Against mass consumption of ‘already certified’ credentials

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


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  1. Most individuals have no power to change the state of things. They can only change their position within an existing order. Credentials are arguably the most important element, for an individual, that can affect their progress within an existing order. At an individual level they are the most important manifestation of power that there is. Is it surprising that they opt for the status quo?
    Credentials can boot you up to a different level of power within the existing order, and do, for some. Mostly they function as a way to maintain and consolidate existing power structures, but what individual can change that order? That kind of change is of a different quality, it requires other levels of power that none of us, can access, and there is a quiet, subtle, insidious refusal of conservatism, everywhere, to truly empower people through education, which contributes to that inertia.
    Inertia is easy, it is ingrained because it takes so long to see whether an educational policy has worked or not, and so many factors can be roped in to explain a failure. Truth is, we dont even fully understand how that inertia works. We hear the trope about classrooms that haven’t changed their set up in 100 years, and we know it isnt true, but we dont know how to explain that.
    You speak of local ecosystems. I don’t know what that means, it seems clear to me that any “local ” system is contained within a wider system. So where do you place the limits? It is too late to stand outside it. And the only way to change things is not to change the mechanisms, but to focus on the “colour” of the system. To be clear, forget badges, they are new skin for the old ceremony. Forget credentials.
    Aim for a complete shift of attention from the tools to the attitudes, and the ways people understand their lives and those of others. To help change happen (and it is not your change) you have to start a thousand conversations, and they will not be your conversations, and they will be kaleidoscopic, endlessly shifting, and noone will own them. And our roles as educators, though important (etc) will be profoundly different. We have to admit that at present we have no feasible theory of change. Only a deep commitment to dialogue can generate that. We need conversations, not answers.
    Badges, if they happen, will be something that emerges at the other end of that conversation. If we are lucky. Right now, others are looking to kill the conversation, not more than ever, but more than in our lifetimes. We need to focus on the conversations, the outcomes will come…

    • I think you’ve missed my point – I’m talking about educators and other organisations providing credentials that are more valuable in a local context than the chunky credentials-at-a-distance.

      To be honest, this is one of the saddest comments I’ve ever read on my blog. The idea that we have to sit back and take what we’re given? No thanks.

      • I am not saying that we have to “sit back and take what we are given” at all. But if you want to change anything you have to recognise and understand the constraints involved. The notion of “credentials” is so deeply embedded in people’s lives and their understandings of themselves, that any approach to changing them significantly has to be systemic. The proponents of badges attempted to set up an alternative and competing system, without addressing the root understandings that govern the current system, or considering the constraints involved in sufficient detail. They were essentially substituting like for like. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that the badge approach was easily co-opted.

        • Nick, with the greatest of respect, your comment doesn’t demonstrate that you understand how ‘systemic change’ works.

          Some technologies, are enabling technologies. They are part of a wider landscape that leads to systemic change. As a result, Open Badges doesn’t have to refute the existing system and create an alternative. It only has to do the latter.

          • This is the “if you build it they will come” argument. If badges exist as an alternative, the change will happen.
            But badges have been around for some time now. And the change doesnt seem to have happened. People are not buying into that alternative system, except perhaps in cases where the alternative has been absorbed into the existing system.
            The systemic change in the case of badges would involve (like most sytemic change) a large number of decisions by independent individuals, though obviously influenced by their peers, networks etc. Those decisions have not taken place. To be widely adopted, badges would have to provide an argument for change that the individual can comprehend and agree with, or even believe in. They dont seem to be doing that.

        • No, Nick, it’s not a ‘build it and they will come argument’. It’s about building standards which provide a firm foundation to an alternative ecosystem.

          You seem to be confused between the establishment of a system, and how it can be used. ‘Open Badges’ is a handy shorthand for ‘the Open Badges specification’ – i.e. an open way to do decentralised, distributed credentialing in a web-native way.

          These things take time. The pilot was only in 2011 and the standard didn’t reach version 1.0 until five years ago. I’ve always said this was a 10-year project.

          I wonder if you’ve ever done anything on a global systems level that’s taken less than that amount of time?

          • Your comment indicates that you may think that the establishment of a system can be done independently of consideration of the way prospective users will understand it or adopt it. I think that might be a mistake, particularly in the context of standards. That’s all.

  2. badges, micro credits etc originally were being used in P-12 to measure sections of an experience however defined. It then got expanded to define whatever someone thought worthy of a defined set of accomplishments. But these were within the “system”. Since then these “badges” have cropped up everywhere. But the key is that the person collecting the badges aren’t doing this for their own benefit; they want recognition and that means that they want a recognized party, trusted by those who the badge holder wants acceptance. Hence the default to a 3rd party validation, be it a school, professional society or other such party. Break the chain between the person with the badge and someone whose understanding of this is critical and badges disappear.

    • This is actually an incorrect history of Open Badges. In fact, badges came from outside the system, and were co-opted by it.

  3. Hi Doug,
    How you talk about the badges here is interesting, and totally misses the boat in my point of view on what ‘Open’ education means. It means that a credential is not needed as the learning taking place is for the sake of learning; there are already enough courses with credentials out there. Why add another, especially as its name reminds of the scouts movement, rather than of an innovation in education? What is needed is that educational institutions recognize ‘open’ achievements and provide credit for it, not to add a value-less credential to the certificates that are already out there.

    • Hi Rita, thanks for your comment.

      You present a pretty standard critique here, but one that I think can be easily dismissed when we understand that credentials provide proof-at-a-distance of desirable knowledge, skills, and behaviours At the moment, educational institutions (including the one for which you work) are the arbiters of qualifications, which essentially limit what’s possible in terms of showing the world your holistic nature.

      Call badges what you want – microcredentials, digital certificates, anything. What’s important is that we’ve got an open standard that can be used by anyone, for anything!

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