Calling out Pearson on Open Badges

Open Badges is a web-native credentialing system. It was incubated by Mozilla and I served on the founding badges team. Since then, stewardship of the project has been given to a spin-out non-profit called the Badge Alliance. I’m currently consulting on areas including Open Badges, meaning that, all told, I’ve been involved in the community for nearly five years.


You can find out more about Open Badges and how they differ from other digital credentials via the OB101 course.


There are some big players in the Open Badges space. One of them is Pearson, which you may find surprising. After all, why would an organisation best known for its rapacious business practices (and who some see as standing for everything currently wrong in education) get into the open credentials game?

The answer, of course, is to commodify it. They’ve taken a leaf from Microsoft’s old playbook: Embrace, Extend, and Extinguish. Pearson even have a page on their site explaining how they’re using different terminology just to spread FUD.

Pearson’s badging platform is called Acclaim. They have some big-name partners such as IBM and Citrix. Today, I noticed via the #openbadges hashtag on Twitter that they were singing the praises of the Open Badges ecosystem while pimping their own platform.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with that. Acclaim is technically compatible with the Open Badges Infrastructure (OBI). However, it’s entirely pointless that the badges they issue are Open Badges as users cannot export them from the system elsewhere. Given that Open Badges are portable digital credentials this kind of misses the point.

It’s true that Pearson have engaged with the community on this issue, but their justification seems spurious:

Real-time verification is essential for the clients we work with who are invested in building trust networks with their badge earners and other issuers. We fully expect the market to mature such that services like Mozilla will address this, but until then, we are not offering export / integration.

This is exactly the kind of response you would have found Microsoft giving 15 years ago when attempting to embrace, extend, and extinguish open document formats.

Growing sick of seeing Pearson’s disingenuous tweeting on the #openbadges hashtag, I challenged them today:

They held the line:

https://twitter.com/YourAcclaim/status/697785850273206273

Note that they don’t care about the spirit of the community or the ethos behind Open Badges, just the cold, hard code. As far as they’re concerned, they’re technically compatible with the OBI, therefore they’re part of the Open Badges community. This logic doesn’t wash with me.

I’m calling for Pearson to get their act together and allow badges issued via their Acclaim platform to be portable. Credly have the exact same business model as Acclaim, yet their ‘credit’ can be exported to the Mozilla backpack and elsewhere.

If Pearson aren’t willing to allow their badges to be portable, then they should have the guts to stop pretending that they’re interested in the success and sustainability of Open Badges. Muddying the waters doesn’t help anyone except Pearson’s profits.

Parody of Acclaim website thanks to the wonderful X-Ray Goggles

7 Comments

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  1. Thanks so much for pointing this out. As a developer myself, I’m super frustrated to learn about programs such as IBM’s Open Badge program only to learn that I can’t actually get any Open Badges out of it because they are using Acclaim. Their “real-time” verification argument just doesn’t stand up to technical scrutiny.

    Here’s hoping Pearson does the right thing and lets Acclaim users export their badges.

  2. I totally agree on the fact that Pearson should add export functionality and portability to their Acclaim badges.
    On the OB google group the same question was raised (hijacking the Belgian Badge Backpack thread 😉 )

    But I disagree on your last paragraph.
    Yes, they mislead their earners (and possible also their clients/badge issuers) by pretending their badges are genuine Open Badges (as long as they are not portable they aren’t …) and yes , the Badge Alliance and you have every right to question and criticize their ethos and inform earners and issuers about this fact.

    But, the question I asked myself: what harm are they doing to the Open Badges standard itself by this?
    Well, for now, in my opinion Pearson does more good than harm for the OBI.
    With the introduction of Acclaim , technically following the OBI standard and promoting the standard by doing so and in all their communication, they give a certain “weight” to the OBI.
    Actually, in the world of business (in education this will be lesser I guess), telling “Pearson is also doing this” is an actual “Sales argument” to get organizations to start using or issuing. (despites any reputation they may have, it is a big player that can attract other players)

    So, for now, them linking their name to Open Badges, brings in my eyes more good than harm..
    But again, this is for now.. (your post about Acclaim made this famous quote pop up in my head again: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” 😉 )

    In my eyes, when the Badge Alliance evolves and becomes bigger and stronger , their business model without portability can not hold .. (it took ages for Microsoft to understand but nowadays they are also embracing open formats in a rapid pace)
    I am also curious how Pearson will react if the standard would evolve to a blockchain-like distributed database system…

    A last note that I would like to make and in which I agree with your post:
    – Pearson should be very clear about their exact reasons why they are not offering exportability for now.
    So these can be adressed and discussed within the Badge Alliance. I would love to open a discussion about data-ownership, because I suspect that holding on to ‘data’ that they consider to be theirs is one of possible other arguments, but also totally not sustainable when Open Badges evolves.

    By the way to counter criticism: I am linked to the new Belgian Open Badge Governmental initiative, we just recently launched first bèta-version of bebadges.be and fully aware that we still have a lot of steps to take to be OBI compliant (for now we are further off than Acclaim, but not because of unwillingness , we are on a roadmap of building something fully compliant and following up on the recent developments of the Badge Alliance)

    • I can see where you’re coming from – there’s no such thing as bad publicity for the Open Badges Infrastructure (OBI), right?

      The problem is that, given their budget, a significant number of people’s first experience will be through Pearson’s platform. If they equate Open Badges with what they can do via Acclaim, the OBI is misrepresented. Eventually, this would render the ‘open’ part of Open Badges redundant.

      Please re-read the link I added to the Wikipedia article on Embrace, Extend, and Extinguish: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Embrace,_extend_and_extinguish

      • Ok thanks & sorry.
        I’ve originally read your post on mobile and I hadn’t looked into all the links in detail.
        I now get the full extent of “Embrace, Extend, and Extinguish” and I see your point & the harm that Pearson can be causing more clear.

        Their (bad) “publicity” for the OBI can on the long term indeed be more harmful than I think it is.

        I hope that by a continuous calling out to Pearson to address this issue, they will take the wise decision and adapt fully to the open standard. That will be a win for the Open Badge community but also for themselves and certainly for badge earners & issuers.
        Since the potential of an open system far exceeds the potential of a closed one.

        And yes you are right, if they don’t adapt…
        “… then they should have the guts to stop pretending that they’re interested in the success and sustainability of Open Badges.”

        Because in that case they are indeed only really interested in their own success and not in the success of the open standard.

  3. Hi Doug,

    You may recall we had a “chat” about this, following your post, “Why I Still Believe in Badges” on dml central (Monday, March 31, 2014 @ http://dmlcentral.net/why-i-still-believe-in-badges/) when I summed it up thusly:

    “My point mainly is that in probing the future for badge systems we must take into account this trend of the new technology, ie. generating a new wave of virtual credentialing. And wouldn’t you agree that we could easily envision a virtual flood of badge systems? Wherein your fine work developing badges for a well-intentioned nonprofit is more than likely to be suitably lifted and adapted by private, commercial, educational enterprises who are currently biting at the bit with a sight on global graduates in all manner of practice.

    And so the ‘value’ of the badge will change, just as the value of facebook has changed, in relation to that value which it originally offered. Wouldn’t you agree?”

    Back then you admittedly took issue with my challenge as to what could become of badge “values” given their likely corporate uptake.

    So you could say I saw the writing on the wall. It’s not hard to do: a simple application of critical thinking combined with attention to history as opposed to prevailing trends.

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