Are open badges just empty motivators?

I’ve been worried, since I started the INSIGNIA project, that ‘the people’ wouldn’t really get the point of open badges for researchers.

Screen Shot 2014-02-26 at 5.21.21 pmBy ‘the people’ I mean PhD students and their supervisors. No one has ever tried open badges for researchers before – at least as far as I am aware. I have no idea whether they will be interested in doing the web based tasks we develop, or in earning the open badges we make.

One of my chief worries was about the ‘gamification’ model that seems to underlie the open badges idea – badges are a small reward for a certain achievement. Would this audience of researchers see this idea as, well… naff? It’s not the kind of thing that one puts in a grant application of course, but it is a legitimate worry.

Carla Casilli states that “all badges have value” and that, understood as a whole, multiple badges work can act as signifiers for identity. I’ve sympathy with this argument, but I wonder, in this particular case that there are other, strong forces of identity formation at work. Researchers are understood as researchers through their outputs (in most cases journal papers), which gain meaning within a disciplinary community.

A journal paper is the ultimate “badge” for a researcher – it’s a concrete demonstration of skills and abilities.

My other worry is the age of the intended audience for these badges. At the moment, in Australia, the average age on commencement of the PhD is 34 years old. The supervisors are older still: there are more academics over the age of 50 than under. I wonder how many PhD students and academics play computer games and have experienced this kind of reward system?

It may well be that no one in our intended audience really gets it, but that’s the point of research isn’t it? To ferret out and explore the unknowns.

I’m happy to report I am losing less sleep over badge acceptance since we ran a Thesis Bootcamp here at ANU. For those of you not familiar with this concept, the thesis bootcamp concept was developed by Peta Freestone and Liam O’Connell of the Melbourne university graduate school. It’s a simple concept really – gather together people who are all at or very near completion of their PhD. Feed them, console them and give them space and time to just write the thesis. Liam kindly agreed to come to ANU and help me run my first one and learn from him how the University of Melbourne system works.

Screen Shot 2014-02-26 at 5.32.09 pmPart of this system – and the fiendishly clever bit really – is the rewards: a series of lego shaped squeezy blocks which are awarded for every 5000 words written. The blocks come in four colours: green for 5000 words, blue for 10,000 words, red for 15,000 words and gold for 20,000 words. When Liam introduced the idea to our bootcampers there was a palpable air of scepticism in the room. I’m sure the PhD students were thinking to themselves: “this is kind of naff” – since I was already thinking of the blocks as ‘analogue badges’ my heart sank.

Screen Shot 2014-02-26 at 5.33.23 pmLiam reassured me that “this always happens” and we carried on. It took until mid morning on the Saturday for one of our bootcampers, Natalie, to declare she had reached the 5000 word target. The bootcampers looked on with amused bewilderment as  we made a big fuss of the achievement and wrote Natalie’s name on the white board under the “5000 club”.

There was no visible sign that the blocks were working as a motivator until after the third one ‘dropped’. The bootcampers no longer looked on with amusement, they clapped and cheered their colleagues’ achievement. I heard more than one of them mutter “I must get to the first block!”.

Screen Shot 2014-02-26 at 5.32.47 pmGreen blocks dropped faster and faster as people redoubled their efforts. I guess some of them felt left out and some of them were getting competitive. Whatever the psychology, before too long all the green blocks were awarded and a lot of our bootcampers had progressed much further than that. Two bootcampers got gold blocks and four of them declared they had finished all the writing they needed to do to complete the thesis. After that comes editing of course, but having the words to edit is half the battle.

In the kitchen one of the bootcampers who had just got his gold block remarked: “If only I’d known all it took was an empty motivator Inger, I would have been finished long ago!”. It was funny because it was true – the squeezy lego block had absolutely no intrinsic value – it only cost me 50 cents. But deployed as a motivator in a social setting it had amazing power.

I’ve been thinking about the lessons learned from Bootcamp for about a month now and here are two reasons why I think the blocks worked:

1) The aesthetics of the blocks – and the way they related to each other – was important. Liam pointed out that the blocks clip together pleasingly to give a visible sense of progress (we called it “the word wall”). The branding on them worked too – many bootcampers reported displaying it proudly in their office. The lego blocks became a tangible demonstration of membership, much like a branded hoodie or tshirt with your university logo on it. Most people crave some form of membership.

