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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

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