Badges for online learning: gimmick or game-changer?

Reda SadkiWriting

As I’ve been thinking about building a MOOC for the 13.1 million Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers, I’ve become increasingly interested in connectivism. One of the platforms I’ve discovered is called P2PU (“Peer To Peer University”), which draws heavily on connectivist ideas.

Surprise: on P2PU there is a debate raging on about badges, of all things. I initially scoffed. I’ve seen badges on Khan Academy and have read that they are very popular with learners, but did not really seriously consider these badges to be anything more than gimmicks.

It turns out that badges are serious learning tools, and that makes sense from a connectivist perspective. A white paper from the Mozilla Foundation summarizes why and how, drawing on an earlier paper from P2PU’s co-founder Philipp Schmidt.

George Siemens’s (2005) connectivism theory of learning is said to go “beyond traditional theories of learning (such as behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism) to include technology as a core element”. So badges in this theory would use technology itself ot make connections between learners.

First, it is claimed that badges can capture and translate learning across contexts, with more granularity (detail) than degrees or cumulative grades, with a badge for each specific skill or quality — and showing off progression over time as badges accumulate (like medals pinned to a soldier’s chest or a general’s stripes). Therefore badges could signal achievement and be matched to specific job requirements.

Second, badges are meant to encourage and motivate “participation and learning outcomes”. They are feedback mechanism — both gateway and signpost — on a learning path, ie showing what can be learned and when, as in Khan Academy’s Google-style map going from basic addition to multivariate calculus. In addition, they can also cover or highlight informal or soft skills of the kind that formal education doesn’t account for. And, in fact, making new badges available can be done in real time, fast enough to keep up with the pace of the fastest-changing fields (like IT or web development).

Third, badges are thought to formalize and enhance social connections, as they can be considered a mechanism to promote identity and reputation within a learning community. By doing so, badges may in fact foster community, bringing together peers to formalize teams or communities of practice.

There’s quite a bit of enthusiasm online for badges as successors to pre-digital forms of accreditation and authority, like university diplomas and CVs. For example, Jacy Hood, director of College Open Textbooksdeclared in a blog comment:  ”We are optimistic that Mozilla Badges will become the new international educational currency/credentials and that traditional education institutions will recognize, accept, and award these badges.”

Edutech blogger Mitchel Resnick explains that he is an increasingly lone voice to express skepticism about badges: 

I worry that students will focus on accumulating badges rather than making connections with the ideas and material associated with the badges – the same way that students too often focus on grades in a class rather than the material in the class, or the points in an educational game rather than the ideas in the game. Simply engaging students is not enough. They need to be engaged for the right reasons.

For Resnick, it is the perception of a badge as a reward that throws back to behaviorist thinking: 

When we develop educational technologies and activities in my research group, we explicitly try to avoid anything that might be perceived as a reward – what Alfie Kohn characterizes as “Do this and you’ll get that.” Instead, we are constantly looking for ways to help young people build on their own interests, and providing them with opportunities to take on new roles. 

However, it really depents on the “Do this” component: what is the learner being asked to do? If it can be performed without engagement, then Resnick may be right. This implies that the reward component may not be the sole function of the badge itself but will depend on the activities required to obtain it.

I started writing this as a badge skeptic. Yet, I’m already starting to think of additional benefits: in a visual online world, badges are visual indicators, rather than text on a screen. They can therefore mobilize visual symbols to trigger our cultural and emotional sensibilities, without requiring reading effort on our part. By looking a badge, we can recognize its shape, colors and design and identify its meaning. This is pretty powerful stuff for learning.

What do you think?