Welcome to badge world

I’ve had a little more time to think about it, and I’ve decided that I have a terrible badge allergy. Go to Mozilla’s Open Badges site. The first thing you’ll see is an image that says LEVEL UP. shudder. But then go ahead and read the white paper. It offers these nice little vignettes about folks who have pursued their interests outside of traditional educational/credentialing institutions but would now want those experiences to count. And let’s be clear. That’s what this is about: making things count, commodifying life and passion in the context of a marketplace of education and expertise. However, it is painfully obvious how quickly that gets reversed, how quickly we shift from pursuing something because we are interested in it (and then retrospectively looking for a reward) to pursuing something strictly for the reward.

All we have to do is look at our existing, ineffective educational system to see that. Colleges are filled with students who could give a damn about learning but desperately need that credential. Public schools waste away their students’ lives teaching to tests, not because they believe that’s the best way for students to learn, but because their credentials depend on test scores. And, let me say that I don’t lay the blame at the students or the schools here. It’s the larger educational marketplace that has created this problem. It’s not universities that require potential employees to have some college degree to get the entry-level marketing, customer service, whatever job. Schools and teachers didn’t invent high stakes testing. So when the federal government and corporations start lining up behind badges, you really should know they have a terrible track record.

Badges are a brilliant way to extend those god-awful experiences to every waking moment of your lives.

I’m trying to imagine my kids’ lives (ages 10 and 12) in badge-world. We already live in what I consider a college-crazy community where parents of 12-year olds wonder whether keeping their kid in travel soccer is the best way to get a college scholarship or if they should switch to golf or oboe or fill-in-the-blank. Imagine a world where every potential after-school activity is commodified as a badge. The first thing parents ask is “which badge is most valuable for getting my kid into college or a good job?” Then it’s all about the badges. My kids can just give up on ever having a single moment of joy in their lives. Even if they were going to enjoy something, how can they when they’ve already committed to this transactional experience instead?

I coach my son’s soccer team now. I shudder to think what the experience would be like with a team filled with kids there to gain some *&^%* badge. I’d have to quit. I guess I’ll never get my volunteerism badge, huh? 

Really this is just classic Marxism, folks. We start with the commodification of the worker’s pure subjective labor. But at least that worker gets to go home and do things that are not commodified. Slowly this capitalist logic of commodification expands to new areas of the culture. The commodification of learning was already quite clear in the Reagan era when we stopped thinking of higher education as a social good and instead defined it as an individual’s investment in his/her human capital. 

Now with badges you won’t be able to take up a hobby without it being commodified. Hey, do you think I can get a badge for loving my kids? A good parenting badge or something? Maybe if enough parents take some dumb ass class and earn badges we can get some grant money for our school. Don’t you love how progessive this idea is? 

Sorry, my allergy appears to be acting up. Just one more nightmare scenario.

Perhaps one might find the notion of open badges appealing. Open meaning what? Anyone can open their own diploma mill, err I mean badge-selling operation? Of course not. Badges would have to be accredited by someone. Not sure who, but I doubt getting that accreditation will be free. How could it be? What open means is market-driven. Badges will have monetary value. People want them as a route toward getting jobs. They will pay for them the same way they pay now for college credits. When we look at all the free, DIY learning that is out there now, it’s free precisely because it hasn’t been commodified. You can download stuff from MIT’s Open Courseware because that kind of learning has no commerical value. If you want to get a badge though, that’s going to cost. All the big textbook publishers and educational technology companies will just jump right on badges. All those Sylvan learning type companies will be selling badges. Edutainment video games and such will come with badges and thus be more expensive. 

Badges won’t make learning cheaper. We’ll be spending more money on education than ever, and we won’t get any better results because the motives for learning will still be all wrong.

Let me put this differently. I’ve been writing this blog for nearly a decade. I have nearly 900 posts and several books worth of text, if you want to think of it that way. It doesn’t count for anything. I won’t get a raise or promotion for my blog. I’d be better off writing published articles or whatever. Maybe I should be asking for a blogging badge so that I can get that raise. I have no doubt that the time I’ve put into this blog, the readers I’ve interacted with, have created as much value as a book. But I don’t want a badge. I want to be able to do something just because I want to do it, without the panoptic glare of the badge police (or the police badge for that matter). Can’t I just be part of an academic blogging community where people are there because they want to be instead of pursuing some commodity? 

In the last post I wrote that it isn’t the badge but what you do to get the badge. That is, passing a high stakes test to get a badge is no different than the system we already have. But it’s actually more than that. I think the presence of a badge could actually be a detriment to an otherwise genuine learning experience.

I suppose I will close with pointing to my understanding of motivation. Extrinsic rewards like badges might be good incentives for certain kinds of rote behaviors or to get someone to try something new. But, as I understand it, they have a negative impact on creative, problem-solving activites (i.e. the kinds of things we really need our students to learn to do). These are the things you have to want to do for some intrinsic reason, not to get some badge.

OK, next time, something more positive.


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