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?