How ‘digital badges’ in schools motivate students?

In one Atlanta-area middle school studied by Abramovich, digital badges were awarded to students participating in an educational program for 21st century skills.

The blend of digital technology and traditional merit badges, such as those earned by Boy and Girl Scouts, would provide an opportunity to both motivate and measure learning, according to new research by University at Buffalo education professor Sam Abramovich.

Use of the modern digital badge can be a valuable supplement to the more established educational assessment tools such as the SAT and classroom grades, says Abramovich, an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education.

“What badges can do is provide an avenue to create the next generation of assessments,” he says.

Abramovich and colleagues investigate the use of school-based badges in a new study forthcoming in the International Journal of Learning and Media, and in a previous study published in Educational Technology Research and Development.

In his investigation of several badge systems, Abramovich finds three essential ingredients for successful educational badges: They have to present some enjoyment for the learner, they must recognize work that extends beyond a student’s typical academic ability and the student has to value what that badge represents.

“If the student doesn’t care about a learning objective,” he says, “why would they care about the badge? But if we can provide a badge for something they’ve mastered that is important to them, then we can use that as a foundation for their future learning.”

Badges can be important supplements to more established educational assessment devices, Abramovich says. They add another dimension to the learning process that traditional testing tools do not address.

He says many learning opportunities that use a test, like a final exam, to measure learning are “not authentic.”

“When was the last time you had to take a traditional test for your job?” he asks. “And even if you pass a test at the end of a course, it’s hard to know what that means in regards to your learning. It’s what you do with what you learned and how it continues to grow that matters. We’re all lifelong learners.”

Badges can change the focus on test-taking, says Abramovich, providing a tool for motivation and assessment, and a way to provide credentials for learning.

“What badges do is target the learning that is traditionally unrecognized,” he says.

Badges, of course, are not a new concept. A Girl Scout or Boy Scout merit badge is a good example, and video games often offer digital badges for a level of achievement.

Abramovich stresses he is not advocating an end to standard educational tools such as grades and the SATs.

“I’m an educational researcher first and a ‘badge advocate’ second,” he says. “I want to know if and how badges can work in a variety of educational settings. I suspect they can, but there are reasons why traditional assessment has served us well for so many years.”


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