When I was younger, my parents signed me up for Beavers and then Scouts. If you remember these organizations from your youth, you probably remember evenings and weekends working on earning your badges. Once you had completed all the tasks for a specific skill, you brought the completed projects to an adult who verified that they were completed. You were then given the badge representing that goal. Seems like something from the past.
Well, it’s not. Continuing in their quest to bring gamification to the classroom, a number of startups have begun to see badges as the next wave in websites geared to teaching students/children skills, one notable example being Khan Academy.
A recent article on this fairly recent trend in education (at least, in it’s newest form), caught my attention:
What encourages students to do well in school? Often, it comes down to grades. Many students will work harder in order to earn a higher grade. Colleges want to see good grades. Parents want to see good grades. Grades are good, right? Of course they are, but the grades should not be the only goal. Learning for the sake of it should be a goal, including what they learned, how long they remembered it, and how they applied it to new situations.
Unfortunately, some students are not motivated by grades. Yes, this includes your brightest kids. Some kids could get an A on any test you give them, so they do not see the need for homework. Why do an hour of work every night when they know they are going to get an A on the test? Now you have a student who gets Fs on all his homework and As on all his tests. It turns into a C average, and he doesn’t care. How do you motivate him to do more or do better? The old-fashioned way – you give him a badge.
What are badges?
First of all, for those new to the term, gamification, “typically involves applying game design thinking to non-game applications to make them more fun and engaging”. Startups looking to bring gamification platforms to classrooms and schools reason that students are more motivated with earning badges they can collect, display and show off than just receiving marks. Marks are harder for them understand. After all, what does an 80% really mean to a child in an elementary class.
Badges, on other hand, are a very distinctive achievement. With a badge you know where you are. Definition wise, badges “are digital tokens that appear as icons or logos on a web page or other online venue. Awarded by institutions, organizations, groups, or individuals, badges signify accomplishments such as completion of a project, mastery of a skill, or marks of experience.
Why is it creating such a buzz in education?
So why is gamification becoming such a big topic in education? Some would argue that gamification in education is not a new phenomena. From home reading charts, like the “reading mountain” students used to track their nightly home reading to behavior tracking pages, the gamification of class work has been around for a while. In fact, some would see the education system as a game itself. One game developer states that
“The education system already is a game — just not one that is well designed. Several educators and researchers are trying interesting things. For example, Lee Sheldon has been building game thinking into his classes. Additionally, although Roland Fryer Jr. isn’t thinking explicitly about games, he is thinking about incentives.”
Over at PIXELearning, the author, VictoriaJaneRose, has a great summary of why gamification appeals to startups in creating online learning platforms for schools. She breaks down the power of gamification into the different theories of building motivation.
Skinnerian Conditioning and Learning:
Possible to condition human beings in the same way and that a variable rather than fixed reward schedule is more likely to maintain the desired behaviour, hence the addictive nature of gambling. The achievement points, badges and trophies of gamification are often compared to this model.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:
Earning badges and points and a strong position on a leader board could be said to meet our ‘Esteem’ needs, whereas creating sound opportunities for deep learning through games contributes to our Self Actualisation.
Dan Pink: Drive
Goes further to say that beyond simple, algorithmic, if/ then tasks, rewards and incentives do not work but when tasks become more complicated and require conceptual thinking, true motivators are autonomy, purpose and mastery. This indicates that for marketing and customer loyalty schemes, the reward schemes of gamification have their place, but for learning which requires active cognitive engagement, good quality game design is more suited.
Beyond the theoretical, and somewhat academic side of why gamification is having such a strong pull in educational technology circles, there are lots of reasons why educators are beginning to look at using badge systems in their classrooms, if only in certain areas. One of the major reasons is that earning badges can “align very well with our understanding of the importance of play to human development, while play-based learning is well recognized as a crucial element of the development of children during the early years and aligning those incentives to real world needs”. Not only that, but educators using badges and other gamification techniques cite that they “herald a fundamental change in the way society recognizes learning and achievement—shifting from a traditional books-and-lecture pedagogy to a model with multiple knowledge streams, including new media, collaboration, interest-based learning, and project-based learning,” which works well with the current groundswell in project based learning as it applies to 21st Century learning.
Other pros for using badges include the fact that they,
- Are more understandable than marks to children
- Mirrors the video games and other activities in their real lives
- Give real sense of accomplishment when they obtain a badge
- Are adaptable and usable for any type of activity
- Give a sense of fun
- May result in kids being more likely to be productive
- Delineated skills to obtain badge giving a structure to what students need to do.
- Provide visibility to accomplishment.
- Do not force students to wait 6 weeks for “quality” overall feedback.
- Might allow us to indicate that learning transgresses the boundaries of formal and informal learning.
- Oromotes students’ systems thinking, problem solving and critical analysis skills
- Support lifelong learning, not just through traditional academic or formalized learning pathways but also the kind of knowledge that comes from personal initiative and investigation.
What’s the flip side of using badges?
