Punished by Open Badges?

Punished by Rewards Book CoverWhy Open Badges Could Either Kill or Cure Learning?

As many Open Badges supporters, and self-appointed ambassadors, I had absolutely no reservation regarding Open Badges: I saw them as the natural development of the work I did on ePortfolios as a means to support, recognise and celebrate learning and achievements: I envisioned Open Badges as a means to create an open and distributed ePortfolio architecture.

I saw no evil in Open Badges. That is, until I learned about Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. As the book was written by Alfie Kohn in 1993, and revised in 1999, it does not address Open Badges. Yet, the book provides plenty of evidence from research eliciting the deleterious effects of extrinsic motivation on learning (and work), one of the most noxious legacies of B.F. Skinner, the psychologist described by Alfie Kohn as the one who “experimented with pigeons and wrote on people.”

This post is divided into 3 main parts:

  1. An exploration on the potential dangers of Open Badges practice (Open Badges as glorified gold stars) and infrastructure (asymmetry)
  2. An exploration of the potential benefits of Open Badges practice (Open Badges as distributed ePortfolios) and infrastructure (trust).
  3. What needs to be done ASAP[1] to minimise the risks and maximise the potential of Open Badges

One of the objectives of this post is to prepare the welcome of Alfie Kohn as keynote speaker at ePIC 2014. Shall Open Badges and ePortfolios pass the Alfie Kohn test? Whatever the results, his presence should contribute to raising key questions and possibly debunk some of the prejudices hidden in our practices.

In the Reference section of this post you will find some of the (very few) posts addressing the same issue as well as references to Alfie Kohn’s writings and public speaking.

Why Open Badges Could Kill the Desire to Learn?

The Problem with Open Badges as ‘Incentives’ to Learn

Lepper and his colleagues set about conducting an experiment to figure out what had been going on in those Head Start classrooms. They gave fifty-one preschoolers a chance to draw with Magic Markers—something that most children of that age find very appealing. Some of them, however, were told that if they drew pictures they would each receive a special, personalized certificate, decorated with a red ribbon and a gold star. Between a week and two weeks later, the children were observed in their classrooms. Those who had been told in advance of the certificate they would receive, Lepper discovered, now seemed to be less interested in drawing with Magic Markers than the other children were—and less interested than they themselves had been before the reward was offered. (Punished by Rewards p. 70)

This experiment is one of the many presented in Punished by Rewards describing how ‘incentives’ and ‘rewards’ have a negative impact on learning. The lessons learned from preschoolers apply across all ages and situations, including the world of work.

The legendary statistical consultant W. Edwards Deming, with his characteristic gift for understatement, has called the system by which merit is appraised and rewarded “the most powerful inhibitor to quality and productivity in the Western world.” He adds that it “nourishes short-term performance, annihilates long-term planning, builds fear, demolishes teamwork, nourishes rivalry and … leaves people bitter.” To this we can add that it is simply unfair to the extent that employees are held responsible for what are, in reality, systemic factors that are beyond their control. (ibid p. 129)

Why would anyone expect that replacing “a special, personalized certificate, decorated with a red ribbon and a gold star” with an Open Badge bring any different results? Yet, there are many initiatives where Open Badges are not that different from glorified gold stars

The crux of the problem is that, from politicians to educators, many believe in the value of control through extrinsic rewards and incentives: if it works with pets, it should also work with humans! Probably the right thing to do, if the objective is subservience and conformity, less if it is to encourage innovation and authentic democracy.

More realistically, we must acknowledge that because pop behaviorism is fundamentally a means of controlling people, it is by its nature inimical to democracy, critical questioning, and the free exchange of ideas among equal participants. Rewarding people for making changes in the existing order (which might include the very order that allows some individuals to be controllers and others controlled) is not merely unlikely but a contradiction in terms. “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” as one writer put it. (ibid. p. 30)

The Problem with Extrinsic Incentives

There are a number of problems associated with the use of extrinsic incentives, whether they are physical or digital, verbal (praise) or monetary, delivered at schools, home or work. What are they?

One of the main problems with extrinsic incentives is that they are based on a view of mankind akin to pets —which should not come as a surprise for a theory built primarily on the observation of pigeons and rats! The function of rewards and incentives is to control the behaviour of the person it is offered to. Incentive systems are inherently asymmetrical (which a very unfortunate characteristic of the current state of the Open Badge Infrastructure…): there is the incentive (resp. badge) provider and the incentive (resp. badge) receiver. What is expected from the receiver is subservience, conformity to externally-defined standards, like the need to keep silent in class and do as your peers.

Some believe that the use of rewards in schools is a necessary preparation for the world of work. Unfortunately for the proponents of reward schemes, there are numerous examples of businesses displaying an inverse correlation between the use of incentive plans and profitability. And there is a very good reason for that: successful businesses rely on empowered employees, ready to take responsibility for their own actions and that of their colleagues, willing to take risks and contribute to innovation.

