The Pros and Cons of MOOC Badges

My MOOC Badges

My MOOC badges
My MOOC badges

After I joined the Hyperlinked Library MOOC I familiarised myself with the online environment: I set up a blog, deleted the template post and page and published my first post. I joined a number of ‘tribes’ and befriended some of the people I’ve ‘met’ elsewhere, such as on Twitter.

I received email alerts which informed me that I had been awarded a badge for many of these activities: for Joining a Tribe; Sending a Friendship Request; Accepting a Friendship Request and Update my MOOC avatar. I also received an Update your MOOC avatar badge for collecting five badges!

Initial Reactions

Are these useful ways of publicly acknowledging active participation in a MOOC? Or do they undermine the learning process by rewarding trivial tasks? I have to admit that I felt the system was patronising me when I received a badge for deleting a blog post and updating my avatar, which was compounded with the badge for completing five other simple tasks.

I wrote about my initial reaction on my UK Web Focus blog.It seems that others agreed with my doubts. @CogDog commented that “I echo the cynicism of micro badging for every possible task; I would go beyond and find it revolting and demeaning“. John Paschoud reflected on the badges he received as a child but concluded that as an adult “I can manage the rest of my life entirely without any ‘badges’ that I get from websites – especially the ones focused on online democratic participation or IT ‘skills’. Your cynicism about them is entirely appropriate!” However Margaret (a fellow student on the Hyperlinked Library MOOC described how she is “the classmate who commented on basically being intrinsically motivated and ‘surprised’ (to say the least) at the little thrill of pleasure acquiring a badge gave me. I am not without my skepticism, but am currently enjoying it“. Margaret went on to add that “I know there is great controversy about badges, and I agree with CogDog and others that to really be worthy, badges should indicate that some significant learning has taken place“.

Further Thoughts

I felt it important to document my initial reaction when I received the MOOC badges as I was confident that I would not be alone in having such concerns. However I was also aware that others would appreciate receiving acknowledgements of their initial engagement with the MOOC environment.In addition one’s initial reaction may change in light of subsequent experiences and discussion with others. Since learning through interaction with others has a key role to play in the Hyperlinked Library MOOC I am providing some further thoughts on possible strengths and weakness of badges.

User benefits:Badges can provide motivation for learners, by providing tangible and public evidence of progress through a learning environment,

User concerns: Badges may be regarded as trivial and irrelevant to deeper learning.

Organiser benefits: Organisers of learning environments which make provide badges can have an overview of progress through tools which monitor awarding of badges.

Organiser concerns: Learners may regard badge awards as of intrinsic value in themselves, rather than as proxy display of progress.

Benefits and concerns for other interested parties: Potential employers may be able to use badges as an indication of the skills and expertise of applicants. However if this becomes widely accepted, employers will need to be wary of how badges can be ‘gamed’ or fake badge credentials used.

I welcome comments on these thoughts.

Further Information

Whilst writing this post I looked at a number of online resources. Whilst this isn’t intended to provide an authoritative bibliography of relevant resources, I thought it would be useful to others if I were to share the resources I found. I’d welcome suggestions of additional relevant resources.


18 thoughts on “The Pros and Cons of MOOC Badges”

  1. I enjoyed receiving the badges for the micro tasks. Felt like a bit of fun at the start of a “semester” Perhaps a bit akin to ‘get to know you’ activities, which some people love, others hate. In this case, it was a good way to get us to explore the mooc interface a bit more. Do those early micro-task badges indicate an important level of accomplishment for me personally? Not really, but still a bit of fun and incentive for those who want it.

  2. Thanks, Brian, for your thoughtful response to the badge program here at the MOOC. I read this originally at your blog, and I’m glad you decided to cross-post it for the benefit of your fellow peers here at the MOOC.

    A lot of work went on during the summer months to conceptually and technically build the system, and I think what we’ve come up with is a balanced approach that does, at the same time, recognize some real learning and also encourage folks to engage with (and learn the affordances of) the system. I think this latter approach is what you’re seeing as trivial. I wouldn’t call it that, however. It’s just as important, in my opinion, for students to be encouraged to engage with the online learning system and figure out how to get settled quickly so they can focus in on their main objective: learning from the content, learning from their peers, and creating knowledge.

    1. Hi Kyle
      Thanks for the reply.
      Was the MOOC environment developed in-house? I’ve interested as I suspect people will enroll on courses from different providers. There may hen be expectations as to how badges ‘work’ and what their purpose and significance is.
      I agree with Polly-Alida’s point that the badges provide “a bit of fun and incentive for those who want it”. This is probably appropriate for a MOOC aimed at librarians and information professionals. However I wonder if it would work in other contexts.

