What are badges, and how will education use them?

This is re-posted from Iridescent’s blog and was written by Kevin Miklasz, Director of Digital Curriculum at Iridescent. This is the first in a series of posts we’ll share here on the topic of digital badges in education.
Badges are soon to be, if not already, a hot topic in education.  Yet unlike many other hot topics, it’s a little unclear what badges are and why they might be useful. Badges have baggage, meaning badges are entering education with a complex history of varied uses in non-educational settings. Before we can effectively implement educational badges, we have to unpack and understand the baggage.
Let’s start with a little bit of history. The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts were the first to “invent” badges in first part of the last century.  In the 1980’s, the game industry reinvented the badge system, which went by the name “leveling”.  In the early 2000’s the game industry adopted an “achievement” system, a digital version of a Boy Scout merit badge. In 2009, Mozilla took the achievement idea from the game companies, re-coined the term “badge” and used it for educational purposes.
Given this history, it should be clear that badges mean different things to different people. Mozilla makes a useful distinction between the three badge types:

  • Skill badges– These are the Boy Scout merit badges and what the game industry calls “achievements.” This is what I find most people mean by badges.  Skill badges certify expertise in a topic.  These badges tend to be a bit more extrinsic of a reward than stealth badges, and in my experience are motivating, but not as motivating as a good intrinsic stealth badge structure.
  • Stealth badges- These are what the gaming industry calls “leveling” and the Boy Scouts call “ranks”. Stealth badges typically relate to general status.  The game industry often ties your level to unlocking content, meaning more status equals access to more interesting stuff.  This creates an intrinsic reward structure, which creates much of the inherent motivation present in games.  If badges are supposed to be motivating, in my experience I’ve found stealth badges to be far and ahead the most motivating type.
  • Community badges– These badges are really a result of the social media world. Community badges are given socially, often for social skills like teamwork. In a sense, they are simply skill badges that are judged by peers rather than teachers.

These categories are not mutually exclusive.  For example, the Khan Academy uses a hybrid stealth/skill badge structure- badges are related to certain skills, but they build upon each other in a sort of leveling system.  Gaining lower level skills “soft-unlocks” access to higher badges.  This sort of tree network of badges has been employed by several games, to great success (the job system in several Final Fantasy games or the creature collection portfolio in Pokemon and Dragon Warrior Monsters).  If you can find a way to utilize this hybrid tree, it not only gives great feedback on progress and allows clear goals to be set, but is also partly for these reasons highly motivating.
We can learn a lot from the stealth badge system, because I think this is what games do exceptionally well, but educators have done relatively poorly. Leveling systems in games are almost always linked to unlocking features in a game. The newly unlocked features typically make you better at the game, which allow you to gain even more levels, which unlocks more stuff, which allows you to play the game better, which allows you to gain more levels, etc. It is a viciously addictive cycle that is highly motivating (link to previous gaming article).  If you haven’t experienced it, pick up Pokemon or Harvest Moon and experience the psychological power of an intrinsic reward structure.
Unlocking Structures: Take it to the Next Level
There are two types of these unlocking structures in games, what I call hard-unlocking and soft-unlocking. In hard-unlocking structures, there are typically discrete levels, and once a level is gained, a discrete feature is unlocked.  There may be an area of the map you just can’t access until you reach level five, or there’s a difficult activity you can’t do until you complete three other activities.  In an education game there could be a tutorial that you are not allowed to access until you complete a previous tutorial.
In contrast, in soft-unlocking there is nothing actually restricting you from accessing higher content except your own skill.  You may be free to access a certain part of the map, but you will probably lose if you go there until you reach about level five.  Or you can do a difficult activity at any time, but you are unlikely to be successful at it until you gain experience with three other easier activities first.  Or you can watch a tutorial at any time, but are unlikely to understand it until you have watched previous tutorials.
Hard unlocking structures tend to feel more forced and unnatural, but can also direct focus and create well-ordered problem solving.  Typically, gamers consider soft-unlocking structures more elegant, but they are also more difficult to design.  Soft-unlocks allow users to continually challenge themselves, more readily leading to the optimal experience of flow.  Soft unlocks also allow more choice and can be less frustrating for an advanced player, who is free to skip ahead to later content if wanted.  I also think soft unlocks give a greater feeling of accomplishment- being able to do something at any point in time means that the only thing stopping you from achieving that badge is your own ability.  Once you gain it, you can really feel your own progress.  In a hard unlock, it less clear that your own ability led to your success, since you weren’t able to access the challenge initially.
I hope this provides some clarification on what badges are and how they have been used in non-educational environments. Now for the real question- what types of badges should be used in education and in what ways?

