Fear of a Badge Planet

On Thursday, September 15, two related things happened. 1) The MacArthur Foundation announced the 4th Digital Media and Learning (DML) Competition. 2) Mozilla Foundation’s Open Badges project entered early beta. Some other related things occurred around that time, too. Sebastian Deterding posted a somewhat damning critique of Gabe Zichermann and Christopher Cunningham’s O’Reilly Media book Gamification by Design. This last thing, while seemingly unrelated, complicates the perception of Thing 1 and Thing 2.

Thing 1 on its own is thrilling and exciting because it sounds the call for organizations, academic institutions, businesses, groups, students, even individuals to begin thinking about alternate ways to represent both personal and community achievement. This new approach toward achievement won’t focus solely on degrees or certificates but will seek to include soft skills like co-learning, collaboration, camaraderie, and community-mindedness. The DML competition hearkens a new way of thinking about performance that doesn’t rely on formal education or traditional methodologies.

Thing 2 signals a beginning, a break with the past, a series of possibilities and vast potential. Additionally, it may signal a sort of beginning of the end of formal education’s monopoly on acceptable representations of academic and business success: one that has dominated our culture for at least the last thirty years. With the introduction of the Open Badge Infrastructure, Mozilla is engaging the net in rethinking achievement recognition in an open source, open access, open education manner.

This all sounds good, so what’s the problem? The complication surrounds the term badge. Prior to social software like FourSquare, a badge was most likely something you remembered from your years in the Scouts system. No longer. Cue the ominous music as we conjure the dark arts of gamification. Ian Bogost calls gamification exploitationware. Elsewhere, he wasn’t even as charitable as that. Suffice it to say that it’s a touchy subject.

Deterding’s concerns about gamification—in a review that was roundly touted in game design circles as impressively well considered—are valid; however, gamification is not entirely worthless. Even Deterding himself notes this in his follow up to Tim O’Reilly. Perhaps what’s most important to realize here, though, is that Mozilla’s Open Badge effort is not a gamification of anything. Instead, the Open Badge system is an opportunity to reimagine personal communication of social representation. Think of it as an entirely new, authenticatable, verifiable, dependable means to an end: a brand new vision for the old resume/curriculum vitae. Consider the possibilities. Badge systems that, with some nurturing, will develop into a robust ecosystem capable of altering not only the current western educational paradigm, but possibly some sociocultural and economic ones, as well. (The rise of the Badge Class?)

This endeavor will empower individuals in ways that may seem impossible now. When learning can happen in a self-paced, self-motivated way outside of traditional formal systems, and when that learning can be formally recognized in a useful way, then change has great potential. By engineering a system that more accurately represents personal achievement, Mozilla is working toward addressing at least two long-standing problems: the inability of both formal education and business to capture vital, useful and relevant communication and interaction skills, and the failure of the educational system to keep apace with technological advancement. This project has the potential to radically shift worldviews while improving individual lives. If that’s what others are mistakenly decrying as gamification, then I say bring it on.

I’ve touched on the potential for change inherent in Mozilla’s effort. Over the next few months, I hope to expand upon our direction, our challenges, and our successes. And I hope that you’ll make the trip with me. I welcome your thoughts and comments. Let’s move past our fear of a badge planet and look out onto the vast universe of possibility together.

5 thoughts on “Fear of a Badge Planet

  1. lafnlab

    My first thought when reading about this was the merit badges from scouting, but I also thought about the tons of infoboxes that users could put in their profiles, show off their skills (or just showing off). In scouting, you would have to go through a series of steps or activities, and have them verified by an adult, who would approve your earning a merit badge. In Wikipedia’s case, it was purely a matter of self-reporting. I think for open badges to have value – for people to trust them – they must genuinely represent a person’s skills or knowledge.

    On a slight tangent, I work for a medical school and have helped some physicians with the credentialing process at the local hospitals. Part of the paperwork they have to complete is a list of surgeries they know how to do. I work with eye doctors, so the hospitals send them a document with a list of all eye surgeries that the OR is equipped to handle, and the doctor has to put a check next to the ones he or she can perform. If the doctor can perform surgeries that aren’t on the list, they can write them in at the end of the document. Every few years, each doctor has to go through the process again. It gives them a chance to add new types of surgery and drop outdated ones. In some cases, such as those involving new medical devices, the doctor may have to provide documentation that shows they’ve been properly trained and know what they’re doing.

    I think Open Badges are a good idea, but a lot will depend on implementation and whether people can trust them.

    1. carlacasilli Post author

      @lafnlab Your insightful comments are precisely the sort of conversation about badges that we would like to encourage, so thank you for sharing them. We’re open to opinions, suggestions, and productive critique.

      Flexibility is one of the most interesting aspects of Open Badges: you’ve already illustrated a bit of the potential for creativity inherent in Mozilla’s Open Badge system. Your reference to medical skills that are not currently captured elsewhere represents an opportunity for a vital and useful badge system. Also, thank you for discerning where and how badges will begin to have value: you’re correct in noting that they must be earned because they represent achievements and skills. They’re not merely assigned or awarded without some merit, so, yes, implementation is key.

      Still, it’s important to note that Mozilla is working on an open structure that will empower badge issuers to define value for themselves. We’re building this system in the open because we believe that software can help mediate social infrastructure. By working together with the public we can arrive at effective and dynamic solutions. Thanks for moving the conversation forward.

  2. Josh

    I enjoyed reading your article, but I would argue (and I do to some extend on my blog) that Open Badges is in fact a form of gamification. It is not explicitly designed to drive sales or loyalty like the badge programs of marketers are aimed to do, but the quantification of non-traditional learning in the form of badges to incentivize learning will likely lead to the same behavioral effects. Incentivize is the key word here – even though Mozilla does not explicitly use that word in their documents and working papers, any tangible reward will act as an incentive. Just look at achievements in video gaming. The important question to ask here is how we can reduce the harmful effects of the incentive (to intrinsic motivation) and increase the beneficial effects of granularizing skills and talents (for getting jobs and improving marketplace efficiency).

  3. Pingback: Making Digital Media Learning Badges Work : Forum One

  4. Pingback: Life is a Game | Zythepsary

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