“Credentialized badge” is an oxymoron?

A few additional thoughts on the Digital Media and Learning Competition badges for learning competition this year:1

If you look for a theory of action of the competition (and of Mozilla’s open badges), it appears to run off the added motivation virtual badges and other “in the moment” awards give many videogame players. If nominal recognition works in games and in many areas of life, this implied theory of action runs, why not formalize it with a structure for recognizing such achievements, let people earn them, demonstrate them in other contexts? … and then they become credentials, as Kevin Carey proposed in May.

I don’t think people can have it both ways: either badges are feel-good, get-them-while-chugging-along nominal kudos, or they’re formalized credentials that require you to worry about whether you are creating credible systems that can’t be “gamed” or “cheated.”2 The formalization of badges as a credential with exchange value changes the game. That does not mean that credentialized badges would not be motivating, but it’s a very different kind of motivation, where the badge is the endpoint of some mini-course or project rather than functioning as an in-game form of feedback. Those certainly exist–scouting badges are a prime example–but the most well-known ones are nominal rather than exchange-based credentials; becoming an Eagle Scout or earning a Girl Scout Gold Award is wonderful, and its value is most definitely not in using the achievement to get a job.

There are three sets of concerns I have about utopian visions involving badges and learning. One area of concern focuses on the blue-sky appropriation of nominal achievement recognition as an educational panacea. As someone who has occasionally played around with game-like mechanisms inside classes (primarily simulations), I have enormous respect for people who design games that are thoughtful and engaging; crafting a successful game is usually enormously hard work. That means I take very seriously the “gamification” cautions by Ian Bogost and other people who really do know games.3 Saying “see, this is like a game” is handwaving, not solving hard problems of motivation in learning.4 There are plenty of good teachers who award virtual points and programs that use nominal rewards as part of the motivation, but for most I know of, it is an in-process recognition.

The second area of concern I have with the discussion of badges is the assumption that the support infrastructure can be thin. Think about one of the most well-known vocational credentials: MCSE certification. I do not know how much Microsoft has invested in the creation, propagation, and maintenance of the MCSE system, but it has to run in the millions of dollars from the creation (and updating) of exams to curriculum design to the effort to persuade (and continue to persuade) employers that “MCSE” is meaningful. Even if you look at scouting organizations, there is a surprisingly substantial effort at designing and updating badges, awards, and the ecosystem in which nominal achievement recognition lives. I worry about the organizations that might invest significant resources in badge creation, only to realize that “significant resources” are not enough. I foresee plenty of badge efforts that fail, which would not be a problem except that the effort is likely to swallow up hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The third area of concern is the overselling of badges as credentials. At this moment, September 25, 2011, I know of absolutely zero badges that function as exchangeable credentials. Anyone hoping to invent an ecosystem of badges to replace existing credentials needs to think very long and hard about the resistance of labor markets to newly-invented credentials. Yes, the invention of credentials exist, but there is all sorts of work behind the scenes to generate and maintain them. Among all other considerations, I would want to talk with administrators at community colleges to get a gut-check on all this; community college folks have to make choices all the time not only between resources devoted to a standard associates degree and credential (i.e., vocational) programs but also how to select which credential programs to offer. The anonymous blogger Dean Dad, who works in the Northeast, probably does not have a program in earthquake-proofing retrofit construction… not even after the mid-Atlantic earthquake at the beginning of the month. I strongly suspect that no college would even consider a certificate program in carburetor repairs. And so forth.

Without evidence that credentialized badges have some exchange value, we are back to the pat-on-the-back recognition of learning… which is absolutely fine, but not what the hype seems geared to.5 Maybe it’s time to think about badges as honorary rather than career-oriented … which is how scouting organizations think about them. It seems good enough to me.


  1. On Friday I had a little Magritte-ish fun with the open badges idea, and in May I explained why badges may not be a great idea for students moving between institutions; think “credit transfer problem” multiplied many times over. []
  2. Cathy Davidson’s words, amazingly enough. []
  3. See Bogost’s Gamification Is Bullshit, Exploitationware, and Notes on Loyalty for more. []
  4. Sheryl Grant’s discussion of badges this morning argues that badges are not the same as games; in this context, “see, this is like a scouting badge” functions in the same way as “see, this is like a game.” []
  5. One exception to this line of thought is martial arts, where most people who earn “badges” — belts — view them as nominal recognition of achievement, but where more advanced belts have some professional value, or where, such as in Krav, certification for teaching purposes is a more specialized training. []