Badges are shiny little certifications

      Filed under: Articles   

[Some thoughts following Badge Working Group #2]

A badge – which I think of as a publicly-displayable symbol awarded by a group to an individual as a way to recognize an achievement meeting certain criteria – can be used in a learning context in a few different ways. Gamification is a hot topic right now, but while incentivizing participation can be a powerful tool for engaging learners in non-compulsory learning activities, it needs to be done carefully to avoid substantially undermining intrinsic motivation. Gamification aside, there’s another role for badges in a learning context: When a respected organization publicly recognizes the accomplishments of an individual, this says something about what that individual is capable of doing in the future. Badges can act like mini-certifications, exactly the sort of thing we aim to convey in a resume.

But if we already have grades and degrees on resumes, why would we need badges? Badges tell a different story. Badges identify strengths without focusing on weaknesses, whereas grades average both. Badges are designed to be displayed publicly and proudly, whereas grades are generally read privately and hidden promptly. What about degrees? While the presence of a college degree on a resume can be a signal of qualification to a potential employer, this signal is (a.) slow and binary, (b.) opaque, and (c.) only issuable by a small number of formal educational institutions. In comparison, badges are (a.) designed to recognize finer-grained accomplishments and proficiencies, (b.) make transparent both the criteria for award recognition and the raw evidence of student work meeting these criteria, and (c.) be issuable by any organizations that support learning, inside or outside of the classroom. In short, badges offer a way to make out-of-class learning more relevant by making it more visible. To find out, we have to test this out.

Several learning environments already award badges to recognize accomplishments (e.g. StackOverflow, Grockit, P2PU, Khan Academy), but each one has had to recreate a similar underlying software infrastructure to support this. If we, as a community, think that badge systems are worth exploring and evaluating, we can accelerate this by offering a simple, shared infrastructure that handles basic functionality: issuing, storing, sharing, and displaying. The Mozilla Foundation recently began a badge project and Open Badge Infrastructure to do just this. This could be incredibly useful, but it does hold two risks. First, sharing a single infrastructure may result in the community prematurely settling on one approach to badges before other promising alternatives have really been explored. Second, a software-based framework for badges can’t be leveraged by groups lacking the technical know-how or organizational infrastructure to interface with the framework. One proposed goal raised during the meeting was to build a system in which it is as straightforward to create and issue a badge as it is to receive and display one. When Mozilla’s infrastructure is in place, I’ll set aside some time to create a small website that anyone can use (without writing code) to create one-off badges that flow through the system. Nothing fancy, just functional enough to let anyone who is interested in testing out web-based learning badges within their own community actually be able to try it out.

Is “badge” even the right word? Should we use different words to differentiate between incentivization and certification?



Nils Peterson wrote on July 22, 2011
Ari, I'm concerned by your assertion "When a respected organization publicly recognizes the accomplishments of an individual, this says something about what that individual is capable of doing in the future." I think there are a range of educational organizations that have "said something" via a diploma or achievement test that is not predictive of an individual's future performance. I don't think we need to go as far as the disclaimer that comes with a stock prospectus "past performance is not a predictor of future results" but I'm reluctant to over promise on badges.

David GIbson wrote on July 22, 2011
Great summary and I look forward to the democratization of badges. Reputations must be built and maintained in order for any badges to have external meaning; but there is another potential for them - internal badges used to signify accomplishments, unlock new powers, open doors, within a digital media environment. So badges can have internal reputation separate from their external exchange value. In both cases, there is a sort of economy of badges, which I'd like to think about some more (Is this a useful way to think about them?) In terms of the name, I think there is a flow going that is not worth fighting against, even though the word (or any other word) has baggage. For example, are these things like the sew-on decals of scouting, where you simply do X to get a badge. If the internal uses become trite the word will carry even more baggage (e.g. a badge for showing up, one for bringing the coffee, too many for doing mundane things). But if the external uses become validated within some ecosystem of use, then they will become valuable (e.g. if Mozilla Webcraft badges from P2PU help you get a job you want, or someone finds you in a search for people with certain badges).

Nils Peterson wrote on July 22, 2011
David, This helps my thinking. "The internal badges used to signify accomplishments, unlock new powers, open doors, within a digital media environment" might usefully be for more mundane things -- showing up with coffee and treats -- in that a mundane skill practiced until it become habit can unlock habits of mind that are they externally manifested in larger behaviors. For example, leaving helpful answers to questions could earn moderator powers.

Ari Bader-Natal wrote on July 22, 2011
Nils: I agree with your point about not over-promising. Earning a badge indicates that you met the stated criteria at the time it was awarded, but shouldn't be a statement about the future. David: I consider "internal" badges -- ones that increase visibility or unlock additional privileges within a particular digital learning environment -- to fall into the gamification bucket. They can shape the culture of a learning community by rewarding/encouraging specific forms of participation. While this can be a mechanism for incentivizing any sort of participation within a community, it can certainly be used to encourage behavior that we believe is most likely to lead to learning. These behavior-encouragement badges are more about process than product, so I think the badge itself holds less meaning (and interest) to the outside world than the badges that recognize accomplishments. Still useful, but in a different way. In the design of a learning environment that incorporates both types of badges, I'd suggest displaying a learner's certification/accomplishment-style badges on their publicly-visible profile page, but displaying their incentivization-oriented badges only to other members of that learning community (i.e. not to the world at-large.)