Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Responding to Michael Cole’s Question about Badges

By Dan Hickey

Michael Cole
I was involved in an exchange on XMCA, the listserv established by Michael Cole’s Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition and the journal Mind, Culture, and Activity.  I mentioned digital badges in the post, and Mike wrote back to ask:

You know there appear to be several people who appear from time to time on xmca involved in the Mac Arthur initiatives where badges are all the rage. For anyone interested in multi-modal representational practices, it is certainly interesting as a subject of CHAT analysis.

Question:  if you are right in your assumption that the BADGE movement will start a trend what do you think that the trend promises or portends more broadly?

I have taken some time to respond, in part because I wanted to get caught up on the latest work by Cole and his students regarding their successes and challenges around the Fifth Dimension after-school computer clubhouses.  The Fifth Dimension is precisely the kind of educational innovation that should be easier to create, sustain, and study when digital badges are widely used.

What Does this Trend Promise?
Regarding the MacArthur/Gates Badges for Lifelong Learning Initiative, a star-studded kickoff led by Secretary Duncan and articles in the New York Times, Chronicle of Higher Ed, and the Wall Street Journal are quite significant for a $3M initiative. At a recent MacArthur meeting, the policy people who are well connected in DC confirmed that interest in digital badges is exploding in many different agencies and contexts.  According to the hardworking folks at Mozilla Learning (who are defining the Open Badges Infrastructure and shepherding the many open badges efforts beyond MacArthur), interest is exploding around the world as well.  If even a small fraction of the many efforts now underway succeed, badges are going to transform numerous existing learning environments and foster the creation of many new ones.  A longer speculation on this near-term potential is here.

One of the most exciting things that badges promise is new versions of old debates.  There was a pretty good article last week Education Week that is current and well written.  The author cites the concerns that Henry Jenkins and others have raised.  I love Henry's work on participatory culture, and a central goal of my assessment research is fostering participatory cultures within the inevitable constraints of schools (i.e., standards and accountability) and most informal learning environments (e.g., resources and persistence).  So I take his concerns quite seriously.

In particular, I agree with Henry’s argument that education is already "gamified".  So the answer to Mike’s question about what badges promise is really another question: Compared to what?  Given the trivial amount of learning supported by many current formal and informal educational contexts, ANY attention to learning outcomes might be an improvement.   Introducing digital badges is sure to change most learning ecosystems.   On the upside, the incentive value of digital badges is likely to draw attention to dubious credentialing practices and lousy assessments. While stakeholders who have a vested interest in the existing ecosystem are likely to blame the badges, most will agree that such attention is needed and generally helpful.

Certainly some of the changes that follow from digital badges will be bad.  In particular, I worry about the fetishistic obsession with test-driven educational reform expanding to badges.  I believe the policy researchers who argue that overconfidence in test-driven reform undermined achievement in many schools that were already high-achieving before No Child Left Behind.  I worry that the same thing may happen as well-meaning administrators and governing boards insist that high-functioning schools and programs incorporate digital badges.  Consider, for example, that the kinds of participatory learning communities like fan fiction websites that Henry studies could quickly come unraveled by the hasty or forceful imposition of badges; the same thing might occur when badges are hastily or needlessly implemented in high-functioning classrooms or programs.  Henry, along with Mike Cole, John Seely Brown, and Jim Gee have helped us realized that it is the culture that emerges around the technology that matters.  It is going to be the same for badges, though I suspect it will be faster and more dramatic.

I believe it was Nora Sabelli who said in the 1990s that any new technology will increase learning only to the extent that it increases interaction between teachers and students.  (Dr. Sabelli worked in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in the 90s; she is now at SRI International and remains a national leader in educational technology).  I think her logic can be extended to badges: If badges reduce knowledgeable interactions between people, learning of that knowledge will go down.  If badges increase knowledgeable interactions between people, learning of that knowledge will go up.   Where badges are valued and are awarded, we are likely to see more of whatever they are associated with.  This applies to memorizing procedures and definitions just as it applies to mentoring and shared meaning-making. Unfortunately, where valued badges can be obtained by cheating, we are likely to see more cheating.  This concern is likely to discourage some from from awarding valued badges for things that have previously been difficult to assess. 

What do Digital Badges Portend More Broadly?
More broadly, I believe that digital badges are going to help innovators transcend traditional paradigms for supporting learning.  To the extent that these paradigms interfere with efforts to use networked digital technology to support learning, badges may well have a profound impact.  Naively (and hubristically), I used to believe that my research could foster broader appreciation of sociocultural approaches to assessment, motivation, and evaluation.  But I gave up on that long ago.  I now think that the exponential rate of change in networked learning ecosystems will transform education and learning in such profound ways, and that these transformation will allow some and force others to transcend traditional paradigms for assessing, motivating, credentialing, and evaluating learning.  

