I’ve been hesitant to ask questions about Mozilla’s Open Badges Infrastructure project because I fear that it will be yet another issue that divides me from most of my friends and peers (and idols) who work in education. The last time I questioned what looked like echo-chamberish activity in my own network, I was so frustrated by the result that I left blogging for almost a year. I hope this time I can handle it differently!
The bottom line: I don’t understand the inordinately negative reaction to the Open Badge initiative amongst those with whom I am generally simpatico.
Badges Aren’t (or Don’t Have to Be) Diplomas
I am surprised that those who so often rail against the standardized recognition of the institution in the form of diplomas and certificates are immediately hostile toward what I see as essentially a blank space in which to experiment with something that is far more flexible in terms of recognizing a learner’s achievement and skill. I’m surprised that so many who self-identify as part of groups that have (or might as well have) badges or t-shirts or some other emblem of their membership would object to a project that is effectively capturing the same spirit.
Like pretty much any representation of this kind, it can be abused. Some object to badges because they aren’t “enough” or are too lightweight in the face of real institutional problems, saying things like “But if we actually want to implement institutional change, big, lasting, meaningful change, we need to think deeper. Think harder. Think braver.” Fair enough. IF you believe that the kind of deeper institutional change is possible. I don’t think it is. Many others agree. I think institutions are endemically resistant to the kind of innovation needed for change and that the only hope for that innovation to occur lies outside of those institutions (which doesn’t necessarily mean tearing them down, for various reasons). If you feel that way, then criticizing a mechanism that could at least work to supplement those institutional activities by recognizing activities beyond their bounds is actually the shallow, cowardly, foolhardy thinking.
Trust, Cooperation, and Peers
I’m similarly mystified at the lack of trust this reaction reveals within particular educational communities. I understand that badges could (and likely will be) co-opted by institutions for their functionally nefarious ends. But the same mechanism can be exploited for different ends. I would probably care as little about a badge from Duke as a I do their diploma–neither necessarily meaning anything–but a badge that was awarded as part of an open (or other) educational effort by David Wiley or Stephen Downes or Gardner Campbell or Jim Groom? That would certainly mean something to me. I could easily see badges as being a very meaningful representation of one’s participation in a MOOC or one’s contributions as a DS106-onaut. And if we maintain, as many of those involved in these open activities do, that this is about the learning and what the learner can do, not the institutional recognition, then these kinds of internal systems of recognition are even more important.
And you’ll note that in these cases I’m talking about participation and contribution as the important stuff that is represented by a badge. I don’t think other kinds of learning aren’t important and amenable to the idea badges (see below), only that there’s no reason that they can’t be approached from a “higher” level. In the spirit of MOOCs and open courses as they tend to exist, I’d expect that the qualities that are recognized would be part of a scheme devised to a significant degree by the learners… and awarded by them… and used as a basis for encouraging them to work together.
Populate and Innovate
I’m also troubled that instead of being seen as a kind of infrastructure that is itself valueless, the Open Badge project is being seen as, apparently, an intrinsically negative system that can only be colonized by the dastardly institutions who will wreak further havoc on learners. With educational innovators being so adept at colonizing existing technological systems and using them for their own reasons, why is this project not understood as a great opportunity, a new space to populate and within which to innovate?
Learning is Composed of Many Parts
There’s one area where I know I am in some opposition to many of my friends and colleagues: the value of memorization and some “rote” activities. Setting aside all other discussion about badges and their potentially significant, deep, applications, I actually believe there could be value in their simplest, shallowest use, as a representative of achieving simple, well-defined goals. To a large extent this is the Boy Scout model of badging… and that ain’t nothing.
For example, while I don’t believe it is a meaningful metric on its own, I believe that providing incentives based on quantification of some activities, such as blogging and other creative acts, can be a valuable part of learning. Regardless of the content–in fact part of the value from some activities is inherently connected to purposefully not being at all concerned about the “quality” of the content–actively writing every day is a mechanical practice that often leads to a Zen-like creative practice. For writing creatively, a badge of “30 consecutive days of 750+ words” (or 365 days of taking a daily photograph, or 30 days of riding one’s bike to work, etc) represents having engaged in a valuable but easily quantified activity. Sustainable practice is a proven idea used in classrooms and on the web (see 750 Words or any of the innumerable sites that allow one to commit and track progress in achievements academic or personal… or the much better combination of both, most of which provide badge-like recognition, leader boards, etc.) for which the Open Badge infrastructure appears eminently suited.
In a related way, I value targeted memorization and learning things by heart (and those are not the same activity). To this day I am thankful I thoroughly memorized multiplication tables, lists of prepositions, conjunctions, and conjugations. Memorization of poems is an important part of my writing practice. Each of these could productively make use of badges at their simplest.
