User Generated Education

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I Don’t Get Digital Badges

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Digital badges appear to becoming the next, “new” thing in education. What follows is a description of digital badges as described by Digital Media and Learning:

A digital badge is an online record of achievements, the work required, and information about the organization, individual or other entity that issued the badge. Badges make the accomplishments and experiences of individuals, in online and offline spaces, visible to anyone and everyone, including potential employers, teachers, and peer communities.

In addition to representing a wide range of skills, competencies, and achievements, badges can play a critical role in supporting participation in a community, encouraging broader learning goals, and enabling identity and reputation building. For a learner, a sequence of badges can be a path to gaining expertise and new competencies. Badges can capture and display that path, providing information about, and visualizations of, needed skills and competencies. They can acknowledge achievement, and encourage collaboration and teamwork.  Finally, badges can foster kinship and mentorship, encourage persistence, and provide access to ever-higher levels of challenge and reward (

The proposed benefits of such a system would be a broader and deeper picture of skill sets acquired both in formal and informal settings.

Advocates of this vision for K-12 contend that such badges could help bridge educational experiences that happen in and out of school, as well as provide a way to recognize “soft skills” such as leadership and collaboration. Badges could paint a more granular and meaningful picture of what a student actually knows than a standardized-test score or a letter grade, they say (


The Functions of Badges

Daniel Hickey proposed four functions of badges in Intended Purposes Versus Actual Function of Digital Badges:

  1. Recognizing Learning.   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.
  2. 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.
  3. Motivating Learning.  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.
  4. Evaluating LearningDigital 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.

As good playground and game designers understand, it really does not matter what the intended purposes are of the adult designers.  Children and young people will approach and interact with the apparatus in ways that fit their own development and sensibilities.  Based on past history, such as stickers in class or at home for good behavior; badges in scouts for accomplishments, I have a hunch kids will approach the gathering of badges as a form of rewards.

Badges As Rewards/As a Means for Motivation

It’s a fine line between working for the reward of the badges (think badge of honor or bragging rights) and for demonstrating a skill set. Although digital badges are being touted as a means of documenting one’s achievements, we cannot get away from the notion that learners will work towards getting badges for the rewards.

Many point to research that suggests rewarding students, with a badge for instance, for activities they would have otherwise completed out of personal interest or intellectual curiosity actually decreases their motivation to do those tasks (

The problems of using rewards for motivation have been discussed by Alfie Kohn and Daniel Pink.  Alfie Kohn, an outspoken anti-reward proponent, notes that they can actual achieve outcomes in direct opposition of desired results.

Rewards are no more helpful at enhancing achievement than they are at fostering good values. At least two dozen studies have shown that people expecting to receive a reward for completing a task (or for doing it successfully) simply do not perform as well as those who expect nothing (Kohn, 1993). This effect is robust for young children, older children, and adults; for males and females; for rewards of all kinds; and for tasks ranging from memorizing facts to designing collages to solving problems. In general, the more cognitive sophistication and open-ended thinking that is required for a task, the worse people tend to do when they have been led to perform that task for a reward (

Daniel Pink discusses a similar occurance in organizational settings:

We’re not mice on treadmills with little carrots being dangled in front of us all the time.  What’s frustrating, or ought to be frustrating, to individuals in companies and shareholders as well is that when we see these carrot-and-stick motivators demonstrably fail before our eyes – when we see them fail in organizations right before our very eyes – our response isn’t to say: “Man, those carrot-and-stick motivators failed again. Let’s try something new.” It’s “Man, those carrot-and-stick motivators failed again. Looks like we need more carrots. Looks like we need sharper sticks.” And it’s taking us down a fundamentally misguided path.

Digital Badges as a Form of Gamification

There is an argument that digital badges will be successful due to their similarity to game mechanics.  Terry Hick in How Gamification Uncovers Nuance In The Learning Process stated that:

A digital trophy system–if well-designed–offers the ability to make transparent not just success and failure, accolades and demerits, but every single step in the learning process that the gamification designer chooses to highlight. Every due date missed, peer collaborated with, sentence revised, story revisited, every step of the scientific process and long-division, every original analogy, tightly-designed thesis statement, or exploration of push-pull factors–every single time these ideas and more can be highlighted for the purposes of assessment, accountability, and student self-awareness.

But comparing the digital badge system to gaming behaviors is a weak one.  Bron Stuckey, Quest Atlantis research fellow, succinctly puts it as “slapping a layer of badges over learning isn’t gamifying learning.”

There are several significant differences:

  • The user is self-motivated.  Gamers choose the games they play and their goals for using that game. They are mainly drive by intrinsic motivators.  The leveling-up becomes the symbols of their personal achievements.  In other words, the leveling up badge of recognition is a result of performance not the primary goal of playing the game (subtle but significant difference).
  • Gaming provides continuous feedback about personal performance.  Although claims have been made that digital badges can provide this type of formative assessment, most appear to be designed as a summative assessment – learners meet a set of pre-established criteria to earn a digital badge.