2) Seeing others get the blocks was important. The social dynamics we worked to create were crucial in this instance.  The block – or an open badge for that matter – is a token whose meaning and significance is socially made. I think the bootcampers initially felt a bit embarrassed cheering when someone got a block. Like me, no doubt, they had learned to be ‘cool’ about displays of enthusiasm by teachers in high school. But the initial scepticism died away after a couple of their colleagues got their prize and were so obviously pleased. The competitive spirit, or FOMO, started to kick in as they watched. Once they started joining in the cheering their desire to get a block themselves seemed to increase too.

I’m interested in what others think. What other reasons might there be for the blocks working in this way? What tactics and strategies can we use to mobilise the desire for open badges in our audience? What are the barriers?


A null result is still a result. Right?

IntegrityQuiz_makebadgesIn the Unjaded Reflections blog post “Why should you create an open badge system”, Jade Forester has three warnings for people designing open badge systems:

1. Don’t try to make your badge system grow too much, too fast;
2. Ensure you have the technical and human resources you need to fully support your badge system;
3. Make sure there’s a need for badges

Starting INSIGNIA as a small scale system, with available resources, certainly sounded like a sensible approach, especially given this is only a seed project. If the need for the badge is clear, it’s likely to help with acceptance of open badges in the research community. Given these constraints, I seemed to have a perfect starting point: ANU’s compulsory, yet non credit bearing, research integrity course.

This course is a problem I had inherited from my predecessor, who built it in collaboration with the community, but without a good assessment regime or ongoing maintenance strategy. The course attempts to explain, mostly through case studies, how complex research integrity issues, such as authorship, plagiarism, informed consent etc, are in practice. The material was great, but I’ve been working for nearly a year to move the course from his bespoke online platform into our ANU learning management system (on Moodle) and to introduce a quiz as the final assessment activity (yes – this seemingly straightforward task took nearly a year. Committees eh?).

Taking Jade Forester’s advice on board, I thought issuing a badge for the successful completion of the final quiz would be a good first step towards an INSIGNIA series of badges for research education. I needed a way to provide students with evidence that they had completed the course and I had available resources. The research integrity course content was already there in Moodle 2.5, which I know has the capacity to create and issue badges. Red Dog Learning, who had been helping me to build the course, even offered to make the badge for me as the last part of their contract.

The problem, I quickly discovered, was that people and technical resources are not always enough. The barriers are more likely to be hidden and, just like a coral reef just under your bow, you sometimes don’t know they are there until you run aground.

Last week I happened to wander into the lunch room at the same time as the ANU online team, who are the people responsible for looking after ANU’s implementation of Moodle. Over my burrito I asked the team if our Moodle had the badges option turned on because I couldn’t see it anywhere when I was editing my course. The team told me they had not turned it on because no one had asked for it.

I told them I needed it and politely asked if they could turn it on.

They hesitated. “Most people don’t have a good reason for using open badges” said one, cautiously. I suspected this was a gentle way of saying “no” so I pounced on it.

“Well I have a whole pedagogical model” I replied. Then I explained the idea of open badges providing a ‘respectful pedagogy’ for research students, who may be well versed in the material within a course and just needed to demonstrate competency – my research integrity course being a good case in point.

The ANU online team nodded and looked thoughtful.

“We’ve been reluctant to turn it on because anyone could offer a badge for anything” another member of the team said.

I replied that was rather the point of open badges, but I could see the problem with it in a university context. Anything with the ANU brand on it, and no quality control mechanism behind it, was challenging to the credentialing authority of our institution. Poorly designed badges, like poorly designed courses, have the potential to reflect badly on us and might even undermine our credibility as an education provider.

I explained I was happy to have this conversation because my research was designed to elicit just these issues and write about them. But I couldn’t get very far in my project if I couldn’t actually make any badges available. Perhaps they turn on the badge making capacity, but just for me. I cheekily promised to be good.

