Annotation: Badges for Higher-Ed Assessment

Buell, C. (2013, August 30). Using Badges to Quantify Learning Outcomes at UC Davis. Edcetera. Retrieved October 20, 2013, from

This article examines the use of badges to measure learning outcomes in higher education, especially as developed by UC Davis and Joanna Normoyle, who won an award for the innovation at the Digital Media and Learning Competition. The idea is to quantify and standardize higher-level thinking skills gained throughout the course of a university degree and award a digital badge for the achievement, potentially making them useful to future employers trying to determine the skill-set of a candidate or even simplifying the process of credit transfer between universities looking for equivalent coursework. Badges in such a system also can be useful for helping learners to track their progress and customize an academic program. UC Davis is officially launching their program with students this fall. By extension, I could see this as an easy, practical way for academic libraries to jump in, partner with departments and get involved in assessing and communicating the information literacy of students.

I can pick anything?

So, I’m faced with a research project this semester where the topic is wide-open for me to choose from, not even a course theme. The idea is actually to track the research process following a research model (like I-Search, Pathways to Knowledge, Big6, Handy 5, etc.) To do so, then, I can pick ANYTHING I want to learn about. Quite the tall order.

I’m kind of torn about doing something that would benefit me professionally and something that just feeds my curiosity. Both are valid endeavors. If any of my old readers still are watching after my long silence, I’d love your thoughts on research development potential/narrowing. Here are my ideas:

Building libraries in the developing world
I am really interested on how these projects come to life and the impact they make. An extension would be to investigate the follow-up on these projects, like they do with reality shows sometimes to see it really has made a difference. I would love to connect with Librarians Without Borders (and/or start a UW-Madison chapter) and go on a service trip. Also, I’ve seen things on Amazon over the years about donating Kindles to places where there are no books. At Ikea, there’s a solar powered reading light they donate for every one they sell. Do those work?

Collection development for Heritage Spanish speakers, especially young adults
This is a topic I’m interested in because it would serve a dual-purpose of library-based research and something applicable to my job. I’m not sure how research worthy it would be, because it’s something I’ve struggled with for awhile and don’t feel like I have leads.

Competency-based education and badges
When I first learned about this topic (summer 2012), it absolutely blew my mind and made me think that American education has got it wrong, with the Common Core, high-stakes assessment and teacher accountability. To me, this could a viable solution for education reform. I’d like to see how it’s progressing. There is some potential for action research with this for me, because I have an badge program set up for my students.

Jesuit education and outreach
These last two are little bit more of personal interests. I was completely inspired by the Jesuit approach to education while an undergrad at Marquette, and even more so as I learned a little about Ignatian spirituality. Historically, the Jesuits made some waves and had a widespread reach. I have a feeling that there is more than meets the eye even today.

Training of service dogs
I read Luis Carlos Montalván’s book, Until Tuesday, about his experience as a veteran with a service dog. I also could watch this webcam for hours. Working dogs in action are just so fascinating to me. I love it when they bring in the drug dogs to sniff lockers. When I see a service dog, I always want to pet them because they are so well-behaved (but you can’t because they have a sign that says “Don’t!”)

With great power, comes great responsibility

I play video games occasionally, but I am definitely not a gamer. I just don’t stay interested in them very long.  I don’t mind trying them sometimes, but most of them are a little too difficult for me. Back in the age of Super Mario Brothers 3, I wasn’t bad, but games are harder now–more buttons.

According to studies sited in Leonard Sax’s book, Boys Adrift (see his endnotes below) boys play video games 13 hours or more a week, while girls play about 5. While most adults I know don’t log those type of hours, I think the ratio is about right.

When I see those numbers, I start to worry a little bit about our kids. 13 hours seems like a lot to me! Man, if I had an extra 13 hours a week…

More and more researchers, like James Gee, are stepping to the plate to say, “Actually, video games are good. We should change schools to be more like video games.” Jane McGonigal goes as far to suggest that we should play MORE video games because we could solve a lot of problems if we used the thinking skills necessary for games in the real world.

I will concede that our education system could stand to learn a thing or two from the success and engagement that video games command. We can and should change our school system to incorporate the principles that have made video games so effective in engaging players in sometimes difficult and complex tasks. “If only kids concentrated on their Algebra homework as much as they do on Halo…” Fine, find a way, right?

The problem that I have with this is that the required change is 100% on the backs of the teachers and the policy-makers. We teachers are the ones who are supposed to make it more fun/engaging/relevant/customized/etc. Riiiiiiiiiight, like Constance Steinkuehler‘s description of the teen-aged boys with their hoodies in her program, even with the most engaging activity, if it smells like school, they’re “out.” Good luck getting any kind of spontaneous interest with quadratic equations, even if it is in a video game. It’s a nice theory, but a tall order to place on schools alone, especially when it’s likely to fail if students don’t buy in.

