused a person to stop short of developing depth in any particular area it still encouraged breadth.  And that's not a bad thing.

Badges can operate as either means or ends, but it's also important to include that they can also function as entry points.  The same way that my sophomore psychology elective became my major (which through some series of events found me as an MSIS candidate), an unanticipated foray into a new discipline that was motivated by earning a badge can ignite a new passion in an individual.  Not every badge you ever obtain will result in the discovery of a lifelong passion or career.  In fact, most and maybe even none will accomplish that.  But the experience gained through the completion of each badge adds to a robust set of fundamental skills and knowledge that could be relevant in a diverse set of contexts.  The budding humanist in me thinks that there is real value to the development of the human character, and if badges help us to become more complex people with a multitude of interests and skills, then that's good for all of us.

If we can just agree that badges can be a good thing (and I think that I'm in company here that concurs), then we can start to work on the more challenging and logistic-based questions about what this badge system looks like.  How does one participate?  What badges do we include?  How do we create the social layer that provides both peer support and recognition (how do we find mentors - do we even have mentors - and display our badges)?  And how do we create verifiable systems for assessing badge requirements (and delivering badges) so that there is integrity?


Thanks for this very thoughtful comment.   I would like to add one other thing we might be able to learn from badge systems people invent---if we are successful.   We might learn how institutions, networks, organizations, and other collectives can find collective ways of looking inward (we don't even have a term for this).   As long as our assessment systems are inheritances, we just ourselves by fixed or at least preexisting categories or rubrics.  What is exciting to me (actually, lots of things are, but this is way up there) is giving any collective a chance to decide for itself what it wants to count, how to count, and why and to what end.  In other words, it removes the categories and asks collectives to re-imagine itself in new ways.   Who knows what might happen?   I know from a marvelous conversation with some of the Top Coder folks that they originally awarded points for excellent computational and coding skills, then added new categories for good collaborative skills but kept those things separate, then more and more realized that someone's intrinsic coding ability doesn't count for much if they can't also cooperate, so their own system has evolved much more fluidly across boundaries that they once believed to be stable or fixed.   That to me is the challenge and the promise of a new kind of credentialing, peer evaluation, and bading.   I hope it happens!  


Great point about the ability for badges to function as entry points, as well as your comment that "Not every badge you ever obtain will result in the discovery of a lifelong passion or career." Those are two aspects of the learning path that haven't been articulated in this conversation thus far (that I've seen, in any case).

Given your experience with merit badges, I'm curious what you think about the Boy Scouts' process of developing new badges. Much was made about Boy Scouts adding badges for video gaming, and it sounds like it was an interesting process to introduce the robotics badge (14 months and 150 scouts, leaders, and industry professionals were involved). There's a lot of structure associated with Boy Scouts, and I wonder what would happen if, in addition to Scouts earning vetted badges (current system), they were also able to develop and award their own peer badges. Would that dilute the experience of earning core badges? The Boy Scouts have a long history and specific culture, so it's not necessarily in this context that I'm thinking this would be an option, but it's interesting to think how a hybrid system might work.



Fantastic overview and historical look back - thank you! Over at Global Kids we have a post giving our own view on the recent history of the emergence of badges for learning, with links to case studies of our work in this area over the past few years.




Hi Della, when you mention children, do you have specific ages in mind, or are you referring to K-12 in general? Over in another part of the Badges group, LaDonna asked the question, Does age matter? I think it's a good question, and I'm wondering if there's a less artificial cut-off than K-12 for kids and everything else for adult.

