Monday, July 28, 2014

The perils of external rewards

A couple of years ago I was working on hashing out this idea of Academic Check-ins.  Think of it as Foursquare meets informal learning meets campus engagement meets alternative credentialing. A paper came out of that brainstorming with a proposal of what such a system might look like.  While working on hashing out some ideas I wanted to dive deeper into this concept of motivation, both internal and external.  One of the potential issues with extrinsic motivators such as the various "goodies" that you get for checking into places†.

While there wasn't a magic bullet (at least in the background research I did) for a good balance between internal and external motivators there was one huge warning: be very careful of external rewards for doing things. They slowly start to replace internal motivation that was there, and if you remove those external rewards, there is a danger of internal motivation not being there to sustain the learner.  This was somewhere in the back of my mind, but it really hit me yesterday as I was browsing the newly opened Learning to Teach Online course at Coursera. Now, I've been teaching online for the past three (or so) years, so I've gotten some of my own research done on this and I seek out communities of practice in this area to improve my own practice.  I decided to join this course as part of my own PLE.  When I logged in I saw that this course does not offer a Statement of Accomplishment (i.e. I was there, I read the materials and passed the quizzes), but they do offer a Verified Statement if I wish to pay for it.  This is the third Coursera course in two months that I have started that does not award a Statement of Accomplishment because (in my opinion) doing so would cannibalize their Verified Statement monetary opportunities.  While my final grade will be reflected on the course records page of my profile, I won't have a snazzy, but ultimately not very useful, statement to print out.

Now, this, for me anyway, has had an interesting effect on motivation, and how I approach these courses! This morning, during my commute to work, while reflecting on this, the aspect on motivation, extrinsic rewards, and what happens when you remove rewards that were previously given for a certain task, and the ultimate resulting detriment to motivation that this has on the learner. I have to say that now that Coursera has conditioned me to expect a Statement of Accomplishment for completing their courses I'm finding it hard to motivate myself when there is not statement of accomplishment available unless you pay for the Verified Statement.

Don't get me wrong, Udacity, FutureLearn and countless cMOOCs I've been part of in the past don't have statements of accomplishment, but I participated in them (in the forums too!) and really enjoyed the course. However when I entered those MOOCs I had no expectation of a statement of accomplishment.  My motivation was purely internal.  With Coursera (and any other instance where statements are issued) the motivation is internal when it comes to going through the material and browsing through the forums (passive participant in MRT parlance) but to get me to be active in that environment I need the carrot (statement or badge), especially when I am not a complete novice at the course. When that carrot doesn't existed and then it is removed, I am thinking much more judiciously about the amount of time I invest in any given course endeavor (i.e. not burning the midnight oil for graded assignments that won't give me something tangible to hold at the end).

I am simply reflecting on my own motivations here (so I don't expect a certificate), but I do wonder what adverse reactions might there be not only having paid certificates now that we've been conditioned to them. I've already caught a few stray comments on other courses indicating that they wouldn't have signed up if they know that there was no certificate for them.  Interesting.

Your thoughts on the matter?

† examples of this would be stickers in the case of GetGlue/TVTag, stickers in the new swarm check-in app, stamps in the old Gowalla, and some might argue badges would fit into this category too!
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