This morning, the 4th annual Digital Media & Learning Competition was announced on the theme of “Badges for Lifelong Learning”. Around 10:15am or so, Twitter started erupting in very odd comments tagged with #dmlbadges from HASTAC’s live feed.

Very big claims. I reacted quite strongly, as did many of my colleagues, and we were branded “haters”. But we weren’t hating – we were critiquing. I worried throughout the day though that I had “critiqued” too strongly. Maybe I had assumptions that weren’t correct. Maybe I was too invested, had too much at stake. Maybe I was just a grad student who should have kept quiet and let the big guns sort it out.

Perhaps my language was too antagonistic, but I no longer fear that the reaction was unwarranted. Over at @digitaldigs, a lovely piece surfaced this evening entitled, “Welcome to Badge World”. It’s a stark vision of the place being created in front of us. A place where my son’s after-school activity isn’t decided by his interests, but by what gives the best badge, the one that the prep schools or the summer programs or even the colleges care about. You want to play basketball? Sorry, you aren’t good enough to win a college scholarship so instead, we’re putting you on the debate team because the debate badge has been shown to increase acceptance chances by 12.5%. A more real-world and actual example can be found in this app that partners with local golf courses to offer deals for participants. The hook? You have to gamify your game of golf and earn badges for playing a game that already has an assessment system. You can’t just play golf with your buddies and get a coupon – you have to badge-ify it. This is a whole new kind of meta-gaming.

At first, I was upset because badges are this piece of games that get detached from their home, appropriated and used for some shallow incentive. Games have so much potential for learning, a fact that was also in the public discourse yesterday when the ESA head presented to Congress on the value of games in education. I found myself wishing that the committee in charge of this program had paid more attention to or even heard that presentation first. It’s unfair to take a piece of games and expect the power of games to come along with it. But maybe this isn’t about game-based learning at all. It’s just about putting a point value on everything we do.

But Boy Scouts and the military have badges! Surely, it can’t be that bad of a system. It seems harmless, doesn’t it? Like getting a gold star on your worksheet. You see a gold star, you want a gold star, you work for a gold star. Bibbidi, bobbidi, boo – learning! But it’s not that simple. The most respected badges are those which have no guidelines, no strict rules to acquire them. They are exceptional and earned in exceptional circumstances by exceptional people. Most importantly, they’re earned not by trying to earn them at all. They are sometimes won by ignoring the rules altogether.

Let’s think about the badges we already have in education – degrees and test scores, the proofs of learning. Consider a student who cares about passing (badges are pass/fail) his history final so crams all night, promptly forgetting everything in the drunken stupor that follows the aced exam.

Or students who don’t actually care about learning how to write in college – they care about finding out what this particular teacher wants and then milking the A out of them.

Or teachers who end up teaching to the test for a one-time score instead of teaching the critical thinking and observation skills needed to succeed in the long-term. (Yes, see above.)

Or any number of examples in which learning and knowledge are no longer the goals, but rather, the perk acquired in the process of gaining some form of badge.

Systems of badges may not come from games. In fact, they may denounce any connection to games and even say they are not a form of “gamification” as happened during the announcement of #dmlbadges this morning. They cannot deny or change the fact, however, that they create a game in their appropriation of a game feature. It’s not about learning anymore; it’s about getting a badge. In such a system where there is a complex construct of rules and loopholes with one final goal, humans will attempt to find the most efficient path to that goal. Mice to cheese, if you will. It’s not about trying to enrich yourself; it’s about trying to pad your badge backpack, trying to game the badge system. What if we change those standardized tests into badges for critical thinking? Well, how is it assessed? How is critical thinking judged? Is school funding dependent on quantity of badges? What is the most efficient path to the badge? I don’t see any actual change in the system here – I see a new layer of paint. It’s an ugly mutation of what badges perhaps idealistically are – a symbol for actual expertise and experience. Ideally perhaps, there is no value in a badge – there is value in what it represents. But instead, badges are a goal in and of themselves, a commodity, a currency of the job market, of success. Life becomes defined by badges, all experience reduced to a virtual backpack.

