Let’s make badges not stink

by P

There is a lot of noise about badges at the moment with opinions ranging from “we don’t need no stinkin’ badges” to “badges will lead to global peace.” I have been one of the original instigators (PDF) of the badges for learning movement (is it really a movement?), but my favorite session at the recent DML conference was Mitch Resnick’s panel “Are badges the answer” which looked at the wide range of factors that motivate learning and discussed possible negative effects that badges could have on motivation.

Here is my nutshell summary of the panel:

Research suggests that introducing an extrinsic reward (in the form of a badge) will decrease existing intrinsic motivation. We also know and understand that many other factors can provide intrinsic motivation for learning. In order to avoid lowering participants’ desire to learn, we should therefor focus on understanding and increasing the development of the intrinsic motivation and refrain from introducing extrinsic rewards.

I am glad to see people like Mitch and his panelists add their thoughtful voices to the conversation. He is right that there is a risk that we get badges wrong. And he is right that the hype around badges may lead to the development of poorly designed badge systems that will at best not improve learning, and at worst hinder it.

But I believe that there is more to badges than their role in motivating learning. And that through careful design choices we can try to avoid the negative impacts he describes. After all that’s what his team at Scratch is already doing – experimenting with aspects of rewards that are not that different from badges, such as showing points for discussion forum participation and counting remixes.

The issue is not, “badges or no badges” The issue is how we can design badge systems that foster great learning practices. We will learn a lot more about how these systems work in the next year as the DML badge competition projects kick into implementation, but for now I would suggest two simple design principles to get us started in the right direction:

1 – Use badges to define roles rather than as rewards. In many learning communities users take different roles. Mitch actually mentions the importance of taking roles within a community like Scratch, but he sees roles as separate from badges. I believe that by recognizing roles – for example a mentor role – through a badge will signal to a new members of the community that mentorship is a valued practice within the community, and helps  them identify those who can help with problems and questions. And finally it may encourage users to strive to become mentors themselves. So rather than give badges as rewards they can help diffuse awareness of roles within a community.

2 – Anchor badges within community. The relationship between issuer and recipients will influence perceptions and expectations around badges. Badges that are woven into the fabric of a community of learning will be perceived less as extrinsic motivators, but as representation of core practices within the community. When the badge recipient feels ownership of the design of the badge, because she fully considers herself a member of the community that defines and issues the badge, the badge can provide an effective marker of learning pathways that help the learner to orientate herself within the landscape, and can act as a marker and pointer for new members of the community following in her steps.