Tuesday, March 6, 2012

What the Badge?

I seemed to have marked my time at the Digital Media andLearning Conference by a movement through the story of badges.  On Thursday as I was getting my conference bearings, I edged into what turned out to be an impromptu lobby session on badges.  So as far as I can tell badges are a way of alternately recognizing work and skill attainment through online display of earned symbols.  (Think about your old girl scout vest.) The badges I have been hearing about at DML are being tied to or layered over forms of assessment in schools or newly formed as online recognition formats for non-school entities.  

In my experience of early #dml2012 the rhetoric seemed to be that badges could be an optimum replacement of grades, in which students can be recognized for their achievements and successes and move forward with the next steps of learning in self directed ways. Metaphorically I’m not sure that I fully walked away from that lobby badge session during the rest of the conference.  My head couldn’t quite stop thinking about that puzzle of people standing about and circling up chairs in the hallway to figure out this badge thing.  Well, I’ll circle back to that towards the end of my post.

At first I felt rather at odds with the DML crowd, I found the thread of competitiveness unnerving up next to and sometimes woven with strings of civic engagement and social justice.  The collusion with private for profits that is quickly moving in on all of public education was an unapologetic segment of DML, too.  I felt this most at the awards ceremony for the DML research funding competition, Rewards, Reputation and Recognition.  All of the funds awarded were for badge based projects, in fact the application itself requested projects surrounding the conversation on badges.  There is an interesting side note about e portfolios here, that felt very side-lined to me.

As the endweek and weekend unfolded, though, I noticed a sense of hacking (of course) into the normative stance on badges and privatization, particularly notable in the final ignite session when HenryJenkins’ moment of badge critique was met with applause of at least half the room.  Throughout the conference everyone’s stance on everything seemed to me to rotate around the issue of badges.  Were badges mentioned apologetically? with excitement?  accompanied by a WTF face? or with unconvinced curiosity?   

The best example I saw of a counter-badge story comes from a youth led session, Education for a Digital Democracy: Harnessing the Power of New Media to Empower Urban Students Personally, Academically and Civically, in which a youth presenter from the Council on Youth Research told a story about a community member coming by the school garden and asking if he could buy vegetables.  The kid narrated how the student-gardeners shook their heads, saying, “ you don’t have to buy them, they’re free.”   The high school free public garden shows the possibility of use value in education.  The kids were involved in the learning surrounding the gardening project because of the civic engagement, the social connectivity and the material creation of a sustainable and healthy food source for their communities. 

The non-badge sessions I went to and badge-critical action here and there had me thinking on the plane ride back to the East Coast about the theories and stake holders working through badges.  I decided to let some theorist speak for themselves.  Here’s a short play on badge theory:

Arne Duncan:   These badges are awesome!  We should start adding them to state flags!  You tech people are da bomb!

Karl Marx:       (sigh) YOU would like them.

Michel Foucault: (with straight face) Yes, all the better to propagate the panopticon prison model creating     self-regulation of state ideology.

Duncan:            Self-regulation is awesome!  Think how much money we can save.  

Marx:               (sigh) (to others) You see, change from inside the model is impossible.

Helen Cixous:  (with frown) Let us explore the significance of the closed circle of the badge symbol.  This is the closing off of meaning through symbolically representing learning, which is intangible, fluid, moving, in the confines of measured marks. We must work to the dispersal of meaning—ripping the seams from the stitches of patriarchy that bind each of us, women and men, to a history of categorization and binding off (in circular symbols of attainment- of what!) from one another, from possibility, (continues into hash of words whose meaning is understood in the loss of meaning)

Duncan:            Uhhhh… I think she’s with us!  Yeah!  Badges!

Marx:               (sighs) This infatuation with credentialing and recognition is yet another spasm of capitalism that seeks to mark and differentiate kids of labor and accord a differentiation of value to those labors.

Foucault:         We are each creating the power/knowledge that exists in badges, which of course, means we can potentially, if at great risk, resist.

Duncan:           (to all) Exactly who are you, anyway?  (lifts eyebrows suspiciously)

So I’m back home thinking about my first DML conference and what I find most interesting about the space is the mix of people, ideas and purposes.  Even as I saw an official script on badges from DML itself, I saw in the people of DML many layers of inquiry into, re-mixing of, countering and openly resisting badgification.  This is interesting to me in terms of this moment when badging is becoming hot, since being at DML gave me space to sort out the particulars of my lens on the issue.  Also, my tour of DML via badge talk gave me insight into what kind of community DML is. Here’s what I’ve come up with:  DML is a diverse place, with people from many sectors, a large contingent of whom are very interested in re-mixing, hacking and resisting dominant politics, economics and social hierarchies that maintain current class structures to the material benefit of a few.  It’s really good to me that a range of people and ideas are circulating at DML.  This makes it a site for public conversation and action.  And yet, if this a place for a resistant conversation with many stake holders, what the badge are we doing focusing as a community, on symbols of learning rather than learning itself?


  1. Glad that you posted this lacy. I've been following the chatter on badges lately, and while the dominant conversation I'm overhearing is in support of the badgification of learning model, something about the whole thing just doesnt sit well with me. It all just seemed like grading in different clothes, and it didn't fit in well with a model of teaching that supports a type of learning that is critical and ongoing. That's about as far as I got, but your post does an awesome job of going beyond that. I'll be sure to share.

  2. Thanks, Steve. I posted this one with a bit of gulp! For more on badges check out the post Henry Jenkins' just wrote, too. http://henryjenkins.org/2012/03/how_to_earn_your_skeptic_badge.html

  3. Lacy, the dialogue alone is worth a badge (Just kidding). I find the idea of badges obfuscate the more tender issue: why must we represent time serve as a means of certifying ourselves? Is this the only way we come to understand value? Is value the single measure of worth? I don't think badges transform the grades as measure of worth conversation. Rather, they simply shift currency. The power remains steady nonetheless.

    Thanks for the insights.