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How to use metaphors to generate badge-based pathways

Participants busy doing activity

A few days ago in Denver I co-facilitated a pre-ISTE workshop around badge pathways with Ian O’Byrne and Noah Geisel. Thanks to the power of the web, Bryan Mathers joined us remotely from his man shed back in London! It was a three hour session, with a wide range of participants, from those who had only just heard about Open Badges, to those who had started to design badge systems for their particular context.

Watch Ian’s archived Periscope recording of this session (~40 mins)

As part of the workshop, I used an approach from a couple of weeks beforehand when working with a client. It worked really well both times so, I wanted to document it so that you can benefit too! Many of you will have done similar kind of ‘human-centred’ design processes before, but for some it may be new.

As Marshall McLuhan famously said, “we look at the present through a rear-view mirror” and, as a result, “march backwards into the future”. In terms of badge system design, this means that we’re often constrained by what we’ve seen and experienced ourselves as both learners and teachers.


The aim of this activity was to help people break out of the constraints and they didn’t even realise they had before getting started with designing badge pathways.

I’m a big believer that, consciously or unconsciously, we live a lot of our life through metaphor. We have mental models that help us make sense of the world and our place in it. One of these is what it means to ‘progress’ at something. While as educators we would freely admit to learning as being a messy affair, when it comes to demonstrating, mapping, or visualing ‘progression’ we tend to default to linear approaches.

Education may be linear but learning isn't

5-step overview

  1. Prepare – Before you begin, ensure you have lots of post-it notes and pens (e.g. Sharpies) that will show up clearly. You’re welcome to use the illustrations from this post so long as you credit them (as I am!) CC BY-ND Bryan Mathers. He has other images you may also want to use at
  2. Input – Spend five minutes explaining how education may be linear, but learning certainly isn’t. Move on to explain that as educators we tend to stand on one side of the river, inviting students to walk across stepping stones. If they fall in, well they have to start again. Move on to describe the Trivial Pursuit model (pre-defined chunks of learning, but can be done in any order) and Constellation model (user entirely in control of pathways through ecosystem – make their own sense)
  3. Scribbling – Explain that participants will be expected to come up with as many metaphors as they can which could be used to demonstrate progression. One per post-it Take examples from the room in terms of what people are interested in. For example, if someone is into photography, they might use the ‘aperture’ settings on a camera as a metaphor. If someone drives a lot, they may use GPS as a metaphor. It could be as simple as a flight of stairs or a maze. Ensure that participants feel that it’s quantity, not ‘quality’ that counts, and that any suggestions will be accepted.
  4. Grouping – Depending on the confidence / cohesion of the group, you may want to first get them to compare notes where they’re sitting. The important thing to do now is to get those post-it notes up on a wall in a place where everyone can stand around. The post-its should be placed at random. Go through each one, reading it aloud, clarifying where necessary. Explain that the group will now spend time grouping the post-its together, however they think best. There are no right/wrong answers, just whatever they feel goes together.
  5. Classification – Once activity begins to slow, give participants a little more time, then go through each cluster of post-its, asking what each has in common. For example, one might have various metaphors that all involve there being a single destination, but multiple ways to get there. You’re then looking for a single word or phrase that will sum up the cluster. Write this on a different coloured post-it (if possible) and move onto the next cluster. As you go along, encourage people to move post-its, if they see fit.

Badge Pathways

Next steps

Once this activity is finished, you should have around five words or phrases that relate to different types of badge pathway. The group’s next activity could then be to come up with a subject to go with that metaphor. For example, if one of the pathways was ‘Surprise’ or ‘Discovery’ (perhaps the metaphors included peeling back the layers of an onion) then they could pair this up with building a badge pathway about taking care of online privacy. There are infinite possibilities!

Facilitator notes

  • It’s important to ensure participants feel that they are in a ‘safe space’ so they can share ideas without being criticised. One way of doing this is to encourage everyone to use, “Yes, and…” as a way of responding to one another.
  • You’ll need more post-it notes than you think! Factor in around 20 for each participant for this activity, just be sure you’ve got enough.
  • It’s worth modelling the behaviour you want to see by doing the activity with participants. You could go around different tables writing down a couple of examples on each. This helps those that may be a little stuck (or lacking inspiration).
  • Ensure you give enough time to do this activity without rushing. While it’s important to inject pace when appropriate, if it feels like a march towards an inevitable conclusion, participants are likely to be less forthcoming.
  • Be as inclusive as possible. There are some people who, because they’re underconfident or sceptical, may add ‘jokey’ suggestions. Don’t ignore these, but include them in the clustering. For example, in the pre-ISTE workshop, there were quite a few around alcohol and drug use/misuse which we repurposed as ‘self-care’ or ‘looking after each other’.
  • Encourage participants to take photographs. This means that when you transition back to seats, you can take the names of the five or so badge pathways with you quickly and easily.

