I posted a longer blog about this topic on Remediating Assessment . Here is a shorter summary that is also useful for folks who are interested in or are using digital badges. One question about badges seems like a crucial issue as we grapple with different ways of characterizing and describing badges. This post aims to add the category of badge functions to other badge taxonomies like the one by Carla Casilli.
Purposes Versus Functions in Assessment
I got interested in this distinction several years ago when thinking about assessment and transfer. Many leading assessment scholars have followed Paul Black and Dylan Wilam’s lead in categorizing assessments in terms of assessment purposes. In their groundbreaking work on formative assessment, they argued that assessment should fundamentally be put to formative purposes, which they defined as assessment for learning. This was an important distinction and helped distinguish formative assessment from summative assessment, which they defined as assessment of learning. This distinction is now widely embraced, along with the further distinction between evaluative purposes, which refers to assessments used primarily for evaluating curricula or programs.
Over the years, I have come to the conclusion that categorizing assessments according to their intended purposes is also problematic. Focusing on purposes overlooked the fact that the same assessment could be summative for some kinds of learning and formative for other kinds of learning. For example, a formal exam that serves as a summative assessment of student learning can also be a formative assessment for the teacher to learn how effective the lesson is and how it might be revised. Likewise, achievement tests are summative for teachers but formative for policy makers to learn whether policies have helped or hurt achievement. For complicated reasons, this focus on assessment functions corresponds with the broader view of learning that is embraced by the DML initiative and that inspired the Badges for Lifelong Learning initiative. A nice articulation was here in John Seely Brown’s DML 2012 Keynote.
The Varied Functions of Badges
My interest in the functions of badges was spurred along when the MacArthur Foundation asked for help documenting the design principles for using digital badges that emerge across the 30 projects underway by the awardees in their Badges for Lifelong Learning project. We needed to come up with a manageable number of categories. Here is what we came up with:
Recognizing Learning. This is the most obvious and arguably the primary function of badges. David Wiley has argued cogently that this should be the primary purpose of badges. If we focus only on purposes, then he may well be right. His point is that badges are credentials and not assessments. This is also consistent with the terrifically concise definition in Seven Things You Should Know About Badgesby Erin Knight and Carla Casilli.
Assessing Learning. Nearly every application of digital badges includes some form of assessment. These assessments have either formative or summative functions and likely have both. In some cases, these are simply an assessment of whether somebody clicked on a few things or made a few comments. In other cases, there might be a project or essay that was reviewed and scored, or a test that was graded. In still other cases, peers might assess an individual, group, or project as badgeworthy.
Motivating Learning. This is where the controversy comes in. Much of the debate over badges concerns the well-documented negative consequences of extrinsic incentive on intrinsic motivation and free choice engagement. This is why some argue that we should not use badges to motivate learning. However, if we use badges to recognize and assess learning, they are likely to impact motivation. So, we might as well harness this crucial function of badges and study these functions carefully while searching for both their positive and negative consequences for motivation.
Evaluating Learning. The final category of badge functions we are working with concerns evaluating learning. Digital badges have tremendous potential for helping teachers, schools, and programs evaluate and study learning. At the minimum, just having a system for tracking all of the information included in all of the badges that a program awards might be very valuable. Each badge has eight bits of information (“metadata”) which I presume will be recorded and easily accessible as a database. And much of that information will be hyperlinked to even more information that will be accessible with just a little more effort. Whether or not programs elect to use this feature will likely be up to them. Additionally, some of the DML awardees are realizing that they can offer badges to learners for participating in their program evaluation plans as well. Awardees like Jim Diamond at the Education Development Center and Stacy Kruse at Pragmatic Solutions are just brimming with great new ideas of ways to use digital badges and all the information they offer to evaluate programs and study learning.
Summary of Badge Functions
The following table summarizes the basic point of this post. While the categories of badging functions are likely to evolve, I think the basic point will hold that there are a definable set of ways to use badges to support learning, and that functions are a good way to sort these things out and their interactions. And while some of the functions, like recognition, appear essential to digital badges, other functions, like evaluating and researching learning, are better understood as potential functions.