There’s another problem with badges and it exists not only here, but in games themselves. I gave a presentation at the Canadian Game Studies Association’s annual meeting this spring on achievement systems in games, and part of the discussion focused on how achievements create a valuation system independent of the game itself. For example, there are achievements in World of Warcraft for any number of activities – killing, exploring, collecting, and drinking. But only certain kinds. You can explore every part of the map, but not all of it will count for an achievement. There is only value in the places that are listed on the badge itself – all the other corners of the world, the things you may stumble upon, the details that the designers put in have no apparent value. They have no achievement. They do not matter to anyone except you. Let’s say that you are a social guru and organize server events for your community. In other words, you’re an outstanding community member and player of the game. No achievement, no value for anyone outside of your own small part of the entire game’s community. Badges (and thus value) are defined by others. When a hole in that value code is found, one response is: Let’s just add more achievements/badges then! We’ll had an achievement for every corner, every friend, every boar!

This is frighteningly similar to the problem that the Badges for Lifelong Learning program is trying to solve but also to its intended solution. The observation is that people gain expertise in non-traditional areas which have no value because they have no accredited degree or something similar. So let’s give them badges, the program says. Let’s add that corner of the world to the list. Except that there is no system that can possibly account for the variety of expertise and of the manners in which it is gained. (The committee may say, “…yet!”) There is no system that can quantify learning to such an extent (nor perhaps should there be?). As some kinds of learning and knowledge are elevated to value by the badge system, all the others will be not just left alone as unaccredited pastimes or learning for the joy of learning, but even lowered to the point of worthless. It is here that I return to my initial problem with the system – that it is a shallow and pathetic substitute for what game-based learning can be. In a culture already time-poor, play, one of the most powerful learning tools available, is reduced to a waste of time and a worthless activity, simply because it cannot be badge-ified. And if someone succeeds in badge-ifying it? Well then it is just another badge, just another gray uniform, just another expressionless face in the long line of badge-holders.

My greatest hope for this system is that the outpouring of critical responses will encourage the competitors to think deeply about the programs they propose. I especially hope the committee funds critical research through the research competition portion of the program and I look forward to the results of what seems to be the start of a powerful and provocative discussion among educators and academics.

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. John Carter McKnight
    Sep 16, 2011 @ 17:43:27

    Terrific post.

    It only takes my undergrads a few class sessions to get that games are systems, and systems get gamed. Considering that perhaps the biggest problem in education is the gaming of the standardized-test system, proposals to replace it with a system *designed to be gamed* can only suggest complete intellectual bankruptcy.

    The problem seems to be in taking analogies too seriously: there are badge systems that work very well, but for concrete skills: hence the Girl Scout and military analogies (I’m familiar with the PADI certification system).

    Certifying that I’ve got X number of classroom hours and X number of dive hours for a Rescue Diver badge is a fairly clear thing, as is “served a tour of duty in Afghanistan.”

    These systems only work because they’re issued by an over-arching authority with transparent standards. Absent that, the exercise is pretty meaningless.


  2. Tony Searl
    Sep 17, 2011 @ 04:46:26

    I know one thing, I’m going to enjoy the conversation.

    Iron Mike, traditional brawler, rough, dirty, powerful, scary even, will talk (or bite) your ear off, representing Academia Utopian Open Uni, welcome in the Red Corner, Status Quo, but different.


    Gladys Rose Coloured, emerging faux disruptor, a defender of the economic imperative, will tread on toes in close, bit flaky in a thought fight, welcome in the Blue Corner, Status Quo, but different.

    Yep, a mixed up debate indeed. Ding, seconds out. Bring It On.


  3. Cathy N. Davidson
    Sep 17, 2011 @ 12:31:05

    I share many of the concerns in this blog and, more importantly, I think all of us administering this year’s Digital Media and Learning Competition want to make sure that there is real analysis. Also, a new accrediting system is NOT gamification. There are games that use badges but the model organizations such as Top Coder, that credits/badges web programmers world wide, is about peer review, not games. We’ve had a learning game competition in the past. This isn’t one.