Illustrations CC BY-ND Bryan Mathers


Do you like this example of working openly? You’ll love! Follow us on Twitter or come and hang out in our Slack channel. All welcome!

My ebook, ‘The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies’ is now pay-what-you-want (including nothing!)

As I promised when first making it available for sale, I’ve steadily reduced the price of my ebook, The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies, until it is now effectively zero. I’ve given people the option of paying if they’d like to, but other than adding an email address at checkout, it’s free of charge.

For those not familiar with the origin of this book, it started life as my doctoral thesis, which I then updated and re-wrote in less academic language. People bought into it as I was writing using the OpenBeta process I devised (this was before Leanpub existed!). The earlier people bought into the writing process, the cheaper it was. They got updates all of the way up to version 1.0.

Once it was ready for general consumption, I sold it at full price (£7.99) and then steadily decreased the price around every six months. Although I don’t think it’s ‘dated’, I did have the idea of what George Siemens called the ‘half-life of knowledge’ in his 2006 book Knowing Knowledge. Another reason was that the financial aspect of the book was to motivate me to continue working on it: writing for an already-established audience is a great motivator!

I’ve been delighted that my ebook has been used as a core text in colleges and universities worldwide, including (quite awesomely) the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. University libraries have also ‘stocked’ it, making use of Creative Commons license I released it under.

So, what’s next? I haven’t really decided, really. I was planning to write a book including classroom activities for improving digital literacies but, for whatever reason, my heart wasn’t really in it. I’m still keen on doing work in the new literacies space, but am thinking of what kind of format would help people most. Perhaps a drip-feed email series? A series of webinars? A course? I don’t know. If you’ve got ideas, please do let me know.

All that remains is to thank those (hundreds) of people who believed in me enough to invest in the book before it reached v1.0, for those (500+) people who have bought it since, and for those who have given me feedback since it was published. If you’ve got comments / suggestions, I’d love to hear them.

If you’d like to use the ebook with your students, you might find the accompanying wiki helpful. It includes the hi-res diagrams I used, as well as space to be able to critique the contents with your students. For a great recent example of this in a Masters-level setting, check out this page on the wiki!

Weeknote 25/2016

This week I’ve been:

  • Dismayed. The result of the EU referendum will reverberate for years. I’m still in shock.
  • Sending out Issue #220 of Doug Belshaw’s Thought Shrapnel, my weekly newsletter loosely focused on education, technology, and productivity. Many thanks to 9Sharp for sponsoring this week’s issue! (Note: I’m still looking for sponsors for July and September)
  • Recording and releasing Episode 55 (‘Stronger Ink(ing)’) of the Today In Digital Education podcast, my weekly podcast with co-host Dai Barnes. We discussed the EU referendum, reading the news, Microsoft Surface devices and ‘inking’, Minecraft Educator edition, teaching novice programmers, contextual identity on the web, and more! You can discuss TIDE in our Slack channel.
  • Spending time with my family before a week away from home. I took my time preparing slides, tied up loose ends, and did some reading.
  • Flying to Denver via London for the Badge Summit and an ISTE pre-conference workshop. My flight was quite delayed but, due to a booking system error, British Airways ended up upgrading to Business Class.
  • Keynoting the Badge Summit. You can find my slides here and Ian O’Byrne (my evil twin) kindly recorded my talk via Periscope (skip to around 22:30). I really enjoyed the event, organised by Noah Geisel, and found it a positive, optimistic, and energising day!
  • Going out for dinner with various people from the Badge Summit, introducing Ian O’Byrne to some of my favourite whiskies, and drinking my first (and perhaps only ever) root beer float.
  • Co-facilitating a pre-ISTE workshop on Open Badges ecosystems and pathways with Ian O’Byrne and Noah Geisel. Bryan Mathers also got involved with some live illustrating via Twitter from his man shed in London! you can check out the agenda and slides we used for the session, as well as a flavour of the workshop via these three Periscope videos: 1 / 2 / 3

I’m writing this from my hotel room in Denver on Saturday afternoon (local time). I’ll be here until Sunday night, then flying to London. After I’ve recovered from my jet lag and watched England’s EURO 2016 game, I’m facilitating a Digitalme event around employability on Tuesday. Then I’m off to Jersey to meet a potential client. Back home on Thursday night after a week away!

