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BELLTONES: I’ll Show You My Badges if You’ll Show Me Yours!

By Mary Ann Bell - Posted May 1, 2013
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One of the best experiences that I had in my middle childhood years was scouting. I loved Girl Scouts. I was a total badge hound. I wanted to earn every badge and pored over the list of activities, reveling in the fact that I could choose which things I wanted to do. As a matter of fact, I still have my badge sash along with the rest of my uniform, down to the official socks. My obsessive-compulsive tendencies were evident at an early age. I believe that there was a time in my middle grades when I was learning more from scouting than I was at school, and I still remember many of the things I learned, especially about nature and the outdoors.

Later on as a teacher, I put to use some of the things that I had liked about scouting. I tried to give students choices about how they completed assignments. I used reward systems to encourage behavior, especially a system I developed to manage classroom management and operations by paying kids with play money that I printed up for that purpose. If I were still in a junior high classroom, I would still be giving Bell Bucks to entice my students to help out with things such as loaning supplies, managing class sets of books, etc. In my library, I would be calling them Book Bucks.


Fast-forward to the next century. In the last year or two I have been hearing more and more about badging and online learning. This fall when I sampled a massive open online course (MOOC) on gamification, I became even more interested. There is a lot more to gamification than awarding badges, but badging is an important element. The class caused me to be aware that offering incentives such as badges is very popular today, even among adults. Consider Facebook games. Why else play “Farmville” or other similar games?

Also, such rewards are a big part of advertising and have been for years. The very fact that many folks feel better when they are wearing clothing with a particular emblem or trademark bears testimony to how much we love these types of symbolic rewards. Another emerging use is among businesses. A friend of mine works for a large educational software company. It is awarding badges to sales representatives for outstanding achievements on the job.


Oh, but that is so Pavlovian! And look at how badly B. F. Skinner messed up his kid by putting her in that awful box! Actually, reassures us that Deborah Skinner Buzan was not neglected to languish in a glass container and is now living a happy and normal life as a London artist. All the same, thoughts such as these kept me from writing about this topic for about a year. Do I want to admit to being a (shudder) behaviorist?

Here is how I am getting past this concern: If the only way I rewarded students was by badges, play money, or any other tangible type of prize or payoff, I would be seriously limiting my repertoire of teaching methods. The emphasis on prizes is one big reason I do not like programs such as Accelerated Reader. On the other hand, if judicious use of badges or other tokens is effective, then I should give myself permission to use it as one element that I employ to motivate students. After all, grades are tangible rewards (or punishments) for students’ academic performance.


After allowing myself to delve into the topic of badging and maybe even try it myself, I looked around for information about how this practice is being used in education. As I do so often, I turned to my favorite message boards. The first response I got was, “OK, I am clueless. Description please. Thank you.” This made me feel great because it suggested that there is a need for information on this topic. Beyond that I did receive some helpful links and suggestions and will share some links at the end of this article.

In addition to querying online colleagues, I did some research and found information online. The first thing I noticed was that searching for “badging” or “badges” was too broad and resulted in many unrelated sites. Adding the word “digital” was helpful, and also “online.” To narrow the topic even more, I added “education” to my search.

Not surprisingly, Wikipedia has an article called Online Badges. One interesting piece of information I noticed in this article was this: “Many instructional sites such as P2PU and Khan Academy make use of a digital badging system.” Education Week has an excellent article that describes badges thusly: “Electronic images could be earned for a wide variety of reasons in multiple learning spaces, including after-school programs, summer workshops, K-12 classrooms, and universities. And once earned, the badges could follow students throughout their lifetimes, being displayed on websites or blogs and included in college applications and résumés.” An early leader in the development of digital badges has been the Mozilla Foundation, which came up with the idea at a 2010 conference, where badging was discussed in conjunction with gamification.

