The Great Digital Badges Debate

June 14, 2012
Kelsey Herron
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, CA
CATEGORIES Digital Citizenship, Digital Literacy, Out-of-School Learning, Students

You may have read about Mozilla’s Open Badge Infrastructure, or “Digital Backpack,” that was launched last year and the MacArthur Foundation’s subsequent badge-creating competition, we wrote about it here.  To simplify it a bit, badges are a new method of validating learning that doesn’t always happen in the classroom. The merit of badges, however, has been a polarizing debate for academic experts. According to a recent article in Education Week, there are two schools of thought about this new way to acknowledge skill-building.

Advocates see the badges initiative as creating new opportunities to assign real-world value to students’ interests and skills, and to acknowledge that these skills are important regardless of their origin.  "One of the things that is abundantly clear to us is that learning is incredibly fragmented, and there's nobody that's helping the learning that's happening across those connections,” said director of education for U.S. programs at the MacArthur Foundation Constance M. Yowell. “How do you make visible what kids are learning, and how do you help them get credit for it?" says Yowell. "How do you build bridges across the multiple places that kids are learning so they can see the connections between what they're learning inside of school and outside of school?"

Other advocates say that the new program can create “learning pathways” where there were none before. EdWeek reporter Katie Ash suggests students could earn badges for various levels of each new skill acquired. “For example, students who have earned an introduction to HTML badge, which refers to a type of computer programming language, could then be encouraged to pursue an intermediate level HTML badge to continue building their skills, a website creation badge where they could apply that skill, or a badge for a new programming language, such as Java or CSS,” wrote Ash.

At MOUSE, a New York City youth development organization that empowers underserved students by providing technology support and leadership in their schools, leaders began using badges as a way for students to see how their skill sets might forge a career path in a specific program called MOUSE Corps. Common Sense Media is partnering with MOUSE to ensure that students in select schools understand basic digital citizenship skills.

"The major outcome of [MOUSE Corps] is all about applying skills, but we also want to help them to envision a pathway that goes beyond 12th grade,” said education director of MOUSE Marc Lesser.

MOUSE Corps has awarded more than 19,000 digital badges for all kinds of activities, ranging from taking care of school IT issues to mastering programming languages like HTML. According to Lesser, their decision to use digital badges came from a desire for students to view the program as something more than a semester-long afterschool club. "We needed to start helping young people see a trajectory for themselves [in the program]. There's far more impact when young people stay with us for longer periods of time," he said. "Badges may help learners see steppingstones that don't lay out in a linear way.”

Skeptics, however, see badges as another example of too many “treats” in exchange for learning.  Henry Jenkins, Provost’s professor of communication, journalism, and cinematic arts at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, views the badges system as just another step toward the “gamification” of education.

"[Gamification] is a system which does not trust the power of intrinsic motivation and feels the need to add a layer of extrinsic motivation," says Jenkins via email to EdWeek. "Some forms of gamification rely so heavily on points schemes that there is far less effort to make the activities meaningful in and of themselves."

When we create so many extrinsic rewards, we risk losing the ability, in other words, to learn just for the joy and internal satisfaction of learning. According to Ash, skeptics of the badge system have pointed to research that shows extrinsic motivation, or giving out rewards, for activities students would already be completing for their personal benefit reduces their overall motivation to take part in these activities.

Jenkins also said that he worries the badges might become “just another points system” and high-achieving students who are already grade-driven might focus on the number of badges received, rather than the learning that takes place behind the badges. His worry aligns with recent research [pdf] showing that individuals who learn for the sake of mastering an idea or task are more engaged learners and the learning “sticks,” while those who learn just to show off their knowledge (or avoid looking incompetent) tend to be less resilient in the face of failure.

Ash recalls Jenkins’ tentativeness toward a new system of grading:

"Too quick a move towards badges runs the risk of destroying the complex but fragile ecosystem within which participatory learning thrives," Jenkins says. Providing adult validation for student achievements through digital badges in places where that validation did not previously play a role could turn some students off, he says. "There is a value in helping these youths find ways to value what they are doing as intellectual pursuits, and there is a value in seeking to validate these experiences and help them learn how to mobilize that knowledge as they learn to work through the formal structures that exert power over their lives," says Jenkins. "But making badges too central to the process may alienate them before they have a chance to exert ownership over the knowledge they are acquiring."

MacArthur’s Yowell has a remedy to Jenkins’ fear, however: rely on digital badges as feedback and acknowledgement – not a reward. "What we think matters most for learning is, how do you give the learner and the folks supporting that learner ongoing feedback about how they're doing?"