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  1. Pingback from Design Feedback for Badge Systems | on :

    […]  1.    Get to know your end-user  Take the time to think through your user persona and user flows. Remember that you have a specific human using your product and they are receiving the badges that you create. Get really specific here and come up with a user story and test that against your designs. For example: My user’s name is Adrian, he is 18 years old and enjoys reading Science Fiction books, riding his bike and exploring New York City. He is participating in this after school program because he has a passion for math and has felt relatively uninspired by his in-school options. He does this program on Wednesdays after school and has already earned badges for peer mentoring, leadership and problem solving. These are particularly meaningful for him because he wants his peers to know that he is not only a smart guy, but really has street cred in the math community. He posts his badges both in his school LMS and on his personal Facebook page. From my example, we can already learn a few things that will help inform some design decisions. We know he is doing this work as an extracurricular activity, so we want to frame the work as informal and we know that he is more interested in the social capital that he gains from this experience outside of the classroom and school community, so he is invested in the badges being flexible and shareable. You probably will have 3 or 4 types of users for any given product. Embrace that and come up with unique user stories that are based on real life use cases. 2.    Badges and identity Think about how your badges communicate or enhance an end-users identity. This might seem like an obvious one, but it’s crucial to think about how the end-user relates to the badge on a personal level and how that might inform their identity, both within the context of your tool or badge system design and outside of that framework in the real world. On a simple level, think about how might be naming the badges and ask yourself – does this have resonance with the badge recipient? What is more appealing “CSS 101 badge” or “CSS Super Styler”? Think about how this relates to the visual design as well, are you offering something that would have more significance to your organizational brand than to your users brand or identity? If so, then I would recommend reviewing the design and iterating. 3.    Badge design   It’s important to remember that 90% of the badge system design is not visual. Take the time to go and think through all of the touchpoints for badges and ask yourself “are they meaningful experiences?” and if they are meaningful – who are they meaningful for? Once you past that test, then you can move on to visual design. I gave a webinar on this about a month ago and put the slides up on a Google Doc here. The top level things to consider are legibility, scale and typography. Open badges are relatively small graphics, so think about that when you are designing them. Reduce the amount of graphic complexity as much as humanly possible. Ask yourself if you even need to incorporate text into the badge – because this adds an additional layer of content that a user needs to digest. I pull this point out separately because I don’t think that text is needed because the backpack and/or system distribution could include that information alongside the badge, giving you the opportunity to free up your design. Badges are like icons, you need to attempt to communicate as much as possible with the fewest elements as possible.  4.    User Testing  How can you engage your community in user testing and analysis? Can you think of ways to work in a more agile way- incorporating feedback and testing so that you are putting out releases that build on your learning and findings from fieldwork and testing?  All of the questions that you have about your design will be acknowledged the second that you have someone who is unfamiliar with your project review your work. And, as part of the DML/ MacArthur/ HASTAC / Mozilla community- you can ask us for help. Yeah you have a grant deliverable, but you have a community right here who are asking themselves the same design questions and are a perfect user tester. That said, I would take the time to mix up your user tests – have friends and family, but also include complete strangers. Remember, user testing can be as informal as throwing two badge designs in front of a user and asking them which one they prefer and why. Don’t be intimidated by the term user testing – in reality, what is more intimidating is putting out a product that will be used by hundreds of people that has not been tested. 5.    Metrics and dashboard Data My final bit of feedback has to do with how you are valuing success but more importantly about how your end user values success, learning and skill acquisition. Many of the dashboard type tools that I saw were actually speaking to how an institution or organization values success within a Learning Management System (or badge system, or tool etc.) but not how the end – user values success. So for example, the tool was designed for the high school teacher instead of the high school student. Remember that success and metrics is something that can be shared and communicated to users as part of their experience within the product offering and it is an opportunity to help a user challenge themselves to level up or exceed both your and their expectations. In terms of design, this might mean that you should consider surfacing some of this data. Design needs to constantly be iterated upon, however, if done correctly it will be a huge contributor to the success of your badge system design. So go forth, and design with courage. Use this top 5 list as tools in your arsenal to help you craft a meaningful user experience. Related reading from our series on badges: Kevin Miklasz from Iridescent: What are badges and how will education use them? […]