rethinking learning assessment and the #dmlbadges competition

HASTAC, the MacArthur Foundation, and their associated supporters have announced the fourth Digital Media and Learning Competition, "Badges for Lifelong Learning." I consider the folks at HASTAC and previous work coming out of DML as fellow travelers, scholars and teachers concerned with questions similar to my own regarding education and digital media. However, I must admit that my initial reaction to this announcement was disappointment. Badges for lifelong learning? I think I would have preferred Badgers for lifelong learning or almost anything other than badges. If you're like me, the first thing you thought of was this line:

 

Which is actually a line from Treasure of Sierra Madre if you're keeping score. After that, your next thought might have been toward the issues concerning gamification (or exploitationware as Ian Bogost has termed it).

And as one listens to the discussion this morning at the Smithsonian where the competition was announced, one might wonder at the subtext of this project and the particular list of federal agencies lining up behind it. There are a ton of ethical questions that arise from this proposition. I am the last one to say that schooling is perfect (or even running well) but at least I have a fairly good idea of the motivations that go behind a teacher giving a student a grade. However, what motives will drive other institutions to hand out badges? Will corporations hand out badges to people who master their product as way of incentivizing the purchase or use of that product? Will interest groups hand out badges for ideological loyalty? Who assesses the assessors in this exploded marketplace of educational credentialing?

In any case, it should be painfully obvious to anyone that badges in themselves are not the solution. 

"Hey, I just got my language arts badge!"

"Congratulations, how did you get it?"

"Oh, I passed this standardized test, and they gave me a badge."

It's not about the badge. It's about the thing you do to get the badge. If you look at a college students' transcript, you can see a list of courses. If you look deeper, you could find a syllabus and the work the student did for those courses. Now, are we unhappy if the work for the course was attending a series of lectures and taking a multiple-choice test? Yes, I think we're unhappy. I think we can say that doesn't strike us as authentic learning or an authentic measure of learning. But slapping a badge on it, doesn't change anything.

However, I am concerned that this is not about learning but instead about expanding the educational marketplace. There are big dollars to be had in online learning, or so people think. Badges can offer more subtle gradations of achievements. A college course generally takes a semester and a fair amount of commitment, but a company could offer you a "badge" for a few hours of your time. You could earn a "badge" while eating your McDonald's hamburger or shopping at the local mall. Of course those badges would be (or should be) totally trivial. But they would be out there, part of the badge economy. I can give my soccer team badges for showing up to practice or performance on the field. In my view we don't want badges like that. 

So, I'm going to step off the badge-wagon for a moment and try a different approach. What do we want to say about real, authentic learning? It marks you. As Frank O'Hara writes in a different context, "If someone's chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don't turn around and shout, 'Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep.'" If you learn, you are transformed. Your medals won't help you run faster or farther, but the hours of running will. As an undergrad, I realized I could take a course, purchase none of the books, show up for half the lectures, and still get a B. Personally, I never cared about the grades or the diplomas that resulted. I just went about learning what I wanted to. If I spent long hours practicing music and learning studio recording by trial and error, which I did, the proof was in the music I produced. If I studied creative writing for my MA, the proof was in the poetry I wrote and the readings I gave. Today, I am still marked by learning and that mark is visible in the writing I publish, the courses I teach, the program I administrate, and so on. As we all know by now, you just do it. During the presentation, one of the speakers remarked that today Google is your resume. I'm fine with that. Google me. Read my blog. Download my vita. Read my Twitter feed or Facebook page. Find my articles. Read it all. I mean, that's why I wrote them, right?

From the perspective of the learner, my advice would be to pay as little attention as possible to assessment. Feedback? Advice? Real engagement with your work? These are all valuable things. I welcome your comments here. Do I care if you rate my post a 1 or a 10? Do I care if you give me the "good post o' the day" badge? 

Real learning occurs without assessment, though it is clear that the presence of assessment can inhibit learning. Then one encounters the secondary problem of people who really only want the credential. As director of a writing program, I regularly deal with students who have absolutely no interest in learning something; they just want to get out of the writing requirement. It would be a complete nonsequitur for me to ask, "Well, would you like to learn to write better?" That question would make no sense to students. Badges, grades, credits, degrees: it doesn't matter what the carrot is.

So here are two ideas for responding to this call for badges:

The first one is playful… Non-fungible, non-assessing, anti-credentialing badges. So, I take a class, go to work, volunteer somewhere, do some chores around the house, whatever. Then I make a badge and stick it wherever badges go. Then I make badges for other people and hand those out. Each badge is unique. What do they mean? They mean I have been marked by an experience and the badges are a symbolic represenation of the mark. What value should be placed on the badge/mark? I don't know, maybe you can click on my digital badge and read a story about what I did. 

The second is hopefully more provocative… instead of badges for micro activities, badges that take years to achieve. Badges that would require more dedication than a college degree. Badges that are too rare to create a real marketplace.