Badges? We might need some stinkin’ Badges

It’s odd to think that the session that struck me most deeply at ISTE12 is the one I haven’t blogged about yet. I suppose that’s the thing about new learning. Everything else I saw at ISTE can probably be categorized into my zone of proximal development. I saw some new things, but nothing I hadn’t run into in some form or another, and a number of things I thought I could probably present on with as much expertise as the session host. Then late on the second last day of the conference, at a time slot where most had decided to move toward a dinner venue, rather than a final session, I attended a Birds of a Feather session held by Dr. Kyle Peck entitled Badges: The Killer App for Technology in Education.

For those of unfamiliar with the Birds of a Feather format, the hope is to facilitate conversation, rather than provision a lecture, so the initial activity was an invitation to introduce yourself, provide context for your experience with badges, and explain your current role. Finding myself somehow closest to the front (out of virtue of setting up camp close to one of the few wall outlets to charge up), I had the opportunity to be among the first to introduce myself. This is when the hubris of thinking I knew what this session was about was a downfall. I spoke about our HWDSB Commons Social Learning Network, and my hopes to integrate the Achievements app into our install to provision badges to students for participating in the community. I thought what we were about to talk about was the gamification of education. I thought perhaps someone would mention Class Dojo or some other form of reward system. I spoke with authority about wanting to discuss the idea of provisioning rewards for participation. I had no idea the breadth and depth of the topic. I was out of my zone. Luckily others followed suit with similar misapprehensions, but I still feel silly looking back on my answer.

Dr. Peck started by quantifying this “Killer app for Technology in Education” statement. The killer app is really individualized learning, and badging is an important part of that. He spoke about the badging movement, and a grant from the MacArthur Foundation, won by Mozilla, that resulted in the Open Badges Project. He spoke about badges being digital, clickable representations of lifelong learning. How they link out to the organization that provided the learning, administered the badge, and provide background and information about the type and depth of skill sets achieved.

The idea is that the students are earning badges in continuous ways instead of being assessed only three times a year. This makes customized learning traceable, and acknowledges that provisioning of knowledge — in an internet age — is decentralized to the degree that traditional schooling, from K to Post-Secondary, has a changing role as only one of many pathways to the diversity of learning available. It acknowledges the availability of services like Codecademy, the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) cropping up on the internet, and the open courses now being offered by institutions like Stanford and MIT. Badges provide a way to recognize the acquisition of knowledge through these venues, and provide accreditation for lifelong learning that happens beyond the doors of our schools, beyond the post secondary realm. People know a lot about a number of things that aren’t traceable or recordable on a resume. Our diverse set of skills are not properly recognized. Micro-certification of these diverse skill sets help to create a better picture of our worth to an employer, and give value to all types of learning, not just the kind that happens within a publicly funded desk, or paid for by tuition.

The MacArthur Foundation has funded Mozilla to build an open badging protocol for lifelong learning. It’s here, and there are entities forming that will help provision badges. As an emerging technology there will be struggles. Just as we have learned to respect certain institutions more than others, we will learn that not all badge providers are created equal, and some badges may be earned through mail order forms available on the back of comic books. This has always been a threat. The Internet did not invent lying on a resume, and we will need to recognize this new facet of accreditation.

Mozilla Open Badge Infrastructure.

What will it look like:

Instead of telling, we will facilitate the path to understanding and provide the certification.

Think in terms of Professional Development, and where PD comes from, and how we can show accreditation of that.

Badges allow for students to chart their own path through schools, and to be acknowledged for the passion-based learning they do on their own.

Badges allow for teachers to assess beyond the set path traditionally laid out in schools.

What problems will there be:

We must be mindful of the difference between reward and recognition. Reward is dangerous. If it’s easy, it is reward; if it’s difficult, it’s recognition. It needs to be hard. It needs to be worthwhile. The badge needs worth. We cannot reward a badge for successfully keeping a seat warm for a set amount of time.

I’m thinking very carefully about how this all fits with our current infrastructure, our current pedagogy. Badge as Learning Goal. Success Criteria as the measure of whether the badge has been earned, and for onlookers, a list of what was necessary to earn the badge. I’m sure I’ll be writing more on the subject as I work to introduce the concept in our schools. Most of the conversation so far as been focused on the post-secondary realm, but I think the idea is just as relevant in our K-12 framework.

Dr. Peck has written a few posts over at the Evolllution blog.

The EvoLLLution | Author Archives

There is an #OpenBadges hashtag on twitter.

If this is the first time you’ve heard about Open Badges, I’m sure it will not be the last.


Published by jarbenne

Jared Bennett is the Student Information System Consultant at Hamilton Wentworth District School Board.