And the fact is– and I’ve seen this time and time again– badges and badge-like recognition at its simplest can stimulate the feedback loop that is the virtuous circle of intellectual and social investment. Quite often things that appear to be “shallow” can actually lead to–and then be part of–deeper, significantly more complicated learning processes.
Incentive or Assessment or Other?
Melanie McBride tweeted: “my ability to acquire a badge isn’t an index of my learning but my interest in obtaining a badge.” This is a clever quote but, to my mind, finally meaningless because it presupposes that a badge can’t possibly reflect successful performances, contributions, and activities.
Any form of recognition is based on something done, said, or created. A badge may be nothing more than a visible way of demonstrating that one did, said, or created something. Any model can be fit into Melanie’s statement: “my ability to acquire X isn’t an index of my learning but my interest in obtaining an X.” And, in fact, it boils down to something even more meaningless, given that recognition, which undeniably can be a positive thing, exists, so the formulation at work here is actually: “my ability to do/make/create X isn’t an index of my learning but my interest in doing/making/creating X.” Well… yeah, it is. That’s the point.
Of course badges, like any other form of recognition or incentive–and like anything represented by any kind of assessment– could be meaningless in the same general way that some assessments aren’t considered “authentic.” But as long as any recognition or incentive or assessment is considered authentic or valuable or useful, then badges must ultimately also have that positive potential.
Gamification or Game Mechanics?
Alex Halavais and Melanie McBride and others have commented about the “gamification of education.” Some of those commenting have also talked about their support of educational gaming. I guess I don’t understand the terms and/or the argument. If there is any kind of educational gaming that is inauthentic and (mostly) meaningless, and thus would be suited to the epithet of “gamification,” it is that kind of game that attempts to fit learning into a whole existing gaming model (first person shooter systems used to create games that allow users to shoot chemical formulae and the like). I could also understand the term as applied to the implementation of game-like activities without intention or thought. But there must be an alternative to descrive the positive aspects of the same kind of activities. And can we then call other activities by that name? Is it “pedagogification” if an educator thoughtlessly applies pedagogy without attention to the context of their practice or “philosophication” if an educator brings philosophical concepts into the discussion regardless of their relevance?
Far more interesting and positive (mostly) is intentionally integrating game mechanics with educational activities. As an example, it has been my experience that students generally respond positively– and in ways that result in real learning gains– to leader boarding based on progress or reputation, even if the system allows the student only to identify their position in relation to the anonymous position of classmates. Gamification is a negative term for this positive model, and lest one make the claim that “this only represents an interest in moving up the leader board,” I make the Johnsonian refutation and point to the performance of my students, for whom that description of desire is backwards… for them, the recognition was a reflection of their work and activity.
Scarcity is a Red Herring
I’ve heard some objections to the idea of badges based on the theory that their value, like a material natural resource, would be derived from an artificial scarcity. That’s hardly (necessarily) the case. The possibility of badges as a motivating force for learning is not defined by scarcity, at least not on the supply side. As with many mechanisms of social recognition of activity, the only scarcity is the possible scarcity of individual effort… the recognition itself is, in many systems, of functionally infinite supply. In fact, one only needs to create an artificial scarcity of such tokens if one presupposes that learners are not all of the things so many of those objecting claim them to be, e.g. amenable to self-directed learning, willing to perform–and capable of–productive self-assessment, desirous of the freedom to learn in and through their network in open courses, MOOCs, informal and independent learning, etc.
The Downsides (and the Snark) are (too) Easy
Of course there potential downsides to the use of badges. I’ve yet to see any technique in the world of education that doesn’t come with drawbacks… practically all of which can be found in action somewhere. Badges can (and probably sometimes–even often–will be) be indicative of shallow learning, misapplied, and subject to gaming in the negative sense. There will likely be many badges that are worthless, the basis for spam, and misleading to students… just as there are many certificates, certifications, degrees, and a innumerable other such quantifications now. Guessing at the way things could go wrong and making snarky jokes is easy, as many intellectual shorthands (and sleights of hand) often are.
But badges have a tremendous potential upside as well, a potential not limited to their stimulating effect on conversations about assessment and recognition. If the project stays on track it represents an infrastructure of opportunity with which interested educators can craft recognition systems themselves, and in which the cooperative and innovative spirit of educators forming and teaching in networks now can likewise collaborate on ways to represent the experiences of their students in at least internally coherent ways, providing hooks for external understanding that simply don’t exist now. At the very least the open badge system could be co-opted and harnessed for good the way even systems with no overt educational interest have been. With care for–and attention to–what their use of badges represent and what information is accessible by and through them, I see great potential for open badges to be another powerful tool for educators willing to engage with them at a level beyond the witty, but predictable, banter.