A few words on #Remain, #BadgeSummit, and #ISTE2016

Just to say that:

  1. If you’re eligible to vote in today’s UK referendum about membership of the European Union, I respect your decision to vote with your conscience. That being said, if you’re at all undecided, please vote to remain in the EU. I’m of the strong opinion that it will adversely affect future generations if we choose to stand alone.
  2. I’m flying to Denver today to keynote the Badge Summit tomorrow (Friday). My slidedeck currently stands at version 0.5, and you can view my progress on that (and comment on it) here.
  3. On Saturday, I’m teaming up with Ian O’Byrne, Noah Geisel, and Bryan Mathers (remote) to run an ISTE pre-conference workshop on building an Open Badges ecosystem. You can check out the agenda, etc. here. There’s still a few spaces left if you can make it!
  4. I’ll be at ISTE on Sunday (only) and would love to connect with you if you’re reading this and will be there! Tweet me: @dajbelshaw

Weeknote 24/2016

This week I’ve been:

Next week I’m spending Monday to Wednesday at home with my family making sure I’m ready for my trip to the US. I’m arriving in Denver on Thursday, keynoting on Friday, running a pre-conference workshop on Saturday, attending ISTE on Sunday, then flying back to facilitate an event for Digitalme in London!

3 Ways Open Badges Work Like the Web [DML Central]

3 Ways Open Badges Work Like the Web

My latest post for DML Central has now been published. Entitled 3 Ways Open Badges Work Like the Web, it’s an attempt to unpack a phrase I use often. It features a couple of great images from Bryan Mathers — one inspired by a Tim Berners-Lee quotation at the start of the post, and the other a visualisation of the ‘four freedoms’ of Free Software.

Read the post here

Note: I’ve closed comments here to encourage you to add your thoughts on the original post.

Weeknote 23/2016

This week I’ve been:

  • Refreshing my Dynamic Skillset website during the time I had to myself while my family were away in Devon visiting my inlaws last weekend.
  • Sending out Issue #218 of Doug Belshaw’s Thought Shrapnel, my weekly newsletter loosely focused on education, technology, and productivity. Many thanks to 9Sharp for sponsoring this week’s issue! (Note: I’m looking for sponsors for July and September)
  • Recording and releasing Episode 53 (‘Wild Sleep’) of the Today In Digital Education podcast, my weekly podcast with co-host Dai Barnes. We discussed the end of average, wild ideas, kids and online privacy, being human, encryption through the ages, Internet trends, getting a good night’s sleep, and more! You can discuss TIDE in our Slack channel.
  • Unproductive on Monday. I did a bit of work but, for some reason, I was all over the place. I took some time to get myself sorted, and was back to my usual productive self by Tuesday!
  • Spending Tuesday and Wednesday in London working with City & Guilds. I usually stay in an aparthotel when I’m down there, but this week stayed at a Premier Inn and managed to sleep for 11 hours!
  • Having lunch with the inimitable Graham Brown-Martin who, as ever, was on fine form. Bryan Mathers joined us at Pizza East in Shoreditch as we talked about western cultural imperialism, edtech, and the dark web.
  • Catching up with Nate Otto about the (positive!) future of the Badge Alliance.
  • Helping Digitalme with preparations for their June 28th event around digital credentials for employment. It’s invite-only, so if you haven’t received an email yet, you’ll have to watch the livestream!
  • Voting in the EU Referendum to remain in the EU. Ever since being a teacher I’ve requested a postal vote as it just makes life easier. have also been using Loomio to vote on a couple of things: pricing for orgs/causes we believe in, as well as deciding on our toolset.
  • Ordering new business cards courtesy of As I don’t give them out like confetti, I’ve again gone for the more expensive, square ones. One side has my avatar, the flip side uses the colours from my newly-refreshed website, looking like the image in this tweet (note the logo!)
  • Eating a lot of dates combined with 100% chocolate as I’m not consuming refined sugar this month.
  • Working on a post about how Open Badges ‘work like the web’ for DML Central. It will go live on Monday but you can see a preview here. Thanks to those who gave me feedback, and to Bryan Mathers for creating a couple of illustrations for it!
  • Meeting for a ‘critical friend’ session with Eylan Ezekiel. Find out more about what these are here.
  • Scoring applications for the sixth and final DML Competition about playlists for learning.
  • Starting to write the report of last week’s Cambridge English workshop. I’ll have to finish it last week as I had childcare duties, cutting short Friday’s working hours.
  • Watching the first match of EURO 2016 football tournament between hosts France and Romania. In fact, I’m writing this while watching it!
  • Writing:

Next week I’m working on our church’s website on Monday, down in London on Tuesday and Wednesday, working from home on Thursday, and then starting to plan my Badge Summit keynote for a couple of weeks’ time.

