Thursday, August 7, 2014

Of Course Alfie Kohn Dislikes Open Digital Badges: Transcending a 40-Year Old Debate

By Daniel Hickey
Serge Ravet just posted the recordings of Alfie Kohn’s virtual keynote address at the July 2014 e-Portfolio, Open Badges, and Identity Conference (EPIC), along with my response and some audience Q & A. Not surprisingly, Alfie had many concerns with digital badges being used as "extrinsic rewards." This post provides some background on this this crucial issue for the growing open badges movement.  I conclude with eight arguments against Alfie’s position on badges.  These arguments will be elaborated in the final report of the Design Principles Documentation Project (late September) and then in a formal empirical paper with Cathy Tran and Katerina Schenke.

I was thrilled with the invitation because I have been questioning Alfie’s Koh's stance on incentives for much of my career. While Alfie  had yet to write anything about open badges, it seemed likely that he would lump them in with the “gold stars, incentive plans, A's, praise, and other bribes” in his famous 1993 book Punished by Rewards. Alfie’s writing has been featured prominently in critiques of badges by influential researchers like Mitch Resnick.  The concern that badges are simply “extrinsic rewards” has come up over and over at conferences.  As Mitch’s widely cited blog post paraphrased Alfie: “do this and you’ll get that.”

I had planned to spend the week before the debate outlining Alfie’s likely concerns and my responses.  Instead, I spent that week in a hospital in Colorado recovering from a nasty mountain biking crash.  I barely got home in time to participate and was really hurting at the time. But I was really pleased with the conversation that got started there.  Alfie cogently expressed the concerns that many others have raised and I got to make some initial responses. He was kind enough to review this draft and did not have any qualms with me posting it.

The Problem with Extrinsic Incentives
In the early 1990s, I really embraced Alfie’s concerns and Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory that supports those concerns.  Hundreds of studies have replicated Mark Lepper’s 1973 demonstration of the overjustification effect where kids were randomly given meaningless certificates praising the quality of their work in a free-play setting with colored markers.  The extrinsic reward of the certificates “overjustified” the intrinsic motivation for playing with markers, leading to decreased subsequent engagement and persistence in that activity.  The concern with extrinsic incentives was perhaps best summed up in the late John Nicholls claim that Pizza Hut’s Book It incentive program would only result in “a bunch of fat kids who don’t like to read.” 

Richard Ryan and Edward Deci
This research was important because it undermined the prevailing behaviorist theories of learning. Because behaviorists don't believe in "intrinsic" motivation, they argue that incentives are useful in many situations.  In particular they argue that incentives are useful in the early stages of learning, so that learners can gain enough mastery so the activity itself becomes satisfying.  This was one of the many ways that the cognitive revolution of the 1970's was indeed a "revolution." As the behaviorist paradigm and its willing embrace of incentives crumbled, decades of research into newer cognitive theories of motivation and learning ensued.  Self-Determination Theory, Goal Theory, and Self-Regulated Learning are among the most widely known theories that emerged in this era. While debates raged among proponents of different versions, all positioned themselves in staunch opposition to behaviorists. This void between behaviorists and cognitive theorists centered on incentives.  The void over incentives was cemented in series of dueling meta-analyses where the two camps reached opposite conclusions after synthesizing the same body of empirical research. In some important ways, digital badges are stuck in this crevasse.

Rethinking Incentives and Competition
In the early 1990s, I began to wonder whether incentives and competition in education were inherently negative. While I certainly embraced the behaviorist view of incentives, my growing embrace of sociocultural theories that were emerging at that time made me wonder about their actual implications in real educational contexts.  In particular I started wondering about incentives in the newer educational contexts that my professors at the Vanderbilt Learning Technology Center were helping us envision.  Once I started teaching Education Psychology, there was the very pragmatic concern that teachers and parents simply ignored whatever our textbooks said once they actually started teaching real students or raising real children.  Two papers published in 1989 really got me thinking about these issues.
Scardamlia and Bereiter

 One was a paper by Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter on the subject of Intentional Learning.  They argued that when learning itself is framed as the “problem” students are trying to solve (as opposed to  learning through problem solving), the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is simply “too crude” to be useful.  This paper had initially caught my eye because I knew that Bereiter had previously been a very influential behavioral theorist.

The other paper was Brown, Collins, and Duguid’s Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning.  This ground-breaking introduction of situativity suggested that the well-documented negative consequences of competition in classrooms and controlled laboratory studies said more about lousy educational settings that lacked meaningful feedback and opportunities to improve than they said about competition.

Connie Yowell
I first explored these issues in my doctoral major area paper that was eventually published in Educational Psychologist in 1997.  This led to a collaboration with Mary McCaslin around “co-regulated learning” and involvement with Sanna Jarvela and others in the “motivation in context” movement.  Perhaps the most transformative thing for me was Connie Yowell’s 1999 paper in The Elementary School Journal that introduced me to an entirely different way of thinking about self-regulation. But I did not really understand Connie's critique of the implications of Self-Regulated Learning until I tied them into Greeno’s notion of “engaged participation” in a 2003 paper in that same journal.

