Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Digital Badges and Games for Impact

By Daniel  Hickey
It has been almost a year since the 2011 kickoff meeting of the MacArthur Foundation’s Badges for Lifelong Learning Initiative.  What a fascinating year.  It finished off with some really interesting meetings with some of the most innovative minds in education and learning.  I have learned a lot about how digital badges and other new technologies might help assess, motivate, recognize, and evaluate learning.  In the next few posts, I want to share some of the things I learned and discuss some of the issues that have come up.  In this post, I want to consider the potential of digital badges for re-igniting educational videogaming, and reiterate the central affordance of digital badges.  I also want to tell everybody to go see The Art of Videogames at the Smithsonian before it goes on tour.

White House OSTP Meeting on Games for Impact

Constance Steinkuehler and OSTP Leaders at Games for Impact Meeting
On July 26th, I attended a meeting where the groundwork was being laid for a multi-university consortium that would focus on Games for Impact.  The meeting was organized by Constance Steinkuehler of the University of Wisconsin, who is on loan as a senior analyst at the Office of Science and Technology Policy.  It was a fascinating meeting involving 20 university faculty, 40 other collaborators, and perhaps a dozen program officers for DOE, NSF, and elsewhere.   Digital badges were only tangentially related to the meeting, as the educational gaming community faces numerous challenges at this time.  The obvious question for me is how digital badges might help address these challenges, and if so, how that might proceed.

Could Digital Badges Re-Ignite Educational Gaming?

To prepare for the meeting, we read recent papers (Klopfer Osterweil & Salen, 2009, and Mayo, 2011).  These described how the promise of educational CD-ROMs in the late '80s was crushed by the Internet, eliminating a growing revenue stream and a manageable distribution system.  This is a shame because now we know a lot more about how to make good educational games.  As demonstrated by innovators like Kurt Squire, Chris Dede, Sasha Barab, Lucien Vattel, and David Schaffer, learners need to play with the actual knowledge we want them to learn. And they need to play with each other when they do so. 

In addition to the revenue stream and other developmental barriers, the papers raised other barriers we discussed.  These included barriers that keep schools and parents from adopting games (e.g., curriculum requirements, teacher attitudes and training, school schedules, and proof of achievement impact) and barriers to sustaining successful games (e.g., fickle audiences and system maintenance).  Given my many recent conversations with innovators who are taking up digital badges, I suspect there are many ways that digital badges might help.

For example, imagine a game available on the web that supports the development of valued skills. To generate an audience, it should be possible to let players complete the game for free  (like Diner Dash), but have players pay a small fee for the digital badge(s) that formally acknowledge their accomplishment.  The fee could generate a revenue stream for development and maintenance and also cover the cost that might be incurred if a human needs to further validate the success.  With some tweaking, this might even generate useful evidence of learning.  And given the interest in aligning digital badges with Common Core standards, this could generate huge new user-bases; teachers and schools will search for something besides dreary test-prep in response to the impending freak-out over “value-added” tests of the Common Core.  At the OSTP meeting, we never got to discuss these ideas with the whole group, but I had a few side conversations that convinced me this is worth exploring.

When I went back over the Klopfer paper for this post, I realized they cited another set of barriers that digital badges might impact: barriers to innovation.  The paper details barriers to further innovation in educational games, including data, pedagogical paradigms, research, and ambition.  I don’t have space to elaborate here, but there seem to be quite a few ways that digital badges could help innovators gather useful data, explicate and research new design principles, and jump-start truly ambitious gaming agendas.

I may get some insights about these issues at another meeting in DC in September with the National Science Teachers Association.  NSTA executive Al Byer and Penn State prof (and badges guru) Kyle Peck are exploring practices for assessing, motivating, recognizing, and studying learning in the NSTA Online Learning Center.  In particular, they want to offer continuing education credits within their new Teacher Learning Journeys project, and are considering offering digital badges for a modest fee in this context.  In key respects, such professional development resources face some of the same challenges as educational games, and the NSTA is considering ways that badges can help.  At least in the State of Indiana, the process of awardee CEUs is quite chaotic; I assume that is the case elsewhere, too, and that digital badges can help.

The Simple Function of Digital Badges

Most of the attendees at the Games for Impact meeting seemed aware of digital badges, and many seemed quite interested.  But I got the sense that many of the attendees did not really appreciate the essential function of digital badges. I thought of the point Erin Knight and Carla Casilli made in the close of their excellent EDUCAUSE brief on digital badges:

“…badges offer an opportunity to reevaluate credentials, expanding their role by making otherwise hidden accomplishments visible." 

I explained to several people who asked that when you click on the badge, it will open up to reveal who awarded the badge, what it was for, etc., and that each piece of information could be hotlinked to additional information on the web.  What seems to be lost on people is how simple it is going to be to do this once the systems are in place.  The example that seemed to get the point across to university-types was that they could easily link the syllabus for the course and the rubric used to assess student artifacts; with a little more work, it should be possible to link to the actual artifacts the badge earner produced. 

This leads me to make the following assertion about digital badges: 

Digital badges will make it simple to provide detailed information that recognizes accomplishments, such as completing a project, mastering a skill, or gaining experience.   

I suspect that many of the initial concerns that people have about badges might be addressed if they appreciated this point.  Once they do, we can begin the conversation about the wicked problems that will emerge when this simplicity makes it possible to award  truly valuable digital badges.  I am going to explore this further in a subsequent post where I will consider David Gibson’s response to this assertion.

Post Script August 14, I just read Carla Casilli's post from July 31 which elaborated on this same concern knowledgeably and in more detail.