Who Decides?

Another possible flaw in and potential downfall of this system revolves the difficulties and dilemmas of deciding what the badges represent, how one earns the badges, and how badges will be standardized for recognition of “institutions” of learning and of employment. This lack of consensus about the meaning of badges will create further problems once the learner leaves that learning platform.  What value will the badges have in unrelated institutions?

Other Alternatives

A purpose or rationale given for the use of digital badges is to provide evidence of specific skills sets that goes beyond courses taken and degrees earned.   Randy Nelson of Pixar states that when choosing potential employees, he wants to see the proof of a portfolio not the promise of a resume (  Digital badges have the potential to become a type resume on steroids – showing that skill sets have been achieved but not providing specific evidence and artifacts that demonstrate those skill sets.  Given this age of personal websites, blogs, photo and video sharing sites, learners can easily leave a trail of competencies and skills via an aggregate of their achievements via some form of electronic portfolios.  Here is a question to all of those who are considering developing or using digital badges for learning:  If you wanted to evaluate someone for competency (e.g., for progressing to the next level of learning or for employment), would you prefer to see a digital badge or artifacts that provide evidence of that learning?

It is important to hack digital badges to explore potential intended and non-intended consequences of their implementation.  Technology has sadly produced a learning society that easily gets seduced by each brand new shiny toy.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

March 16, 2013 at 12:13 am

14 Responses

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  1. That question really is a false dichotomy. What I would want to see is a set of digital badges that acted as a kind of table of contents for a digital portfolio. That’s why the evidence URL exists in the OBI standard.

    Frankly, I’ve done a decent share of both hiring and admissions. In both cases, you don’t have time to evaluate full portfolios of work: the resume is used as a filter. Let’s make that filter more reflective of the work that is contained in the portfolio and make it richer.

    I agree that there is a danger that badges could become just gold stars. I would say that this is a significant danger, and I’m concerned that bad badges (and not just in learning!) could crowd out the good examples. But when done right, badges can be very effective. I suspect there are very few learning technologies (or technologies in general) that lack the potential for poor implementation. The question is whether badges can be leveraged for more effective learning ecologies–and my experience with them suggests that they can.


    March 16, 2013 at 1:51 am

  2. As I am against gamifying learning as well, the digital badges problem is an illusory issue.


    March 16, 2013 at 1:03 pm

  3. I’ve just completed the Open Learning Design Studio MOOC and the digital badges I’ve earned are linked to my artefacts, evidence of my learning in the MOOC. Isn’t that the idea behind recognition of informal learning?

    Penny Bentley

    March 17, 2013 at 1:55 am

  4. I would love to use badges, but we use Blackboard LMS for grading and there is no way to paste a badge next to the student’s grade.


    March 17, 2013 at 2:45 pm

    • Sally I also use blackboard for my German class. I wish there were a way to do it automatically. I created a spreadsheet for me to keep track – but also post the badges in the announcement area for everyone to see. The students also have a downloadable chart that they can fill in as they move through their semester. At the K12 levels, there is always a school liason and they can ask the student to share their “badges” – and give addl. positive reinforcement. I’m hoping that it won’t take too long for blackboard and other LMS to start adding this capacity for teachers…..

      Janice MacWatters

      March 17, 2013 at 11:02 pm

    • Actually, your system may not be configured to accommodate badges but it can be done in Blackboard – ask you admin to look for Oscelot:

      Integrate OpenBadges in Blackboard Learn
      to allow faculty to display student
      badges from mozilla backpack, allow
      faculty create new badges in courses,
      allow students claim badges.
      A student photo roster will accompany
      this project, so the facutly can
      preview not only the faces of students,
      but badges earned in other classes.
      This will help faculty to get to know
      students prior to start of a class and
      to track their progress in the learning
      networks outside of the classroom.


      March 25, 2013 at 2:10 pm

      • Thanks for the info on oscelot. I’ll check on that this week.

        Jan MacWatters

        Jan MacWatters

        March 25, 2013 at 9:35 pm

  5. I just introduced a badge concept into my online German classroom and most of the students do seem to enjoy it. They can do additional assignments to gain badges that will allow them to skip portions of the final test. Because they are doing it by choice, they tend to delve more deeply into the concepts that interest them and then realize that they can also do well on the stuff that is not so exciting. They probably do more work than they would for the final test and the skills developed are definitely something they can add to a digital portfolio – and there is just something about getting a “badge’, and acknowledgement that fits with the human brain. I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t know why it works, but it apparently works better than simply telling them to do the homework

    Jan MacWatters

    March 17, 2013 at 3:37 pm

  6. As one who employs plenty of digital technology in the classroom, my first reaction is to dismiss badges as gimmicky. But if badges can correspond to formative assessment, then I’ll all for them.


