Badging for Student Motivation

A couple of weeks ago I made notes and comments on Part 1 of Digital Badges in Education: Trends, Issues, and Cases which dealt with trends and issues. Part 2, which I’m turning to now, focuses on ‘cases’, with this particular sub-section looking at ‘Digital Badges for K12 Learners’. These are examples of badge projects in action, including that featured in Chapter 12 (‘College and Career Ready: TK-12 Badging for Student Motivation’).

After some standard background to the project, the chapter takes an interesting turn

In focus group conversations, the philosophical questions quickly arose: What is worthy of a badge? Some administrators wanted to ensure that every student earned a badge and thus advocated for a low threshold for issuance. Each student would earn a badge for taking a particular standardised exam, but their level of achievement would be indicated with a different badge color… However, when we recalibrate do the purpose of the badging program, tied to our college and career readiness initiative, we came to the consensus that “Proficient” or “Advanced” scores should be our target. Since badging was designed as a student motivation component, cheapening the badge such that everyone earns a badge every time would defeat the purpose.

This is a classic case of creating a false dichotomy and not really understanding the affordances of Open Badges. Using badges solely for their motivating power is likely to lead to diminishing returns but, more importantly, badges are not simply ‘digital certificates’ or ‘digital gold stars’. Reducing badges to this level is shoehorning an analogue mindset into a digital world.

Open Badges are a learning currency. Therefore, just as in a fiscal system, to participate in the economy of badges, one must have a stake. As badges can be issued by anyone for anything, there’s absolutely no problem in ensuring that people can start their badge journey by claiming a low-stakes badge. It could be for participation, it could be for something else. But to artificially restrict badges in order to issue them like paper certificates is to merely substitute one technology for another.

The authors detail the logistics of moving from the design to the implementation phase, noting some issues with ‘School-site badges’:

While challenges to site-level badges were anticipated at the time of launch, the specific idiosyncrasies that have arisen could not have been foreseen. For instance, due to the design and the usage of our SIS [Student Information System] to automate badges associated with specific course codes in the master schedule, we have found some inconsistencies between schools using the same course code to teach similar but not equivalent courses. This has resulted in a few instance of students being assigned badges for skills they did not learn or master.

I disagree. I think this is eminently foreseeable and avoidable. Firstly, a one-to-one relationship between course code and badge is poor badge pathway design. Secondly, this is the kind of problem that planning using a spreadsheet was made for. As ever, the problem with this project was the outdated thinking, not the technology

The conclusion cites self-reported data around motivation which, it would seem, because bar charts could be created as a result, meant the project was successful. I think this was a highly problematic implementation of badges, even with the self-congratulatory rhetoric of the authors writing up the project.