They told me that turning on the capacity for making badges would have to pass through their stakeholder consultation mechanisms. I’ve been in the university long enough to spot the possibility of slow death by committee when I see it, so I offered to write a memo for the committee and the DVC A – to explain the project and the need for badges.

Still they hesitated. I couldn’t understand why.

As it turned out, the ANU online were worried about the possible privacy implications of open badges. The idea of a badge is that it can be easily moved ‘out’ of the Moodle platform and displayed in other places, like the Mozilla backpack. If the badge ‘carried’ data about the student with it, like an email address, this would be a breach of privacy legislation and the insitution would be subject to up to $300,000 in fines. Apparently this was complicated by the fact that ANU is a federal university (actually the only federal university, since all the others are run by state governments).

I started to get a head ache. “Would an open badge project off the ground actually require an act of Parliament?” I wondered aloud. Then I laughed, you know – in horror. My project was melting around my ears.

ANU online team looked at me sympathetically. They didn’t want to stifle innovation they explained, but they had Responsibilities. I believed them, but had to ask the next obvious question: “can we put in a check box that students can tick so they are giving consent for their private information to be shared in the badge?” Well, that probably contravened the legislation as well they explained. I must have looked despondant at that point because the team did, bless their hearts, tell me they would explore whether Moodle could selectively turn off student information so that the badge could be ‘clean’.

This is, I suspect, where the road gets bumpy… A null result is still a result. Right?

Oh well. At least I managed to use Makebadges to do the graphics for the badge. If you are interested in designing your own badges, I’ve found some good sites which I have started to compile into a ‘make your own badges!” page. I’ll be interested in your comments – has anyone else had a similar experience?

This project is alive… at least I think so.

Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 2.15.07 PMThe INSIGNIA project got funded! I’ll be using this blog to record progress on the project.

Thanks to the Office for Learning and Teaching for providing ANU with seed funding to explore the use of open badges in research education. The project will be a collaboration between the research training team, the College of Asia and the Pacific and the ANU library, led by myself.

You’re probably wondering what the research project is all about, so here’s a brief outline:

In Australia research students need only write a long thesis or dissertation, most do not do any formal course work with their degree. People now enter research degree study at all ages and stages, and from many walks of life. No longer can we assume everyone starts with the same knowledge.

There is a growing need to provide research students with more formal training in areas like research integrity, research methods and digital literacy. But rather than sit through long courses which might not suit their needs, research students need ways to demonstrate they have competence, or find out what they still need to know. This project aims to explore alternative ways of providing this through open badges.

As you will know, in a conventional course you have regular delivery of content (in the form of lectures, tutorials or modules), activities and then assessment. Courses are linear through time, with clear roles for teachers and students. By contrast, open badges suggest an alternative framework for learning, one that is dynamic and complex.

An open badge is a piece of digital information that is issued for recognition of a skill or ability. One, relatively conventional, way to use open badges is to issue them for completion of an assessment task or activity. The key player in the field of open badging is Mozilla who are authoring a set of standards and tools to facilitate the design and delivery. Their forthcoming Badgekit will provide crucial tools for this project. Once it is issued the badge may be displayed by the learner on digital platforms like blogs or in Mozilla’s Open Badges Backpack.

There are many ways to think about open badges, but the first type we plan to explore is a ‘recognition of learning’ approach, which treats open badges as similar to achievements in computer gaming. To earn a badge learners must complete a challenge which demonstrates their knowledge. The course content to support a badge activity might be provided, or learners may customise their own learning from a range of course materials which have been curated by a teacher or a community. Or a learner might just already know how to do the task.

There are three main research questions which we will try to answer with this work:

  • Are open badges useful for research education?
  • Will students (and supervisors) want to use them?
  • What are some of the barriers to implementing open badges within conventional university settings?

That’s probably enough for a start… but I’d like to take the opportunity here to acknowledge the work of Dr Lyndsay Agans who worked with me on the initial project proposal. Lyndsay has now left ANU and can no longer be involved with the project, but it’s fair to say this grant would not have been successful without her input. I’ll do my best to carry on alone!

if you are interested in reading more, here are three references on open badges which we appended to the original application: