The Youtopian Ideal: Using Badges to Transform Learning

Posted on May 14, 2013

Check in on Foursquare, get a badge. Complete your Civil War essay, get a badge? Is this real? With edtech startup Youtopia, it's already happening. And it's building student engagement and interest in a tech-savvy, fun to use way.

The Power of Student Engagement

When students participate in activities at school, they build a sense of belonging. By being active, they're building both knowledge and relationships, but it's not enough. Students don't just need to belong and participate; they need to be engaged and invested in learning.

Student engagement happens when learners emotionally invest in their studies. Instead of going through the motions for grades, they're motivated to learn because they truly want to do so. Motivated, engaged students are excited about what education has to offer, and students who are positively engaged in learning are more likely to be successful. Higher student engagement is linked to higher grades and re-enrollment, making it an essential resource for learning.

Despite the importance of student engagement in education — especially higher education, where students are more likely to drop out — it's tough to maintain. A 2012 Gallup poll of K-12 students indicates that student engagement declines over time and hits a low in high school, with only four out of 10 students engaged.

Professors are pushing back against this decline by bringing in new tools including Twitter backchannels and mobile apps that can be used in the classroom to increase participation and motivation. They're even using adaptive learning systems to give students valuable real-time educational feedback.

But it's Youtopia, an educational startup that supports classroom management and student engagement, that's taken an interesting approach to mixing learning and game-playing. The app/service offers valuable tools for student engagement, bringing gamification to learning in a way that motivates learners to do their best, and it's growing in K-12 and higher education.

Rewards for Any Activity

Youtopia's tools allow professors to set goals and track any student activity, from completing a multi-part assignment to just getting to their seats on time. As they work toward goals, students are rewarded with badges to signify their achievements. This "allows teachers to plug in and gamify their course's rubric," according to Youtopia cofounder Simeon Schnapper.

Professors using Youtopia build a set of activities for students to perform, and students are awarded for completing activities with points and badges that acknowledge their hard work. "As students complete activities, they earn points on their path to mastery," explains Schnapper. Activities can be tracked using any type of metric, including hours of volunteering, pages read, or problems solved, encouraging students to see their progress and keep going, even when faced with long-term goals.

Youtopia also encourages collaboration with group goals and badges. For one project, the A/V Storytellers, students have the opportunity to earn a Collaborator badge by achieving tasks like creating a supportive environment, maximizing group performance, and showing respect for others. Instructors confirm these achievements and award points.

Motivation Beyond Grades

Class participation in Youtopia's system is completely transparent, spurring motivation and encouraging participation. Students can not only see what their classmates have done, but also find out where they rank among their peers. This, Schnapper says, "naturally spurs them to work harder with a little dose of healthy competition." Students can even share their badges with social media integration.

Youtopia supports a system of positive feedback for students, which motivates and encourages students to continue doing a great job. Feedback is most effective when delivered to an individual quickly and in reference to a specific action or behavior. By awarding badges or providing instructor comments on individual activities, professors can share positive feedback that resonates with students. And in Youtopia's system, the task of remembering to support each student with feedback is streamlined with management reports.

Trading Grades for Badges

Why badges? They just work. They're a staple of social networking and gaming, and even in more serious settings like scouting or the military. They represent achievement, rather than winning or losing. And they encourage students to develop competencies in very specific measures.

Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan believes in the potential of badges: "Badges can help engage students in learning, and broaden the avenues for learners of all ages to acquire and demonstrate — as well as document and display — their skills. Badges can help speed the shift from credentials that simply measure seat time, to ones that more accurately measure competency. We must accelerate that transition. And, badges can help account for formal and informal learning in a variety of settings."

With badges like the ones earned through Youtopia, students can earn recognition for, and show off, what they've done. What students learn in school may not have a clear connection to what they'll do after graduation. But with badges, students can highlight their skills in a way that colleges and employers can understand.

Student Engagement in Action

Service learning is a great resource for building student engagement. With service learning opportunities, students are able to challenge themselves as they apply their education to real-life situations and see how their schoolwork is significant and valuable to others. Youtopia's system is designed to encourage these learning projects, giving students positive reinforcement and encouragement every step of the way.

Youtopia shared an example of Mr. Johnson, the head of service learning and an English Teacher at a prominent charter school in Chicago, who is using Youtopia to track service-learning curriculum. In Johnson's class, students are able to see real-time results and find out where they are on the pathway to completion in their service projects, and they can reflect on their experience with reports on what was meaningful to them. This gives students a chance to connect their learning projects to real life, not just in achievement, but in what their coursework has done for them personally.

Badges can be used to support positive learning practices as well. Ms. Hart, a Connecticut high school history teacher, uses Youtopia to reinforce essay research and writing tasks. In Youtopia, Hart maps out the steps required to write a research paper with badges for technical and experiential skills. A student who turns in all of their drafts, complete with bibliography and proper citations, gets points for each individual accomplishment as well as a badge for the overall project.

Student accomplishments can also be exported in a Youtopia Resume that highlights statistics like service hours, dollars raised, and activities and badges they've earned. This resume can be used to supplement college applications, and even find a place in noncognitive measurement that place value not just grades and numbers, but achievements and perseverance.

Tips for Using Badges in the Classroom

Experts see a future full of badges in higher education. What can you do to make them a part of your courses?

  • Award badges for positive actions, no matter how small. Badges can be awarded for showing completion of tasks, mastery of skills, or even just showing up to class. Professor Rey Junco suggests that teachers can encourage lecture engagement by awarding badges to students for class time check-ins with challenge questions. Other small badge ideas: those for posting on Twitter, commenting on the course blog, or offering peer review.
  • Scaffold learning with badges. Guide students through the steps of learning by allowing them to earn badges as they go along.
  • Encourage soft skills.: Achievement of 21st century skills like collaboration and problem-solving are difficult to quantify with a letter grade. With badges, you can show students what mastery of these skills should look like, and reward them when they've achieved levels of proficiency.
  • Make badges an incentive for letter grades. While badges haven't replaced grades just yet, they can be used in conjunction with the traditional grading scale. In professor Alex Halavais's courses, students earn letter grades by collecting an equivalent number of badges.
  • Search for badges within your field. Badges from Disney-Pixar, NASA, NOAA, and YALSA are available, and there are plenty more where they came from: Mozilla's Open Badges project supports 30 different badges so far. In addition to classroom-created badges, badges in this project can be added to a student's digital resume.
  • Keep it positive. Badges are inherently positive. They're fun, even cute, and they point out what a student has accomplished. Alternatively, grades (and especially low grades) can be negative, highlighting what a student has not been able to achieve. Maintain badges as a positive force, using them to reward students for commendable educational activities.

Achievements Unlocked

Badges, motivation, and engagement are all great, but do they work? Youtopia's clients believe so. "We've gotten positive feedback from teachers across the country telling us that their students are more focused and engaged when they know their positive actions are being observed and acknowledged," says Schnapper. "We're looking to connect with that same community in higher education to see how Youtopia can optimize how teachers and students teach and learn in the university setting."

Tools like Youtopia represent the next generation in student assessment, engagement, and growth. Students thrive on feedback and competition, this app greatly encourages that. And now, when students earn a Foursquare badge for checking out that new Indian place around the corner, they can earn a classroom badge for cultural diversity, too.