    This competition is motivated from many impulses that are about real learning, inside of schools and outside. Here are some of the reasons that I, personally, like exploring alternative systems. A competition isn’t the be-all and end-all. It offers a problem and a challenge and offers anyone the chance to participate. We never end up with these DML Competitions with the results we anticipated–and that’s a great thing. I am motivated (it’s all there in my book NOW YOU SEE IT so this isn’t new to anyone who knows my work) by : (1) a desire to see concrete examples of other more complex, nuanced ways of accrediting a range of talents, abilities, skills, aptitudes, and so forth that teachers see at work all the time; the current system, and especially the tyranny of end of grade tests in national public education (est 2002) and the substitution of “standardization” for intellectual and educational standards and teacher judgment, seems to me a disaster; it’s worth exploring concrete, workable, scalable alternatives because there is no way the current NCLB will end without one. Here’s my blog on various aspects that address this point: And (2) we are naive if we think that every commercial vendor in the country isn’t already staking this territory and the point of Mozilla’s involvement is its commitment to openness. If this isn’t done by non-profits using open platforms, we will have even more funding going to commercial vendors than the hundreds of millions currently going to preparing, marking, grading, and prepping for tests. Here’s a great blog by the brilliant Audrey Watters (“Hack Education”) on the “open” part of all of this:

    Will this work? Will it yield exciting alternative systems that serious researchers can then study, evaluate, analyze, critique? That remains to be seen. But the astonishing outpouring of interest suggests so many of us are tired of the system invented for a crisis, in 1914 by Frederick Kelly (I talk about him, I found his archive, in the “How We Measure” chp of NYSI), and that even Kelly never intended to be national policy beyond a World War. We have to find a better way. A competition is low risk. No one has to compete. It’s a great way to learn what is out there rather than to reify what one already thinks. We invite anyone to come up with as fair, nuanced, careful, and practical a system as possible. We’d love your participation and are grateful for sustained, challenging, inspiring critique.


  4. Christian
    Sep 18, 2011 @ 01:12:45

    Great piece. The important thing is also to connect these badge systems to the current status quo, and not let their gormless technofetishist pushers occupy the middle ground. Fact is, these sorts of things ARE the status quo, and no sort of educational avant-garde. Changing education to suit teachers + technologists IS the status quo of education, has been for 30 years. That is what’s got us where we are.


  5. John Carter McKnight
    Sep 18, 2011 @ 01:22:13

    Cathy: I’m a huge fan of yours, and I think the DML competition is an excellent idea. However, I’m concerned that it’s an attempt to solve a strategic problem with tactical tools.

    Your own response to the NY Times’ piece a few weeks ago about technology innovation in schools here in Phoenix captured the problem: if we lack a social consensus on what education is supposed to accomplish, and lack a social consensus on how to measure those accomplishments on top of that, we have no meaningful way forward beyond arguing between the camps who think education is basically fine and those (myself included) who think it’s basically screwed.

    *Any* evaluation system only works when (a)the evaluation outcome is clearly tied to the evaluation process, (b)that process is transparent to outsiders and (c) generally legitimate. It also helps if (d) the evaluating body has a monopoly or near-monopoly on the field of evaluation: i.e., there aren’t competing and contradictory systems.

    There are plenty of good examples in badging: LEED certification, PADI diving certification, military skill and tour-of-duty badges (a significant element of chance and politics goes into meritorious-action medals, I believe), and most state and industry licensing programs (as opposed to some university and third-party certification programs, which fail at (d) in the eyes of employers).

    In education, we quickly get to situations where none of (a)-(d) apply. Even in STEM education, content-module certification is tricky; in the social sciences and humanities, it seems close to impossible. Did the badge I awarded in Foucault match the same standards as one from English, or Gender Studies? Or the one from Harvard? What did I base it on? Will that information be available to a potential employer (or one-upping hipster) twenty years from now?

    Badges are worth trying – but my criteria suggest that they’ll have the most worth in circumstances of the greatest standardization… which gets us right back to the problem we have in the first place.