I've been thinking about intrinsic/extrinsic motivation and rewards (although I still think badges used as extrinsic rewards miss the point), and from what I've observed anecdotally in my son's education, motivation changes depending on age, gender, and individual disposition. His school gives out laminated cards to students (K-5), and they can earn circles to paste on their cards (usually displayed on backpacks) to indicate that they have been kind, helpful, patient, etc. I noticed that more girls were motivated to earn circles, while the boys seemed disinterested, particularly among ages 9 and over. When I asked my son and his friends what they'd like to see on the cards, they said loyalty, speed, humor, and some others I can't remember off the top of my head. If the students had been involved in deciding what was worthy, that process alone would have been worth pursuing as a learning experience, in my view. Just the act of asking the boys what they found valuable was interesting. I think this goes to Cathy's point about the importance of asking badge issuers or designers what it is the community values, and why they want to make it a visible part of their interactions.






Please read Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn. 

Also, take a moment to watch the Science of Motivation.

Far too much corporate interest, money and competition surround badges all of which (especially in said combination) make me uncomfortable granting or awarding badges to children. Badge an adult for a behavior we would like children to emulate.  Adults are used to such extrinsic motivations. They've been conditioned that way in our society. These badges are extrinsic motivators and adults are used to that.

Many educators are desperately trying to promote intrinsic motivation. Do not create another ranking and sorting mechanism for schools to undo. Please. There are far too many with grades and standards-based performance reporting at the moment.

One thing that our current Department of Education does not understand is that learning is a constructed process. Learning is not a race or a competition.  You think we left children behind with No Child Left Behind. Well, take the same damaging factors (standards-based reform efforts + high-stakes assessments) and turn them into a race!  We will see children left behind in epic numbers.



I am all about badges for promoting peace, service or building libraries.  I've flirted with the idea of how they may be used to bring the arts back into schools. But, then I think about the competition, money and corporate interest and I feel like I need to say something to those interested in the competition who are not educators.  I am warning about badging children because corporate interest has a tendency to twist things around into ways they just shouldn't go. 

Now, I know I'm contradicting what I'm saying about keeping them off of children, but I totally agree with you about involving them in the process.  If badges were to something intertwined with school in any way, children must be part of the process of designing them.   Otherwise, them meaning of badges will come from whoever designed them, not from the children.  

It certainly does have exciting collaborative possibilities between students and professionals in the community. So I guess I'd say if all design work was done by adults, badge only those over the age of 18. If design work is a creation of children, then that could be another story.  I'm a constructivist teacher. I am smart enough to know that the minds of children will lead to wonderous places if we let them.  Here are two stories that illustrate that.


Cabinetmaker's tool chest  c.1800


Laborer artifacts from centuries past can provide the Digital Badges Project with helpful visual and conceptual hooks 

Itinerant English cabinetmakers and carpenters of the 19th century lugged intricately built toolboxes with them from job to job, town to town, even country to country.  Why? .The toolbox embodied a physical proof of their skills    A cabinetmaker of that era could show up at a shop or job site anywhere in England, Europe, or America, find the foreman, and open his tool box for inspection.  What you saw was what you got.  No explanation necessary. The craftsman and the foreman did not even need to speak the same language. The trained eye of the foreman could scan the box and its contents and instantly size up the skills of the man in front of him.
sailor's dittty bag
Deep water sailors of the 19th and early 20th century who were looking for a ship anywhere in the world had a similar portfolio of skills that they carried with them--the ditty bag.  The ditty bag was a small canvas bag that was made of scrap sail canvas filled with the sailor’s personal sail sewing and rigging tools.  But it was the ditty bag itself, with its hand stitched seams, worked grommets of marline, and a fancy knotted lanyard with a spliced eye on the end that demonstrated to the mate pat the gangway that this sailor in front of him was an experienced tar worthy of signing on for the next voyage.  Again, the job interview required little conversation, for the physical object the sailor presented for inspection, his ditty bag, demonstrated the owners skills to the mate..

The craft details worked into the joinery of cabinetmaker’s toolbox and into the fabric of the sailor’s ditty bag are great metaphors for Mozilla’s digital badges, for like the toolbox and the ditty bag, digital badges are not just claims of skill lacking verification (as in a resume) but are embodyments of the skills themselves,verified and instantly presented.  Done right, digital badges potentially can instill just as much trust and belief in the bearer’s skills as the presentation of a crafted object or a live demonstration.

