Badges for Learning: Threading the Needle Between Skepticism and Evangelism

There has been much ado the past week or so about whether badges can offer a viable means for assessing learning. It has been boisterous on both sides. Badge evangelists such as the Mozilla Open Badge Infrastructure (with which those of us at the DML Competition in Badges for Lifelong Learning work closely) and Cathy Davidson (with whom I co-founded HASTAC) have laid out a vision for how badging might work to reveal, recognize, and reward learning and learning pathways. But there are also skeptics in the room. Mitch Resnick has laid down the challenge to badges for learning. It is good to have serious and thoughtful skeptics to keep the evangelistas honest. Similarly, Henry Jenkins has popped the balloon of a too quick claim that badging will likely salve all the current ills facing learning, informal or formal.

Mitch Resnick’s concern is with the motivational claims of badging’s promotion. He thinks badges at best provide extrinsic motivation for learning, and suffer the challenge that learners are likely to pursue them just for their accumulated quantity rather than for the learning they represent. Scratch by contrast seeks to  build intrinsic  motivation into learning, to get learners to be attracted by the learning for its own sake and good. Badge evangelistas, he is suggesting, tend to tie the motivation in learning to the accumulation of badges, running the risk that the badge accumulation becomes the aim, and the learning the side and superficial effect.

In a sense MR is invoking the longstanding tension between Kantians and Utilitarians. Kantians emphasize that good learning is learning for the value intrinsic to the learning itself. The comprehension of that intrinsic value becomes its own motivation. Utilitarians think good learning will or at least can occur because of the good it leads to for the greater number of those effected and affected by it.

So the question becomes whether these are mutually exclusive considerations, or indeed whether the latter can enable the former, and the former live at least not too uneasily with the latter. For one, extrinsic motivation is surely not limited in this case simply to the most crass measure of the quantity of accumulated badges. The point of badges is that they enable achievements beyond themselves — advancement to the next stage of learning, earning credit and perhaps a degree, revealing to others the skills one has acquired, one means among others of convincing an employer that one is the right person for the position.

So there are a range of deeper, more compelling extrinsic motivations than badges simply for the sake of having the badges and which utilitarian motivations badges can represent, for which they can stand. And as can often be the case with extrinsic utilitarian draws to learning, they can lead to recognition of the appeal of learning because of its inherent value, because of its intrinsic appeal. So there is a more connected relation between extrinsic and intrinsic learning motivation that belies the distinction and potentially defies the Kantian.

Speaking of defying, there is another point to be made about motivation, one that came to me in discussions about badging with Nishant Shah and Philipp Schmidt at the DML Conference this past week. The point pulls in a different skeptical direction than MR’s. We are often drawn to things, to getting and effecting, doing and making and learning, without quite knowing what draws us, what motivates. There is an inkling, a stirring of interest, a sense of the cool. Starting in can turn a drive to know on or off. Here badges can serve as a lure or a moment of recognition, like a nod of agreement or applause of approval. They might just be there at a stage along the learning pathway that drops in almost unexpectedly rather than the carrot held out to the donkey at the outset to get the movement of learning going. Learners are more the Curious George than the manipulated donkey. Badges can be the prompt of curiosity but they can equally serve to recognize the learning to which the curiosity gives rise, and that recognition in turn becomes encouraging of continuing to develop.

Badges in short are a means to enable and extend learning. They need not be behavioral lures so much as symbols of achievement, expressions of recognized capacity otherwise overlooked. As with any means they can be mistaken for ends in themselves, but there is nothing intrinsic to badging that will inevitably make them so. And dismissing them out of court because they just might motivate learning for questionable reasons, as Cathy Davidson rightly suggests, is to do so at the peril of a good deal of learning they do well to prompt, promote, even proliferate.

Nothing here suggests that badging is a panacea, a fix-all, for the entire range of ills facing education. Henry Jenkins is right to worry that any such universalist stretch is inevitably overreach. Not all learners will be drawn to badging, or find them awesome. Some might be turned off by badges. Unlike Henry, as a kid I would not go near one. For the group in which I ran, they were so not cool.  (Which of course is not to say we didn’t have our own, we just never recognized them for badges, informal as they were). The deeper point about badges is that where they work, they work always within contexts that socially support them and where their users are invested in their significance. They do not work for everyone, as motivations or modes of recognition.

In the Kantian vein, then, we could conclude that badges without effective learning would be empty, even useless; while learning without a badging system that embeds an assessment capacity capable of motivating further learning—both more and deeper—would be missing an opportunity to draw into the lure of learning some, if not many, of those we otherwise are in peril of losing. And that’s a good, perhaps even in itself.

Banner image credit: Carol VanHook