Boosting Intrinsic Motivation with... Extrinsic Motivation?

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The Educational Challenge

"If we teach today’s students, like we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow,” said John Dewey, the American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer whose ideas have been influential in education and social reform. Today’s education landscape, driven by high stakes assessment and school performance, has lost sight of the genuine purpose of education in my opinion. Jeanie Fulbright said it best in this quote, “If the purpose of learning is to score well on a test, we’ve lost sight of the real reason for learning.” In an attempt to bring back student learning for the sake of learning in education, effective and meaningful technology integration can create an environment of autonomy, relatedness and connectedness through digital badges for learning.


'Parse' the Educational Technology

Digital badges are a representation of skills that a person has earned over time. These are skills that one would not typically put on a resume or college application but still are considered valuable in today’s digitally inspired world. Currently there are many opportunities for earning badges on a variety of educational websites like Khan Academy, Edmodo, etc. Museums, aquariums and other institutions with an interest in educating students are also exploring how to utilize digital badges to increase engagement and self-directed learning.

The concept of badges works by presenting a student with a set of tasks or challenges to complete. Some of them can be done online using digital creation tools or by visiting and interacting with digital content. Other tasks are done offline and the evidence of understanding is submitted by taking pictures and writing about the task completed online. For example, a student may create a sun dial and track the time on a chart using paper and pencil. Then they will document the experience with pictures, video or blog posts.

Once the student or participant has completed a series of challenges or fulfilled the criteria set forth by the badge issuing entity, they are reward for their accomplishments by receiving a digital badge. These badges can then be displayed on a “digital dashboard,” shared on social media platforms, or embedded into websites or blogs.

The Underlying Learning Theory

Digital Badges in education work much in the same way as merit badges typically found in boy or girl scouts organizations. Each badge represents a skill the scout has earned or is interested in. The theory is based on the idea that goal of earning a badge based on their interest will trigger increased motivation for the learner who wants to be recognized for the accomplishment.

I would argue that a badge ecosystem creates the environment needed for a person to self-initiate behavior or boost intrinsic motivation according to Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan, the co-developers of Self-Determination Theory (SDT). The three main aspects include autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Interestingly, digital badges, typically known as extrinsic motivation, actually cultivate the necessary components for boosting intrinsic motivation.

Digital badges give the student autonomy to choose what they want to learn about, how they want to learn about it, and at a pace that is suitable to that students individual needs. They also help students to realize the relevancy of what they are learning because the challenges set forth are typically structured around real world or authentic activities. Finally, digital badges making learning social and help students feel connected. All of the students who earn a particular badge can easily find others who have earned the same badge and they are now linked with students who share a common interest.

Critical Reflection

There is certainly a lot of potential applications for digital badges in education and beyond. They can match the content and skills with the right student on the right path, pace and ability. This is a greatly needed shift in our education system that does very little to help students find their passion and place in the world. However, if the “curriculum” that the badges are built around is not rigorous and the challenges are simply something a student can check of a list, then the badges carry little value.

Conclusions and Recommendations

As more and more technology is integrated into our classrooms, I hope that school leaders take a strategic and calculated approach and consider how digital badges can be utilized to boost intrinsic motivation in students so that they begin learning for the sake of learning and not because they have to take a test. Our goal as teachers should not focus on students answering every question, but questioning every answer. Furthermore, student engagement stems from learning based on curiosity and interest. Technology enables us to make education student centric and inquiry based. However, without sound pedagogical practices that transform the traditional model of education, we’re simply cramming technology into out outdated model and technology will not have a significant impact in the classroom.

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