I'm at the Digital Media and Learning Conference 2012, and they had a kick-off panel on the use of badges in education. This was the end of a national contest for researchers to create a badge system supported by the MacArthur foundation The #dml2012 Twitter tag is on fire with people talking about the glory of badges, and this concerns me.
For those of you new here, I'll first point you to the video I created about the concept of Meaningful Gamification . This will help you see where I'm coming from. Meaningful Gamification is about developing game elements that help users find meaningful connections to the underlying activities. I am currently writing a book on Meaningful Gamification, so thought I would start a conversation here with some of my concerns that will eventually end up in the book with the hope of getting feedback on the ideas.
Much of the excitement about badges is that they can reward people for things outside of the normal reward systems. In an educational context, this means they can be used to award activities that may not lead to a grade or are not measured by a standardized test. They can be used as a way for students to wear their achievements proudly and to build a badge portfolio. They can help students find other groups of students who have the same badge. If there was a standardized badge system, then employers and colleges could use badges as part of the decision-making process. It CAN be used for many things... but SHOULD badges be used in this way?
As I've been exploring what makes gamification meaningful (and badges are a form of gamification), I have some concerns about the impact of badging systems.
Badges can reduce long-term internal motivation. Motivational research by Deci and Ryan (take a look at Organismic Integration Theory) has found that if a learner receives external rewards for an activity in a way that he or she perceives is controlling, then the internal motivation to do that activity drops. This is less of a concern if the external reward is always given for the activity or if the activity only needs to be done once. To put it more directly, if a badge is given for something you want a learner to do long-term, that external reward makes them less likely to want to do it on their own. Used incorrectly, badges can have long-term consequences.
For some, Badges will become the goal over everything else. There are different types of gamers (according to Bartle's Test of Gamer Psychology), one of which is the Achiever. The Achiever will want to earn all of the badges available in the "game," which would be amplified by a national Badge-tracking system. This is a concern if badges are used to reward things other than the primary learning outcomes. As we assign more importance and weight to badges through standardized systems, some learners will focus on those badges over grades. Since grades are not public in the way that badges may be, a learner seeking public attention and affirmation will put badges first. Badges need to be chosen carefully so that if someone focuses only on badges, he or she will still reach the learning outcomes for the course content.
Badges can become frivolous, overwhelming, and ignored. I've been involved in the Xbox Live community and have watched the evolution of Achievements. In the Xbox Live world, the original standard was that games would have 1000 points over at least 5 achievements. Early on, games had fewer and more significant achievements. As the years went on, games began to have more achievements that were frivolous - it is common now to get an achievement for going through the tutorial level of a game! Web sites like http://www.xbox360achievements.org/ focus on helping players unlock every achievement. All of these achievements feed into a Gamer Score, which is a featured part of Xbox Player Profile. Achievements are the only way to raise this Gamer Score, so many gamers spend hours chasing achievements in a game.
This wave of meaningless achievements has also turned other gamers who are not Achievers off to the achievement system completely. What used to be interesting and worth pursuing now has become frustrating, so while some are drawn in, others are turned away and ignore the system. In an educational context, this would be a concern if too much weight is placed on badges.
There is a game that pokes fun at the world of achievements, Achievement Unlocked, that is worth exploring for a few minutes for the underlying procedural rhetoric.
It is not unreasonable to think that the world of educational badges may take this same path. At first, the badges will be used sparingly and sensibly, but as more people get involved with the badge creation process, more frivolous badges will be created. A national system to track badges will create the same frenzy in some learners, while others will be overwhelmed and choose to ignore them. If too much weight is placed on badges for college or employment, this will create a problematic situation. I hope that a primary goal of a badge system is to keep this under control.
Teaching to the Test may now include Teaching to the Badge If there is a nationally accepted badging system, it is reasonable to expect that, just like standardized testing, the badges earned by learners will reflect upon the school and instructors. The same control that can keep the badges from become overwhelming can also make things worse! Instructors will have to not only prepare students for standardized tests, but ensure they get appropriate badges along the way. If the badges are designed so that they create a path to a learning outcome, then the badges will be dictating the pedagogy used in classrooms in the same way that standardized tests are dictating the outcomes.
Using Badges Meaningfully
At the heart of my proposal is the concept of Meaningful Gamification. Badges should be used as a guide to help a learner find a meaningful connection to the course material. Different learners learn differently, so different paths of badges should be created for learners to explore. Each path of badges can lead the learner to the same learning outcome, but the tasks required to earn the badges should be to help the learner discover how his or her own interests, beliefs, and backgrounds connect to the task at hand. The badges should mark discoveries on the journey the learner has taken. Reflection activities should be part of what is required to earn a badge so that the learner will be more likely to consider why the underlying topic is important to him or her.
Steps should be taken to reduce the badge as an external reward. The badge should not be seen as controlling behavior, and should not be connected into a national system. Badges can be used as a customized pedagogical tool instead of coming from a national standard. There should not be a meta-system tracking a Learner Score, as the goal is not to have the user earn ALL the badges, but rather the badges that are personally meaningful.
User-Selected and User-Created Badges
One way of making badges meaningful is to allow users to select their own badges to represent aspects of their lives that they want to share. Instead of having requirements set externally, users can choose the badges for achievements that they wish to claim and affiliate with publicly. If someone feels they are strong at coding, at giving talks, or at singing, then he or she can claim and display that badge. One of the benefits that can come from a badging system is group membership, and this method allows users to find affinity groups without the lurking shadow of external control.
Another approach to making badges meaningful is to allow the learner to create badges for the most important points on his or her learning journey. I first learned of this idea at the NASAGA 2011 conference from Anastasia Salter during her talk called "Beyond Gamification for Learning". This will require the learner to reflect upon what he or she has learned and to consider what were important points on the learning process. This will also provide the instructor with feedback as to what was meaningful for the learners.
To conclude, not all badges are bad, but as with many forms of gamification, using them inappropriately can have long-term consequences. To think more about this issue, I would recommend you look at Sebastian Deterding's talk on "Meaningful Play: Getting Gamification Right." It was what got me thinking more deeply about gamification and put me on the path of research on Meaningful Gamification.
If you made it to the end, you have earned a new badge! You are now a "Badge Skeptic"! Use your powers wisely!