A Plea to Education Vendors: Please Don’t Throw Out the Badges With the Biscuits

The conversation started on the top floor of a trendy refurbished building in Milwaukee’s Third Ward. It was an evening dedicated to celebrating the growing startup community in Milwaukee, and I had a chance to connect with some of the budding startups in the area. Of course, I had my eye on the education startups. I had a half dozen great chats, finishing up with the founder of a fast-growing education startup that is doing great work in alternative education. As the conversation ensued, the founder asked about my current work and interests. I explained that I’ve been spending the last year or two exploring the affordances and limitations of competency-based education along with open badges. Then I talked about our most recent experiment in that area, the new M.S. in Educational Design and Technology that is built around competency-based digital badges. While polite, he became quiet. I followed up by asking if they’d considered adding digital badges to their product. After a long pause he politely explained that their team decided against it. “We decided not to add badges because we believe that they take away from the intrinsic motivation of the students. We don’t support the carrot and stick approach.”

I’ve heard this before. I even wrote about it in Beware of Badges as Biscuits. For some, badges fit into a sub-category of gamification. They are like points, gold stars, and reward features. I forget about that view because it is not how I ended up investing so much time into badges. I arrived at the doorstep of the open badge movement through my study of alternative education along with emerging models of assessment…and a hint of work in positive psychology. From there I also became fascinated with the role of credentials in formal education and society.  As such, my interest in badges has to do more with documenting evidence of learning, not as reward mechanism.

This is not a simple distinction because the subjective experience of people comes into play. Whether we are talking about badges as rewards or as micro-credentials used to document evidence of learning or achievements, it is hard to understand how receiving badges is experienced by different recipients. When I was recently surprised with the issuing of a Badge Alliance Visionary badge in November of 2014, I was honored. It feels good to be recognized for work that you value, for things that you’ve accomplished, or contributions that you’ve made to something that is important to you. Is that game mechanics at work? Is that a carrot and stick approach? Is that pure extrinsic motivation? Some might argue so. Is the same thing true when you get an unsolicited thank you, reference letter, or a public recognition of your work? Most of us don’t think of those things in terms of gamification. They are forms of recognition, and it can evoke pride (even a bit of embarrassment) when it happens.

If we are going to call all such things forms of a carrot and stick approach that are to be avoided, then I suppose we need to get rid of any form of recognizing accomplishments and achievements as well as forms of documenting such things. People will feel good about them, but that doesn’t make them enemies of intrinsic motivation. In fact, in Lepper and Malone’s classic work on intrinsic motivation, they describe recognition as connected to intrinsic motivation. Why? It is because we have an intrinsic desire for recognition of our accomplishments. Consider how many advocates of project-based learning speak passionately about the value of intrinsic motivators. Even as they do so, they are quick to point out the power of including an opportunity for learners to get feedback on their work and to have a chance to present and display their accomplishments to authentic audiences. In fact, many PBL champions describe this as one of the more valuable elements of PBL unit/less design. Similarly, in self-directed learning perspectives, there are many conversations about how to display your accomplishments to others. Browse books on unschooling and self-directed learning and you’ll come across the frequent topic of making evidence of your learning and accomplishments visible to others, whether it is as part of application to a college or for a job. There are times when showing what you can do and what you have accomplished is important.

Similarly, with the PERMA model in positive psychology, a model that describes the path to well-being, the “A” in the acronym stands for achievement/accomplishment. To have a sense of achievement or accomplishment, you to recognize that you have achieved or accomplished something. Sometimes that is abundantly clear, but a carefully designed badge system can help make it more visible, even providing the learner with a log of progress and accomplishments over time. When learners see their progress in learning, they experience a sense of accomplishment. Without some sort of feedback about our progress, it is easy to lose motivation, to lose track of where we’ve come from in our learning journey.

The use of badges doesn’t necessitate a carrots or biscuits (as I describe in a previous article) approach. What they do exceedingly well is create a visible symbol of some achievement or evidence of learning. They are credentials, providing a clue to the learner/recipient as well as anyone else who is able to see it. They document learning. Some might be motivated by seeing the documentation. Part of that is because badges can be used to make an achievement or progress in one’s learning visible to the learner herself, something that is not always readily available. In that sense, badges are also a form of feedback, formative or summative.

Despite this fact, there is a caution for those who want to avoid the use of badges purely as rewards and extrinsic triggers of behaviors. If the design and communication in a learning experience with badges focuses upon “do this and you get this prize called a badge”, then the critics are right. There is a good chance that it might foster a carrot and stick approach. On the other hand, it is a very different design if you create a badge system as as a way to recognize progress, to break up their learning progress into discrete elements, to document learning from one or multiple sources, for learners to share their progress or achievement with other necessary parties. This is an inherent feature in the concept of almost any credential connected with learning. There is a danger that the credential…the symbol will become more valued and more of the focus than the learning or achievement. That can be mitigated against, but not entirely removed.

Regardless, I respect the fact that educational publishers and software providers want to their products to reflect what they believe is good, right and valuable in educational practice. However, in doing so, please do throw out the badges with badges with biscuits. They are not one in the same.