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  1. I definitely agree and can attest to the effectiveness of achievements in education, especially in a social learning management system. @learninghood and I used the achievements plug-in in our “LearningHood” (Learning + Neighbourhood = Learninghood”) social learning network developed a couple of years ago. Much like the HWDSB Commons, the LearningHood is a social learning space where students can reflect and collaborate and share their ideas and work with one another, their teachers, and their parents. As successful as using achievements in education was then, and can be, especially in this environment, there were some inherent challenges that can be addressed from Jared’s post above. I created stickers for each of the achievements that we had put in – so for instance: signing up and logging in for the first time, logging in after 5, 10, 15 and 20 times (etc), starting a group, posting a discussion, starting a collaboration, supporting another student on their own, etc. Some of these achievements and badges were pre-advertised and listed on a page so that they could aim for them – others were hidden, Easter eggs if you will, that were awarded when a certain action was completed. This process is very similar to video gaming; for example, when I play certain games on my PS3 I am awarded trophies during gameplay. Again, some of these trophies I can aim for and many are hidden and unlocked after a certain level, action or series of moves has been implemented. There is an inherent problem with this type of trophy system however. Whereas students playing video games do strive for the next achievement and do try again and again to accomplish their goals, the trophy really is just one of many. Sometimes after unlocking a trophy for a series of moves I’m happy for a very short term but then that trophy is quickly forgotten as the gameplay and the momentum continues. I also couldn’t necessarily tell you how I achieved that trophy or what series of moves I had used in some cases – I may not even be able to replicate it easily (if at all). If that’s the case, I didn’t really learn a new set of moves, I just did it by accident. Whereas that may be the first step on the road to learning, it’s not learning itself. So, if we’re using the same functionality in a classroom – we can’t necessarily say that we are supporting deep learning for our students. So, back to the previous story I was telling. Our students did find the achievements to be very exciting. They found them to be something that motivated them to use the social learning network and found themselves creating groups. But then we noticed that they were only trying to get “the stickers”. In essence, the students weren’t actually aiming to achieve and to be recognized, they just wanted to “collect the stickers” – and we all know that working to collect stickers does not equal or support learning. There have been many times where my daughter comes home with stickers on her work and when I ask her what they were for she quite often doesn’t even know. One other difficulty we were finding with this system was that each achievement came up with a series of points. So, for instance, signing up to the network and logging in for the first time would get you 20-25 points to start. From that point on, each major achievement would give you about 10 points and lesser achievements would give you 2-5 points. These points could all be listed on a sidebar widget and a leaderboard. Again, this whole process emulates the system of trophy and point accumulation from the online social gaming communities. The question then became, however, what can we do with these points? We certainly can’t translate them into marks and we can’t award any type of credits to a student in an unfair way as compared to other students. So what can we do with them? We found that we could use the points gained through the achievement system to award students with opportunities that they may not have had otherwise. For example, we kept certain avatar costumes hidden. We gave students with high group collaboration points the ability to rate certain groups within the network. Themes for blogs could be awarded so that they could customize their blog in a certain way. So there are many ways that a point system could be used to help motivate students and recognize certain elements of learning. As you can probably imagine, this type of process did motivate a large number of students but it did not motivate all and there were a bunch that were not interested whatsoever. There was always something missing, and once again challenging, when considering from a whole class approach combined with personalized and responsive learning opportunities for each individual student in the room as well. The concept of linking badges to external opportunities or agencies and as badges of honour and recognition that can carry forward with this student attached to their digital learning portfolio is probably what was missing. This type of badging is more authentic and carries with the student. It also has relevant and long lasting meaning for the student themselves. These would be badges of learning that students could carry with them and celebrate them and show them off with pride. Perhaps they could even have value for the students moving forward attached to their resume or any form of application for any opportunity. Perhaps they could even have merit when applying to college or university. Much has been written on the effectiveness of the intrinsic motivation of the video game system. I’ve always thought that if we could harness the whole mental and physical process of gaming into the whole system of teaching and learning that we may have that that special spark that can help to motivate and move students forward in a variety of different and dynamic ways. Jared and I have talked about the whole concept of badging and achievements in education with the HWDSB Commons on many different occasions and I love how this conversation will now take that whole idea to a new level and we could see what we can do it in the coming years.

  2. I definitely agree and can attest to the effectiveness of achievements in education, especially in a social learning network.

    I have posted a more lengthy reflection and response on my blog at –

    Jared and I have talked about the whole concept of badging and achievements in education with the HWDSB Commons on many different occasions and I love how this conversation will now take that whole idea to a new level and we could see what we can do it in the coming years.

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