All About That Badge

I often hear people say, “It’s not about the badge. It’s about the learning.” Well, yes. It is always good to bring the focus back to what we value. But, what if it really is about the badge? What if, by insisting on the learning, we miss something even more social, more fundamental than what is being learned. Before I get booed off the stage for saying this, let me explain.

In 2013, each of the 30 Badges for Lifelong Learning projects responded to a series of questions about their first year of badge system design. I went through the data and published the findings in “What Counts as Learning: Open Digital Badgesfor New Opportunities” as part of the Connected Learning Report Series. Going through the data, what struck me most was what one project described as the “so what” question. Once a learner has earned a badge, so what?

I’m going to argue that this is the most important question we can ask about badges, and it has nothing to do with learning, or assessment, or motivation for that matter. It also has nothing to do with technology. Equally important, “so what” also is not the same question as “why bother?” The “so what” question is more about negotiating what some refer to as trust networks, and what Thomas Green calls the “medium of exchange” in his book “Predicting the Behavior of the Educational System”* (1980).

“We have already seen…that such things as certificates, degrees, transcripts, and the like serve an essential role in establishing the ‘medium of exchange’ that permits activities performed in one institution of the system to be substituted for the same activities as if they had been performed in another. Perhaps some other devices could serve the same function but not be recognized as degrees, certificates, diplomas, or transcripts. It is hard to imagine what that social invention might be.”

We would take a different design approach to badges for learning if we treated this work as a social invention instead of a technological innovation. Green uses the words “device” and “medium of exchange” almost interchangeably to describe certificates, degrees, transcripts, and diplomas. But, “medium of exchange” suggests social actors doing something with the device, and that is the puzzle we have yet to fully understand when it comes to badges. Once a learner has earned a badge, so what? The answer often has nothing to do with technology and a lot to do with trust networks — although, at the very least, the technology must work.

In Barry Joseph’s blog post, “My Beef with Badges,” he writes: “I hear descriptions of new badge projects designed as if [a broad ecosystem of badges] 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.”

Without prioritizing this need, we risk overcomplicating the learning with a lot of complex technology that is not easy to build. Lessons learned from the 30 Badges for Lifelong Learning projects suggest that badge system design is a degree more complex than curriculum development. Having a shared language is critical, understanding the dynamics of collaboration is crucial, and without a superior user experience, the purpose of badges can easily become lost.  

In other words, if we are going to do this, we better understand what it takes to build a “medium of exchange.” Better badge technology is important, but there also needs to be a collective belief in the value of badges, and this cannot happen in the absence of trust networks. To better understand this, consider Brazil.

In the early 90s, Brazil’s inflation was so bad that people would check the value of their currency each morning to see how much it had dropped overnight. A big drop meant it was worth hustling to the store to buy food or gas or other products before store clerks could mark up yesterday’s prices. A colleague of mine who was in elementary school in Brazil during these years says he raced to spend his allowance right away before his money became worthless. If you live in a relatively stable economy, it is hard to imagine how the value of your currency could plummet at such an alarming rate. 

In response, a team of Brazilian economists implemented an audacious plan to stabilize the country’s inflation. They developed an alternate, virtual currency that had a one-to-one value with the American dollar, a temporary measure that they planned to retire after the real currency stabilized.

But, that never happened. Instead, the opposite occurred. When the real currency stabilized, the alternate currency replaced the old one and became the new. What is most remarkable about this story is that the economists intended to switch the currencies all along, a massive act of hoodwinking that by most accounts went over without a hitch.

Why the hoodwinking, though? Why not just introduce a new currency and tell people to go forth and earn, save, and spend? Because currency is the collective belief that something has value. Without that collective belief, without that trust network, there can be no wide-scale medium of exchange. The economists knew this when they indexed the new currency to one that was relatively stable, and grafted this new value onto the traditional currency. Without the collective belief in what is ultimately a shared value, this could never happen.  

To put this in more concrete terms, imagine a badge system designed for a public library’s summer reading program. Let’s say the library designs the system so that youth can earn badges for reading and display these badges on their profiles or personal blogs. There is value in a badge system designed for this purpose, but there is no medium of exchange or trust network for these badges. However, in a scenario where librarians and language arts teachers establish a trust network between the public library and middle school, there is a medium of exchange. Instead of having students record on sheets of paper what books they have read, teachers tell the students they can participate in the library’s badge-based reading program, which supports social features if students wish to share what they read with their peers. But, the main exchange exists for students who want their badges to have value to someone else, in this case their language arts teacher.

Trust networks do not have to be large scale, but they do need to be defined. And, fostering collective belief that the badges have value does not have to involve hoodwinking. It can be defined and created within or across institutions, and may even evolve beyond what was initially designed. 

In the badge world, the next great challenge is to foster collective belief in badges, and there is no silver bullet, no technology, that can replace the core work of building trust. Every organization that plans to build a serious badge system needs to think carefully about their trust network and maybe write, “so what?” in large bold letters somewhere prominent until there is a clear answer. Learners need to trust that answer if we expect badges to become widespread.

The Hive Learning Networks and Cities of Learning are the trust networks to watch because they will teach us how diverse organizations foster a collective belief in the value of badges exchanged between and among them. It makes me think, If badges are about trust and fostering collective belief in what has value, maybe in fundamental ways it really is about the badge.

* Many thanks to Michael Olneck, professor emeritus of educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for discovering and sharing this quote. 

Banner illustration by Maritess Steffen

Guest blogger Sheryl Grant director of social networking for the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competition and a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science.