Constructivists teachers talk a lot about the importance of learners taking ownership of their learning. It’s true. The idea of digital badge systems revolutionizing instruction and assessment is more realistic than gaming doing it. Here’s why–if digital badge systems catch on, this is what they will do to education as we know it:

Students will be able to customize learning goals within the larger curricular framework, integrate continuing peer and faculty feedback about their progress toward achieving those goals, and tailor the way badges and the metadata within them are displayed to the outside world. Students won’t just earn badges—they’ll build them, in an act of continuous learning.

Why does this matter? To start, consider that the…framework was designed with great care and purpose, based on what experts, employers, professors, and students believe is most important for the world we live in today. (from Kevin Carey’s article, “A Future Full of Badges”)

Did you notice that the STUDENT was involved in the designing learning experience? Let me say that again, the STUDENT is a STAKEHOLDER. These pro-gamers can talk all they want about how video games are the answer, but they also neglect consider a few real problematic side-effects of the gaming movement: addiction, disengagement and violence, especially in boys.

An experienced, practicing medical doctor, Leonard Sax, calls the growing epidemic of unmotivated young boys and underachieving young men as “Boys Adrift.” In his book, he identifies seven factors that contribute to this phenomenon, with the second being video games.

Consider the effects of video-game on a young boy:

The defining characteristic of addiction, incidentally, is loss of control: the boy knows that he shouldn’t be spending so much time playing video games, he may not even want to play that much, but he just feels that he can’t help it. (Sax, 74)

Another consideration is what activities are displaced by playing video games. If your son is neglecting his friendships with non-gamer friends to spend more time playing video games, then he’s spending too much time playing video games. If he refuses to sit down to dinner with the family because he’s in the middle of a video game, then he needs some help from you getting his priorities straight. (Sax, 70)

In real life, you can’t just walk away from the havoc you create. In the world of video games, you can. (Sax, 68)

Of course not everyone who plays video games is effected these ways, but it’s a valid concern, given that we have a generation of young men who are outnumbered by girls in universities because more and more of them lack the good grades and motivation to pursue further education. Video games can get in the way.

So are we as libraries responsible for the well-being of the young adults in our communities or does the responsibility lie solely on their parents? Before we get all excited and decide that libraries are the place for gaming and it’s the next big thing for our programs, like Aaron Schmidt’s position on QR Codes in Libraries, we need to step back and think about our objectives and missions when we implement and encourage gaming. Gaming tournaments may be great programs that bring in teen users and provide a great social outlet, with some positive side effects like increased circulation and reading–but I believe we are also responsible for informed decisions. Video games have two sides: a fun, exciting side with potential and a dark underbelly.

I’ll leave you with one last piece that I really enjoyed from Sax’s book. He includes the following letter from a mother at the end of his chapter on video games (p. 75-76).

Dear Dr. Sax,

I read your article in the Washington Post. I’m not an expert, just a Mom. I have my own theory. I think video games are the main culprits in this phenomenon [of unmotivated boys]. I wish I had somehow shielded my son from such games or at least put a strict limit on them. When I see guys in their twenties who are totally unmotivated, mooching on someone else and lack any social skills that will benefit them in the workplace or in life, I’ve noticed a common thread: an obsession with video games.

Video games teach these boys that if you manipulate things a certain way, you will get an easy win. These boys have little interaction with people during the years when such interaction is crucial in developing the skills they need to handle themselves as an adult. They shut themselves off to the real world and get caught up in their fantasy worlds. After a while, they prefer their fantasies to the real world. In the real world, things are not so easy to control. They can’t rule with a joystick. In the real world they have to talk to people. They have to work.

That brings up another point. Laziness. A guy addicted to video games can waste hour after hour after hour without doing anything productive. Playing games is easy. Studying is hard. Taking care of daily chores is hard. Working on a real job is hard.

We parents are to blame for some of this because it started out as a way to entertain our kids. We justified it by saying they were developing their hand/eye coordination. They were home, we knew what they were doing, they were out of our hair and not causing trouble. Now they are in their twenties and we are scratching our heads wondering, “What’s their problem?”

I think if you were to research the growing popularity of video games and compare it to the growing number of young men living at home, you would find a parallel. I know that sounds simplistic, but sometimes the answers to complex questions are as plain as the nose on our face.

Cheryl M.
North Carolina


Craig Anderson, Douglas Gentile, and Katherine Buckley, “Study 3: Longitudinal study with elementary school students,” in the authors’ book Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents, New York: Oxford University Press, 2007, pp. 95-119. These authors conducted a study of 430 third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders from five different elementary schools (four public schools, one private school). The boys played video games, on average, 13.4 hours per week; the girls played on average 5.9 hours per week.

Douglas Gentile, Paul Lynch, Jennifer Ruh Linder, and David Walsh, “The Effects of Violent Video Game Habits on Adolescent Hostility, Aggressive Behaviors, and School Performance,” journal of Adolescence, volume 27, pp. 5-22, 2004. These authors studied 607 eighth- and ninth-graders from four different schools (three public schools, one private school). The boys played video games, on average, thirteen hours per week, while the girls played on average five hours per week.

