On Badges and Rewards: Gut Reactions and Real Life Connections

Last week, a school in Calgary announced the elimination of certificates and ceremonies honoring academic and athletic achievement. The school board’s rationale addresses issues around internal vs. external motivation, competition vs. collaboration, and provides research that supports the school’s decision.

Right now, fierce debate is taking place around the use of badges and rewards to motivate people. Everyone has an opinion. Educators, parents, course designers, HR specialists, marketers, and app designers are all talking about how to leverage rewards to fuel motivation. I expect that when you encounter the use of rewards and badges in education, you have a distinct reaction either in favor or against the notion. And your reaction stems from your our own personal values and experiences.

Let’s dissect this topic and see where it goes. First, let’s see what others have to say. Some diverse and well-written arguments include:

  • Punished by Rewards? A Conversation with Alfie Kohn by Ron Brandt. Kohn argues that both punishments and rewards are ways of manipulating students. He says that there is scientific evidence that rewards reduce the intrinsic curiosity and motivation that comes from being tasked with meaningful challenges. He also says that praise is an instrument of control, especially if it is used to gain compliance. He argues that educators should focus on meaningful content, engagement in a community, and choice, instead of rewards.
  • I Don’t Get Digital Badges by Jackie Gerstein. Gerstein gives an overview of some of the main arguments against the use of badges and and highlights the the work of Alfie Kohn, Daniel Pink, Daniel Hickey, Bron Stuckey, Terry Heick, and others. Ultimately, Gerstein presents research-based evidence that badges do not equal motivation. She also argues that simply adding badges to a learning task does not result in the gamification of learning because badges do not provide formative assessment, and are not usually based on learner choice.
  • Learning Badges by Degree of Freedom. In this blog post, the author examines his experience in a MOOC where he earns badges and poses some thoughtful questions about how the recognition of badges is being debated by licensing bodies, organizations, and employers.
  • 7 Things You Should Know About Badges by Educause. This document is a great introduction to what badges are, how some educational institutions are using them, and what’s next in the development of badges as both formal and informal credentials in education. It takes a positive, informative approach to the concept of badges.
  • Mozilla Open Badges. Mozilla has taken an open concept approach to badges as ways to learn, issue, and display them as credentials for a wide variety of purposes by anyone or any institution. The project aims to help people recognize others as well as receive recognition based on specific accomplishments or skills. Mozilla has also created an electronic way of collecting and displaying badges in a Badge Backpack.
  • The Teacher’s Guide to Badges in Education by Edudemic. This article presents widely-held positive views on badges by drawing parallels between badges and gaming, pride in achievements, and goal-setting. It states that badges help to push students to try harder, think differently, and try activities that are outside of their comfort zones.

So there are supporters as well as opponents. The above posts also point out a diverse array of purposes that people see for badges such as:

  • Checklists or a series of actions to be taken
  • Choices of tasks to choose from
  • Verification of credentials or skills
  • Rewards for completing tasks
  • Tracking of levels of accomplishment or skill
  • Ways to pique interest and invite someone to take action
  • Presentation of a challenge or task

It seems that the uses of rewards generally fall into four categories: motivation to complete, recognition of achievement, assessment, and/or tracking.

Next, I will examine some personal interactions with badges and rewards. (This post is turning out to be a very reflective experience!) Examples from my own life include:


This made our sweat-drenched practices much more worthwhile.

  • Dragon boat competition – This summer I joined an amateur dragon boat team and had a real blast. We unexpectedly won a bronze medal in our division at the Calgary Dragon Boat Festival. It was a thrill just to be there but I have to admit that winning a medal made my aching muscles much more worthwhile.
  • Nike Training Club – This is one of my favorite apps. I’m not as motivated by the badges as I am by seeing the number of minutes I have accumulated through my workouts over time. There are different levels and focuses to choose from for each workout, and the instructional videos are fun and easy to follow.
  • Inspiration from people at the top of their game – From watching elite athletes compete in the Olympics, to world renowned researchers speak on TED Talks, to following people and organizations on Twitter, they motivate and inspire me to learn more, connect with people, and take action. Many of the people that I look up to have won awards or received recognition that helps them to gain the spotlight, increase their reach, and distinguish themselves.
  • Gaming – I don’t play many games, but there are a few that I enjoy. Developing skills and achieving the next level is a huge part of playing any game, online or otherwise. There is also an element of competition that fuels me.
  • Grades and formal credentials – Anyone working toward a degree, certificate, course, or any other type of credential knows that the final reward is the recognition of having completed it.
  • Black belt – Twelve years ago, I earned my black belt through my dojo, Okinawa Gojuryu Karatedo Kujekai. I put many years into this and consider this to be a source of immense pride. I also had a short but amazing experience at the Calgary Tai Chi & Martial Arts College where I practiced wushu. Both were incredibly valuable experiences.
  • Career – Many people consider their job to be a source of pride. When you accomplish a project or achieve a new position, you have something new to put on your resume, kind of like a badge.

