Badge literacy: a field guide

Following on in my thinking about badges, Colin’s comment re: badge literacy on my last post deserves some exploration. Little graphics that you stick on some website somewhere are a hard sell to a university, because:

1. Boy Scouts. The actual concept is identical and the niche for this type of credential is identical but the association of nine year olds in funny hats sewing patches on their shirts is not doing us any favours.

2. Gamification. The idea that you can bribe students to do things with cutesy digital carrots is also not doing us any favours.

3. Related: academics are generally allergic to anything that is not dripping with rigour.

4. The buzzword bingo keynoter set who like to simultaneously hype and fearmonger badges under the guise of ‘future’.

5. Anything that involves new technology generally sounds bad, because generally universities have a history of implementing new technology badly.

In short, badges suffer more than their fair share of bad press. And as such, the idea that “badges have the potential to support by surfacing the less-obvious learning that is often hidden due to the focus on grades and transcripts” sounds fairly implausible.

So how do we sell it? In my completely anecdotal experience, people generally fall into three camps regarding badges – the Boy Scout set, the fence sitter set and the gamification set; dismissal, ambivalence or poor fit for use. Which tends to be a recursive loop of doom; the more the Boy Scout set see flippant, gamified use of badges, the more they are dismissed as trivial and gimmicky and the more ambivalent the fence sitters become.

All of these groups have somewhat disparate needs in regards to raising badge literacy; here is my quick and dirty field guide.

Badge literacy for Boy Scouters

Clearly identified use cases

Clear identification of the niche that badges fill and the current problems exist that badge implementation may help solve

Badge graphics that look ‘serious’

A badge that looks cutesy or gimmicky or uses poor graphic design will only damage perception of badges further

Scholarly evidence

Evidence to support the notion that badges and microcredentialling are not passing fads and executive whimsy. Actual policy a bonus.

Concrete examples (either theoretical or best practice from other institutions)

Demonstration of the process in practice, ideally from someone who has already done it because people like the word ‘leading’ in theory but in practice nobody wants to be the first institution to do crazy things.

Badge literacy for Gamifiers

Clearly identified use cases

Clear identification of the niche that badges fill and the current problems exist that badge implementation may help solve, as separate from superficial learner engagement and motivation

Emphasis on ‘big picture’ (professional portfolio usage, context, durability etc)

Awareness of where badges sit as part of an individual’s overall portfolio and knowledge of the intended audiences to put individual badges in context

Reputational awareness

Awareness of the implications of public-facing badges and how media and research coverage of badge use will reflect on them and their institution

Alternate strategies for motivating learners

Since an already-identified need for learner motivation exists, this group needs alternate strategies to address this need that do not require the use of badges

Badge literacy for Fence Sitters

Clearly identified use cases

Clear identification of the niche that badges fill and the current problems exist that badge implementation may help solve

Assurance of technical stability and ease of use

People get very tired very quickly of yet another system that’s going to be hard to use, break a lot, and probably be superseded in a couple of years.

Compelling arguments

Mostly a combination of items from the previous two groups. Shiny powerpoints optional.

Obviously this is by no means exhaustive, but it’s something to chew on while sitting in red tape purgatory.

Implementing badges 1: adventures in drop shadows

I haven’t been particularly forthcoming about what I’ve been working on in the last year or so, because reasons. But since 2015 is the self-declared year of damn the man, here we are. What I’ve been working on recently is a proposal for the implementation of OpenBadges. Since Moodle now comes with a nice but rather full of implications little button to turn badges on, and since with great power comes great responsibility etc etc, it seems like somebody should be doing something about it. Turns out for here that that person is me.

Since in the recent past we have been burned by merrily jumping on buzzword bandwagons without a whole lot of consideration, badge implementation needed a bit of thought behind it. And while I’m generally a fan of the cowboy forgiveness not permission approach on an individual level, I tend to agree with the need to not go off half-cocked institutionally. And so, documentation. The proposal itself is fairly dry and written for a lay audience, but the key part of it of interest here is the development of a badge taxonomy.

