Badges…

Badges…

Everytime I think of Badges, I think… “We don’t need no stinking badges!” from the movie Blazing Saddles which was taken from an earlier movie. And there is a whole page about how this misquote became famous!

The point is that perhaps the word “badges” is a bit loaded. Badges make me think of police and authority. I realize that Mozilla and the internet powers that be were thinking of Boy Scout badges when they took on the word to signify digital achievements, but it is hard to get over the connotation.

Steam Achievements

The idea is pretty cool, though. I can’t believe it has taken this long for it to gain some traction, but after working in education for many years, I think I know why. Educators are too busy for big changes. We resist change. And above and beyond teachers in the trenches are parents who want grades because they know and understand grades. Colleges want grades because that’s what they’ve been using forever to measure achievement. How do you even start to challenge such an embedded system no matter how flawed it is?

The Badges system through Mozilla Open Badges is pretty simple. You have a digital backpack, and when you learn a new skill online, you are awarded with a badge. Some of these are simple acts like completing so many Facebook posts or Tweeting a certain number of times. Others are more practical like learning how to code a certain type of html page. In the world of gaming, we call them “achievements” and as you play a game, not only do you play to win, but you also play to earn certain achievements along the way. These achievements create incentives to keep playing. Sure, I love to play Civilization V, but sometimes I play just to find the Lost City of Gold as the Spaniards or to capture twenty-five ships as the English. I’m sorry, I probably lost you with my geek speak!

Anyway, the idea of incentivizing education is something I’ve been a fan of for a long time. Grades just don’t hold that much meaning for me and they never have. I’d much rather know what a student can actually do vs. what arbitrary number or letter has been placed next to his or her name. I have been trying to fi

nd a better way to evaluate progress for years.

The challenge is being able to come up with a list of measurable skills that students can demonstrate and then award appropriate badges for those skills. In my creative writing class next year, I could create badges for documents of a certain lenght, or for writing so many words for so many days in a row. Perhaps for writing a piece of realistic description, or a poem in the form of a sonnet. But the goals have to be objective and measurable. How could I award a badge for a really good story?

It’s easy to offer badges for objective numerical achievements, but it gets a little fuzzy when you try to evaluate quality vs. quantity. I’m sure there are ways. What about having students put a paper on turnitin.com and awarding a badge for zero mistakes found by the grammar checker? There are websites that can see which author’s writing style you match, perhaps give a badge for the authors styles that they can master. I used to have students try to write sensical sentences that would score the highest on the grade-level check. They tried to beat Mark Twain.

How valuable are those types of incentives? What will students get out of them?

I don’t know, but what I do know is that in my experience, if you put a tasty carrot in front of a student just out of reach, but within sight, it can do amazing things to make them reach for that carrot.

So maybe badges are one way to make learning fun, interesting and useful. Rather than students just learning arbitrary information for the sake of a single teacher, they could start to see that they are building skills and having badges to show for their skills. As an English teacher, I have struggled with the “why are we doing this” syndrome for a number of years. I look at our classes and I think, “We’re all doing the same thing!” Students read a book, then they write a paper analyzing the book. What skills are they learning? How are they growing or developing? Perhaps we, as teachers, could use badges to identify more clearly what we want students to be able to do with their writing and reading skills. Maybe this isn’t only good for student incentives, but for our pedagogy as well.

I know in the short time that I’ve been contemplating using badges in my classroom, I have had to think much more deeply about what I do, why I do it, and how to measure whether or not students are doing as well. The idea of badges puts the onus of learning on the student. If he or she wants a badge, they have to earn it.

There are many questions left to answer about the system of badges, but I do think they are a step in the right direction for 21st century learners.

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