The Art of Videogames Exhibit

Our Awesome Docent at the Smithsonian
Lastly, I just want to tell everybody to find time to see The Art of Videogames at the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery.  We were treated to a private tour by one of the organizers (whose name I did not write down but who was awesome).  I was too busy chatting with folks from the meeting to play all the games and look at all the exhibits.  So I am happy I will get to go back before it leaves for a nationwide tour on September 30th (check out the schedule on their website).


  1. Thank you for this post, Dan--it's helped me start to get a handle on how badges might meet different needs across industries.

    I have three questions for you:

    1. Re: the "free game, small fee for badge" model: This approach is interesting, but I wonder how (and whether) it would work. I play a few freemium games fairly consistently (but not too consistently, because I am a college student and need to keep plugging away at that badge), and my approach is to play everything that's free and never pay a dime for any of the extras. It's hard to imagine being willing to play a game in which I can level up for free but I have to pay for the proof that I've leveled up. Isn't the proof in the fact that I have unlocked new levels in the game / that I can do new things?

    Is there evidence that this freemium badges model is a feasible approach? And...if badge purchases are the primary source of revenue for developers, what's to stop them from making as many little badges as possible just to up their revenue stream, thereby reducing the cultural value of the badges?

    2. Re: The concept of badges as a simple way to provide detailed information: This seems to me to be one of the most useful aspects of badges, and perhaps the aspect that's most likely to help badges catch on across disciplines. It's also, though, an important feature of resumes. On my resume, I include three bullet points at the very top: my B.A., my M.F.A., and my in-progress Ph.D. The phrase "MFA in Creative Writing at Colorado State University" is an 8-word 'badge' that I hope serves as shorthand for what was a complicated endeavor. I haven't yet come to understand what badges offer that resume items don't... and, in fact, if badges really do take off, I imagine I'll start putting a list of my badges right on my resume for potential employers to see.

    So: What do digital badges offer us that a line on a resume can't?

    3. Re: Current research into the role of badges for learning: I wasn't familiar with the two papers you link to above, and I'm excited to read them both. On my quick skim, though, it appears that neither includes empirical evidence regarding learning. I haven't yet seen much by way of empirical evidence related to the learning potential for a badge system, digital or otherwise. Do you know of any work in this area?

    Thanks for this post (and for the series of posts on badges that you've published here). They're really helping me make sense of the badges phenomenon.

  2. Jenna--
    Great questions. These are all great questions that get at complex issues at the heart of the endeavor. I am going to take some time and post separate responses to each as they each raise different issues.

    As for your first question, I don't think there are any directly relevant examples because the whole social and technological infrastructure around the open badges interface is just coming on line. I am hoping to find examples that are close enough to create some food for thought. In the second part of that question regarding the value of badges in relationship to scarcity, it seems like there would be some fairly direct relationship between the cultural value of badges and the cost. But that is getting into a domain I certainly have not thought about very much.

  3. As for badges vs degrees, you are touching on one of the points that is central in many of the discussions (a bunch of us have been discussing Michael Olneck's paper on "Insurgent Credentials" at http://hastac.org/documents/insurgent-credentials-challenge-established-institutions-higher-education#comment-19876. What you describe is a simple addition of digital badges to an existing credentialing practice (and the most widespread one). This alone would not add much, except for the possibility of making it easier for an employer or an admissions person to access additional information about that degree. As someone who has reviewed hundreds of applications to a doctoral program, I guess it would just mean that I don’t have to track down info about a school I have never heard of. But I have access to their transcripts, and over a career of reviewing them I have a sense of what matters. But you are envisioning badges only as they might function in the existing educational ecosystem.

    What many of us are so excited about is the possibility of entirely new ecosystems emerging around badges that transcend existing credentialing systems. In this regard, the best example we have is Stackoverflow.com. Apparently it is impossible to gain esteem in that community without really knowing how to solve complex coding problems. As I understand it, the website is funded on the backside by an employment agency, as tech recruiters will pay big money for the privilege of contacting skilled participants whose badges indicate specific skills that they seek. The resume becomes a lot less meaningful in that context. P2PU is making progress on a similar ecosystem around World of Webcraft where self-taught web developers are able to show up and excel in those open courses, and gain badges in the process that are increasingly recognized as valuable.

    Let us consider fan fiction communities and example which I know you are familiar with. Leaders in established fanfic communities clearly have proficiencies which transfer quite directly to other educational or employment opportunities. But unless you engage in fan fiction (and perhaps in that same community) it is very difficult to evaluate what those roles mean. While it probably won’t happen with existing fan fic because those communities are already established, new communities that embrace digital badges from the start might end up functioning quite differently. The exciting thing for me is knowing that we simply don’t know what those communities might look like.

  4. As for your third question, it is a variant of the common question “Do badges work?” That is kind of like asking if there is empirical evidence related to the learning potential of existing accreditation systems. There are of course gobs of empirical studies linking existing credentials to all kinds of outcomes. But is that “learning potential?” Our research is attempting to track the principles for using digital badges to assess, motivate, recognize, and study learning. As the various badging projects funded by DML attempt to enact their intended badging practices, they are negotiating the contextual factors within which the practices must function. Across projects, different clusters of successful practices will emerge; this is where the design principles will emerge, along with the contextual knowledge and exemplars that will allow others to enact those principles in other contexts. Once principles emerge and are validated across multiple projects, it starts becoming appropriate to more systematically investigate the potential of those principles for supporting particular forms of learning.

    Thanks for your great questions. Sorry for the longish response, but these are complex issues, and this is proving to be a great context for exploring them.