I’d have loved the idea of learning badges to have worked – motivational dynamo, more fine-grained rewards and accreditation. The inconvenient truth is that the idea has failed. This is not for want of trying but a classic case of supply not matched by demand. To put it another way, we built it and they didn’t come. Sure you’ll find some localised examples of success but overall, as a significant movement, it has literally run its course - few are now interested.
1. Lack credibility
The main problem has been credibility. When explicit accreditation is not anchored in a major accreditation body with quality and standards, there’s no real anchor in the real world. You’re up against recognised accreditation with branding, marketing, frameworks, objective assessment and longevity. Overbadging and weak badging have added to the problem of credibility. Badge projects are here today gone tomorrow, mosquitos not turtles.
2. Lack objectivity
A lack of objectivity, in terms of recognition in the real word has plagued their progress. What happens when you take your badges outside of your institution or course, and no one has ever heard of them and don’t care? Simply badging content is a mistake. This is about real people feeling that they are useful, not lapel badges. If your currency is not recognised in the currency exchange, then you’re left with useless paper.
3. Motivationally suspect
They were always motivationally suspect. Extrinsic rewards should always be treated with suspicion. And there’s something suspect about badges for online, but not offline, stuff. You can’t slice and dice learning by mode of delivery. The ‘Overjustification effect’ shows that Intrinsic motivation will decrease when external rewards are only given for completing a particular task or only doing minimal work. This is not to say that all extrinsic motivation is useless, only that superfluous extrinsic motivation is damaging to learning. The failure to escape this trap is a major problem for most badge schemes.
4. Not really gamification
The idea that they are a great gamification feature is misleading. Pavlovian rewards have a limited effective learning, which is why so much Pavlovian gamification runs out of steam – leaderboards, collecting badges and so on. Real gamers are intrinsically motivated by the game, its reputation, their experiences of games, their peers views of games and so on. They do not buy and play games because of the scoring system or badges. Bad learning games or gamification techniques are often just a pale imitation of massively popular gaming.
5. No form of transfer
When your badges get stuck in a proprietary system, repository or e-portfolio, with little in the way of interoperability, they’re effectively imprisoned. Badges are often rendered useless by their failure to escape the bounds of their small ecosystems, technical and cultural. Mozilla have, since 2011, tried to provide a framework and structure. I applaud their efforts but the early paper “Open Badges for Lifelong Learning” was hopelessly utopian. A more achievable vision was needed. The most successful badge system I’ve seen is in IBM – but it is in IBM – that’s it. Badges don’t travel well.
6. Awful branding
Another problem was branding. Making your badges look like silly, clip-art stickers, makes the whole thing look amateurish. For badges to work they needed some serious marketing and design – Mozilla tried but what we got was almost no marketing and sometimes comically bad design. In addition, it always had that boy scout, girl guide feel – something suitable for earnest young people but not adults. Perhaps it was the word ‘badge’ that was a mistake – something with almost trivial connotations.
When people started to get badges for simply attending conferences, I got worried. The motivation for conference attendance is not always learning. It is often the extrinsic reward of travel and time off. How do you measure the usefulness of that attendance? We could say, did you tweet out session, blog and distribute your findings to your fellow employees, write a paper suggesting new implementations based on what you learnt? Badges for just turning up don’t wash it for me. A real problem here is that badges often don’t match real learning and are rarely measured in terms of impact.
Foursquare and Gowalla allowed you to check-in, tag your location and record what you did/are doing at those locations, through badges, points, whatever. They were like a spiced-up Twitter, with points for prizes. They died. Reduced to adding GIFs badges to Snapchat, they've had their day. Whether you see badges as motivational devices, credentials, actual assessments, even evaluative, if they don’t catch on, they’re dead in the water. In short, they’re dead in the water. The truth is that this has happened, sad but true.
There is one hope, a technology that avoids some of the problems outlined here – Blockchain. I’ve written about this here…. Time will tell but time is a cruel judge.