March 13, 2014

My Beef With Badges

Categories: Critical Perspectives, Edtech
students sitting down on stage giving presentation

Don’t get me wrong. I love badges, digital badges for learning. And I don’t mean just for some hoped-for potential to transform the learning landscape. I mean I love them for what I’ve seen them actually achieve: new literacies amongst youth to describe their learning within a Brooklyn after-school program; new motivation within an Atlanta private school; pride in portfolios within a Bronx library; a new understanding of how to use learning technology in a New Orleans day school; the emergence of formative assessment within a New York museum. I am informed by the theoretical but guided by practice, by what I have seen with my own eyes over the past five years. 

But, I do harbor concerns. Not concerns about extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation, or whether badges are the right focus for advancing alternative assessment. Those don’t concern me. What troubles me are the obstacles rarely discussed in the way of badges achieving their theoretical potential. When I read about the excellent efforts going on around the country, I often read the same type of language I’m guilty of having contributed myself: emerging best practices conflated with hopes and potential. But when we — those who are experimenting with digital badges within our own organizations — meet, we talk about what gets left out of our public reports. 

Enough. It’s time we stop writing in response to potential critics who doubt the validity of our work. Instead, we need to start writing to each other about both our successes and failures. If not, we will continue to see what needles me month after month, watching well-intentioned efforts around the country reproducing or running into the challenges we know all too well. How can we build solutions unless we start articulating the problems?

The problem that concerns me the most is the lack of a broad ecosystem for badges. I want to  tell youth in our programs their badges will have value outside our museum, and many even need to hear that as a condition for participation. But without such an ecosystem in place, I’d be lying. There are many good efforts in this direction, but they are all works in progress. Yet, often, I hear descriptions of new badge projects designed as if one already exists, as if youth can take their badge from one learning context and find it valued within another. Some badge systems are even designed without prioritizing such a need. After recently mulling this over, I’ve begun to understand two significant differences that help frame this challenge.  

The first difference is between interest-driven youth and youth less able to direct their learning. Badges for the former can provide scaffolding for youth to uncover new learning trajectories and support them in their interest-driven activities. These self-motivated youth, however, are often the exception. Badges for the latter, for those who struggle to know their interests or how to pursue them, can help youth develop language to describe and identify new areas of interest, perhaps advancing them toward their own interest-driven activities. Badging systems can target both types of learners, but their needs, and the ways to meet them, are different.  

The second is between a local badging system and a global one. When I say “local,” I mean badges intended for use within a youth’s existing learning space — a classroom, an after-school program, a video game. When I say “global,” I mean badges intended to connect youth’s learning spaces — badges shared across science institutions or to connect in-school and out-of-school learning. Badges for the former offer value to learners within their local context amongst their peers and authority figures, for what they allow them to do within their learning space. Badges for the latter offer value to learners through the connection between the badging system and potential job or academic advancement. Badging systems can be designed to offer both types of values — value within an organization and value to those outside it — but, the required features and networks are different. 

So, what does this all mean? It means I misled you in my opening paragraph, when I waxed so eloquent about the impact I’ve seen through digital badging systems. 

I referenced newly motivated youth within an Atlanta private school. What I carefully edited out were the youth who could have cared less about them. If I had painted the full picture, we could have looked at how those who didn’t care about pursuing badges were among the school’s highest achievers, who reported they had no time for badges which couldn’t advance their academic and extracurricular goals. So, who did choose to pursue badges? As it turned out, those who rarely had their day in the spotlight, such as a girl recently returned to school after two months of chemotherapy who used the badges, in part, as a way to gain public attention for something other than her disease. 

What about that new understanding of how to use learning technology in a New Orleans day school? All true, and significant. But I preferred to focus on that achievement rather than the majority of youth who displayed little interest in badges as their design offered scant value beyond an additional form of grading. 

And yes, badges introduced formative assessment within a New York museum. But, this was a misdirection away from the significant differences found amongst which youth responded to the badges. The vast majority pursued and earned badges for personal or programmatic reasons (e.g. it made them feel good or they wanted recognition for their work), but a sizeable minority disliked them, as it failed to provide value amongst their peers or with potential employers or schools.  

If we advancing digital badging systems want to solve the major challenges before us — badging networks that link learning organizations to each other and to career and academic opportunities; badge system designs that can offer different value to different youth; comprehensive, elegant and flexible tools; and more — we need to start painting the full picture. Let’s welcome newcomers to this important project not by asking them to rebuild the wheel but to learn with us through public and honest self-reflective practices. 

Banner image credit: Barry Joseph