The Great Badge Debate

You could almost hear Ennio Morricone theme music in the background, only this was not another spaghetti western, it was the #dmlbadges hashtag. Yesterday, the leaders of the Digital Media and Learning Competition announced that the focus of the fourth annual competition is, drumroll please, badges. The hashtag erupted with grand applause and weighty jeers.

I haven’t made my mind up about badges, and I have to say the Twitter stream left a bitter taste in my mouth. I’m Director of City as Our Campus, a community-based learning program at a preK-12 Independent school in Pittsburgh. I work with faculty and students to create curricular experiences that embrace authentic learning and skills that are often suppressed by content. I found that some of the more sarcastic tweets yesterday were exactly the kind of comments we try to prevent in our high school classrooms, such as our new project-based Urban Research and Design course, which deals with some serious stuff. All the criticism is warranted and a good thing, but sometimes I think we sacrifice honest feedback for a witty jab (admittedly, some were very funny).

That said, I agree with what @adarel said in a great post about the event where she declared that badges may be a “shallow and pathetic substitute for what game-based learning can be.” Yet there is something about the idea of badges that intrigues me and it doesn’t have much to do with assessment, per se. In a previous blog post, I wrote about open badges and learner memory. Badges as assessment system, I’m not convinced, but badges as trigger objects that encourage learner reflection as he or she proceeds through schooling, well, I think that has potential.

Here’s the deal. Years ago, I worked at a small museum in Connecticut training docents to give tours of a house museum. I found that many of them simply walked from room to room reciting a script (that was often a series of half-truths).  So, instead, I developed a series of training workshops that referred to the objects as trigger objects. Working as a group, we matched several stories and questions to objects throughout the house. As the docents starting using the trigger objects, they remembered far more complex stories about that historical narrative that made for a richer learning experience for all. Each year, they used the triggers as a starting point to add new complexity to their tour. I think badges (or something similar) could play the same role within the program I oversee as students make sense of several community-based learning experiences throughout their schooling.

I have no research evidence to provide at this time, although I could reference dozens of sources that speak to the necessity of reflection.  I do know that students forget because we don’t allow them to remember. They move, factory-like, from grade to grade to grade. Reflecting throughout their current year on what they learned in previous years could have a positive impact on their learning. If a student constructed a portfolio, badges could serve as entry points, triggers that stimulate learner memory and allow the student to reflect on larger issues relating to complex skills, such as collaboration. There could be processes and activities attached to this type of reflection that allow the student time to reconsider past experiences and past work. It could be built into the school year. Assessment would come elsewhere. Maybe it’s not badges I’m talking about, by an actual collection of things, real or virtual, that a student gathers to use as reference points. Maybe these are just “shiny objects” stamped on a portfolio, but I’m not convinced that’s the case…at least not yet.

Some people claim that badges are just like grades. But, let’s face it, a child does not typically review their grades year to year, and even if they did I highly doubt they associate that grade with specific skill sets or even content for that matter. Reflecting, months down the road, on a past “C” or an “A” is not very inspiring. Perhaps a system of badges, constructed by teachers, students and the community, within certain programmatic efforts, like the one I oversee, could be beneficial for learner memory. Badges are a mean to reach an end, not the end itself. I will leave you with this, maybe we are missing the potential of badges by looking at them only as assessment. Maybe not. Let’s keep the conversation going.

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