Engagement and motivation through badges

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Feed me!

When considering what motivates students to participate in a learning intervention, learning designers spend a lot of time designing activities to engage and interest students. However, research indicates that students tend to respond to the assessment regime rather than the learning objectives. This means that students will look at what is required to pass the course (the hidden curriculum) and then make sure that their activities focus on what is required to fulfil the requirements of that particular task (Gibbs, 2010).

I have found this when working in a corporate e-learning environment, where the learners’ objective is to get through the multiple choice quiz as to be deemed competent, so the approach is to quickly click through screens of an elearning module (or in some cases ask a colleague to do it). In my Master’s course some students have never appeared in any online discussion forum or participatory activity as it is possible to pass the module by turning in the written assignment (which I presume they did). This is understandable and a sensible strategic approach to gaining a qualification or fulfilling the needs of a workplace learning scheme. Is it learning? Well, it’s really impossible to say what the participant has or hasn’t learned but they have not ostensibly participated in the learning process that has been designed by the instructional designer or faculty.By process, I mean the pathway comprising the range of activities that are designed to help the learning and practice of skills and competencies that will help the learning objectives – in short the learning design. For example, an activity to  stimulate dialogue and build peer review skills might ask students to read a paper on a subject and post a summary and response in a blog post, inviting comments.

Non-participation in activities become more visible in an online or blended environment as students dn (or do not not) leave digital footprints. Yet,  as these activities are ‘just learning’ and have no bearing on the assessment (typically an end of module exam or paper), then a significant proportion of students don’t bother. This can diminish the effectiveness of online courses which often are designed for and depend on learner-learner interaction.

If it is assessment rather than the learning activities that motivate (or spur) the larger proportion of students to participate in the learning process, a close alignment of the learning and assessment process could motivate more students to participate. This is in itself not a new concept: good teachers have always taught in a way that aligns the learning that takes place in a classroom with the assessment. This could mean that artefacts that are produced as a result of learning activities are included as part of or necessary to the assessment itself, or that assessment is ongoing requiring frequent participation and engagement. In formal online learning and in MOOCs this poses a challenge due to the distributed and generally asynchronous nature of online learning, and is used with care by learning designers as it then affects the flexibility aspect of online learning. After all it is this type of learning that attracts  the type of person who might not be able to study in any other way (formal campus based learning requiring the necessity of being in one place at a certain time). Working professionals or people with caregiver responsibilities may appreciate the value to flexibility that online learning enables.

What methods or strategies might spur engagement or at least encourage learners to participate in the learning process as the learning designers intended? I wrote about Open Badges for my final (possibly ever) assignment for the Open University Masters in Online and Distance Education. Open Badges are digital artefacts that learning designers can use in a course to recognise achievements or reward participation at a lower level of granularity than traditional assessment and so might be able to motivate learners due to the element of immediate gratification or gaming.  Learners can earn badges for specific tasks within a course that acknowledge a skill or completed activity, thus building and visibly showing progress and gaining something tangible they can show on a profile. Open Badges are embedded with meta data and can be displayed by the earner in a medium such as a personal blog or a LinkedIn profile. A third-party reviewer of the badge can click on it to learn more about the skills attained and even access the original piece of work that was required to earn the badge.

Badges therefore give learning designers another assessment-type tool, less scary then a formal assessment, and collecting a number of badges can be rolled up into a larger super -badge which could provide a pathway to another form of certification. If a course designer chooses to use badges for motivation and engagement, they need to decide what activities are worthy of a badge. This in itself gives the learner an indication of the importance of the activity and/or the type of skills that will be developed if the learner chooses to earn the badge. Badges can help make the learning design explicit, perhaps helping to bridge the intention of the learning designer and the understanding of what is important for the learner.

Earning badges therefore gives learners opportunities to collect rewards, but this still might not appeal to learners who feel they have nothing really to gain. Using the idea behind loss aversion,  what if users were given a number of badges at the start of a course – partially complete perhaps. If they participate in  learning activities or meet certain targets, they  gain more badges. However, if they do not participate, they  lose badges. I wonder whether the prospect of losing badges might be more of motivator than gaining badges (you can’t lose what you haven’t got yet). This sounds one of those digital pets you have to keep feeding to keep alive :-). What if in order to get through the course, you have to metaphorically keep feeding it? How you do this might have elements of choice, but the opportunities inherent in badges such as expiry dates or the ability to hold more or less information poses some interesting learning design opportunities.


Gibbs, G. (2010) Using Assessment to Support Student Learning, Leeds, Leeds Met Press.

Mozilla, (2012) Open Badges for Lifelong Learning [Online]. Available at https://wiki.mozilla.org/File:OpenBadges-Working-Paper_012312.pdf

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