Monday, April 2, 2012

Reflections on Reflections on Badges

There have been a bunch of posts from really smart people reflecting on badges over the past month, leading up to and following the DML Competition culmination and DML Conference. There is certainly a dose of skepticism across some of the posts (like here and here), mostly coming back to the question around motivation and rewards. In fact, Mitch Resnick held a session about his motivation-related issues with badges at the DML Conference, but unfortunately the room was so small, that most of us weren’t able to squeeze in, so we formed an Occupy Badges makeshift session to talk about badges ourselves. 

After getting an update on Mitch’s session and catching up on some of the posts, the common concern is around introducing badges as extrinsic rewards into learning experiences where intrinsic motivations may be at play, and potentially disrupting a delicate balance of motivations or existing interest-driven learning. (It should be note that this is a generalization and there is more nuance to their claims - definitely worth a read).

I’ve been wanting to add some of my reflections on these reflections (get all meta) for awhile now and finally scheduled some time - a meeting for myself - to dive in so here it is: 

On intrinsic vs extrinsic motivations:

There is a classic scenario referenced a lot: kid gets good grades in school because he wants to do well and then his grandparents start giving him money for every A. When the grandparents stop paying the kid later on, the kid suddenly isn’t motivated to get good grades anymore. It’s called ‘crowding out’ - the intrinsic motivations get crowded out by the extrinsic motivators. That’s the core of the argument against badges - that badges will be yet another extrinsic motivator that will squelch any existing intrinsic motivations.

This binary view of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is too simplistic. Dan Hickey, an assessment and motivation guru out of Indiana University, has a nice summary for those of us with less expertise on different theories of motivation and learning, and points out:

One of the things that has been overlooked in the debate is that situative theories reveal the value of rewards without resorting to simplistic behaviorist theories of reinforcing and punishing desired behaviors.

The ‘crowding out’ concern is real (and should be considered with grades as well!) but too simplistic for learning and these complex social environments. We all agree on the issues, and we run the risk of doing nothing about them if we cling to overly simplistic interpretations of theory or research studies. It’s also worth noting that badges do not have to just be a carrot, but can be built as tools for formative assessment, empowerment, roles/identities, etc. This means we need to put some thought into the badge system design, but that’s exactly what the competition and other parallel work right now is focused on. 

Don’t muck up interest-driven learning

There is another set of related concerns that go something like this: there is a lot of youth interest-driven learning already happening and its awesome because it is separate and pure and we aren’t mucking it up with adult-imposed rules or rankings, etc. Badges are just another top-down adult-driven system of rules that will just interfere with the learning. 

There are some HUGE assumptions in here. The first is that all youth have opportunities for interest-driven learning and the second is that those that do understand that this is valuable and legitimate learning. I don’t think these are true. I don’t think most kids have opportunities to explore their own interests - instead are forced down the pathways we prescribe for them in school. And if they aren’t inspired by the topics or projects at school, then they are labeled as bad students and that’s not something kids can rise above very easily, or in most cases at all. Most don’t understand that there are other avenues. For those kids that are lucky enough to have some opportunities to explore interest-based stuff, usually in afterschool programs, I doubt that many understand that this learning at all, and that its legitimate and important and could lead to a lot of opportunities for them. They aren’t as empowered by these experiences as they could and should be. These are the gaps that this badge work is looking to fill - to recognize learning and help learners use it for real results like jobs or credits, as well as to help learners find other learning opportunities.

There are some smaller assumptions like badges are only for youth, which they aren’t and that badges are only created and issued top-down and they don’t have to be. But the big assumptions are the dangerous ones.

Badges as a silver bullet:

There were some concerns around badges being positioned or thought of as THE solution. It might have seemed that way at the DML Conference because there was so much attention paid to them. But badges are not THE solution. In fact, badges themselves are not even A solution, but part of a toolkit and common approach of redefining learning to be something that occurs beyond classroom, beyond age 22, etc., recognizing and legitimizing more types of learning and helping the learner have more choice and control about pathways and interests. Badges are the representation, the gateway, the conversation starter, but its really about this new way of thinking and approaching learning that is the powerful part.

I’ve also heard things like “why are you focusing on only one approach” or “one form of assessment”. It’s worth reiterating that badge itself only represents the learning, assessment, experiences and evidence behind it. There aren’t any constraints on the learning or the assessment behind the badge - and that’s by design at this point. If you stop and look at the badge systems people are developing, you will see that there is a lot of thought going into how to utilize badges for specific learning experiences and how to be innovative about assessment, etc. Badges don’t limit this at all.

Another flavor of the silver bullet concern is that we are moving too fast and have one standard too soon. But again, the standardization is only at the level of what information is included with the badge - there are no constraints on the learning and assessment part, at least not from Mozilla or the badges themselves. If there is still concern about the standardization at the level of the badge -  I’m not sure how we would really truly give this a solid try if we weren’t working together. A bunch of siloed systems are not going to help empower the learner or help them create their own pathways. We need some way for the badges to work together - for the learner - and be tapped into a larger ecosystem of opportunity and access. That’s what the Mozilla Open Badge Infrastructure is supporting.

A few last small(ish) reflections:

Education vs Learning: I think its worth making a distinction between ‘learning’ and ‘education’. Education is a set of policies, content, structures and expectations that we define and force youth through. That sounds negative and its not meant to be, education systems are important for many reasons. But learning is so much more than that - it’s any experience where people learn something and that can happen inside a classroom but can also happen in a seemingly limitless amount of ways outside of classroom, and across lifetimes. It’s all that other learning that isn’t currently consistently recognized or valued. That’s where badges can fit in, or at least that’s the current hypothesis we are working under. That’s not to say that badges don’t or won’t have some value in formal education, but there are some bigger questions to think through there - it won’t work if we just overlay badges on the existing system or trying to force the existing system on top of badges.

Badges are not a Mozilla solution - this experiment, and its success, is not dependent solely on Mozilla. We are building the infrastructure to support the badges, but its on everyone else - the learning providers - involved. It’s on them to continue to offer awesome learning experiences, be innovative and authentic about assessment, design badges that amplify that learning and empower learners, etc. But again, if you look at the types of badge systems proposed for the competition, this is exactly what people are doing. 

More to come I’m sure.

-E

More reading:

Mimi Ito: Reflections on DML2012 and Visions of Educational Change

Alex Halavais Badges: The Skeptical Evangelist

David Theo Goldberg: Badges for Learning: Threading the Needle Between Skepticism and Evangelism 

Dan Hickey Open Badges and the Future of Assessment

Audrey Watters (who I finally met in person at DML!) Thinking (Strategically) About Badges

Cathy Davidson Can Badging Be the Zipcar of Testing and Assessment?

Philipp Schmidt Let’s Make Badges Not Stink