Learning Badges


Well I may not end up with a philosophy degree from an established institution by the time this Degree of Freedom project is completed.  But I do expect that shiny Philosopher badge you see above to arrive by e-mail any day.

That badge was actually earned by contributing a certain amount of work in my Canvas class on Cheating in Online Courses which every week covers a different topic (such as “What is cheating?”, “Metaphors for cheating,” “Why do people cheat?” etc.).

Each week comes with a set of readings and assignments (called “Missions”) such as listening to an online lecture, contributing to a discussion forum, or submitting diagrams and other requested work.  And if you finish enough assignments (at least the ones associated with what are called “Experience Points,”) you earn yourself the learning badge for the week (so far, I’ve gotten ones for Researcher and Investigator, as well as the Philosopher one shown above).

Learning badges have actually been a hot topic, even before MOOC started sucking up so much of the media Oxygen dedicated to stories on “The End of Education as we Know It.”

The notion of obtaining a mini-credential associated with mastering a specific skill is already engrained in those of us who either grew up or are raising kids in Boy Scouts where a large component of advancement is based on earning merit badges covering individual subjects such as swimming, wilderness survival or that perennial “gut” of basketry.

While Eagle rank only demands you earn 21 such badges (some required, some elective), some Scouts go beyond this to earn additional medals (called palms) for adding more badges to their hoard (a process a friend and fellow Eagle likens to putting sugar on Captain Crunch).  And I even know a kid in town who built his whole home-schooling program around earning 100 such badges.

The online learning badge phenomenon also owes a great deal to video games that have programmed players to work tirelessly to earn an endless string of micro-rewards (be they expressed in lives, points, weapons or gold coins).  And given that students seem happy to sacrifice homework hours to “earn” a new shield in some online version of Narnia, why not make that homework seem more like a game by associating it with a similar system of ongoing awards?

Badge programs have actually been proliferating across learning related web sites for several years, the most notable being the Khan Academy site where watching a certain number of videos or passing quizzes can earn you a string of badges with names like “Master of Algebra” or “Challenge Patch.”  And the whole badge phenom got a big boost when Mozilla (makers of the Firefox browser) announced its Open Badges system which allows institutions to assign accreditations to whatever they like (be they individual lessons or projects, contributions to online discussions, or completion of entire courses).

While the purpose of my own project is more about learning than earning, I am intrigued by the potential of learning badges to allow activities performed in the “real world” to be associated with part of an online experience (such as a MOOC class).  And as a Scouting alum and parent, I can attest to the value of at least one of the precedents upon which the badging concept is based.

But keep in mind that Scout merit badges are earned by completing a standardized set of tasks under the guidance of a human counselor who must himself (or herself) be accredited to sign off on an individual badge.  And merit badges are just part of a wider set of rank requirements that include service projects and leadership hours, with ultimate advancement decisions based on a face-to-face interview (called a Board of Review) before adult leaders.

While similar mechanisms and frameworks might be in place for certain online training programs that provide learning badges as signals of accomplishment, from what I’ve experienced so far it seems like someone who throws themselves whole-heartedly into a week’s assignments and someone who just does the minimum can each end up with the same badge as their reward.

Learning badges are touted for their ability to link back to their original granting authority, which allows reviewers (such as employers) to look at the details regarding what someone did to earn a badge (unlike a college diploma that says nothing more than someone has finished their degree at a specific institution).

But given my experience working with employers, I’d be curious as to how much time they would give to a series of non-standardized mini-credentials (especially if they become so numerous that a badge holder has to store them in their Mozilla badge “backpack” – one of the most mixed of the many mixed metaphors I’ve encountered since plunging into the world of online education).

Like MOOCs, badging programs are going to need some time to cycle through the educational ether where they are likely to find a landing spot different than the ones their inventors and boosters originally anticipated.  So I will be happy to continue to earn my weekly badge in Cheating (and am especially looking forward to next week where we will earn a special Cheaters badge for successfully gaming the system), while just as happily continue learning from other courses that will leave me with nothing but a few largely unrecognized certificates, but a whole lot of knowledge.

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3 Responses to Learning Badges

  1. Gavriil Michas May 29, 2013 at 12:47 pm #

    Popularization could be lead to gamefication and perhaps could produce same results in vice versa mode for the sake of simplifying learning structure mode to be more attractive in a way, but could this affirm the compensation of knowledge that came from such taxonomy? I think in order to endure the philosophical perspectives we need to produce even more critical thinking.
    This is more than a class structure where idioms of characters come into play. The case of stamping procedures in education is a very trivial condition after all.

    In other words, it is impossible to put a badge into Aristotle’s: “Εν Δυνάμει»

    PS: Dear Jonathan, I like a lot your writing.


  2. Paul Morris June 4, 2013 at 10:56 pm #

    I have to admit to having reservations about badge systems when applied to students in higher education (or its equivalent). Although I have uses similar ideas in a school settings and found them a generally effective tool (at least until the students were 13 or so) they seem rather infantile when applied to adults. When one also considers that participation in the courses is entirely voluntary and undertaken, at least in principle, solely for the learning opportunity, I have to question who would value these tokens.

    I’ve come across them in a few places. Open2Study (an Australia-based MOOC) uses them and I managed to collect a clutch just for registering and starting the first week of a course. Would anyone really be interested to know that I had shown my commitment to the community by filling in a profile? I know that Saylor.org intend to pursue badges through the Mozilla scheme and they see this as part of the move to increase ‘granularity’ – that is to say, have some recognition between the completion of an individual course and of a full degree-equivalent programme.This, however, seems rather different from the trend to award badges for every individual action taken.

    Overall, as you might have guessed, I’m not a big fan of badges. I think that they risk trivialising learning and patronising students who have chosen to pursue courses of study because they want to do so. I’d certainly agree that few employers are likely to be interested in navigating flocks of badges – some of which might signify nothing more than completing a registration form while others are supposedly equivalent to an undergraduate certificate or diploma. Leave the badges for the younger school students along with merit points and gold stars for achievement.


  1. On Badges and Rewards: Gut Reactions and Real Life Connections | TechPudding - November 6, 2013

    […] Learning Badges by Degree of Freedom. In this blog post, the author examines his experience in a MOOC where he earns badges and poses some thoughtful questions about how the recognition of badges is being debated by licensing bodies, organizations, and employers. […]

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