      Anyway, thanks for the response. Now, do I get a badge for engaging in discussion with a MOOC facilitator 🙂

      1. Hey Brian-

        The MOOC environment was developed in-house; therefore, there is no overlap with other LMSs. But even if there was overlap, I’d argue–and I’d bet you would as well–that the badges system shouldn’t look like. They should be custom based on the needs of the students and the purpose of the course.

        I enjoy your reflections. Thanks.

      2. I’d argue–and I’d bet you would as well–that the badges system shouldn’t look like“: you’re inciting me to disagree! Which I guess is relevant to the interactive nature of this MOOC.

        I wasn’t referring to the look-and-feel of the badges as to what they signify and their interoperability. The Mozilla Open Badges Web site describes “a new online standard to recognize and verify learning … Mozilla Open Badges is not proprietary. It’s free software and an open technical standard any organization can use to create, issue and verify digital badges.

        Do your badges support this standard? Note when you say your badges “should be custom based on the needs of the students” as a student I would ask for badges to be interoperable and not proprietary – I hope this won’t be the only MOOC I participate in!


  3. My first thought was a bit of surprise at suddenly having 5 badges for things I have been doing for 6-7 years. On reflection though I would have been quite pleased with myself if my very first blog platform had recognised these achievements. I like the concept of the master badges, to demonstrate a greater degree of learning or breadth of activity.

  4. I just saw this but randomly found your UK Web Focus blog post yesterday. I also have mixed feelings about the badges. It seems so silly to get a badge for adding an avatar – anyone who has done any kind of social media has done this plenty of times. Then again I find myself scanning the Badges page to see what I can get next. Is this meant to help motivate class members who have less experience online? Is it just meant to be a fun sideline to the class? I hesitate to label it patronizing or demeaning though – I’m sure that wasn’t the intent. By the end of the course we will have a a set of badges that are rather meaningless but are entertaining just the same, and yep I’ll probably post a photo of them elsewhere just for the fun of it.

  5. I really appreciate your insights. Badges are still finding their role in education and training. From a designer’s point of view (or my point of view- I don’t want to speak for Melissa or Kyle), determining what is trivial and irrelevant isn’t easy. Each participant will have his or her own experience of the course: we have some students who have built WordPress blogs before or are exceptionally tech-savvy, but we have other students who haven’t and aren’t, and perhaps would like some checkpoint flags along the road. We were mindful of how overwhelming an unfamiliar web/learning environment can be- we’re students in an online-only program, ourselves, and spent the summer trying to get our heads around WordPress and its plugins.

    We’ve tried to briefly share our rationale for each category of badge on the badges page; the Personal Learning Network badges do lead students through the nitty-gritty of getting set up on the site- but also, I hope, will encourage participants to build and curate their online presence and their online learning networks within the safe, sandbox-y environment of the MOOC. Those are skills and activities that resonate with the course’s larger concerns. Each of the badge categories ties back into the course’s goals and culminates in a portable Credly/Mozilla Backpack badge which represents attainment in certain areas.

    As for intrinsic vs. extrinsic learning: I’ve heard this argument, and I wonder about it. The core purpose of digital badges has been to build a flexible but legitimate credentialing system for achievement that occurs outside of formal work/classrooms and/or beyond the reach of formal credentialing systems: in other words, badges normally acknowledge work that’s been done voluntarily anyway, or acknowledge under-appreciated skills that have been developed alongside “gradable” learning outcomes (I’m thinking of
    UC Davis
    , mainly). I think the argument holds much more water when badges are paired up with other game elements like score points and leaderboards.

    There’s also the matter of time vs. reward. At least in this particular MOOC environment, there’s so much work involved in obtaining most of the master badges- the badges that mark significant milestones- that I doubt participants will want (or have time) to complete that work for a badge’s sake (they tell me that’s what traditional credentialing is for…). We discussed this at some length during the summer, and I remember reading and hearing comparisons with FourSquare: users might enjoy unlocking badges and “mayorship” status in Foursquare, but it’s unlikely that they’re visiting museums or going to restaurants for the sake of virtual flair.

    That’s certainly not to say that motivation/reward don’t play into it (emphasis on “play”). But badges are also another social tool in everyone’s pocket, and they can build up to portable, metadata-laden mini-credentials/recommender tools students can share via Credly, Mozilla Backpack, social media and blog platforms… etc. They have the potential to be more than just a fun aside, or flashy Facebook bling- not that those things don’t have their place.

    By the by, I attended my university’s annual all-hands staff meeting this morning, where the provost announced that we will be exploring badge systems with local high schools. (In fact, she urged us all to take a MOOC on badges, or with badges!) It’s my own hope that our badges will be a useful experience (good or bad) that HyperLibMOOC participants can let simmer in the back of their minds. Are badges for us? What could be done differently- how could this be tailored to suit the needs of individual communities?

