Some thoughts on the future of the Open Badges backpack

Update: I’ve slept on this, and think that the ‘Credential Switch Guarantee’ isn’t quite the correct metaphor, as there’s nothing ‘in the middle’. A better model might be that of escrow, but even that isn’t perfect. I’ll keep thinking…


Last week, Jason McGonigle, CTO of Digitalme got in touch to say he’d written a blog post about the future of the Open Badges ‘backpack’. For those unaware, here’s a quick history lesson.

In the early days of Open Badges it was felt that Mozilla needed a place that any earner, no matter where they had earned their badges, could store and display them. This was seen as somewhat of a ‘stopgap’ measure. The priority after launching v1.0 of the specification in 2012 was to ‘decentralise’ the Open Badges ecosystem by federating the backpack.

This federation, in practice, was more easily said than done. Three things caused it to be problematic. First the inevitable politics. There’s no need to go into details here, but the spinning out of the Badge Alliance from Mozilla was doomed to failure. As a result, the focus on federating the backpack (and on creating BadgeKit to make badge issuing easier) went by the wayside.

Second, there were technical issues beyond my understanding with federating the backpack. Apparently it’s a very hard thing to do. Third, the need for federation is just something that’s quite difficult to explain to people. We’re so used to centralised services. I used to try and do so by talking about the way email works. These days, my example might be Mastodon.

As a result, Mozilla’s backpack became a central piece of the Open Badges puzzle. That, I think, actually worked to the advantage of badge advocates. While the Open Badges specification can be rather technical and dry, there’s something about the backpack that’s ‘homely’ and easier to explain to people. Having somewhere to store and show off your digital credentials just makes sense.

Carla Casilli, my former colleague at Mozilla, wrote a post this time last year in which she gave her views on the backpack and explained how it is rooted in ideology:

So much ink has been spilled already on the subject of the Mozilla badge backpack: almost from the start it has been both an important philosophical stake in the ground about personal data ownership as well as a raging battleground about its necessity. Questions about it have abounded. What works, what doesn’t. Who uses it, who doesn’t. What’s happening with it, what has happened to it. And yet, even with all of this back and forth, there has always been so much more to say about it.

Jason alludes to user sovereignty in his post, but I think Carla really nails it in hers:

One of the best unheralded benefits? When a badge earner used the reference implementation of the Mozilla Open Badges backpack, there was no requirement for them to be a member of a separate, corporate-owned social network in order to display their badges. Not at all.

In other words, users need a place to store and display their badges that aren’t tied to badge issuers. End of story.

These days, there’s no-one at Mozilla working on Open Badges. That’s been the case for at least a couple of years now. Instead, Digitalme were given a contract by Mozilla to continue work on the Open Badges backpack, while overall development of the standard is now the responsibility of IMS Global Learning Consortium. This, and the fact that there’s no badge track at MozFest 2017 tells you all you need to know about Mozilla’s future plans around badges.

So we’re left in the situation where one of the major players in the Open Badges landscape is responsible for a key bit of infrastructure. It’s not ideal, even if I know and trust the people at Digitalme.

The backpack is, and always has been, a place focused on user choice and control. I certainly hope it stays that way, and think that Jason’s vision of a ‘Credential Switch Guarantee’ might be a workable one. Users need something tangible that’s independent of commercial offerings.

Long live the backpack!

Image CC0 Alexandre Godreau


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3 Comments

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  1. Great read, thanks. I ran into problems linking the Backpack to our Moodle installation at work, but that may have been more to do with Moodle than Mozilla….something to do with “Persona” log in difficulties?? Anyhow, right now we’re looking at the Open Badge Factory as a back-end, plugged into Moodle for ease of issuing. I’m leaning towards the Open Badge Passport as a “backpack” style solution for collecting badges. What do you think of putting eggs in one basket like that? Or would it be better to let the recipients decide where they want to keep their badges rather than pointing them towards the OBP?

    • The backpack doesn’t use Persona as of late last year as Mozilla dropped it as a project. So you should have already migrated your login to one powered by Passport.js. If I remember correctly, all backpack users received at least one email!

      In terms of badge display, users of course always have a choice, but I’d go with an informed default. OBF is a good choice.

  2. Helpful, and food for thought, thanks Doug.

    Wayne, Moodle 3.2 resolves the problem with connecting to Backpack – see the Badges forum on moodle.org for more info. That said, I’d prefer to see an issuing platform plugged into Moodle 🙂

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