For many years Education has had a big problem: It's been seen as being boring, tiring, and a chore. Since the days of "No more Teachers, no more books" to the "Hey Teacher, Leave them Kids Alone", people have been complaining about education. Everyone from parents to teachers have been looking for some way to make education fun again. And it seems something has grown from the video game world that can help: badges.
Badges are, essentially, minor accomplishment trophies, showing a mastery of a skill. Unlike the old "Gold Star on Forehead" methods used by teachers to reward correct answers, badges can be linked directly to a single skill (or series of skills). Video games use them as a way to modivate the player to continue to play the game by giving them something to work toward that takes perhaps less than 15 to 30 minutes. Before long, you have a player that has spent hours playing a game just to get a virtual award and feel accomplished. While many parents have seen these accomplishments as hollow, educators have seen them as a way to keep students interested in learning.
I have to admit, I was skeptical at first when I saw a number of institutions that apply them. How can you be sure they show a level of accomplishment? What is the standard of measurement? How is the badge a sign of a quality of education, and show a quantative, measured result? Well, the only way to know for sure would be to test it out. I found a website, TeamTreeHouse.com, that provided training videos that built the student up with a number of badges. The rates were reasonable for registration, so I signed up to see what it was like.
They (currently) have three main badges: Web Design, Web Development, and iOS 4 Programming. Looking at the number of videos, the length of each video, I figured if I booked through them I might be able to finish the whole training regime within a month, so I selected every badge path they had. Then I started on the first badge, which was an Introduction to HTML. As a learner, you watch a series of short videos (the longest was almost 20 minutes, the shortest was less then 2), and then at the end take a quiz to see how much you learned. After answering five consecutive questions correctly, you are awarded the "minor" badge, and move on to the next. After accomplishing all the minor badges in the HTML badge set, you are awarded the HTML badge, and so move on to the next set. After completing all the Web Design badges, you are awarded the Web Design "super" badge.
Once I saw how it worked, I was impressed. Evaluation of student knowledge is critical to learning, both before they start to learn, and after. By using this method of taking a quiz at any time during the badge sessions, the student can evaluate how much they already know about a given topic, and how much more they need to know. For online learning, this is great, because students have a way to self-evaluate when they need more instruction, how much instruction, and get instruction on targeted skills they seek. Also, as an added bonus, badges show everyone involved in the person's education from the teacher, to the parent, to the student, and even to a potential employer, what skills they truly have beyond having "taken a class". They may be minor accomplishments, but they represent real skills that have been acquired.
There is a caveat to this though: with the automated testing on TeamTreeHouse.com it is possible to continue to try answering questions until you get them right, as the questions repeat from a relatively small subset of questions. Of course that can be easily remedied by having either a larger question set, a limited amount of time to take the quiz, or both. Personally I don't think it's too terrible, as even by answering a question wrong it forces you to rethink the answer, and that in and of itself is learning.
So what about our guilded halls of learning in education, both K-12 and Higher Ed? How can this be implemented? Well, it would be both very easy (at least in concept), and extremely complex (in execution). Most educators have already built a well-ordered lesson plan that breaks down into topics, skills, knowledge, etc. that would directly relate to badges, both minor and regular badges. Continue to collect them, and you get a certificate with all your accomplishment badges, detailing the skills you have learned while studying. The real problem would be keeping track of these badges. An easy way would be to offer quizzes and assign them as each quiz is passed. But someone would need to manage the badge accomplishments, and provide a way to make them "puiblic", either by having physical badges or digital badges.
The logistics of the badge question can be worked out, but it will take time to apply it to traditional education. In the mean time, to illustrate just how addicting learning by badges can be, I started the task of completing all 66 available badges on the site (as of this writing) on Monday and I have just 10 more to go. It is definitely taking less than the month I thought it would take, and that for me is reason enough to take education with badges seriously. If you would like to see what these badges look like, you can view my profile. This is just one very exciting thing I can see coming up for educating a connected generation. What do you think?