Initial Explorations in Digital Badges and Motivation

By Cathy Tran
This post introduces two of the newest members of the badges Design Principles Documentation Project and describes our efforts to examine the motivational practices and principles that we are uncovering across the 30 project funded to develop digital badges by the MacArthur Foundation's Digital Media and Learning initiative
I just wrapped up a Google+ Hangout session with Katerina Schenke, as we pulled motivation design principles from dozens of projects after viewing their Digital and Media Learning Badges for Lifelong Learning competition applications as well as having conversations with the winners and listening to archived interviews.

Through the Digital Media and Learning Conference poster to unveil our emerging principles are still in the works, I'll give a sneak peek, for those who are way too curious to wait (or maybe I just *really* want to share immediately): One emerging principle is that badge systems are providing different ways for learners to set goals. This includes user-created badges in which the learner decides which badge to pursue or even what a badge is awarded for and what the criteria is for that badge (subject to agreement from the community). In addition, we see different displays of learning trajectories. Some show long-term goals and how the steps along the way connect to one another. Others organize their badges in batches that are not as explicitly interconnected. Another point of interest is the level of autonomy varies. There are paths that are largely determined by the badge system and are intended to scaffold learning in specific ways and others that allow for more user choice of twists and turns.

What does this all mean for learner motivation? Our next step for this motivation principle (and roughly a dozen others) is to connect these practices to the motivation research literature. For instance, what can the more general research on goals and choice--that's not necessarily tied to digital badges or even technology--tell us about the potential benefits and limitations of these different ways in which digital badges allow for goal setting?

Those are big questions, and that's why it is exciting. Back in January of this year, Dan invited me to join the Design Principles Project when all the digital badges folks met at UC Irvine. Right after that meeting, I sent my advisor a quick note that included this:
This whole applying theory (especially motivation) to digital practice thing is so incredibly up my alley and what I've been trying to do--so even if it's tricky, here's a group of people who all want to puzzle through it too and how crazy of an opportunity is that?
Coming to UC Irvine to pursue a PhD, my goal was to connect academic researchers with those who are out there making things. I worked in research, evaluation, and production for children television, museums, and educational software, spending much of that time pondering about how the research I later do can impact development. My overarching interest has always been to connect the scientific community with the public, as my first few years out of college were spent as a science journalist. This project fits right into that big goal of mine.

So I hope you will follow us in this journey as we learn how to make academic research relevant to developers of digital badges--and how to make their work relevant to the academic community.

For those out there with complementary interests, I would love to connect. I can be reached at or on Twitter @cathytran.


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