Why a taxonomy, you say? Because if left to their own devices, people tend to jump straight to gamification and start using badges to entice students to participate in discussion forums. Which I have many feels about. Badges really have their niche in making the stuff that’s not visible, visible, not in adding bribery layers under the guise of gamifying. I’ve nutted this out a few times before, but TL;DR gamification bad, microcredentialling good. A taxonomy gives those who are none the wiser and those who read the gamification marketing guff and the ‘watch out universities badges will kill you’ hype something to work with to develop their own understanding of what badges can be and how they might work in their own context.

Since every good taxonomy must have an Office-style crime against visual design (and everyone needs a nice printable *thing* for their wall and it’s nicer to look at than the written taxonomy table), the following is what I’ve come up with.

OpenBadge taxonomy

A veritable cornucopia of drop shadows and gradients, and a very rough translation of Halavais’ genealogy of badges into usable higher education terms. The colour codes are a nod to @catspyjamasnz’s Moodle tool guide (getting rather vintage these days)  ‘good thing to do, not great thing to do unless you design it well, seriously don’t do that’ system. The guiding principle was essentially ‘what’s going to be relevant in a portfolio (backpack) for future employers etc?’. Nobody is going to care that you wrote 6 discussion forum posts in a literature unit 5 years ago – but people will care that you have demonstrated effective communication skills.

Staff use is only one side of the story. A significant issue with badges is one of their largest target demographics is students, who often to subscribe to the marketing hype and think of them as gimmicky, non-serious things more akin to the stickers kids get for good work (do they still get stickers? Is that still a thing?). How does one go about changing this perception? Student-facing taxonomy? Bludgeon? Cross our fingers and hope? I’ve learned from past projects that students don’t respond well to a service created for a need they don’t realise exists. Perhaps even harder to convince are the professional learning set, academics who decry anything perceived to lack rigour. Currently filed in the ‘deal with it later’ basket, given people want to start using badges now and not after the wicked problems have been solved.

Stay tuned for further adventures once we actually press the button and start using badges…

On screen

My toddler has her own iPad.

Quelle horreur.

I don’t normally write about parenting on here (although I have certainly been tempted; lack of critical thinking is just as pervasive in parenting as it is in education) but this one is somewhat relevant. You can be in the edtech community or be a parent or really anyone at all and constantly see ridiculous articles like this one doing the rounds. Technology for children, especially young children, is bad, screen time is bad, even when technology is good it’s bad if it’s used below a certain age. And parents who allow their children to use technology just use it as a babysitter to compensate for their poor parenting skills. Right?

That sound you hear is absolutely no one ever being surprised that I beg to differ.

Hannah is 20 months old and has had her own iPad for maybe 6 months now. It’s an old iPad 2 of ours, but it is hers alone and nobody else uses it. This was a very conscious decision. But forget the ‘kid using fisher price app on mum’s iPhone in public to shut them up’ trope, that’s not how we roll. Two fairly contentious points:

1. We do not restrict her access to it. She chooses how and when and how often to use it. Some days it’s a lot. We don’t limit it. It’s not a reward for anything else, it’s not a bribe, it’s not something to be taken away as punishment. It is hers to use as she sees fit, and to self-regulate her own use of it. And yes, before you ask, a 20-month-old is fully capable of making such decisions, even if they don’t look like we think they should.

2. There are no “kid” apps on her iPad. Ok I lied, there is one Hairy Maclary ebook thing, and iView has the child filter set*. But other than that, she uses ‘big people apps’. When she draws, it’s not in an insipid colouring in app, it’s in Paper by 53. When she wants to make noise it’s in Bloom or Pianist Pro or Garageband, not Giggle Gang. She “plays” Angry Birds. There is no reason to ‘dumb down’ the intellectual scope of what children engage with (obviously within appropriate parameters).