    March 17, 2013 at 9:10 pm

    • I thought so at first, but then realized that for my students, the badges serve multiple purposes. a. It’s so much more fun to become an “expert” in an area, whether it’s vocab, grammar, history or culture. The other plus that I have noticed, but didn’t expect, is that my students are turning the their recognized “expert” peers for additional assistance. So if I happen to have a student who is continuing to get more and more vocab badges, others are acknowledging that expertise and asking them to share their tips to learn vocabulary. The cultural experts and history experts area also sharing what they have learned via blogs…. which hopefully is inspiring others to explore outside of the classroom. At least, I’m starting to see an increase on commenting on blogs within the classroom.

      Janice MacWatters

      March 17, 2013 at 10:59 pm

  7. I am exploring gamification in community driven spaces, and right now that is teacher professional development communities of practice. While I agree with many of the concerns here, I do think there is an aspect missing in this conversation. There is much to be said about badges as identity tools. Janice MacWatters eludes to this in her comment here about kids seeing who has the expert level badges in a field and going to that person rather than the teacher for support in that area. This is very juicy stuff from where I sit. The badges are working to assist both individual identity AND community building. So there are other agendas other than learning that a carefully constructed gamification program might support. I think we need to explore these areas and get more data about how users feel and how effective/appropriate badges can be.

    I have just run a survey with teachers in the PLANE ( ) community of practice, for which I designed a game layer (with points, badges and levels). Our design aims to quickly immerse educators in the community and give them a tangible experience of what value that engagement might bring. The design of the game layer, which matches to accredited institute standards in teaching, aims to encourage them to go deeper and deeper into community collaboration and professional responsibility. Over time we hope that the game layer might be overtaken by the community value as they key motivator and the game layer might focus on some other aspects. Badges are proving a great way to build identity in that community. Our badges are not all automated and teachers do have to provide evidence of their activity. We have a plan for social gifting of badges so that members can publicly give recognition to the value others brought to their learning. OUr plan is for higher levels of the game layer to be member generated badges and levels so that the community itself will in the end drive the gamification as far and and as deep as seems appropriate.

    I am working right now on my own series of blog posts to unpack a lot of this – so I will come back and leave a link here should this interest anyone. It is hard stuff to get right professional education and as I am finding is very successful with teachers wanting to use badges to help visually frame their professional identity.

    Bronwyn Stuckey

    March 21, 2013 at 3:06 pm

  8. There is a danger of watering down achievements if you can claim for every learning experience. Who is in a position to give credibility to these badges, will this be via exam boards or Universities? Saying this however I can see them as a great “motivational” tool for students but I not sure if this would transfer into the FE or HE sector?

    Mark Rollins

    April 18, 2013 at 12:47 pm

    • Hi Mark. I agree with the watering down being a bad thing. In my class, there is no “credit” for a badge – but it does seem to motivate the high schoolers. To be considered a “vocabulary expert” is cool for some students- plus to get the badge they have to do the assignments and more than that..They have to apply themselves to studying the topic at hand. Also, since I’m teaching online – the “expert” badge( vocabulary, culture, history and grammar) lets the other students know that there is someone in their school that they can turn to for help if they don’t want to ask the teacher (and let’s face it, teens don’t always want to ask their teacher..) I’m legally not allowed to post grades so otherwise students have no idea of whether they are doing well or not.

      And there just is something in the human psyche that responds to the “badge” – I’m not sure what it is –
      as I’m not a psychology major – but If trying for a badge means my students are more motivated to work, and they do better on the graded assignments as a result of their efforts, that’s great. I’m not sure that the badges should be taken at face value by anyone outside of the course, however, I have the same misgivings about our assessment system. We all accept that a “teacher” or professor has the ability and the knowledge to assess our students learning. We give grades and they are accepted to base a high school or even a college diploma on – yet they may be just as subjective at all levels as the handing out of a badge. And quite honestly, low grades in high school are much more a result of the student not having done the work than they are an assessment of academic capability. My goal is to get them to do the work so that the final assessed grade really does reflect their academics, not their laziness or lack of motivation in completing a required course in which they have absolutely no interest.

      I’d love to hear the opinion of others. I’m pretty frustrated with grading as it is as I spend more time calling parents /school liaisons to let them know their kids are not doing the work, or even checking into the classroom than I do actually teaching or grading.

      Jan MacWatters

      April 18, 2013 at 1:54 pm

  9. I haven’t seen mention here of allowing the students to develop a set of badges themselves in order to encourage buy-in as well as the encourage critical thinking of the tasks we’re asking them to do. What does it mean to be an “expert” in a certain skill? I would think that this is a more powerful route than simply granting the “gold stars”.


    February 19, 2014 at 8:20 pm

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