    1. Hi Lauren
      Many thanks for your thoughtful and comprehensive response to my post.
      I felt that it would be useful to describe my initial reaction to the first set of badges I received as I suspect that those feelings weren’t unique. Having said that, I am continuing to participate in the MOOC and gain badges, so perhaps my feelings will evolve. Also note that I have signed up for Credly and for Mozilla Backback so I do have a continued interest in badges.
      There are two areas in which I am not in a position to judge, but which I feel will be important to address:

      (1) Scalability of badges ownership (i.e. what happens when I have a large number of badges of different types and from a variety of different badge providers? How would one differentiate between badges which show I deleted a private message in this MOOC and one for the Nobel prize I received for finding a cure for cancer?

      (2) Dealing with ‘gaming the system’. This MOOC is probably full of trusted motivated professionals. What happens when (not if!) students participate who are willing to cheat or manipulate the system?

      I guess these issues will be relevant to your university in light of the plans to provide badges for local high schools?

      Thanks again for the comments.


  6. I would be great if we could depend on all learners to follow through on each trivial step to finally achieve deep understanding. However, I find that people tend to skip steps that come back to bite them later. Badges are a lighthearted way to get you to focus on the basics so you can master the whole.

    But, of course it is not necessary to just award badges for trivial things. The badge awards in this MOOC also include peer review. In the other MOOCs I have taken, people often did not spend time responding to other’s posts (especially towards the end when assignments are due). Badges are a good way to keep the expectation to post and the expectation to respond in front of the learner’s eyes.

  7. Hello Brian,
    For me, nearly everything I’ve done in this MOOC is new. I’ve never posted a comment, had a blog, had an avatar (didn’t even know what one was, outside of mythology, before last year), inserted media into an e-mail, taken an on-line course, etc. I’m sure you are getting the picture. At the library where I work, staff are not allowed to go to any site that requires registration, a username, a password, etc. Even though the library has a Facebook page and a Twitter account, we aren’t allowed to visit them through personal accounts on work time using library computers, and I’ve discovered you don’t see much as a guest, so I don’t go to those sites. Visiting such websites is considered to be socializing, and not using our time to do our jobs. Staff have been fired, or threatened with dismissal for blogging about work, even on their own time and on their own computers. That has made me very gun-shy about having an on-line presence. I know many of the tasks have been very simple, and downright boring to the tech-savvy among us, but not all of us are old hands in social sites. To me, they are a fun way of rewarding an accomplishment (or just plane figuring something out), and a bit of a hook to get me to keep looking for ways to accumulate more. Knowing that there is a tiered system makes it even more fun. But then I was the only Girl Scout in my school willing to wear my uniform to school. I got teased and ridiculed for wearing my badge sash, which was full, but I was proud of all the work I’d done to get all those badges!
    Interestingly enough, days before I started this class, I was told that we are now looking at dumping our old summer reading program for children and teens, and offering online badges next year. How cool it was to find myself earning online badges a day or two later! It’s giving me a way to think about and evaluate the possibilities for our SRC of the future.

    1. Hi Luna
      Many thanks for the comment.
      I think it’s important to share views on experiences with aspects of the MOOC. Recognising that here are different views is, for me, part of the process of expanding one’s views.
      Your work environment sounds very oppressive, and not conducive to personal development for the staff involved or for enriching the experiences for your patrons 😦
      Anyway thanks for the comments and good luck with the online badges experiment.

      1. Hello Brian,

        I enjoyed reading your post. It gave me quite a bit to think about. I also visited and gleaned quite a bit from the links you posted. I’m even investigating joining the MOOC about badges that you referenced.

        Getting the opportunity to see so many different interpretations of the subjects visited here has been great, and has inspired me to spend a lot of time thinking about the lectures and discussions in the MOOC. I’m learning as much from my peers as from the actual instruction. Here everyone can be teacher and student. I like that idea. It makes learning cooperative, interesting, and fun.

        I think the idea of using badges, and having a recognized standard for earning and acknowledging them would be very helpful in real world situations, such as education, job hunting, and career advancement. Not everyone gets the opportunity to advance through formal education. It’s also not the only way people learn. If there were the opportunity to earn badges for independent learning (such as this MOOC), apprenticeships, and life experiences, as well as the more traditional, formal education, and be able to attach them to identity in the way degrees are, then potential employers or university admissions officers would get a clearer, more concise view of an applicant’s history and potential. I’m eager to see how the idea of badges evolves and how far it spreads.

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