    I think we’d be better off taking on the hard questions of the role of education in a highly technical, democratic society, and *then* come to a consensus on outcomes before we start trying out tools for measuring them.

    Otherwise, everything in education is going to look a lot like nails, and not all our problems are susceptible to hammering.


  6. Adarel
    Sep 18, 2011 @ 17:43:46

    I also like exploring alternative systems, and I hope that this critique does not sound like a bombastic dismissal of alternatives. On the contrary, I recognize that our current system is deeply flawed and that there are problems we need to address. As Monika Hardy said in her comments to your post “Why Badges, Why Not,” there are potentially many alternatives. This competition is focused only on one, one which has problems (not that others wouldn’t necessarily).

    One troublesome issue with this project is that it looks at the situation as it stands now and attempts to solve it, but I fear it doesn’t look much further. Many of my and Alex Reid’s comments are directed to this aim. What about 15 years down the road when badges are a part of life – what problems will we have created? I am sure the research that comes out of this will do much to perhaps enlighten us of potential risks and offer us ways we can safeguard against them – but that is happening simultaneously with programs being put into place. This will not fix our problems without introducing new ones; allowing that knowledge to play second-place to the positive potential of this program is unwise.

    Right now, we agree there are people with skills who need to be recognized for them in order to be competitive in the job market. At this point in time with this proposed system, badges will not be the goal – badges will be the reward for work already accomplished. That’s good. But what is going to happen when jobs are no longer traded on the basis of degrees and certification, but on homogenized badges? If they aren’t unique, will they have any value to individuals? If everyone has a unique badge, will it have any value to employers? (See John’s comment above). Will they become simply another hoop to jump through to get a job?

    Alex in his comments to your thread gave an example of his sister-in-law who is a successful freelance editor and writer with only an Associate’s. In a badge system, she could get a badge that says “Successful Freelance Writer” and links to her work. How is that different from a portfolio of her work? Do we need an overarching organization to also say that her work is valuable in order for her to get a job? Perhaps we do, but then, how do we convince employers it is as valuable as a degree? Who accredits the accreditors?

    Why are degrees + portfolios more valuable now than portfolios on their own if what we care about most is marketable skills? Perhaps sometimes the assumption is that one learns more in college in pursuit of a Bachelor’s than just the information in their exams. Perhaps they learn social and leadership skills, an ability to work with others, critical thinking, and an awareness of the world around and beyond them. A portfolio doesn’t say that. Does a badge? If someone acquires these kinds of skills outside of college (many people in college don’t actually – it’s an assumption the degree makes), how are those badge-ified? How are they judged in the first place?

    What about the hierarchy badges will likely come to fall into? Some institutions may come to have badges that are more valued than badges from elsewhere. (The alternative is that all badges will mean the same thing and so people will have to find yet another way to distinguish themselves in a tough market.) You imagine an example where a Ph.D. from MIT and a 16-year-old from Gary get the same badge for exemplary work. Well now they both have the badge from HASTAC as opposed to everyone else who doesn’t. Badges are just a new term, a new label. They don’t erase the boundaries of reputation and credentials – they create new ones.

    What are we trying to accomplish? If we just want to accredit people for their skills acquired outside of traditional institutions, badges can probably do that, problematic as they may be. But if we actually want to implement institutional change, big, lasting, meaningful change, we need to think deeper. Think harder. Think braver.

    Our schools are failing our kids. You mention standardized tests – I don’t see a proposal anywhere to replace them. This system is mostly talking about giving badges to people already in the workforce, people who’ve either already been failed by the system or who found the system didn’t give them what they need. Well, why don’t we change the system? Are we just giving up on it and saying, “If it doesn’t work for you, go teach yourself and get a badge!”? We’re putting a band-aid on the skinned knee and ignoring the bone sticking out the side. With so many huge names, big organizations, and important players in the field of education involved in this project, we should be able and encouraged to do more than give out badges.

    All of that said, passionately critical as it may be, I am actually happy that this project has come to be even if only for the important dialogue that is happening. People are continually brilliant and I’m excited to see what this competition can allow them to do.


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