I believe that we are now at that point: digital badges are the perfect tool for making this happen.  More specifically, I agree that digital badges will be what Cathy Davidson called “the tipping point for Digital Media and Learning.”   I believe this initial transformation and eventual transcendence will be supported by other important factors.  These include the vision of the DML 2012 badges awardees, the passion of entrepreneurs and innovators working outside of the competition, the open-source vibe of the fine folks at Mozilla Learning, the broad scope of Mimi Ito's Connected Learning Network, the great pre-badge examples of connected learning practice, such as Katie Salen’s Quest to Learn and Nicole Pinkard’s YouMedia, and the existing badge-driven ecosystems like Global Kids.

Digital Badges Will Encourage New Paradigms of Assessment
Consider, for example, assessment, and the corresponding concern with the validity of assessment evidence.  Digital badges are going to challenge many stakeholders who have ignored validity concerns or simply taken validity for granted.  Many proponents draw inspiration from existing badge-driven learning environments like  The badges in Stackoverflow are earned by answering coding questions that visitors find useful.  The badges are highly valued because they mark individuals as crack programmers (and perhaps ones who are too busy advancing the knowledge of their coding community to look for a new job).  The backside of is a tech employment agency.  I understand that Stackoverflow does not have problems with cheating or hustling to boost users’ status because doing so will cause you to get called out in a way that diminishes the value of whatever badges you do have. 

If and how the assessment practices like those at Stackoverflow map over to new badge-driven educational ecosystems remains to be seen.  Fortunately, the fine folks at Peer2Peer University are central to the MacArthur effort and seem to be making real progress in this regard.  At P2PU, users can set up their classes to have badges automatically awarded or can have badges set up so that peers award them.  But a system that allows peers to decide how the system should award badges presents huge opportunities.  Such a system also raises questions about reliability and validity that current assessment theorists have yet to consider.  Carla Casilli’s notions of credibility seem to be going in the right direction.  Initially, I predict that assessment scholars like Jim Popham and Jim Pellegrino will lump credibility in with face validity and other “unsanctioned” forms of validity evidence.  But I think digital badges will eventually lead them to expand our definitions of what counts as validity evidence.

Badges Will Encourage New Paradigms of Motivation
Digital badges will also lead us to reconsider our existing paradigms of motivation.  Where I disagree with Henry and others who worry that badges will likely undermine intrinsic motivation and leave leaners feeling disempowered.   In 1989, Carl Berieter and Marlene Scardamalia argued that the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation was “too crude” to help define new “intentional” learning environments that take full advantage of communities of learners.   Likewise, in 1989, Collins, Brown, and Newman suggested that the documented negative consequences of competition were more the result of lousy classrooms and the lack of feedback and opportunities to improve.  Both points are more relevant than ever given the open and networked learning ecosystems where digital badges are mostly going to be used. 

Henry’s position on badges nicely illustrates one conclusion I have reached after a decade exploring the practical value of sociocultural theories: many people who embrace newer sociocultural paradigms for learning and instruction slip back into conventional individually-oriented paradigms when it comes to assessing, motivating, and evaluating.  This, in turn, re-ignites the simmering tensions between behavioral/associationist and cognitive/rationalist models of each.  These debates seem to obscure the crucial point about incentive practices in educational videogames and newer networked learning environments: If one offers incentives that empower learners and offer new abilities, then the incentive is unlikely to leave the learner feeling disempowered.

What Would Fifth Dimension Do (With Badges)?
This post has gotten way too long.  My original plan was to explore how digital badges could have been useful for organizing and studying Cole’s Fifth Dimension program.  Specifically, I wanted to ponder the role of badges in the thoughtful discussion of design research methods in the 2011 paper by Downing-Wilson, Lecusay, and Cole.  My initial take is that badges could do a lot—too much to say in this post.  So, for now, I will pitch the questions back to Mike and his colleagues and hope that they will respond here:

The Fifth Dimension was a huge inspiration to many of us.  Your frank discussion of the challenges of sustaining them was refreshing.  In what ways might open digital badges have helped you succeed?

Do you think that the salience that digital badges might grant to valued social practices can enhance the mutual appropriation of interactive practices that you describe in your paper, and help you study it?

How might Cultural-Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) help maximize the positive consequences of digital badges while any minimizing the negative consequences?

I would love to hear what others think about this issue or the general issues raised above.  I am going to post it over on XMCA and try to get them to respond here.  I also want to that Elyse Buffenbarger for helping me edit this post.


  1. I checked with Nora Sabelli about the reference and she confirmed it was accurate and invited me to post the rest of her comment.

    She wrote:

    I have two concerns about badges and the way the whole environment is moving. One policy related: we seem to be moving towards devaluing public education and fostering the whole onus of education on the individual. Badges, whether well done or not, just add to the fractionalization culture, unfortunately driven by technology.

    Which leads me to my intellectual concern. Learning bits of information/knowledge is fine and easy; aggregating knowledge into conceptual frameworks and connecting bits into coherence is much harder, and does not receive enough attention these days.

    So I see badges in the larger context of assessment. What do we want to know about what students know? What will badges certify?

    Thanks for remembering, and I hope this does not sound too negative!

    1. Nora's comments seem to suggest that phrase "compared to what"? It's not as if we are already doing things that well in education already.

      As someone working in higher education, I think it will be good for us to have an alternative credentialling system that provides some competition to this cartel. "Fractionalization" might well be a good thing. But then my gut feeling tends to make me believe that Darwinian competition leads to better outcomes than central planning and control.

