Motivating learning: Is it ever about the badges?
I’m with “Gas Stations without Pumps” in his take on the NYTimes article cited below. Does anyone have any evidence that anyone does anything because of badges? I understand badges as a kind of mini-certification, and unlike “Gas Stations,” I do believe that companies may find valuable having certification about smaller-than-degree skills. We do know that companies are more carefully tuning their job searches these days, and badges may serve as verified skills tags to make it easier to do these searches. However, I would be interested to see some evidence that people really do the activities that earn them those badges because of the badges. I think people answer questions on Stack Overflow because they like to do it, and the badges are a certification of that. I can’t imagine someone studying algebra or US history just to get a badge in those subjects.
In my Prototyping class, we just read the Luis von Ahn and Laura Dabbish paper on the ESPgame. This was the game that they created where randomly-selected pairs of players are asked to “think like the other person” to come up with text labels to match what the other person writes, when both view a randomly-selected image from the Web. It was a popular, fun game that resulted in effective labels for thousands of images on the Web. The sentence that caught my attention was, “However, we put greater emphasis on our method being fun because of the scale of the problem that we want to solve.” First, they never define “fun” or why the game is fun (maybe ala Malone and Lepper), but I was more taken with the notion that we use “fun” to deal with “scale.”
Fun isn’t the only way to solve problems at scale. It’s not even clear how far fun works for large-scale problems. Millions of people get fed every day on the relatively-agriculturally-barren island of Manhattan because of Adam Smith’s iron hand of capitalism, but not because it’s fun to bring food into Manhattan. Pay works to scale solutions. As a parent, I perform a useful purpose to our society, helping to raise the next generation of workers and citizens. It’s not always fun, and it costs me lots of money. The rewards of being a parent are different than fun or pay, and it scales to millions of people.
People learn things for all kinds of reasons, including certification, fun, and for economic benefit (e.g., a good job). I still remember (over 25 years since the last time that I used this knowledge) that hex A9 is “Load A immediate, LDA #” for the 6502 microprocessor, and decimal 32 (hex 20) is “Jump to subroutine, JSR.” I have also programmed (at the machine and assembler level) the 8800, Z-80, and 6800 microprocessors, and the LSI-11 and IBM 360, too. Why do I still remember the 6502? Because I owned one. Learning assembler languages was always fascinating for me, but I particularly wanted to learn the processor that I owned. Feeling ownership of some knowledge encourages learning it. I didn’t learn the 6502 so well because I could get points for it, nor certification, nor economic benefit. I wanted to own that knowledge.
Bottomline: Motivation is key to learning, and we know a variety of ways to motivate students. I don’t believe that badges do it in an effective way.
Badges are gaining currency at the same time that a growing number of elite universities have begun offering free or low-cost, noncredit courses to anyone with access to the Internet and a desire to learn. Millions of students have already signed up for massive open online courses, or MOOCs. By developing information-age credentials backed by a wide array of organizations outside the education system, creators of badge programs may be mounting the first serious competition to traditional degrees since college-going became the norm.