My personal experiences include both intrinsic drive as well as external motivators. There were times when I considered quitting karate. A complex web of elements blended together to help push me through. They include:

  • Dedication to myself as a martial artist
  • Motivation to earn the next belt
  • Making friends with people in my karate club
  • My love of practicing and performing specific moves and skills
  • The curiosity that my friends had through their pop culture experiences with martial arts movies
  • Expectations and support from my Master and my family
  • How I was feeling at the time, or even that day

At any point in time, each of these motivational elements moved to the forefront or background on my journey to reach my goals in karate. They ebbed and flowed, and changed over time. I cannot isolate a single motivation. Likewise, on a day to day basis, I can say that working out with my Nike Training Club app could be classified as 80% internal and 20% external motivation. Usually. Tomorrow I might be ultra-motivated and classify it as 90/10. I don’t see anything wrong with this combination, or acknowledging that there are both internal and external forces that make up my own motivations. Could it be that badges and rewards do not constitute an all-or-nothing approach, and that viewing them as part of a cause and effect relationship is driving the current debate in inaccurate and polarizing directions?

For you, a badge may be motivating because it helps illuminate the path you are taking to achieve a goal. For me, a badge may mean formal recognition for achieving something. Even within the term, ‘external reward’ there are many personal interpretations and definitions. So what seems to motivate a student is likely a combination of different elements that we are interpreting as a single force of motivation.

My initial reaction to the debate around badges and rewards was to reject their usefulness and argue that internal motivation is the only constructive way to approach learning. However, my brief personal analysis leads me to conclude that internal motivations cannot be generalized, and that in reality, a complex mix of motivating factors helped me to reach my goals. Motivation is not a simple equation.

What’s your gut reaction? How do rewards play out in your daily life?

Findings: High School Teacher Tech Integration Study

During the 2009-2010 school year, I completed a year-long action research project titled, Experiences of High School Teachers in their use of Educational Technology. In it, I followed four high school teachers and 125 students as they integrated various technologies into their teaching and learning. I worked with the teachers to try new tools and develop lessons, and then carry out projects with their students throughout the year. The teachers used a variety of tools, including SMART Boards, PowerPoint, SMART Notebook, Desire2Learn, Audacity, Photo Story, Photoshop, Windows Movie Maker, iPod Touch, and a number of Web 2.0 tools in their classes. I interviewed each of the teachers for about two hours at the end of the year, and collected student surveys after each project.

I wanted share a number of findings regarding the teachers in my project. Some of the findings are predictable, and some are surprising. Perhaps you can add your ideas, thoughts, and comments to the discussion.

  • Traditional roles. The teachers agreed that high school teachers still teach in a traditional way, assuming that it is their responsibility to answer student questions and know more than the students 90% of the time.
  • Limited ways of learning in secondary classrooms. The teachers acknowledged that secondary education remains focused on reading and writing as the primary ways in which students learn and demonstrate their understanding.
  • Teacher motivation is key. The most imortant factor in successful technology implementation by teachers is personal motivation. The teachers in the study said that their willingness to use technology is fuelled by personal interest, an acknowledgement that students respond well to technology use, accountabilty through collaboration with other teachers and specialists, and the fundamental motivation to become a better teacher.
  • Technology is learned, not innate. The teachers said that they should not assume that students know how to use every aspect of technology, just because they have more experience with one or two areas. The teachers agreed also, that they should not be intimidated if they don’t have all of the answers. They pointed out that students often lack skill and understanding in ethical decision-making, problem-solving/troubleshooting, evaluating sources, and research, organization, and information synthesis.
  • Technology helps to differentiate learning. The teachers all believed that technology helps to differentiate and personalize learning for students. It sometimes gave students who were weak in reading and writing confidence and freedom to demonstrate understaning in different ways.
  • Know ‘why’. The teachers needed to understand the purpose of technology in the classroom before they could implement it successfully. They wanted to know: What are the learning outcomes? How can this help fulfill student needs? What is the best tool (or tools) to achieve these outcomes?
  • Time, relationships, and support. Predictably, all of the teachers said that they needed quality time, relationships, and support to develop comfort and understanding of technology applications in the classroom. They needed personalized, easily-accessible (just-in-time) professional development provided by people that they trust.
  • Career and transferrable skills. All of the teachers acknowledged that using technology helped students learn career and life skills that they will need in the future.
  • Independence vs. Reliance on support. The teachers said that as they become more confident using technology, they could be more independent, but that ‘just in time’ face-to-face support was vital to their learning. They offered no firm formula for building full teacher independence. Furthermore, there is a tough balance between complete independence and having the supports necessary to take bigger risks in using technology.
  • Teacher collaboration is difficult. All of the teachers had difficulty sharing and learning with other teachers, mostly because of barriers in the school culture. There were no mandated technology goals for the entire school or specific subject departments. A lack of time to collaborate was also a barrier. Furthermore, getting quick answers from a technology specialist saved teachers time and energy in their busy schedules so they preferred that type of support over trying to figure things out by themselves or with non-technology specialists.
  • Technology outcomes are separate. The teachers in the study considered technology learning outcomes to be separate from subject-specific curricular outcomes. They had yet to develop a direct, logical link between using technology tools and learning. I like to think of logical links as a natural extension of learning. Just as you would have gone straight to the library to find books for a research project in 1983, it should now be logical for people to use technology tools to learn every day. I hope that eventually, it will be natural to use technology in the classroom and that we no longer treat it as an ‘add-on’.