Starting at the turn of the century I tried and mostly failed to empirically demonstrate the limitations of individually-oriented models of motivation.  Finally in 2008-2010 I was able to do so with some empirical studies in Sasha Barab’s Quest Atlantis videogame environment. With Eun Ju Kwon and Steven Zuiker. We enhanced incentives and public recognition in two classes, but replaced them with intrinsically motivating information in two other similar classes taught by the same teacher.  I finally got the results published in a 2014 paper with Michael  Filsecker in Computers in Education.  While we searched for negative consequences for disciplinary engagement, understanding, achievement, and interest, we found none. There were non-significant differences favoring the incentive condition and some particularly promising positive trends for disciplinary engagement. But working with Sasha (and Melissa Gresalfi) on Quest Atlantis helped me realize one of the most important things about digital “21st Century” incentives:  They can contain formatively useful information and they can offer new opportunities to learn.  It is hard to imagine how empowering learners with useful information and new opportunities will necessarily disempower them and turn them into the “pawns” that Deci and Ryan worry so much about.

Open Badges, Motivation, and Learning
Needless to say, I was quite intrigued as Connie Yowell began advancing digital badges around 2010 as the head of the Education Program at the MacArthur Foundation. I jumped at the opportunity to study the way that the 30 awardees in the 2012 Badges for Lifelong Learning competition used badges to recognize, assess, motivate, and study learning.  The Design Principles Documentation project is winding down, and we have already begun sharing out the results of that study. We will have a report and papers to submit in Fall 2014. In the meantime, I want to get this "badges as extrinsic incentives" conversation started.

As David Theo Goldberg put it so nicely, the digital badges movement has been “threading the needle between evangelism and skepticism.  We do care about the problematic ways that people end up using digital badges and we do worry about the concerns raised by Alfie and Mitch (and inevitably, it seems, at least one audience member at every presentation about open badges).  We can’t cover all of it in this blog post. But the upshot is this:

Of course people can and will use badges in ways that undermine meaningful engagement and foster corrosive kinds of competition.  Digital badges can’t automatically provide useful feedback and opportunities to improve.  Badges themselves don’t create useful connections with prior experience, current interests, future goals, or other learners.  But they provide entirely new ways recognizing and assessing learning that have profound implications for engagement.  This should allow some and require others to transcend 20th Century paradigms of motivation.

Across the 30 projects we uncovered a dizzying amount of practices for using badges.  Thanks to the competition and the efforts of Mozilla and the Badge Alliance, hundreds of open digital badge systems are coming online.   For us, the most interesting projects are the ones that took full advantage of the unique features of digital badges for supporting what Mimi Ito defines as connected learning:
a model of learning that holds out the possibility of re-imagining this experience of education in the information age. It draws on the power of today’s technology to fuse young people’s interests, friendships, and academic achievement through experience laced with hands-on production, shared purpose, and open networks.

We look forward to sharing out the results from all of our projects, but we are particularly excited about those where it was clear that the key features of digital badges helped make this kind of learning more possible. But we also know that the concerns that Alfie and others have raised will obscure those possibilities for many.

Alfie’s Concerns and Eight Responses
Alfie’s keynote address speaks for itself. In the interest of space, I won't paraphrase.  Given how little empirical research has been carried out on digital badges, I will say that I could not help but notice how he was already convinced by “the research.” I suspect nothing will ever convince him of the potential value of many of the key features of digital badges (e.g., public recognition, pathways for learning, curation of content, communal definition, communal recognition, etc.). 

In the interest of advancing this important argument, I am going to show my hand and summarize the eight responses to these concerns that we are currently fleshing out in the report and a longer paper and supporting with data from the Design Principles Documentation Project.  In short: 
  1. The inclusion of specific claims and detailed evidence in digital badges makes them intrinsically meaningful compared to traditional incentives.
  2. The circulation of claims and evidence in digital networks makes open badges particularly meaningful compared to traditional incentives.
  3. Open digital badges have broader sociocultural consequences for learners and ecosystems that transcend traditional notions of intrinsically motivated individual learning.
  4. The concerns that have been raised focus on the intended purposes of digital badges rather than their actual function in learning contexts
  5. The dichotomy between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is overstated and fails to account for the contexts in which meaningful learning occurs.
  6. The negative consequences of extrinsic rewards are overstated and the actual consequences are far more impacted by the contexts in which incentives function.
  7. Continued characterization of open digital badges as extrinsic incentives won’t advance badging practices in learning contexts.
  8. Newer sociocultural models of engagement are better suited for enhancing the entire range of badge functions and bypassing this debate that has raged for forty years
I would love to hear what people think about these arguments, and what other thoughts people have. And I really hope we hear more from Alfie!


  1. Dear Daniel,
    Could you please provide the link to the final edition of the paper this blog post announced? I believe this document expands your eight responses to A. Kohn's concerns against OB?
    Fran├žois Jourde

  2. Francois--
    It is currently in review by the editors of the volume.
    Hickey, D. T. & Schenke, K. Open Digital Badges and Reward Structures. In K. A. Renninger & S. E. Hidi (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook on Motivation and Learning. Cambridge MA: Cambridge University Press.