Critics of gamification state many issues with using such gamification techniques as badges in the classroom. Probably the biggest reason against gamification proponents are challenged on, is that students might focus on the rewards rather than the journey. Instead of focusing on what they are learning and why, it becomes all about the extrinsic reward. The other issue with that are children who need more and greater rewards to complete the same types of tasks or continue doing the tasks. After a while, getting a lollipop isn’t good enough. In an example from my own classroom, where I used rewards for good classroom behaviour, a student asked what the next prize was and was visibly disappointed to find out that it was the same kind as the last prize. He looked at me and said that the next one should be bigger because they already got that prize the last time. In the same vein, students might focus on accumulating badges rather than making connections with the ideas and material associated with the badges— the same way that students too often focus on grades in a class rather than the material in the class, or the points in an educational game rather than the ideas in the game.
Though the loss of focus on intrinsic motivations for learning is one of the biggest potential downsides, there are others including:
- Always needing to come up with new badges
- Need to have both badges and marks as that is the standard form of reporting student progress
- Can’t be slapped on; needs to be brought in slowly and measured to see reaction of students
- Could result in backlash from parents who find this too far from their experiences or don’t think it should be a part of “real education”
- May impose hierarchy, structure and system in informal learning environments where system is not a desirable feature
- Too often their implementation is facile; it smacks of the every-kid-gets-a-trophy soccer tournament.
- In the constant quest to make education fun, we might lose some of what makes education educational
- Tends to treat learning as a structured system rather than an organic process
- Hard to establish as legitimate credentials of learning beyond specific environment
- Can be difficult to prove that specific accomplishments have been completed
Examples of How Badges Could Be Used in Classes
As a way to move beyond the cons of designing and awarding badges and leverage the pros, Leslie Madson-Brooks, a professor at Boise State University, proposes that we instead use badges as a way to allow students to create their own learning. She explores this concept implemented within the classroom, stating that,
What if, instead, we thought of badges as a variation of the minor or even the major? Many colleges and universities offer programs where students can design their own majors or create custom interdisciplinary concentrations that serve much the same function as minors. Traditionally, these paths required intensive faculty advising and mentoring of students. In a digital age, however, it’s possible to assign keywords, tags, or categories to courses. Students could propose a course of study from the offered classes, with the database suggesting courses that might be compatible based on these tags and a recommendation engine that recognizes patterns of student enrollment; students also might be limited from taking too many courses in the same category. As part of this system, faculty could designate a cluster of courses across disciplines that could function as an alternative to a major or minor. These clusters become badges, and students could be both creative and strategic about which combination of badges they pursue.
I think that there are some exciting opportunities for using badges in the classroom. I wouldn’t use it to replace traditional marks as the school would not allow it (though show me a school using gamification and badges successfully to demonstrate mastery and lifelong learning that is accepted beyond the school walls, and I may just pack up my class!), but I do think that there are some exciting sites out there to experiment with and see what sort of possibilities there are. Beyond Khan Academy, here are a few other sites using badges:
DIY.org is a new site. I won’t go into too much detail as that will be another blog post at a later time. It’s focus is more on the home side, where children (along with the help of their families) choose a skill to learn and complete tasks related to the skill. Once the task is completed, children upload evidence of their learning and the site awards them badges. The site is very social where kids can discover and follow other children and what they have done giving feedback and praise for their accomplishments.
As a classroom teacher, I love the project based aspect of it, where students can discover and create on their own. I can act more as a mentor which is the whole premise of project based learning. Plus, they are often skills with very real-life applications. The site is fun, accessible and easy to use which makes it great. What’s also great is that it doesn’t delineate tasks or skills by age, giving children the choice and decision making power to choose the things they want to do and push themselves to make those great leaps in learning.
Well, that’s all great at home, I hear you saying, but how does this work in the class?
Google is often famous for their 20% policy, where 20% of their time is spent on other projects not related to their current project. Google instituted this to allow for more creativity and decrease the boredom of working on the same thing all the time. I am working on building on this type of policy in my class next year, where some time in the week will be set aside to allow students to work on a project of their own choosing. I am planning on grounding this through the use of DIY.org to give it some foundation and structure. I will also be adding other components to track progress and thinking as the project goes on. But I am really exciting about using DIY.org to allow students choice and options for their learning. And as we all know, we can work the curriculum around lots of different projects and activities. I think using DIY.org will cover lots of different objectives in a neat and creative way.
ClassBadges is a free online tool where teachers can award badges to students for accomplishments or academic mastery. Through your teacher account, you can award badges customized for your classroom or school. Badges can easily be aligned to academic goals or associated with existing school awards. I haven’t played around with this much having just heard about it. The uses for classbadges are diverse and you could go as big or as small as you want.
Gamestar Mechanic is a game and online community that teaches kids how to design their own games! Again I haven’t played with this much but it would be a fun activity to replace the dry computer lab curriculum taught in a lot of schools.
For slightly older students, this site uses badges as a way to help motivate students to learn to code. According to the site, by learning to program, kids can have a say in how software shapes their world. Plus, programming teaches important reasoning, logic, and communication skills.They also have a secondary site, where schools and teachers can host after school clubs.
These are just some of the sites using badges to motivate students. It would be interesting to see what the affects of using multiple systems would be. But for now, I think that using just one system will be enough.
Oh, and by the way, grab this badge as a reward for making it through this entire post!