“A Badge Won’t Make Me Care.”

Throughout conversations around the nascent Open Badges concept, one crucial question has been echoed frequently:

“Aren’t badges just another gold star?”

At the recent Learning Pathways summit, two students gave some powerful feedback: “We don’t need a silly badge to tell us we learned something. We want to learn because we are interested, not because of some fake reward.” If a student told me “A Badge won’t make me care!” I would respond “Excellent!” A badge should not make you care; if it does, you might be caring about the wrong thing. The student’s response gets to the heart of the issue. If the ultimate goal of education is to create the self-driven learner, then the artificial motivation of badges is potentially problematic. How do we reconcile the concept of digital badges with authentic motivation as described here by Antoine de Saint Exupery?:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

Or, as Calvin says:

You can present the material, but you can’t make me care.

Calvin’s comment may seem obnoxious, but it is profound and simple: we cannot make someone care. Caring requires an intrinsic motivation that comes from agency, not instruction. There is a careful distinction that must be made when designing and issuing badges: a badge is not a goal in itself, but a representation of what we have learned. This needs to be held out in front of every badge design process.

The badge is neither a means nor an end. Let us not use badges as a tool for motivation, but as a tool for way-finding and archiving. They may look pretty, but their real power lies in their ability to visualize opportunities and capture learning. Badges should not make us care, but they can help us see what to care for and hold on to it for the future. While badges are motivating to some people, that should not be our motivation for creating them; motivational trinkets have been around for a long time; badges have been around for a long time. In our pursuit of digital and open badges we must focus on what is unique. What new capacity do digital badges give us? If we are just creating badges as gold stars, we are doing it wrong.

Skill tree for the MMORPG Path of Exile. In games we require these visuals to help us “know” we have gained sword-fighting abilities and to plan our characters as we level up.


Badges are the right tool to organize possible learning goals and find our way from opportunity to opportunity. The world of learning is a diverse network of opportunities. Badges help us track our progress through the points along the network and decide our next steps. We need something like badges to make personalized learning pathways commonplace for students. These pathways happen all the time without badges, but the intentionality of badges helps to increase the access to these pathways and improve their quality and breadth. Badges help us to be intentional about our learning by marking and mapping everything we can learn. If a city-wide badge system were to mature, learners could use it to visualize their possible futures as a learner. As in so many games, this kind of visualization lets us see how our experiences have equipped us for future opportunities and who we are becoming as a result.

Imagine each of these nodes as badges within a learning archive; imagine that the colored clusters are different skill areas, and the lines represent relationships or pathways between badges.


Badges are the right tool to capture our accomplishments into a lifelong portfolio that includes proof-of-work, data, multimedia evidence, and a scope and sequence of accomplishments. Badges offer a new level of detail that goes beyond grades and majors to capture the nuance of a learner’s work. Imagine something like the image above, or these personal “annual reports” to help us understand the development or our minds and abilities.

The archives provided by badges have both personal and public use. Badges enable learners to track the details of their learning over time and let them share a rich portfolio of endorsed experiences with potential employers.

More than a simple portfolio, a layer of badges gives that portfolio the data it needs to be sorted, understood and viewed quickly, both by humans and machines. A portfolio with badges is a portfolio that is both qualitative and quantitatively detailed. The learner can present their work in two ways: “Here is the website that I built” and “I am a CSS expert”. A badge provides proof of that expertise from a trusted third-party. That proof is supported by evidence from their portfolio: a link to the website they built and its documentation.

What do I do?

Badges are a tool for communication and data. They help us to create learning pathways that span digital and local environments and employ the entire city as the campus. Learning pathways are crucial to the future of education: they enable students to pursue learning that is driven by their interests, not limited by their access to resources. If you want to help make Badges and Pathways a reality—and to ensure that Badges are not just another gold star—get involved on the international level with the Badge Alliance working groups, or on a local level with the Pittsburgh City of Learning working groups.