Badges, identity and the $2million prize fund

You’ll almost certainly have noticed some of the excitement that’s suddenly erupted around the use of badges in education.  Perhaps you’ve heard that it’s the latest in a long line of ‘game changers for education’, maybe you’re even hoping for a slice of that $2million prize fund the HASTAC Initiative, Mozilla and the MacArthur Foundation are offering for work around their adoption and development through the Digital Media and Learning Badges for Lifelong Learning competition.  Supported by a number of significant entities, including Intel, Microsoft and various US Government departments, the competition offers up to $200k each for a number of projects around content and infrastructure for badges for lifelong learning, as well as an $80k award for a research project in ‘Badges, trophies and achievements: recognition and accreditation for informal and interest-driven learning’ together with two smaller doctoral student grants, and student and faculty prizes.  That’s a decent amount of cash available for – what?

This is all based around Mozilla’s Open Badges Initiative, which attempts to provide an innovative infrastructure to support the recognition of non-traditional learning and achievement for professional development and progress.  Drawing upon the widespread use of badges and achievements in gaming and the current trend for gamification, the project is described in gamified language, claiming that badges can help adopters ‘level up’ in their careers via the acquisition and display (sharing) of badges.  There’s a fair point being made here: gamers can develop a profile and express their individual identity as gamers through the display of achievements they earn as they play, which can then be shared ingame through the use of special titles or on appropriate fora through signatures and site profiles.  Achievements reflect the different interests a player has (their weighting on the Bartle scale for example) as well as their skill.  Within a fairly closed community such as a single game, a suite of games or a website, these achievements have significant value as the viewers are other gamers for whom the achievements have meaning and value.

LarsH on Stack Overflow’s response to the question ‘why are badges motivating?‘, asked over a year ago but still very relevant, sums this up eloquently:

We like other people to admire us.  As geeks we like others to admire us for our skills.  Badges/achievements stay visible in association with our online identity long-term, unlike individual questions and answers which quickly fade into obscurity.

If I play a game and get a great score, it’s nice, but it means little to others unless they have the context of what typical scores are for that game (and difficulty level etc).  Whereas an achievment is a little more compact of a summary of what you’ve accomplished.

Badges also give us a checklist whereby we can see how far we’ve come since we joined the web site – and how far we have to go in order to be average, or to be exceptional.’

LarsH’s comments were in the context of participation in an online community which awards badges for numbers of ‘helpful’ answers to questions and other contributions, but the underlying theme is the same for all contexts: the notion of building a persistent persona associated with achievements and success that endures beyond a single assessed instance (one play through a game, one helpful answer) which which it is specifically associated.  It creates a sense of status and implies competence and trustworthiness, which in turn can inspire others to emulate that behaviour in the hope of seeking similar recognition, or indicate that this is a trusted individual to ask for advice or guidance from.  Badges not only provide recognition of past contributions but also an implication that future contributions can also be trusted and an incentive to participate usefully.

Being able to capture and reflect this sometimes quite fine-grained information in other contexts would indeed have some advantages.  But as soon as these awards and achievements are looked at by someone outside their immediate context, they immediately lose a large part of their value, not because they’re worthless outside their original context but because the viewer lacks the expertise in the field to be able to trust that the badge reflects what it claims or to understand the implications of what it claims.  The value of the badge, therefore, isn’t inherent in the badge itself but in the assertions around it: that is was issued by a trustworthy party on reliable evidence to the specific individual who claims it.  A lot like, say, a traditional certificate for completing an accredited course, perhaps…

As Alex Reid (no, not that one) says, ‘passing a high stakes test to get a badge is no different than the system we already have’, and a lot of the problems around developing a trustworthy system are those that have already been faced by traditional awarders.  Comparisons to diploma mills swiftly emerged in the aftermath of the competition announcement, and it’s not difficult to see why: if anyone can issue a badge, how do we know that a badge reflects anything of merit?  Cathy Davidson’s vision of a world where employers hand out badges for ‘Great Collaborator!’ or ‘Ace Teacher!’ is nice (if far too cutesy for my tastes), but it’s not exactly hard to see how easily it could be abused.

At the heart of the badges initiative is the far older issue of identity management.  As our badge ‘backpack‘ is intended to gather badges awarded in a range of different contexts, how are we to be sure that they all belong to the one person?  As the example above of Alex Reid, American academic, versus Alex Reid, cage fighter, cross dresser, Celebrity Big Brother contestant and ex husband of Jordan, demonstrates, names are useless for this, particularly when the same person can be known by a number of different names, all equally meaningful to them in the same different contexts the backpack is intended to unify.  Email addresses have often been suggested as a way of identifying individuals, yet how many of us use a single address from birth to death?  In the US, social security numbers are far too sensitive to be used, while UK National Insurance numbers aren’t unique.  Similarly, how is a recruiter to know that a badge has been issued by a ‘respectable’ provider on the basis of actual performance rather than simply bought from a badge mill?  Unique identification of individuals and awarders, and accreditation of accreditors themselves, whether through a central registry or decentralised web of trust, is at the heart of making this work, and that’s not a small problem to solve.  With the momentum behind the OER movement growing and individuals having more reason and opportunity to undertake free ad hoc informal learning, being able to recognise and credit this is important.  As David Wiley notes, however, there’s a difference between a badge awarded simply for moving through a learning resource, and one awarded as an outcome of validated, quality assured assessment specifically designed to measure learning and achievement, and this needs to be fully engaged with for open or alternative credentialing to fulfill its potential.

There’s also a danger that badges and achievements can be used to legitimise bad or inadequate content by turning it into a Skinner box, where candidates will repeatedly undertake a set task in the expectation of eventually getting a reward, rather than because the task itself is engaging or they’re learning from it.  Borrowing from games can be good, but gamers can be very easily coaxed into undertaking the most mindless, tedious activities long after their initial value has been exhausted if the eventual reward is perceived as worth it.

Unlike, say, augmented reality or other supposed game changers, it’s not the underlying technology itself that has the potential to be transformative – after all, it basically boils down to a set of identity assertion and management problems to be solved with which the IDM people have been wrestling for a long time, plus image exchange and suitable metadata – but rather the cultural transformation it expresses, with the recognition that informal or hobbyist learning and expertise can be a part of our professional skillset.  Are badges the right way of doing this?  Perhaps; but what’s much more important is that the discussion is being had.  And that has to be a good thing.

9 thoughts on “Badges, identity and the $2million prize fund

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