Thursday, March 1, 2012

Open Badges and the Future of Assessment

Of course I followed the roll out of MacArthur’s Badges for Lifelong Learning competition quite closely. I have studied participatory approaches to assessment and motivation for many years.  

While the Digital Media and Learning program committed a relatively modest sum (initially $2M), it generated massive attention and energy.  I was not the only one who was surprised by the scope of the Badges initiative.  In September 2011, one week before the launch of the competition, I was meeting with an education program officer at the National Science Foundation.  I asked her if she had heard about the upcoming press conference/webinar.  Turns out she had been reading the press release just before our meeting.  She indicated that the NSF had learned about the competition and many of the program officers were asking about it.  Like me, many of them were impressed that Education Secretary Duncan and the heads of several other federal agencies were scheduled to speak at the launch event at the Hirshhorn museum,

As the competition unfolded, I followed the inevitable debate over the consequences of “extrinsic rewards” like badges on student motivation.  Thanks in part to Daniel Pink’s widely read book Drive, many worried that badges would trivialize deep learning and leave learners with decreased intrinsic motivation to learn. The debate was played out nicely (and objectively) at the HASTAC blog via posts from Mitch Resnick and Cathy Davidson .   I have been arguing in obscure academic journals for years that sociocultural views of learning call for an agnostic stance towards incentives.  In particular I believe that the negative impact of rewards and competition says more about the lack of feedback and opportunity to improve in traditional classrooms.  There is a brief summary of these issues in a chapter on sociocultural and situative theories of motivation that commissioned me to write a few years ago.  One of the things I tried to do in that article and the other articles it references is show why rewards like badges are fundamentally problematic for  constructionists like Mitch, and how newer situative theories of motivation promise to resolve that tension.  One of the things that has been overlooked in the debate is that situative theories reveal the value of rewards without resorting to simplistic behaviorist theories of reinforcing and punishing desired behaviors.

Historically speaking, the initial thesis of behaviorism assumed that rewards were a fine way to build sufficient proficiency so that success would allow the environment to reward continued engagement; constructionism and other rationalist emerged as the antithesis to behaviorism.  The emphasis on internal sense making explains why constructionists like Mitch react so strongly to rewards and badges.  My argument builds on Greeno's situative dialectical synthesis that suggests that the motivational consequences of rewards are highly contextual and depend on the forms of participation that are either encouraged or discouraged in that reward context]

My own thinking about motivation was strongly influenced by a paper in one of the those same obscure journals (the Elementary School Journal) by DML director Connie Yowell called “Self-Regulation in Democratic Communities.”  I assume that Connie's  ideas about self-regulation being “stretched across” communities of students and teachers and communities of learners and mentors were indeed influential in her thinking about the competition.  I considered weighing in on the debate but I was pretty swamped at the time and I figured I might be better off if I sat on the sidelines and watched and watched the debate unfold.  In particular I was curious if anyone would point to the irony in arguing that badges that promised to empower individual and give them recognition for their accomplishments could simultaneously disempower them.  This might have come up but I did not see any references to it.
When the 70 or so Stage 1 winners were posted they covered the gamut and many were quite ambitious.  Meanwhile, the debate over intrinsic motivation proved its irrelevance for actual educational practice and disappeared.  On a blogpost signifying that the number of badge developer submissions has passed 100 (the got something like 300!), Cathy Davidson suggested that someday we will look back at the competition as a “turning” point for digital media and learning.  I think she might be right.  In particular, I think that the many proposals for teacher proficiencies really have the potential to accomplish the crucial goal of helping teachers think about learning in completely new ways.   There were so many teacher proficiency proposals that MacArthur elected to fund and run a separate completion.  While there were fewer submissions for the later badge development and research competitions, they still also ran the gamut.  In particular the student proposals and the research proposals looked particularly promising.

I have talked to a bunch of people today who in San Francisco this week pitching their proposals to the panel.  There are 70 proposals, and only 20 will be funded.  Many of the proposers have said that they are going to pursue open badges even if they don’t get an award.  I think that is awesome, and look forward to finding ways to help that work better.

I am on my way to the meeting where the final stage are to be announced.  I will summarize the winners in my next post.  

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