There is less inclination to take risks or explore possibilities, which helps explain why creativity declines when people are driven by rewards. Thus, as Philip Slater observes, “getting people to chase money … produces nothing except people chasing money. Using money as a motivator leads to a progressive degradation in the quality of everything produced.” (ibid. p. 139)

Another interesting point to observe in incentives-run systems (most schools, universities and businesses) is that they are based on distrust: schools do not trust that pupils really want to learn or are able to manage their own learning, or that their own interest will lead anywhere useful, hence the need for rewards to ‘guide’ their learning path. This type of ‘guidance’ is now often embedded in Learning Management Systems (which should be called Teaching Management Systems or even Teaching Control Systems), some of them now equipped with automatic delivery of Open Badges.

Eventually, the individualistic nature of most incentives-run systems (pretend to) ignore that success and failures are systemic. Learning is individual and social. Schools are learning communities composed of people with many different abilities and talents that are not there just to consume knowledge to spit it out on command, but to create meaning and practice democracy (not just learn about it).

Here are some of the messages underpinned by award/incentive systems:
  • Control / power asymmetry: sit, quietly, do as you are being told and you will get a reward (expect increased salivation).
  • Learning: here are the facts and rules you have to learn for the exam/test/award (expect vacant gaze).
  • Innovation: do not try to learn anything beyond or outside of the programme, this could create confusion and might embarrass your teacher (expect head nod).
  • Risks: do not take risks, you might fail, so you won’t get your reward (expect a wagging tail; if the tail doesn’t move, then it is possibly a human being you are facing).
While the argument for using reward systems in education to prepare for the world of work is clearly a fraud, what could be a possible justification for using rewards to learn and practice democracy? The frontier between rewards and bribes is very thin; the main difference resides in who is trying to control you.

We have to conclude that the use of incentives and rewards, which is equivalent to treating children and adults as pets, is not just morally corrupt, but stupid and inefficient in the long run.

The main problem with the current Open Badge Infrastructure (OBI): Asymmetry

As much as I like OBI (c.f. below) I have to recognised that it suffers from a serious birth defect: asymmetry. This asymmetry matches and reproduces the asymmetry of institutional power. Different functions, issuing and receiving Open Badges, have been reified into different pieces of software running in different spaces (institutional / personal) used by different roles (teacher / learner) — despite some alternative initiatives, the vast majority of Open Badge issuers are teachers or representatives of institutions.

From an IT design perspective, there is no imperious reason for splitting functions into different applications — badger and backpack. Would it make sense to have a mail application to write emails, another one to store emails and yet another one to read them? Yet this is what we have with the current version of OBI.

These words are not to be taken as a criticism of the tremendous efforts done by the Mozilla development team. Mozilla has made Open Badges possible. Without this team and the larger community, there would be no baby and no opportunity to ponder about a birth defect. What I hope is that the community will contribute and/or provide Mozilla with the means to address the technical challenges (and the even greater opportunities!) emerging from the very existence of Open Badges.

There are a number of other issues, such as OBorrhea (the continuous flow of Open Badge delivery for the most minute events, like visiting a web page or answering a quiz) that could lead to OBesity (too many badges to display in a meaningful way), then OBfuscation (rendering the badge system unintelligible). The merging of xAPI (that I define as picture-less badges) and Open badges could be an elegant solution to address these issues.

How Open Badges Could Contribute to Learning?

After addressing some of the potential risks and shortcomings of Open Badges and the Open Badge Infrastructure, it is now time to explore how Open Badges can have a life of their own, beyond rewards, incentives and glorified gold stars.

Open Trust Environment

Looking at Open Badges as statements of trust might be the opportunity to escape from the risks associated with rewards.

One of the most interesting and undervalued features of the Open Badge Infrastructure is trust[2]: I have commented before that there is a risk for the Open Badges’ pretty pictures to become what the proverbial tree is to the forest of trust. I’ve also written that OBI is a native trust infrastructure, while most of the so-called trust architectures would be better described as distrust architectures (in a native trust environment, trust is by default, while distrust is generated by experience; in a distrust environment distrust is by default while trust is generated by experience).

What is the information (metadata) contained in an Open Badge? I (badge issuer) trust you (badge receiver) to do this (criteria) based on that (evidence). The picture is simply a means to wrap the metadata into a pretty package.

Looking at Open Badges as trust statements is more than re-branding, or sugar-coating. It is a means to put badge holders into full control of their trust network, such networks being intertwined with trust networks of peers, teachers, mentors, colleagues, etc. This means that there is no more formal distinction between badge issuers and badge receivers: we are a network of trust relationships. I can seek the trust of other people without having to wait for the pre-existence of a Badge. I can define my own statements and ask other members of the network (people and organisations) to issue that trust statement. I am not limited to my institution, school, university or work place. The graphical representation of this network of trust does not need pretty pictures anymore (there would be so many that they it would simply be impossible to display them), but a dynamic display based on the connections with others, trust givers and trust receivers, i.e. people. This would be something entirely different from the “pat my back, I’ll pat yours” encouraged by Linkedin’s endorsements.

It is already happening in some of the most advanced Open Badges initiatives, like the Volunteer Centre Blackpool, where members of the community are invited to define their own badges that are then recognised by the community.

