We don’t need no Stinkin’ Badges

Or, Why I’m Unenthusiastic about the Badging Fad

Badges are gaining considerable traction in the field of educational technology, and are a cornerstone of the “gamification” movement. However, I’m unenthusiastic about their potential to increase student engagement or motivation, because no matter how they are used, they serve as a proxy for real, meaningful accomplishments. I’ll discuss the three main purposes of badges, and their limitations, here:

A reward

Badges are a pretty terrible reward. I mean, imagine you’re a kid who has in the past received candy or pizza as a reward for completing schoolwork, and now your teacher offers you a little digital icon instead. What a rip-off! Homework should be worth at least a mini snickers!

But that’s the problem with using anything – badges, stickers, or candy – as a reward. It sends a very powerful message to students that the activity we’re asking them to do isn’t worth doing on its own. And unfortunately, sometimes educational activities are just busywork. But rather than providing students with artificial incentives to perform meaningless tasks, let’s try giving students something valuable to do instead.

A record

I admit, I love my badges on Codecademy. They are a visual representation of all the hours I’ve put into learning how to code in JavaScript. I’m proud of the work I’ve done, so that pride is represented in the form of the little digital icons. However, although I love Codecademy, one of its main flaws is that all the coding you do never produces anything valuable or meaningful. As I go through the exercises, I’m learning core concepts of programming, but all I’m left with at the end are a bunch of completed exercises.

A much better way of providing students with a record of their accomplishments is to have them accomplish something they find valuable or meaningful. Ask them to code a program that they (and others) might actually use. Then instead of a bunch of badges, they’ll have the actual creation as a record of the work they’ve done. And if students are encouraged to work on projects they care about,  we lose the need for badges as a reward, as well.

A goal

In scouting, the badges not only serve as a record of past accomplishments, but also a clearly defined path to future accomplishments. They are a way of organizing tasks into gradually more and more difficult challenges with clearly defined steps and goals. However, these badges define artificial goals. If the goals were worthy of pursuit by themselves without the incentive of a badge, why use badges at all? And if these goals need to be propped up with badges, why pursue them?

Basically, no matter how they are used, badges are a way of perpetuating poor pedagogy by legitimizing otherwise worthless tasks. If educators can re-link knowledge and skills to their real-world applications, we can offer students much more meaningful rewards, records, and goals than a detached digital image.

Posted in Education

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