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…

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

 

Exploring badge plugins – WP & Moodle comparisons

As promised, this post is just intended to give a quick, rough comparison of the WordPress badge plugins I’ve explored and Moodle openbadge functionality. It’s mostly for my own benefit and isn’t intended to be any kind of comprehensive review.

WordPress

If you don’t want to dump any cash, as far as I can tell there are three main plugins for issuing badges in WordPress: WPBadger, BadgeOS and Achievements for WordPress.

WPBadger

This is the ‘official’ Mozilla one that issues OpenBadges. In terms of functionality this plugin probably has the least – you create a badge and award it manually. It’s simple and lightweight but has no ability to automate issuing badges (although this plugin offers a couple of simple options). It does, however, issue Mozilla badges which integrate with the backpack, which is probably the strongest point in its favour. It’s an odd balance between the most widely acknowledged badges and the least functionality.

BadgeOS

This is a nice, more fully featured plugin that has automated issuing functionality. It has more of a gamification slant as it has options for quests and levels, and it has a fairly nice suite of add-ons available, although not all are free. It issues badges via Credly, which does talk to your Mozilla backpack but it’s another step of remove. It’s probably the most polished of the three.

Achievements for WordPress

This, to me, is the most fully featured and exciting plugin. It still takes a more gamification slant, with points and challenges functions, but it talks to other WP plugins to offer far more options for unlocking achievements. It talks to Buddypress, Buddypress Courseware (a free LMS plugin) and WordPress eCommerce (which happens to be the ecommerce platform Coffeecourses uses). The list of available actions that trigger automated issue is still a little simplistic for my liking, but it’s still a wider feature set than the other two plugins above offer. However (and this is a fairly significant caveat), the badges appear to be standalone rather than integrating with a service like OpenBadges or Credly. Which is an issue if you are working with another system that does support these services and you want your badges to be universal and portable.

Moodle

OpenBadges functionality is integrated in Moodle 2.5 (docs here). As we’re still running 2.3 and I haven’t got round to updating my own rogue Moodle yet, I haven’t had a chance to play yet but from what I can see the implementation is fairly robust and flexible. The badges module integrates with conditional release and activity completion, which means that you have a fairly wide range of options to issue badges. Issuing is automated and administered quite well. You’re also able to issue badges at both the course and site level, which means you can do macrocredentialling (is that even a word??) as well as microcredentialling. For my money, which is none given this whole post is about free and open-source stuff, Moodle is currently the best option for working with OpenBadges in education. Unfortunately it’s not the best option for the things I’ve got set up that I want to issue badges. But in general, Moodle’s badge implementation has a much stronger focus on credentialling rather than gamification/engagement.

 

 

Engagement layers vs microcredentialling

Further to my previous post, I’ve finally had some time to look more closely into openbadges integration. What I’m discovering is that from a WordPress point of view, badges are still largely thought of as an engagement layer – a somewhat superficial achievement set to motivate users to engage with your content. What gives this away is the fact that  the only automated award options across any of the plugins I’ve looked at (will try and do a comparison in another post given there’s not really anything around on that) is based on basic engagement actions like logging in or posting a comment (unless you’re running Buddypress Courseware – but I don’t, that’s naughty even for me :D). You aren’t able to automate awards triggered by any interaction deeper than that – for instance, posting a comment on a specific post. You still have the option for manual awarding of badges for whatever you like but if we want to tick the buzzword boxes like ‘scalable’ it’s not really a viable option. Now perhaps for the gamification set this is sufficient, for the purposes of trying to increase student engagement in a simple quantifiable sense (ie avoiding tumbleweeds), but if my goal is to use badges for microcredentialling professional development the available plugins (at least, the free ones) aren’t quite there yet.

Which leads me to the fact that I may have to eat my words, a little bit, because the implementation of openbadges in Moodle 2.5 is much more sophisticated in this regard, and I suspect this will be what draws me back to doing cool stuff in Moodle again. Because Moodle 2.x has a fairly good conditional release and activity completion set, the options for automated issuing of badges are much richer and more targeted. Badges in Moodle appear to be implemented specifically for microcredentialling, with engagement layers and gamification likely to be an afterthought that gets exploited, coming to a teaching and learning conference near you.

So why do I care about the difference? After all, aren’t I the person who gamified Moodle (sigh)? I have no interest in an arbitrary feature set that exists solely for the purposes of bribing people to participate with pretty coloured gifs. But – I have a real use for something that lets me track completion of a course or event and give some sort of recognition to people for that completion, given that we’re unable to offer “proper” credit points and we have a PD requirement for new staff. As @ghenrick points out, “if a resumé or CV is a bunch of claims, Open Badges are a bunch of evidence”. This is the real strength of openbadges, and it’s why you need a slightly richer feature set than just ‘log in and engage with my site in some way’. And this is where my appropriation rant falls down, because the non-edu world, being largely unconcerned with credentialling in general, just hasn’t quite got past the engagement layer with badges yet. I’m not quite sure where this leaves me given Coffeecourses is in WordPress and not really portable into Moodle, but I’ll stick a category on this train of thought and you can follow my progress.

Adventures in credentialling: OpenBadges, Open Badges and un-gamification

I have to admit that I have avoided OpenBadges until now, mostly through rightly or wrongly correlating them with gamification. I am not big on -ification of any kind but take particular issue with the addition of superficial motivation layers over unchanged, non-game-like content and the awarding of badges just for the hell of it (or under the guise of ‘engagement’). Which means I have mostly discounted the existence of OpenBadges.

Until now. Most of you are aware that for the last while I’ve been dabbling in wholly online delivery of professional development via Coffeecourses (which I realised to my dismay the other day is probably an accidental MOOC of sorts). However one sticking point with it has been the ability to track completion and offer credentialling. The use of e-commerce software means registration can be easily tracked, but so far completion has been an honesty system of sorts, given that commenting on each activity is optional. However a couple of weeks ago I read this post by @marksmithers, who is perhaps one of the few people around who is more skeptical than I am about things, which made me rethink my stance on OpenBadges and badges in general. Effectively they are a simple method of scalable and sustainable (in that they can be automated) micro-credentialling, and don’t necessarily have to have anything to do with gamification at all.

So – I’ve started to play. I’m investigating WPBadger, which integrates with OpenBadges, and BadgeOS, which lets you create open badges (which are not Mozilla badges) that are shared via Credly. With any luck this will allow me to award automated credentials for completing coffeecourses. Ultimately it would be excellent if one could collect such badges, and badges from other professional development, and aggregate them towards a ‘proper’ credential like a GCHE – but I suspect that’s crazy talk. At any rate, watch this space. Or more accurately, this space.