Of course, to empower everybody to build his or her own network of trust, something needs to be done: minor plastic surgery to correct OBI’s asymmetry birth defect.

Open Competency Map

One of the main differences between Open Badges and gold stars are the links to the criteria and the evidence matching those criteria. Used as rewards, Open Badges could be defined as informed gold stars. What I am interested in is to explore how to use the Open Badge Infrastructure to capture, organise and curate the information generated during the design and exploitation of Open Badges, so that they are more than informed gold stars.

One of the problems with the current implementation of OBI is that it leads towards the fragmentation of information relative to badges: every badge designer creates his/her own criteria that are generally stored on the server where the badge issuer’s software is located. There is no provision to find existing criteria or to share new criteria. This would require integration in the OBI of criteria registries, so that when a badge is designed the badger software could present existing criteria, and when new criteria are generated or old ones updated, the information is stored in the registry — rather than a central registry, a federation of distributed registries.

Open Badges would then provide a means to producing bottom-up competency maps, just like open geographical information systems. But moreover, such an approach would reverse the dialectic between Badges and Competency standards: Badges would not simply have to be aligned against pre-existing standards, but standards would be informed by Open Badges in a process of knowledge co-construction. Possibly an opportunity to transform tacit into explicit knowledge.

From assimilation of Open Badges to accommodation to Open Badges

To use Jean Piaget’s learning theory metaphorically, we can define two main modalities for the integration of novelty: assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation of novelty keeps the system in a stable state; changes are quantitative. Accommodation to novelty modifies the point of equilibrium of the system; changes are qualitative. Accommodation is about transformation. Of course, quantitative changes can lead to qualitative changes (the increase of unemployment rates and tax evasion could create the conditions for some serious qualitative changes…)

The first stage of Open Badges development was probably dominated by assimilation: new technologies are used to support existing processes, like the recognition of learning. While the intention of the Open badges initiators was to provide a means to recognise informal learning, Open Badges are now used to recognise informal as well as formal learning. Open Badges have increased the opportunities for learning recognition. Yet, schools and universities are rapidly assimilating this new technology into their traditional settings to deliver digital gold stars and digital grades.

Yet, Open Badges have much more to offer than improving or enhancing what we are used to. They can provide the means to transform how learning is recognised and organised, moving the locus of power from the institution to the individual and the community. This will not happen by itself. Open Badges are no magic wand or lamp. It will take time and effort to unweave the threads of rewards and incentives smothering innovation and free will (hence the urgency to end OBI’s asymmetry!).

Conclusion (temporary)

When reflecting on the possible means to avoid the adversarial effects of Open Badges, I considered creating the Punished by Rewards Badge. There would be a Bronze (read it) Silver (reflected on it) Gold (acted on it) and Platinum (wrote it). In doing so, I am afraid that it would probably not be the best way to pass the Alfie Kohn’s test, that is, if such a test existed!

Moving from Open Badges to Open Trust, I might ask Alfie Kohn to endorse a statement on how far I am on the journey. To make it easier for both of us, I would ask the Open badges community to put an end to OBI’s asymmetry.

About this post

The origin of this post goes back to October 20th 2003, during the Open Badges research call (link). At one point of the discussion, Damian Ewens (@damianewens from Achievery) asked: what would Alfie Kohn say? Having no idea of who Alfie Kohn was, my next move was to google “Alfie Kohn” and check why Damian Ewens would be interested in Alfie Kohn’s views on Open Badges.

It is how I discovered that Alfie Kohn is the author of Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. As a Kindle version was available, I immediately got it on my computer.

I simultaneously searched for writings on Open Badges with references to either Alfie Kohn or Punished by Rewards:

  • “open badges” “Punished by Rewards”: 21 entries (when omitting some very similar entries)
  • “open badges” “Alfie Kohn”: 54 entries (when omitting some very similar entries)

This is not bad, considering that a search on “open badges” + Mozilla generates 253 entries (when omitting some very similar entries, i.e. the figure provided when clicking on the last page results, not the figure displayed on the first page)

Those entries could be classified into 2 broad categories:

  • Authors aware of the research presented in Punished by Rewards and willing to explore the consequences; they range from Open Badge sceptics, to Open Badge evangelists with all shades of grey in between.
  • Commentators of articles written by authors possibly unaware of the research and inviting them to take it into consideration.


Here are some of the writings by authors aware of the research:

  • Should We Resist The Coming Badgepocalpse? by J. Nathan Matias (August 2011 link)
  • No, I’ve not had a good Xmas … and it’s John McLear’s fault! by Ian Guest (December 2011 link)
  • Still a Badge Skeptic, by Mitchel Resnick (February 2012 link)
  • I Don’t Get Digital Badges, by Jackie Gerstein (March 2013 link)
  • Open Badges: may cause side effects… by Cliff Manning (April 2013, link)
  • Keeping Up With… Digital Badges for Instruction, by Nicole Pagowsky (link)
  • On Badges and Rewards: Gut Reactions and Real Life Connections, by Stephanie Chan (November 2013 link).

You would like to know more about/from Alfie Kohn before buying his book?


[1] As Soon As Possible

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