Motivating learning: Is it ever about the badges?

November 21, 2012 at 8:42 am 11 comments

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.

via Show Me Your Badge –

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11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. BenK  |  November 21, 2012 at 8:52 am

    I have an unusual perspective, having been involved in a wide variety of educations and educational opportunities (formal, informal, ivy league, and MOOC; as student and teacher in several settings), but also having served in the military.

    Sometimes people do things ‘for the badges’ because the badges say something about you. That you are tough. Smart. Agile. Hard working. Committed to the team/company/nation.

    Other times people do things for badges that open doors – anyone who wants to do job X needs accessory skill Y which isn’t terribly relevant, or do a job that is a stepping stone in the career trajectory. For instance, if you want to drive a tank, you need to be able to do a wide range of tasks that involve human resources management, logistics, etc. If you want to be a commander, you need to find a path to command, not just jump to the top.

    Many of these things that provide ‘badges’ are not inherently interesting to the learner, nor are they directly rewarded in cash, because everyone at a set rank gets the same pay, but the learning needs to occur and be performed adequately to achieve these accessory ends.

    The military is probably one of the largest consumers of distance learning/online training, with 3 million members each engaged in this material several times per year. It’s an important source of insight for educators.

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  November 21, 2012 at 9:01 am

      Ben, I agree that the military is one of the largest consumers of distance learning/online training, but I’m not sure how far it goes as a source of insight for educators. These are completely different audiences. A learner is in the military because she has bought in to a set of goals, they already have a sense of commitment. Not so for most of formal education. Badges in the military relate to achieving objectives. There is observable value connecting the badge to the desired goal. It’s not so clear for US History and Algebra for the majority of schoolchildren.

      I do take your point that there’s a place for badges. My focus is formal education (K-12 and undergraduate), and I see less of a fit there.

      • 3. BenK  |  November 21, 2012 at 9:34 am

        I agree that the military and K-12 are distinct populations; and I see that I muddied my points during the post. All badges are about demonstrating an accomplishment; sometimes that accomplishment is actual learning, sometimes it is completing a learning exercise. The second is amenable to all sorts of moral hazard – ie. cheating – and requires strict community standards and enforcement, but it still represents an achievement. Sometimes, simply sitting through the lectures is an actual achievement, demonstrating the willingness to endure (especially if the lecture starts at 5 am, on tarps, in the sleet and freezing rain).

        Are there conditions in which we would want K-12 children to work for the badges rather than for the actual educational content? Certainly! In fact, I’d argue, that’s what has been working much of the time so far. Children won’t have much practical use for the quadratic equation in middle school even if they will use it extensively as professionals (and few do). Trying to make it seem practical always is stilted and forced; it’s worse than nothing, frankly. Some kids find the quadratic equation fun; but motivating them is no challenge. However, there are quite a few children that find approval in parental, teacher and peer eyes can be gained through good grades (the other motivator, avoiding parental and teacher wrath, is less effective). So, the badge is the grade, and the framework is similar to the military, in that the real reward is approval from supervisors and the unit, additional learning and service opportunities (like advanced/prestige classes), and some liberties (freedom from rote exercises replaced by independant learning materials in advanced classes).

  • 4. techkim  |  November 25, 2012 at 8:18 pm

    I’ve been a skeptic of badges myself until I was at the Scratch@MIT conference this summer. During the keynote session with Connie Yowell & Jan Cuny, I was reminded that many students miss out on opportunities because the adults surrounding them don’t know how to make the connections from their interests to career pathways. Too many students don’t get to even realize that computing is an interest because CS is simply not taught in their school and, of course, these students are disproportionately minorities from low income families. This really shed light for me on the whole “badges” initiative as a way to help make the pathways & connections transparent and equitable.

    I think educators like Chad Sansing ( have the right idea by acknowledging that there’s already “badging” inherent in our grading system. He empowers students to create badges as self-assessment. He wants them to be able to recognize “which badges are common commercial credentials and which badges signify substantive learning and accomplishment.”

      • 6. BenK  |  November 25, 2012 at 9:39 pm

        Even money must be connected to pleasure, security, prestige, acceptance, affection, power, or some other primal desire; if it can’t buy happiness, as it were, it loses its cachet. How to imbue badges with value – monetary or otherwise? Badges need not be simple stand-ins for money to be desirable and motivating; they can stand in directly for things like prestige, acceptance, power or security, if they are recognized by the right communities.