Early interest seems to be centered upon higher education, where badges, certificates, and other incentives are being considered as alternatives or in addition to traditional college courses. In many cases they are tied to MOOCs. As Kevin Carey states in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The badge system, moreover, isn’t just a transcript, CV, and work portfolio rolled together into a cool digital package. It’s also a way to structure the process of education itself. Students will be able to customize learning goals within the larger curricular framework, integrate continuing peer and faculty feedback about their progress toward achieving those goals, and tailor the way badges and the metadata within them are displayed to the outside world. Students won’t just earn badges—they’ll build them, in an act of continuous learning.” This is certainly interesting to my colleagues and me as we explore our plans to offer MOOCs in the near future.


I submit that badges can also be attractive as tools for incentivizing learning and positive behavior with younger students. One route to explore is to investigate existing entities such as Khan Academy, P2PU, or the Mozilla Foundation. I know that Khan Academy has both supporters and detractors, but its extreme popularity makes it deserving of consideration, and badges are an important feature. Another online resource that uses badges with great success is Edmodo. One of my M.L.S. students uses Edmodo with her students and reports that they are well-received by students. Both of these online environments are popular with proponents of the flipped classroom, as is badging in general.

My belief is that an individual teacher or librarian could start small, with an in-house system of badges restricted to one classroom or to a school library. I know that if I were still a junior high teacher or librarian this would be very appealing to me. No matter what direction you consider, starting small seems wise. One LM_Netter reported that she was considering giving badging a try, but wanted to explore the topic and then plan carefully before proceeding. That is excellent advice!


The first step would be research, and I hope this article can be a starter for interested educators. Next, you should talk with colleagues and administrators to see if there are permissions to obtain, especially if the endeavor is going be schoolwide. Back when I was using my old-school Book Bucks, I talked with my principal and gained his approval first. Another issue is timing. Starting at the beginning of the school year or grading period would likely be wise. Another decision would be how the badges would be bestowed. I favor keeping everything digital. A teacher could display them in a classroom blog, and students could post them to their blogs, portfolios, or other digital environments.

After initial planning was complete, I would introduce the badges slowly, perhaps starting with just one or two. My experience with the Book Bucks was that word of mouth spread the new idea quickly among students, but if going schoolwide you could certainly publicize via announcements or the school newspaper.


In an effort to give the idea a try myself, I introduced several badges for use with my M.L.S. students in three classes early in the spring 2013 semester. In the school setting, my recommendation is to use the badges as incentives separate and apart from grades. For my experience, I wanted to encourage several behaviors:

• Unusually creative assignment products

• Classwork going above and beyond the expected

• Outstanding participation in online discussion boards

I developed a badge for each behavior. There are online badge generators available for free online. I chose one that was easy and quick, the Official Badge Creator from This application provides the user with templates and images. There are other choices that might appeal more to someone wanting to create more elaborate designs. Also, of course, anybody could just use a drawing program and generate original badges that way. When I gave out a badge, I posted an announcement to the class CMS, which for us was Blackboard. I also made a special page within Blackboard where all badges were displayed. Students were welcome to copy them and past them to their class wiki sites or other online applications.

After students had been introduced to the badges and I had awarded some, I conducted an informal online poll using SurveyMonkey to ask about reactions. The participants were only students in my classes that were using the badges, and responses were anonymous. I was pleased with the overall results:

• The first question I asked was how students felt upon receiving a badge. One respondent said, “As a public school teacher, I receive a lot of negative feedback from my supervisors. Your failure rate is too high; you didn’t turn in a parent contact log, etc. You aren’t doing enough is all I hear. Even when I do something right it seems like no one notices. I must say when I received the class’ first badge, I actually jumped out of my chair and did a “woo-hoo” dance around the house. I told my husband and my children and they all cheered for me, much like the way I cheer them for their accomplishments. When I got that second badge, I felt proud of myself and it really made me feel like doing more things to earn more badges.”

