{cached} notes on and concerns about this year’s Digital Media & Learning Competition

By | September 15, 2011

My soon-to-be-former server host, Network Solutions, has “lost” several of my most recent updates. It has been three days and the data has not been retrieved. Until it is, I’m re-posting the content that Network Solutions lost.


I am a #DMLdude all the way to my core. I believe, deeply, in the importance of supporting the emerging field of Digital Media and Learning, and I believe in the importance of making funds available for people doing good, innovative work in this field.

But even as a dyed in the wool #DMLdude, I am deeply anxious about and frustrated by the rhetoric surrounding today’s announcement of this year’s DML Competition. And if I’m anxious and frustrated, I can’t even imagine what non-#DMLdudes must be thinking and feeling.

The announcement was for two related competitions: a design competition on Badges for Lifelong Learning, and a research competition on Badges, Trophies, and Achievements. I haven’t had time yet to review all of the documentation and video surrounding the decision to get behind badges (and I had to miss some of the press event because I had to get to my IRL class, since if I fail multivariate analysis I won’t be able to earn a badge to replace the grade and I then won’t be able to become a Real Educational Researcher), but I want to air my concerns and questions right away, with the hope that readers and my own deeper reading will help to assuage at least some of my anxieties.

1. The rationale driving MacArthur’s decision to throw its weight behind badge systems needs to be made more apparent. Based on today’s press event, the rationale appears to be something like this (and when the archive of the announcement is made available, I’ll include precise quotes from the panelists):

  • The current education and credentialing systems aren’t working;
  • We need to find different ways to help learners gain credentials and prove they’re employable;
  • Extrinsic motivators have been shown to help some students learn; therefore,
  • Badges might be a better alternative than the current system.

Why badges instead of the host of other extrinsic motivators that could be embraced? What proof is there that badges have led to more, better, or different learning? What proof is there that potential employers will give a damn about what badges an applicant has “earned”?


2. The rhetoric behind the badge system is deeply problematic. First, people are exhibiting far too much faith in the promise of badges. Badges will revolutionize education! Just like we believed computers would revolutionize education! (They didn’t.) Just like we believed the filmstrip would revolutionize education! (It didn’t.) Just like we believed the ball point pen would revolutionize education! (It didn’t. You get the idea.)

Even worse, people are suggesting that badges will solve the deep social injustices embedded in our education system. One panelist actually suggested that badges will help solve gender inequities in STEM education.

Let me say that again: One panelist actually suggested that badges will help solve gender inequities in STEM education.


3. MacArthur, for better or for worse, is a huge player in DML and basically dictates the research agenda for a big chunk of the field. It may be the case, as some have suggested, that badges are just the “hook” for the broader research initiative represented in the badges announcement, but if an organization uses the word “badges” a sufficient number of times (I counted at least 30 in the first ten minutes of the announcement), researchers will suddenly decide that they want to do research on badges! More than they wanted to do any other research on alternative assessment and credentialing! And they will use badges to guide their research agendas.

This is, of course, a horrible way to approach research in digital media and learning. But it’s also how, in my (admittedly limited) experience in the field, research agendas are often chosen.


4. I’m really uncomfortable with the suggestion that badges will help military veterans make a smoother transition to civilian life. If documentation of military experience and vocational training aren’t enough to convince people to hire a job applicant, then I need someone to explain how a series of badges earned during military service will.

Also, you know what else will help military veterans make a smoother transition to civilian life? Ongoing vocational training. Emotional and psychological support. Improved and sustained medical care. And more funding and support for continuing education.


5. I don’t understand how the badge system will help support the best teachers. Charles Bolden told us that badges will help us to identify and support teachers who are designing good, innovative professional development opportunities for their students. I need help understanding how this will happen. Are badges supposed to replace current accountability measures? Are they supposed to be embraced by the public education system? If so, will badges be standardized across the nation? And once they’re standardized how long will it take for badges to turn into the next step in standardized tests?


And, most importantly:


6. This strong emphasis on workplace preparedness and credentialing marks a significant about-face for MacArthur’s DML Program, and one that therefore merits public justification. I joined the field of DML through my work with Henry Jenkins and his New Media Literacies project. At that time, 5 or so years ago, MacArthur got behind people like Henry, who argued that new media literacies are important for workplace success, but not only for workplace success. In fact, a huge piece of Henry’s work celebrated the work people did not for money but for love. It was that DML program that I fell in love with, and that research agenda that got me interested in pursuing educational innovation in the first place.


There’s lots of evidence that the current system isn’t working. What evidence is there that badges will work better? And better for what, exactly? Good research makes its findings, its assumptions, and its blind spots available for public scrutiny. And good funding agencies need to do the same.


2 thoughts on “{cached} notes on and concerns about this year’s Digital Media & Learning Competition

  1. Pingback: Open Badges launch: rocket fuel, reaction and resources « o p e n m a t t

  2. Pingback: Making Digital Media Learning Badges Work : Forum One

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