      The point about badges not addressing the concept of aggregating knowledge is a good one, but some recent discussions seem to indicate that higher education is not doing very well at that anyway. And who is to say that badges cannot be used for accrediting that type of learning anyway.

      Her general final question on assessment is also a good one, but again it could also be applied to a very large proportion of existing courses in higher education.

      Brian Mulligan
      Institute of Technology Sligo, Ireland.

  2. Dan/

    Thanks for your post !

    I curate a blog titled _Alt-Ed_ that "is devoted to documenting significant initiatives relating to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), digital badges, and similar alternative educational initiatives."

    _Alt-Ed_ is located at

    [ ]

    I hope it will of interest to you and your readers.



    Gerry McKiernan
    Associate Professor
    Science and Technology Librarian
    Iowa State University
    152 Parks Library
    Ames IA 50011

  3. Hi Dan,

    I think before you can address the impact of the Badge movement, you need to be clearer about the key characteristics of a badge vs other forms of assessment (maybe you have an earlier post on the topic). Is a badge simply the recognition of success on any form of assessment (e.g., Cisco certification, multiplication times table badge)? Is it recognition for the accomplishment of a task (e.g., camping badge, relay for life badge)? Based on this post, you seem to have a clear idea about what the features of a badge are. However, I suspect that badges have become many things to different people.

    1. This is a huge topic of discussion within the digital badges community. David Wiley posted this in response to my suggestion that badges are a form of "transformative assessment"

      I think for now the final word goes to Erin Knight and Carla Casilli who open their "Seven Things you Should Know about Badges" post for EDUCAUSE this way:

      Badges are digital tokens that appear as icons or logos on a web page or other online venue. Awarded by institutions, organizations, groups, or individuals, badges signify accomplishments such as completion of a project, mastery of a skill, or marks of experience.

      More at:

  4. Hi Dan,
    I'm one of Mike Cole's many former students continuing to propagate 5thD-inspired models in diverse institutional and community contexts around the world....for the last seven years, I've been doing that in Allentown, PA, with a youth media program called HYPE. This summer, HYPE piloted a badge system, and I based on our limited work thus far, I agree with your statement that "The Fifth Dimension is precisely the kind of educational innovation that should be easier to create, sustain, and study when digital badges are widely used." Mike and I have had some conversations about the work so far, and have discussed the possibility of an LCHC webinar focused on badges. Would you be interested?
    Lora Taub-Pervizpour
    Associate Professor and Chair
    Media and Communication
    Muhlenberg College, Allentown PA

  5. Laura--
    Yes that sounds like a great idea. I would love to learn more about what HYPE did and wonder if you would like to write a guest post about it. All kinds of programs are introducing badges and it is very exciting to have a new project documenting the diverse range of practices across the macarthur DML initiative.

    What kind of time frame are you thinking about? You can email me at if you wish, but I think that keeping the conversation public and anchored to this post might be helpful.

  6. One thing that is worth revisiting is that the original post that Mike responded to concerned new models of motivation. Because digital badges embody the values of the ecosystems that issue them, they seem poised to transcend the nagging debate over intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. It seems to me that the wealth of information contained in badges will be useful for studying newer sociocultural models of engaged participation, but I am not sure what that will look like. I wonder if there are folks like you out there who are exploring this?

  7. Dan, thank you for the invitation to share what we've done with badges so far at HYPE. This is a great space for sharing the work. I will work on a guest post to share in the next week with you, but will say just quickly that what I think we did really well in our pilot was to create a process for designing, defining, implementing badges that values youth voices. Values them not just as the recipients of badges, but as co-constructors whose voices are valued in the authoring of the badge system. in our DML3 proposal, online o HASTAC and elsewhere I've been emphasizing what I consider an urgent necessity to young learners in the conversations and practices that give rise to badge systems in the first place. Within the youth media field--with its abiding commitment to youth-driven models--this is critical. This same principle is guiding our initial evaluation efforts as well. Starting in January, HYPE teens are going to be focusing their documentary media making on the introduction of badges to HYPE, its impact on the program, and the stories of individual students' experiences with badges within and beyond HYPE. Our practice is to hold public screenings of HYPE documentaries featuring talkbacks with the young producers. In this case, we see the public screening of the badge documentary as an opportunity to engage the wider community in conversations about digital badges. I'm not sure about timeframe for an LCHC seminar--will check with Mike. I am

  8. Lora--
    That sounds awesome. It is too early for us to share detailed findings, but our DML Design Principles Documentation project is finding many examples of just what you refer to. When youth (or learners in general) are deeply involved in defining the forms of learning that badges are used to recognize AND how that learning is assessed, they are provided an unprecedented means of shaping the values of a given educational ecosystem. IMO, this has massive potential for shaping that ecosystem.

    Going back to the concerns over the potential negative consequences of incentives that are the main source of concern...I a community of learners work to negotiate the advancement or empowerment that a given badge offers, how on earth could earning that same badge disempower that learner? So yes, we would love a guest post. While my project is focused on DML awardees, I am going to ask one of my students to consider interviewing you and the young people involved.