• I also asked if the badges were motivators that encouraged students to work harder, and again got positive replies, such as “It’s very encouraging. I know when I receive any kind of recognition I feel proud and want to push harder.”

• Said another student, “I had never considered this as a reward system, but now I understand how I may consider developing my own physical badge system on a bulletin board to recognize student achievement. Thanks for the great idea!”

The survey also explored possible drawbacks to badging:

• In response to the question about how it felt for those who had yet to receive a badge, one reply was poignant, “I feel like that last kid picked for kickball.”

• On the other hand, a person not receiving a badge said, “It makes me want to do better on future assignments.”

When asked about additional concerns, several people mentioned the danger of awarding too many badges. This contribution is particularly apt: “Concerns: Issuing too many badges. If everyone in the class has a badge for the same thing, then it really isn’t an accolade. If a teacher wants to give everyone a badge, each badge should be distinct from everyone else. A badge should be used to recognized what sets you apart from the rest.”

Finally, I asked for additional comments about our class badging experience and again received favorable responses and also requests that I keep up with the badges through the semester and in the future. I also received some pertinent advice: “Make sure there’s a variety of qualities recognized so that students who don’t excel on traditional measures of excellence are still recognized for positive efforts, especially at the younger grades.” I agree that there should be badges attainable by all class or school participants.


Student comments and my own concerns caused me to think hard about the downside to using badges with students. Earlier I mentioned the philosophical concern. This emerges whenever a teacher uses extrinsic rewards of any kind. I believe a program that relies 100% on such rewards is not good practice. That is why I do not like computerized reading programs that assign points for books read after being tested on titles. Just as with these, using badging and nothing else to get desired results is relying too much on a simplistic carrot/stick approach to teaching. Badging should be just one tool in an educator’s toolkit for motivating students and recognizing success.

Another concern might be the negative effect on students who do not receive badges, and a couple of my own students reported feeling left out. One student said she worked in a school where awards other than perfect attendance and honor roll are not given because they foster negative feelings on the part of students left out. It is my opinion that badges tied to specific requirements are not awards per se, but rather documentation of goals achieved. Avoiding too much hype and not tying badges to grades seem to me to be antidotes for these concerns. Also, the path to earning a badge should be clear and attainable so that any motivated student could achieve it with sufficient effort.

Personally, I like badges for behavior management rather than academic achievement. On the other hand, students reminded me that overusing badges could render them useless. Badges should be reserved for reaching well-defined goals and exhibiting behaviors above and beyond the expected. Further reflection on student comments led me to conclude that the teacher, librarian, or other person in charge should strike a balance between giving too many of them and being too exclusive with the badges. They should only be bestowed for outstanding behaviors, but these behaviors should be well-defined and attainable by all motivated students. The student not receiving badges should understand that they are within reach with sufficient effort.

Whether or not you feel the time is right to give digital badges a try, I think it is a good time to be aware of this practice and the possibility that in the future this might be an interesting experience for you and your students. Just as with MOOCs, digital badging is in its fledgling phase, especially outside higher education. But many proponents emphatically state that it is a trend that will gain momentum in the near future. My purpose with this article is to offer readers information so that when they hear the term, they will not respond with, “I am clueless,” but rather will be able to say, “Oh yes! I was reading about that just the other day!”


Contact Mary Ann at

useful links:

Ash, Katie. ‘Digital Badges’ Would Represent Students’ Skill Acquisition. Education Week;


This page at the Khan Academy site describes its badges.

Carey, Kevin. A Future Full of Badges. Chronicle of Higher Education;

Incentivize Your Students With Badges:

This page from the Edmodo site describes its use of badges.

Official Badge Generator:

This is the site I used to make my badges. It is quick and easy.

Oxnevad, Susan. Cool Tools for 21st Century Learners, “Digital Literacy Badges”;

Susan has created “Beye Badges” for her students at Beye Elementary School in Oak Park, Ill.

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