What do you think of the findings above? Can you add some notes, comments, or strategies to the mix?

(Image: Fuga dei cervelli, by Sinistra Ecologia Liberta. 2009. Available under a Creative Commons License.)

Want to be an Early Adopter? Then get out of bed, already!

When I see a new website, tool, or gadget, I want to try it right away…if it weren’t for the thousands of other items on my ‘to-do’ list. However, if it is interesting, useful, or relevant enough, I will make the time to experiment with it. There are many reasons why we make time for one activity over another. I found an article by Denice Bailey, Sharlett Gillard, and Ernest Nolan titled, Ten Reasons for IT Educators to be Early Adopters of IT Innovations. Their ten reasons, briefly summarized, are:

10. The sun came up today. Change is inevitable and our job is to embrace each new innovation.
9. You read the obituaries and your name was not listed. A futile resistence to change will lead to professional stagnation and eventually, death.
8. There they go, and I must go after them, for I am their leader. It’s not about knowing everything, but about having an open mind and the excitement and fearlessness to learn along with your students.
7. If you can’t run with the big dogs, stay on the porch. We need to live up to our own expectations (sometimes more accurately described as delusions) that we are relatively up-to-date with new innovations.
6. Life is good when you have the right tools for the job. Since teaching and learning is ever-changing, we should continuously be searching for what works for our new situations.
5. IT educators are by definition movers and shakers. We guide students and colleagues in various directions, and help them to identify and evaluate new tools.
4. Someone is keeping score. Not only do students expect us to keep up with them, but so do administrators, parents, industry, higher education, and society as a whole.
3. Technology, technology, technology. Technology has permeated all aspects of our lives and so we need to continuously learn about it, use it, and understand the complex relationship that we have with it.
2. Fulfilling the “leadership” role of higher education. Institutions of higher education use technology integration as a measure of innovation, status, and advancement.
1. Setting the example for our students. Our ultimate goal is to model for our students, how they should approach change, new technologies, and new challenges throughout their lives.

What stands out for me in the list are reasons 8, 6, 5, and 1. Regarding reason 8 (there they go, and I must go after them), I believe strongly that teachers are no longer the all-knowing presence that dispenses information to empty-headed students. We are guides who help provide frameworks for learners, and teach them to think, analyze, synthesize, evaluate, and draw conclusions. We can learn as much from our students as they can from us. Along with this, we have to help parents, staff, and students understand our changing role, since it can be uncomfortable for them too.

Regarding reason 6 (life is good when you have the right tools for the job), this is why we experiment and learn in the first place. We figure out ways to operate more efficiently, solve problems, and ultimately, live better. Whenever people ask me why I am trying something new, there is always a reason that leads to higher productivity, more knowledge, deeper understanding, and more learning.

Reason 5 (IT educators are by definition movers and shakers) is important because we are teaching the people who will become the future of our society. Part of our professional obligation as IT educators is to help them reach the future. Society expects us to develop new ways of approaching technology, especially as it pertains to the future of education and all of the changes that have, and continue to develop.

Reason 1 (setting the example for our students) is of course, the most important of all, because we are not only modelling for students, but also for teachers, administrators, parents, and the education system as a whole.

What are your thoughts on this article? What makes you motivated to take on new innovations and challenges first?

(Article: Bailey, D., Gillard, S., & Nolan, E. (2008). Ten reasons for IT educators to be early adopters of IT innovations. Journal of Information Technology Education, 7, 21-33.)
(Image: Tic tac, by fred_v. 2010. Available under a Creative Commons License.)