Saturday, September 17, 2011

In defense of badges?

I love MOOCs, because it gives me an opportunity to meet interesting people and read what they have to say.  It's both educational and a discovery tool!  In any case, I read a blog post by Alex Reid today on the aversion to badges (you know, those things that you get for "achieving" stuff in various places and services." (I'd link to the article but my laptop has crashed three times today while trying to link to it :-) - just Google it it's called "welcome to badge world"  )

In any case, I read his article and I actually do not disagree! I think that people have taken credentialing (and badges are a type of credential) to a level that is a bit too far.  They place too much emphasis on the credential rather than what the credential implies. An example of this are academic badges like the degrees one earns. When you look at a human resources job posting you see that emphasis on the degree, rather than the skills implied by attaining such a degree - so even when you have the skills, unless you have the degree (badge) you don't get the job.

Now if I agree, why am I defending badges?  Well, I think that badges are not the issue, rather the issue is what we do with them! No matter what comes to replace a badge system (or degree system) will be fundamentally misinterpreted and abused somewhere down the line.  We can replace degrees and badges with X (let's say X is people giving you ratings online about your expertise), but somewhere down the line that X system will be co-opted. People will just look at how many stars you have (and you will be concerned more about your star rating) than what the star rating implies.  People might rate you for friendliness instead of expertise for example, so even if you are mediocre, if you are friendly you might still get 4/5 stars and that's probably enough for you to get a job that requires at least 3/5 stars.

I think the onus is on people educating themselves and others, and remaining vigilant about keeping in their sights what really matters: not the visible artifact that indicates your expertise, but the expertise itself.  After all, artifacts aren't free, they are subject to "standard measures" and economics, so they can be gamed!  What's really important is real skill. Badges are just one (imperfect) way of gauging that.  As a personal example, I like video games but I am not that great at them.  In the good ol' days of the Game Boy, my friends and I used to sit around each other's screens and see how skilled players of tetris were able to get the different ending sequences of the game.  Then we talked about with our friends and our friends did with their friends, until people knew that Joe Shmoe of PoDunkTown completed tetris on super-duper-uber-hard and got the crazy ending sequence.  This is a type of badge, it's just verbal.  A way to abuse this system was to claim that the spectator achieved the feat, and thus him name was transmitted as the person who did the impossible first, rather than the person who actually did it.

Flash forward to the days of the XboX360 and other consoles and their badge systems.  Now, in a connected world, not only can I achieved certain milestones (badges), I can display them on my xbox profile, and compare them with friends. If I don't know how to get a certain badge, I can ask a more knowledgeable friend, and assuming he mentors me, I can get those badges too. There are ways to game this system of course, but as I said, systems aren't perfect. Just like anything, it seems to me that badges need to be both taken with a grain of salt, and need to be based on some sort of honor system in addition to some sort of issuing authority. This doesn't mean that they won't be gamed, but it also doesn't mean that they are completely useless.  We  ought to control our inner packrat and only pursue badges because we love the activity we are doing, I guess this is why in most games I collect fewer than half the badges - I play for the love of the game, not to collect every coin in the realm so I can collect the Scrooge Badge ;-)
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