        A significant factor in badges’ utility is the ability to make them represent shorter stints of effort than an academic degree (4, 6 years) and thus make them more tangible to people who can’t yet see the virtue in extreme delayed gratification, or who can’t sustain the effort logistically to achieve grand goals. This may be helpful to bootstrapping people from communities that lack social capital. However, it also means exactly that – the badges won’t have the same messaging ability to communicate that this person has the capability and social backing to achieve long term goals. This capacity – and the social backing, too – is valuable to collaborators, employers, potential business partners, potential mates – and so messages that convey this will still demand a premium.

        In short, we can’t expect badges to fix the job market for people from disadvantaged backgrounds, even if they have inherent value. As a result, students will discount the badges relative to what the people giving them would desire.

  • 7. Jamie Bracey  |  November 26, 2012 at 1:48 am

    I think BenK is on the right path. Awarding cultural minorities with a “credential” recognized and valued (not fully defined) requires understanding the potential power of providing proof of identity within the domain. I’m giving a nod to the impact of extrinsic motivation (badge) on students who’s intrinsic motivation (pursuit of knowledge) might make them sneer at something hokey, unless it’s like receiving a “handle” as they develop programming skills. I guarantee that if it became popular within our Eco-system, and valued and introduced by experts in CS as evidence of achieving a desirable level of knowlege, I can see students viewing a badge as their price of admission to the game.

    • 8. Mark Guzdial  |  November 26, 2012 at 7:29 am

      I do see the vision you describe of what badges could be, but I find social science predictions untrustworthy — and that includes my own. In educational technology, we often see findings like the 1980’s “CAI boosts standardized test scores, but only in urban, low-SES schools, and not in middle class, suburban schools.” It’s really hard to design something for education that works broadly.

      I would like to see empirical evidence that they do work that way. I need two kinds of evidence to convince me that badges can play a significant educational role. (1) An existence proof, that students will learn (perform, put in effort, work) at something we recognize as academically valuable for a badge. (2) A systemic proof, that badges are better than our existing system with its high drop-out rates. Badges have to work for 70% or better of the students. Glitch did offer evidence at both levels, and that’s my model that I’m using for judging badges.

      • 9. BenK  |  November 26, 2012 at 7:06 pm

        If we define badges somewhat broadly, we have evidence that units of education smaller than a 4 year degree can provide useful elements for training, education, certification, motivation. I would look to a number of places to demonstrate this; all of them at that highly skilled interface between blue and white collar. Look to the clinical laboratory, to paramedicine and nursing, to the machinists and mechanics, to places where regularly renewed certifications are valued and rewarded economically. This has crept, slowly and steadily, into other communities such as physicians, who now cannot simply expect their MD to provide a lifelong livelihood without continuing education, board exams and other tokens of what is euphemistically called ‘lifelong learning.’ It really means ‘current job skills.’

        All of these ‘badges’ are most common in regulated industries; you can’t work without the current certification. They are also common in fields where education doesn’t necessarily mean skill.

        In the academy, where education is supposedly everything, a PhD is forever – the platinum badge; however, citation indexes that only cover the last 5 years provide a sort of ‘badge’ that expires with inactivity.

        In my idiosyncratic perception, badges are advertised as a way to motivate people without putting money on the table; technologically sophisticated individuals without money or independent authority are promoting them for a variety of reasons, most of which appear somewhat transparent and can be uncharitably characterized – like the desire to be a power broker or influencer, to garner a monopoly on certification which can yield economic rents, or simply condescending paternalism. This doesn’t mean that badges can’t work – but it seems to me that they must be advanced by someone with existing authority or economic influence. This requirement somewhat takes the shine off them for these other purposes.

        I’m sure some people will disagree.

        • 10. Mark Guzdial  |  November 27, 2012 at 10:54 am

          I’m one of those disagreeing, Ben. Sure, various forms of certification (and if you want to call those a form of “badges,” okay) have existed for continuing education for adults for years. But I don’t find comparable professionals (who have already gone through post-secondary education of some sort, have already been vetted/filtered by various forms, are adults, and know why they want the certification) to children learning STEM subjects.

  • […] most effectively by responding to the individuals in the class. I just got my student feedback on the prototyping course I taught in the Fall. What the students liked best was that I led discussions based on their questions and comments on […]


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