How Open Badges Can Promote Student Motivation

When we ask “why offer Mozilla Open Badges in education?”, the answer often comes back “to motivate students”. When we ask “how exactly does that work?” — well, uh, it seems people have differing ideas.

I think that many people take it as an article of faith that giving badges will magically motivate students to want to earn them. Location-based social game Foursquare ushered in the gamification craze by offering badges to motivate hipsters to check in at restaurants, but even they are suffering from low engagement. It appears that issuing badges is not enough to motivate people to use that app, so is it really enough to get your students to persevere on a tough assignment?

Let’s take a step back and examine how badges really relate to motivation. We need to look first at teachers’ motivations for giving badges, and then discuss what that does to promote students’ motivation to persevere through their learning.

Two different reasons to issue badges

In education, there are two different and opposing schools of though about why you’d want to issue badges to students. While badges can be a great tool for communicating what’s expected and what you’ve achieved, they are often confused with motivation for motivation’s sake. Let’s look at the two ways people use open badges….

The Digital “Scratch and Sniff” sticker

The first type is the badge that’s given easily and freely in the hopes that it’ll cheer up students and motivate them in the future. This kind of badge is the “scratch and sniff sticker” of the digital age. These badges are easy to get, nice to receive, and are mostly offered in an attempt to make education more fun. Teachers give them to students to make them feel special and happy, all in the hopes that, in some small way, it will motivate them to like school and try their best.

Scratch and Sniff Stickers

I’ve been earning badges on CodeCademy as I work my way through their JavaScript lessons, and some of them are clearly meant to make me feel good that I’m working so hard. My “25 points in one day” and “100 exercises” badges fall into this category.

I’d argue that while these badges are fun, they don’t communicate much about my skills to a future employer. Can I use these badges as a resume or portfolio, as proof of what I know and can do? They also don’t help me get a clear picture of how the lesson I just completed fits into my overall growth as a student.

To put this in perspective, imagine waiting in a doctor’s office for a health appointment and noticing that there are no diplomas on the wall, but instead there are only framed plaques for “perfect attendance” and “most cooperative”. Those are pretty good virtues, but they aren’t the same as mastery of the relevant skills and concepts.

If a badge is not tied to any real measure of my mastery of content, then what is the point of storing them in a persistent digital repository for the rest of time? I know for myself that these easy badges are nice to receive, but they do very little for my intrinsic motivation to earn them. I also know that these are not the badges I want to post alongside my resume or digital portfolio.

This is not to say that this type of badge is useless– but it shouldn’t be confused with a true measure of what I know and can do. Next, let’s look at badges that correspond to stated learning outcomes.

The Competency-Aligned Badge

As schools adopt outcomes and competencies as the measures of student success, there’s an opportunity to use badges as a way to clearly communicate what’s expected of students and when they’ve achieved mastery. Unlike the “scratch and sniff” badge that can be earned for teacher-pleasing behaviors, these badges stand for an authentic milestone a student achieves on their way through their education.

The motivation for issuing this type of badge is to show students how far they have come and how far there is still yet to go. Moreover, this kind of badge can certify student learning in the same way that a diploma or a learning portfolio does now. It communicates that “according to this badge issuer, the student has successfully completed everything we think they need to do to demonstrate mastery”.

Back to my CodeCademy badges, I earned one for “Build a Website”. It communicates to anyone that I know how to build a website. If a future employer wanted to know whether I can build a website, I could show them this badge and say “CodeCademy thinks I can build a website.”

Of course, badge issuers (notice how I’m trying not to say “institutions”) will vary in how rigorous their process is to certify student learning. It will be easier to earn badges some places, while other issuers will be more selective — the same way that a degree from Harvard is considered to be more valuable than one from an unaccredited “diploma mill“. In other words, your badges will always be only as good as the reputation of the issuer. And the way issuers enhance their reputation is to produce high quality graduates — just as it is today.

Competency Aligned Badges

Competency-Aligned Badges and Motivation

I don’t think badges are inherently motivating — but I think they can be used to bring our attention to all the de-motivational practices that we’ve all accepted as being a normal part of school.

The norm is to give students one chance to succeed, and if they fail, they get a bad grade, feel stupid, and never get the opportunity to achieve mastery because everyone is already moving on to the next lesson. Talk about a de-motivator! Mastery-based learning itself is inherently motivating because it gives students the freedom to try, fail, learn from their mistakes, and work until they succeed with personalized instructor support as needed. This safe, supported, and mastery-oriented pedagogy is at the heart of why video games are such good motivators — they reward trying again and again until you succeed. Once you’ve achieved mastery, the badge is a visible (and meaningful) representation of that success experience.

Another de-motivator is the lack of transparency about how students are normally graded, what skills they’re learning, and how this will prepare them for their future careers and lives. Normally, every instructor has their own idiosyncratic process for determining (and communicating) how to be successful in their course. This causes untold student anxiety and disempowers them from taking ownership of their progress through their education. The way badges can motivate student achievement is to clearly communicate what’s expected of them and where they are in the process to mastery.

It’s now possible for students to have a personalized list of all the skills, knowledge, and competencies they need to successfully complete a course of study. Imagine looking at your whole four years of college as a list of discrete skills, work products, and knowledge that you will one day master. Now think how good it feels to watch those empty slots fill up with brightly colored tokens, signifying that you are on track to graduate. More than that — that you’re on track to be a qualified professional in the field you’re passionate about! You can see what those skills are, the meaning of them is transparent to you, and you know that you can use these badges as proof of your achievement.

Summing Up

This is all to say that what truly motivates students to achieve is having clear expectations, transparent outcomes, and support in reaching mastery. Badges are not a motivator in and of themselves, but they can be a valuable tool for communicating what students know and can do. In that sense, they can be extremely powerful when used as part of a competency-based education program that empowers students.

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Ted Curran

Ted Curran is an Instructional Technologist doing R&D in Emerging Models for Pearson Learning. He is committed to empowering teachers and students to create transformational change through effective pedagogy and technology integration. You can follow me on G+ or Twitter, or learn more at the 'About" page. These thoughts are my own.

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  1. June 28, 2014

    […] How Open Badges Can Promote Student Motivation […]

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