Shiny Things

Shiny Things, by Stephanie Jones, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0,

The Week 3 readings were from Chapters 4, 5, and 6 of Dirksen (2012). In these chapters, Dirksen addressed the nature of memory, gaining and keeping attention, and designing for knowledge. There was a lot that could be discussed, but I’m behind the pace with my posts. As a result, I’m going to focus on attention, the subject of Chapter 5. Or, more metaphorically, how to attract elephants with shiny things.

First, what is this metaphor about elephants? Dirksen (2012) draws the metaphor from Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Happiness Hypothesis. This is the picture:

Elephant & Rider

(Dirksen, 2012)

Learning designers must understand that learners need to be engaged at both the cognitive and visceral levels. Dirksen (2012) puts emphasis on the unconscious because “the elephant is bigger and stronger.” She points out that getting the rider and the elephant (cognitive and visceral) working together makes learning less strenuous.

So how do you get the attention of an elephant? One option is to use shiny things. Dirksen (2012) identifies several kinds, including visuals, tactile activities, humour, and rewards. For each of them (except tactile activities), Dirksen (2012) gives a warning about their misuse. Perhaps most succinctly, there can be an adverse effect on learning when the attention-getting strategy does not align with the learning objectives and the subject (Dirksen, 2012).

This result should not be surprising. Behavioural economists, like Dan Ariely, have investigated motivation and concluded that extrinsic rewards often function to demotivate desired behaviour (Ariely, Kamenica, & Prelec, 2008). His well-known Lego experiment is one example. Church leaders have experienced the diminishing returns of “what you win them with, you win them to” (Wilson, 2007). Pastor A.W. Tozer is rumoured to have said that you win converts with potato salad, you had better make a lot of it. This highlights the peril of getting attention with shiny things. The strategy is depends heavily on the novelty effect.

Even competition, a significant cultural value in individualistic societies, can backfire. Dirksen (2012) suggests that competition works as an attention-getting strategy; however, using competition as a primary motivator will result in less interest and less learning. She suggests that a better strategy is to use social proof and collaboration to get the elephant’s attention.
That brings me back to digital badges. I wonder if some of the best uses of badges will be to serve as social proof and to promote collaboration. Exploring the social proof nudge factor of badges in education seems intriguing; however, I am not aware of any research that seeks to apply the concept of nudging to education. (The Freakonomics authors and podcasters, Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, explore nudging in government in both the U.K. and the U.S.).

Often the focus of digital badging initiatives seems to be focused on personal achievement. The ability to collaborate is one of the essential learning skills in this generation (Prensky, 2010; Tapscott, 2009), although social constructivism posits that it has always been essential (Dron & Anderson, 2014). In what ways can badges recognize learner collaboration? Contributing to a resource repository, working in a learning group, reviewing the learning designs of peers were used in a MOOC (Cross, Whitelock, & Galley, 2014). I would if badges that recognize other collaborative behaviour would have the desired effect. Perhaps a badge that recognizes blog comments would result in more interaction. Maybe a badge awarded only to learners who work together on an assignment would encourage more collaboration. Maybe the shiny things can attract the elephant to outcomes that align with our stated values.

This post is the sixth in a series (firstsecondthirdfourth, fifth) for this semester’s course, “Digital Tech in Adult Ed,” with Dr. Rob Power at UOIT.

Week 3 Readings

Dirksen, J. (2012). Design for How People Learn (Voices that Matter). Berkeley, CA: New Riders, Kindle edition.


Ariely, D., Kamenica, E., & Prelec, D. (2008). Man’s search for meaning: The case of Legos. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 67(3), 671–677.

Cross, Simon; Whitelock, Denise and Galley, Rebecca (2014). The use, role and reception of open badges as a method for formative and summative reward in two Massive Open Online Courses. International Journal of e-Assessment, 4(1).

Dron, J. & Anderson, T. (2014). Social learning theories. In Teaching crowds: Learning and social media (pp. 35-70). Edmonton: AU Press.

Prensky, M. (2010). Partnering. In Teaching digital natives: partnering for real learning (pp. 9–29). Thousand Oaks, Calif: Corwin.

Tapscott, D. (2009). The eight Net Gen norms. In Grown up digital: how the net generation is changing your world (pp. 75–96). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Wilson, J. (2007, October 5). What you win them with is what you win them to [Blog]. Retrieved June 7, 2017, from

Further Reading

Willis III, J. E., Flintoff, K., & McGraw, B. (2016). A Philosophy of Open Digital Badges. In Foundation of digital badges and micro-credentials (pp. 23–40). Springer.


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