So what does this mean? Articles such as the one I linked above would have you believe that I have a violent, developmentally delayed obese child. Instead I have an intelligent, creative, empathetic and gentle normal weight child with fairly complex problem solving skills and an astonishing vocabulary. I realise that a sample size of one is statistically invalid, but so few people (if any) actually approach technology use this way there are not many opportunities to extrapolate more widely. I watch my toddler teaching herself how to navigate and use features, solving problems,  making active choices on what show and for how long she wants to watch, making some pretty awesome art and music, and I question strongly a culture that demonises this yet endorses the passive consumption of children’s television (most of which is either ridiculously patronising or clearly the result of an acid trip – seriously, In the Night Garden, wtf even is that??).

I don’t do it to be contentious, or because I like technology, or to “prepare her for [school/real world/zombie apocalypse]”. I do it because I’m not content to raise a passive consumer. I do it because critical thinking, exploration, problem-solving and self-directed learning are conspicuously absent from most of society. I do it because it’s only fair to let her engage in behaviours I model. And I do it because she loves it**. To forgo all of this on the basis of impassioned misinformation is incomprehensible to me, but until mainstream thinking changes it will be a long haul in the cowboy corner.

*Everyone thinks this is so she doesn’t see inappropriate content. It’s actually so she doesn’t get prematurely disillusioned at the state of the world by watching too much Q&A.

**Ok fine, maybe I like watching Charlie and Lola, a little bit.

Games, gamification and why we can do better

I was asked to do an impromptu lunchtime session today on a topic of my choice, which I thought would be a timely opportunity to unpack a particular bugbear of mine. And because I do so love an overworked allegory, I’ll tell you a story.

People like cars. They buy them a lot and spend hours a day driving them everywhere. One day, Bill and Bob, who were refrigerator salesmen who had never driven a car, noticed that people seemed to like cars an awful lot and got a bit jealous of the success of the car industry. They thought if they made their refrigerators more like cars, people would like them more and buy more of them. Bill said to Bob ‘Gosh Bob, how can we make our refrigerators more like cars?’. Bob said to Bill ‘Well, Bill, it seems that cars have wheels. Maybe if we put wheels on our refrigerators they would be more like cars and people would love them’. So this is exactly what they did, and they spent a lot of time going to refrigerator conferences telling everyone about it and all the other refrigerator salesmen got excited and put wheels on their fridges too. Then everyone got all surprised when people did not actually want a refrigerator with wheels on it, and only bought a few of them for novelty value.

You get my point. Gamification – that novelty “engagement layer” of points and badges smacked on top of completely unchanged content and materials – fundamentally misses the point of what games do, why people play them and the benefits we get from them. Especially when implemented by people who have never played games. Going further and shoehorning content into level structures or game models is no better (in fact arguably worse). You cannot take traditional content, -ification it and voilá, engagement. Shameless bribery is not innovation. If we’re really serious about pulling the benefits of gaming into education we need to knock the playing field flat and rethink everything.

Take Angry Birds (I know I keep going on about Angry Birds, but it’s a good, solid, easily accessible example). When you first open it, you get this:

Angry Birds screenshot

What you do not get is a list of learning outcomes, a bunch of lecture notes and an assignment. They’re in there (learning outcome: able to utilise trajectory to inflict damage; lecture notes: help screen; assignment: destroy all pigs), but none of it is explicit and none of it is the primary goal of the design. When we use educational concepts as designing principles, we’re doing it wrong. Games design for one thing and one thing only – engagement. Rovio give not two hoots if you learn anything, they care if you keep buying and playing their games. Frankly, legislation and a culture of credentialing are the only reasons the education industry is even remotely competitive with the gaming industry in terms of dollars and seat time. Our obsession with counting and tracking learning shoots us in the foot when it comes to the type of engagement that games enjoy. I’m not saying that we should ignore the realities of the systems we’re working in, but we could be doing a lot better than just -ification with points and levels.