Digital badges need to be contextualized for the reviewer, otherwise they become so much white noise.  Virtual frameworks are needed to visually and logically integrate badges into groupings by craft, discipline, or undertaking.   Returning  to the metaphor of the cabinet maker’s toolbox, a virtual 3-D toolbox could be designed for “Carpenter Craftsman” badges with opening drawers that contain badges for various skills.(This give you game designers any ideas?) For the person reviewing the badges on a smartphone or iPad, the toolbox visual metaphor would instantly contextualize the general skill set that the presenter possess.  To return to the ditty bag metaphor, an illustration of a  ship’s topsail with appropriately placed badge pockets throughout  could be used as a visual/contextual framework to house badges representing a sailmaker’s sail repair skills or work on the sails of specific ships.

In the early 21st century, I can envision the itinerant theatrical carpenter showing up at the door of a scene shop and presenting as proof of her stage carpentry skills and safety certifications, a mobile App that instantly transfers her virtual tool box of badges into the shop supervisor’s phone with a simple tap..  No appointment necessary. no additional demonstration of skills necessary, No calling of references necessary.  If the badges fit the current requirements of the open job, all that remains is a very informal interview.  Cool.

Soon, Itinerant craftspersons will once again be carrying irrefutable proof of skills and certifications with them wherever they go, just like their predecessors of centuries past.

Thanks for these gorgeous images and interesting thinking.   Very helpful and, well, just plain lovely. 


The metaphors here are so helpful--and very real.  Many of the urban teens who participate in our youth media program in Allentown, PA, are highly itinerant.  Changing school districts, communities, even states, frequently, is not uncommon experience.  Among other obstacles along the way, It can take months for official educational records to catch up with them.  Perhaps more than many cohorts, teens who experience high rates of mobility (or, transciency, in terms of school vocabulary) stand to benefit greatly from a badge system that travels with them in their digital backpacks--visible evidence of their accomplishments and knowledge that they can carry with them, with a greater degree of agency and self-efficacy, as they navigate the often complex entry into new communities and contexts.  



I have a vague memory of S.I. Hayakawa, I think, saying something to the effect of, "Don't confuse the map with the territory."

Contrary to Steve's assertion that "no calling of references are necessary", I'd argue that easily and quickly getting to references is the one big advantage that today's technology offers. The point of my badges is to convey some information to other people - unlike a carpenter's toolbox, I have no particular use for them myself beyond the self-promotion Steve refers to.

A carpenter's toolbox is evidence of someone's skills. Although whose skills and what skills may not be so obvious – hand joinery, machine joiner, CNC programming, on-line shopping prowess. A box with rough joinery may be an indication of poor workmanship or it may be an indication of great ingenuity using simple tools. I may trust the carpenter to tell the truth about the origin of the box, but the actual skill represented may be adeptness at running a con. There's plenty of neuroscience behind that particular response.

But the most valuable skill represented by the beautiful toolbox may not be woodworking but rather problem solving – or perhaps dogged perseverance. So the toolbox "map" may need some explanation if I'm to really understand the territory it represents.

If I'm interested in having a carpenter build a house for me, the box may not tell me what I need to know. I probably don't really know what I need to know (I built houses years ago and that was almost always the case). So it makes sense for me to want to search out people who have houses that were built by this carpenter and see what I can learn from them. Better yet, find someone I know personally (think "LinkedIn" as a functional metaphor). I will learn, of course, that I need more than this single carpenter, regardless of their skills, and that this carpenter's network may be more valuable to me than the carpenter herself.

Part of the frustration of using references today is that people feel compelled to edit their responses to the point of being useless. On the other hand, most people who call me about a reference don't really know what questions to ask anyway.

So my argument is that the value of badges in the Internet world is in the availability of the related personal networks, not the structure and "rules" of the badges themselves, which will probably be impossible to standardize in any case.