Duchess of the Kohl Center

My first experience with badges was through iPhone apps like Foursquare and Yelp. In fact, my first check in was February 20, 2011, which was probably about a week after I got my iPhone. I was at the Kohl Center for a Badger men’s basketball game. I can’t say I use the apps a lot, but I would have to say that I’ve checked in more than a few times at the Kohl Center… I like watching basketball, what can I say?

At one point last season (2011-2012), I was named “Duchess of the Kohl Center.” (I think I’ve checked in like 10 or 11 times.) The best badge ever, as far as I am concerned. I wish I had a t-shirt. Too bad being Duchess doesn’t give me the power to keep the old people who sit behind us from talking about colonics and stuff…

Anyway, I don’t think I still possess the title anymore because I think other people can steal them from you if you don’t keep checking in and I don’t go to the Kohl Center in the summer. Technically, it’s probably not even a badge either, but a mayorship or something. Whatever, though, I figure it’s like being President–they have to keep calling you “President” even after your term is up, right?

Needless to say, my experience with badges so far has been pretty silly. I knew a guy once whose mom made his Cub Scout Den change his baby brother’s diapers to earn their “Diaper Duty” badge (High-five to his mom!) At least that badge actually acknowledged a real accomplishment. My Foursquare badge “I’m on a boat” wasn’t exactly hard–I drove my car onto a ferry and then waited.

Deep down, we all like to show off our accomplishments. Badges on a sash, medals on a Varsity Letterman’s jacket, patches and pins on a military uniform. With the exception of the military honors though, these types of recognition mean nothing to job world. So when I read about badges as an alternative assessment tool, I was blown away. I’m sold. As it turns out, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts have known what they were doing all along! Maybe that cooking badge you earned as a scout doesn’t seem like much, but I bet for an aspiring chef, it might be quite a big deal to earn a badge for making a perfect crème brulée with a torch. In fact, a crème brulée badge might be currency someday for jobs in a high-scale restaurant.

Standards-based assessment has been all the rage in K-12 public schools lately, especially with the Common Core Standards coming down the road. It’s a major paradigm shift for a lot of teachers to change their grading scales and philosophies from “points” to “competencies.” It’s not because teachers really believe that 84% actually reflects the amount of mastery a student has made–for a lot of teachers, it’s more a question of how to enter a competency into the computer gradebook and have it still spit out a B+. Unfortunately, it is still expected that we use GPAs as a factor in college admissions or scholarships. Sometimes, I’ve felt like it’s futile to even try to change to a standards-based assessment system when higher-ed is going to insist that we boil a kid’s learning back down to a percentage anyway.

UC-Davis sees things differently, however. This year, they won an award for their development of digital “open badges” in the Digital Media and Learning Competition supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mozilla.

Students will be able to customize learning goals within the larger curricular framework, integrate continuing peer and faculty feedback about their progress toward achieving those goals, and tailor the way badges and the metadata within them are displayed to the outside world. Students won’t just earn badges—they’ll build them, in an act of continuous learning. (Carey)

As Kevin Carey puts it in his article,  “A Future Full of Badges,” from the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Compared with the new open badge systems, the standard college transcript looks like a sad and archaic thing.” He’s right–years later, when you look back at a college transcript, that A- you earned in English 271 doesn’t say anything about you, what you learned or what you can do.

I started digging a little bit to find out more about how organizations can get involved and start implementing badges. Mozilla is really at the epicenter of the badges movement with their Open Badge Infrastructure, so that seemed like a logical place to start. It’s actually quite easy to create your virtual backpack as a learner who wants to start collecting and accepting badges. As someone who’s not very good at programming and customizing Open Source tools, like WordPress, the process of creating a badge seemed a bit over my head. I worry that unless I start working on that deficiency (Hey! Maybe there’s a badge out there I could earn…), I might not be very useful to a library as a tech-savvy young person after all.

Canton Public Library and Ann Arbor District Library‘s use of badges in their summer reading programs was incredible. (Thanks to Greg Landgraf for showcasing their programs in his article, “Summer Reading Levels Up!”) But again, I got to thinking, “Well, crap! Where on earth am I going to get the skill-set to help bring something like that to a library or school near me?!”

Librarygame is cool and seems to be ready-made (no skill-set necessary), but for something as experimental as the OBI movement, it seems a little risky to invest the money into quite yet–better to mess around with open source…

I continued my research though and came across a couple of points of light. BadgeStack is an open-source platform that organizations can use to launch a badge program. I actually think I can handle this one. I could at least play around with demo. I also ran into MouseSquad. It’s a 21st Century Skills Training system that prepares and supports students to establish their own technical support help desks in their schools. Basically, kids join and they can earn badges and receive the training they would need for a pretty meaningful project (all the while, they are stealthily being taught a bunch of information literacy!)

Now, this is something that I can advocate for–now! Standards-based assessment doesn’t look so daunting when it’s gamified. Yeah, yeah, there are arguments that gamification is really bad for motivation, but really, for a lot of students, once they hit high school, education is about playing the game and working the system. I like the idea of students pursuing their education by earning badges for achievements and skills that they deem valuable. Being Duchess of the Kohl Center might not be real useful, but Duchess of the Tech Support Desk could be!