I joined the Open Badges movement early. I’d just spent 27 years in formal education and, as a teacher, had seen the Procrustean manner in which it operates. It was clear that something different was needed, something more responsive to the needs of learners.
Over the past six years, at Mozilla and afterwards, I’ve watched individuals and organisations attempt to variously: derail the Open Badges movement; extend and extinguish it; and entrench the status quo. Some of this has been deliberate, and sometimes because people literally don’t know any better.
I’ve spent time, both in my work on digital literacies and Open Badges, explaining the importance and power of local context. With the latter, we’ve got a powerful standard that allows local colour and relevance to be understood globally. And yet. People want to pick things off the shelf. They want to be told what to do. They want a recognised brand or name on it — even if they know that doing this means a less than perfect fit for learners.
In a seminal article about information literacy in the wake of the Trump election victory, Rolin Moe bemoans the way we act like sheep:
So rather than develop localized standards, with librarians and instructors working in collaboration with those seeking information, developing together shared social standards for knowledge in their community, colleges and libraries have ceded control to content publishers, who impose their hierarchical understanding of information on passive consumers, leaving institutions to only exhibit and protect the information.
Likewise, with credentialing, we’ve got a situation where even though the tools to do something radically different are available, people seem content to do as they’re told, going cap in hand to the existing powers that be. It reminds me of the early days of the Internet, when many of us were telling anyone who’d listen to us about an amazing digital network where you could publish things which were then accessible by anyone in the world. Cue stunned silence, dismissal, and inaction.
That’s not to ignore, of course, the millions of badges that have been issued by tens of thousands of people and organisations. That’s great. But what frustrates me from where I sit in Europe is our continued kowtowing to existing brands and the highly-credentialed. I actively want something better than what we’ve got now. Reinforcing that through badges doesn’t help with that.
Bizarrely, given our general rejection in the post-war era of the church and the state, what we’ve got is an unhealthy reliance on educational institutions and awarding bodies.
By and large the institutions remained fundamentally elitist, and the capacity to validate social knowledge continued through the hands of the established order… Open access to these institutions served merely to coordinate mass consumption of already certified objects, presented in what Oliver Gaycken calls a “decontextualized curiosity,” where learners are treated as users meant to view information items from an established list without understanding why or how any of it relates to the projects of building knowledge in a given discipline.” (Moe, ibid., my emphasis)
If we have a landscape full of ‘alternative credentials’ provided by the incumbents, then, I’m sad to say, this may all have been for naught. For me, Open Badges is a movement that goes beyond digitising your degree.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that formal educational institutions are adopting badges. However, apart from the Open University and perhaps Deakin University (who span out a new business), I haven’t seen any real innovation in digital credentialing from within the system. But then, of course, institutions aren’t incentivised to do anything else but capture a larger slice of the status quo pie:
Schools and libraries are not conduits of a knowledge society, but appendages of a knowledge economy. Instead of teaching students critical thinking, they have stoked decontextualized curiosity. Rather than develop students’ wisdom and character, they have focused on making their students’ market value measurable through standardized testing.
Why, in a world that (for better or worse) is atomised and individualised, do we have standardised testing? It’s a bizarre way to worship the false god of meritocracy.
I’m not for ‘disruption innovation’ for its own sake, but I do think we need to re-capture the decentralising and democratising power of Open Badges. If you’re reading this and from an organisation (however small!) that wants to recognise and promote particular knowledge, skills, and behaviours in the world, then why not grab the bull by the horns? What are you waiting for? Do you really need ‘permission’ from those doing well out of the current world order?
At the start of the year, I started curating the bi-weekly Badge News on behalf of We Are Open Co-op. I’d assumed that I must have been missing all of the blog posts and discussions from educators about ways they were thinking about alternative credentialing. However, in the research and curation I’ve been doing for this new weekly newsletter, most articles I come across are from vendors.
Back in 2004, during my first year of teaching, I presented on how Bittorrent and decentralised technologies were going to change the way that educators collaborate and share resources. Instead, we waited until shiny silos came along, places where our attention is monetised. I hope we’re not making the same mistake again with credentialing.
I’m going to keep plugging away. I’ve always said this was a 10-year project, so I’m going to keep encouraging and enabling people until at least 2021. If you’re up for the challenge, please do get in touch. Local ecosystems of value are hard, but hugely rewarding, to create. Let’s roll our sleeves up and get to work.
Image CC BY-NC-ND Okay Yaramanoglu