I’ve never been much for rewards in classrooms. When I taught younger grades I might occasionally drop a sticker on a completed assignment, but I’ve never had a reward box or a reward economy or anything of the type in my classroom. I’ve always thought that learning is its own reward and as long as the content is interesting and personalized to the individual student, the majority of them would find it that way as well.
Which is why I’m wary of a move that we’ve made in the Idea Hive. – adding achievements to our community. This year Heather and I have a wordpress multi user set up combined with buddypress. The reason for this is that we wanted the kids to have access to things like groups and forums and built in wikis all in a single space. Heather and I spent long hours and many emails talking over this move and finally were convinced that this was a move we needed to make. Which is why I was disappointed when the students in our class weren’t taking advantage of all of the pieces. They blogged. We blogged. They left comments for each other. We left comments. But the message boards and forums remained largely quiet at the beginning of the school year. We wanted the Idea Hive to be a space that was a hybrid place, where kids felt comfortable working on academic topcis as well as less formal topics such as posting about their favourite sports teams and their hobbies outside of school. To us, this is what part of being a community is – accepting our kids as whole people who have lives and interests outside of our classrooms. We also wanted them to be free to talk about these things in a safe space, supervised by adults since research shows that the majority of parents have no idea what their children are up to when they are online. We felt giving our students spaces of all kinds was important.
So to generate some activity in these boards we focused on them in class. We talked about them with our students. We gave them class time to post their ideas and come up with new topics – and we added a wordpress plugin to the site that added achievements.
The plugin was simple to use and added a new tab simply called achievements to our community set up. It allowed us to add both awards (something that has to be granted to people by a site administrator) and unlockable achievements (something that is granted to people automatically after completing a certain amount of activity). We started with unlockable achievements. Awards were granted to students who posted X number of comments (the conversation award for 5 comments, the comment guru for 10), others for posting regularly in the forums and still others for posting updates.
Since then we’ve moved ahead, but this time with adding awards that students can nominate others for. We’ve added badges for people who are community builders, another for peer mentors, good communicators, code geeks and problem solvers. Students need to nominate others for these things. We thought it was another good way to build community and would promote the students paying attention to what was happening in our learning community.
The results? So far, the results have been very favourable. We’ve seen an increased amount of activity in the Hive. More people are posting, our hit numbers are up and kids are taking part – even on the weekends. Over the weekend of December 3rd and 4th for example, over 1000 people visited the Idea Hive site. While there is no way to tell how many of these are students compared to outside visitors, the activity on the site all comes from students.
But all of this makes me nervous. I’ve read my Alfie Kohn. I’m well aware of the dangers of motivating people using rewards as Seth Godin says. But on the other hand, I’m also aware of initiatives such as the Mozilla Badges program which is working to try to recognize experiences and skills gained in online courses and communities. I believe this ties into initiatives such as the Google Ninja Training Centre Jeff Utecht has running at the International School of Bangkok that is helping students there to gain a set of great skills. Kids taking part in our community are learning real skills that will serve them well as they move through life. Of that, I’m completely convinced.
So I’m interested to see if the numbers and activity remains high, or if they taper off. My hope is that the badges program is a way to motivate people to begin the habit of posting and taking part in the community and that once this habit is established, the need for the reward or badge won’t matter. So far it has been an interesting and worthwhile experiment. Some of our reluctant readers and writers are taking part more. Our participation by males is up quite substantially.
So for right now, we’ll watch and see what happens. That’s what teaching and learning are about. Trying out new things and seeing what we can do as teachers to help kids be their best.