S0 – how can we do better? Put the edu stuff down for a minute. Start with – if you were taking your unit (course/class/MOOC/whatever), what’s the most interesting thing you can possibly imagine that you would want to do? What would make you want to engage and keep coming back? Go from there, and then once you get to the end, then you can ask – did I achieve all my learning outcomes? Explore a narrative. Give people a place to explore and find things rather than prescribing. Use badges if you want, but use them for humour or to encourage exploration, not to bribe people to log in, read articles or post in forums. Lots of other ramblings, ruminations and cases in point here.

And finally – Dinosaur Comics on the cars and gaming metaphor :D.

http://www.qwantz.com/index.php?comic=2587

 

I just wanted to ask some people some questions

Yesterday I tweeted the following:

Screen Shot 2014-01-22 at 1.55.39 pm

I’m currently in the process of upgrading my masters to a PhD, the thesis of which is likely to be via publication of a series of case studies on projects. And the fact that ‘projects’ is plural means multiple ethics applications in order to collect data. The problem is that, because what I do is coming up with new education-related stuff, generally the only type of data collection I want to do is surveying people, interviews and/or social media data, all of which falls under the umbrella of ‘asking people what they think of things’. And because I only ever want to report the data anonymously, it’s about the lowest-level thing you can do while still requiring ethical clearance. But every single time I am still forced to wade through a form (which is arguably one of the world’s most poorly-designed) asking if I will be exposing people to ionising radiation, drugging people or researching on foetuses. Or perhaps even more amusingly, ‘keeping data in a locked filing cabinet’ – evidently they haven’t heard of the internet.

Generally I would rather have dental surgery than fill out an ethics application. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this. And it’s a problem. I do a lot of stuff, at least some of which is pretty cool, but I don’t publish traditional papers very often. The fact that I would have to wade through an ethics application yet again just to be able to ask people what they think of what I’m doing in order to write a paper about it is a significant barrier. Red-taping research into the ground is not conducive to innovation or proliferation.

So I’m proposing a certification system for those who work in low-risk humanities-type disciplines and predominantly want to conduct anonymous surveys – do an application once and get a green card for the remainder of your academic career. Then you’re free to go forth and innovate and get participant experience data whenever you need it, without having to explain for the 900th time that you are not going to be irradiating people.

Knowing who the Ramones are

mooc t-shirt

I saw a tweet the other day lamenting that 90% of people who wear a Ramones t-shirt don’t know who the Ramones are. It struck me that this is a fairly apt metaphor for what goes on in (probably everywhere) higher education – projects instigated based on buzzwords by people who like wearing the t-shirt but don’t really know who the band is. I am all for being a cowboy about things and coming up with left-of centre ideas and being a ‘doer’. It’s what I do. But if you’re going to be a cowboy, you’ve got to know who the band is, and in a deeper sense than just wikipedia-ing them and listening to one of their songs.

This is the problem I have with so many of the gamification projects that float around – they are instigated by people who have little or no functional experience with games, and if they did they would know that points and levels and badges aren’t what matter. I know that quite a lot of people associate me (wrongly, IMHO) with gamification, and it’s true that I’ve spent a lot of time working with games-based learning and designing game-style courses. However – when I first started to notice that game concepts might be a useful thing to bang on about, I didn’t jump right in and start setting up project teams on a whim. I spent a good year playing World of Warcraft, Minecraft, Angry Birds etc, and not just having a token walk around but playing more or less every day for an hour or two, getting to level 85, PvPing, working with a group of awesome kids to build epic things etc. And, perhaps most interestingly, I still do not have a single paper on games, GBL or gamification to my name even though it’s probably the thing I’m most widely recognised for doing.

I’m not unsympathetic to the fact that there are time constraints associated with wanting to be a bleeding-edger. However the pace of higher education is such that there is time to work through concepts in-depth prior to implementation and the benefits of doing this tend to outweigh the benefits of being ‘first’. The thing about being a cowboy is that people have to trust you and respect what you do for it to work – and there’s only one way to grind your reputation.