Improving the style and content of

Last April when I became a consultant, I threw together a website at using GitHub Pages and bootstrap. I even created a video to show others how to do so. However, I wasn’t happy with it, so a couple of months ago replaced it with this holding page featuring an image from Bryan Mathers:

Dynamic Skillset placeholder

Today, while the rest of my family is away visiting relatives during half-term, I got a chance to mess about for long enough to create this:

New Dynamic Skillset website

I’m really pleased with it. The DNS is still propagating away from GitHub back to Reclaim Hosting, but you should be able to access the live version here in the meantime. Once that is done, you’ll be able to access via as usual!

Weeknote 22/2016

This week I’ve been:

Next week: My wife and children are in Devon until Sunday, so I’ll probably end up working this weekend. I’m working from home with City & Guilds on Monday, and then in London working from their offices on Tuesday and Wednesday. I’ve got a report to write and bits and pieces to sort on Thursday, and then I’m very much looking forward to taking Friday off…

Availability: I’ve got a few days free in June and July. I’m then on holiday in August and will have a lot more availability in September.

Newsletter sponsorship: I’m currently looking for a sponsor for my Thought Shrapnel newsletter for the months of July and September. It goes out to over 1,100 people who have signed up for updates around education, technology, and productivity. Get in touch if you, or someone you know, might like to sponsor it!

Some thoughts and recommendations on the future of the Open Badges backpack and community

Recommendation Theater


Back in January of this year, Mozilla announced a ‘continued commitment’ to, but smaller role in, the Open Badges ecosystem. That was as expected: a couple of years ago Mozilla and the MacArthur Foundation had already spun out a non-profit in the form of the Badge Alliance.

That Mozilla post included this paragraph:

We will also reconsider the role of the Badge Backpack. Mozilla will continue to host user data in the Backpack, and ensure that data is appropriately protected. But the Backpack was never intended to be the central hub for Open Badges — it was a prototype, and the hope has forever been a more federated and user-controlled model. Getting there will take time: the Backpack houses user data, and privacy and security are paramount to Mozilla. We need to get the next iteration of Backpack just right. We are seeking a capable person to help facilitate this effort and participate in the badges technical community. Of course, we welcome code contributions to the Backpack; a great example is the work done by DigitalMe.

Last month, digitalme subsequently announced they have a contract with Mozilla to work on both the Open Badges backpack and wider technical infrastructure. As Kerri Lemoie pointed out late last year, there’s no-one at Mozilla working on Open Badges right now. However, that’s a feature rather than a bug; the ecosystem in the hands of the community, where it belongs.

Tim Riches, CEO of digitalme, states that their first priority will be to jettison the no-longer-supported Mozilla Persona authentication system used for the Open Badges backpack:To improve user experience across web and mobile devices our first action will be to replace Persona with Passport.js. This will also provide us with the flexibility to enable user to login with other identity providers in the future such as Twitter, Linkedin and Facebook. We will also be improving stability and updating the code base.

In addition, digitalme are looking at how the backpack can be improved from a user point of view:

“We will be reviewing additional requirements for the backpack and technical infrastructure gathered from user research at MozFest supported by The Nominet Trust in the UK, to create a roadmap for further development, working closely with colleagues from Badge Alliance.

Some of the technical work was outlined at the beginning of the year by Nate Otto, Director of the Badge Alliance. On that roadmap is “Federated Backpack Protocol: Near and Long-term Solutions”. As the paragraph from the Mozilla post notes, federation is something that’s been promised for so long — at least the last four years.

Federation is technically complex. In fact, even explaining it is difficult. The example I usually give is around the way email works. When you send an email, you don’t have to think about which provider the recipient uses (e.g. Outlook365, GMail, Fastmail, etc.) as it all just works. Data is moved around the internet leading to the intended person receiving a message from you.

The email analogy breaks down a bit if you push it too hard, but in the Open Badges landscape, the notion of federation is crucial. It allows badge recipients to store their badges wherever they choose. At the moment, we’ve effectively got interoperable silos; there’s no easy way for users to move their badges between platforms elsewhere.

As Nate mentions in another post, building a distributed system is hard not just because of technical considerations, but because it involves co-ordinating multiple people and organisations.

It is much harder to build a distributed ecosystem than a centralized one, but it is in this distributed ecosystem, with foundational players like Mozilla playing a part, that we will build a sustainable and powerful ecosystem of learning recognition that reflects the values of the Web.


Tech suggestions

I’m delighted that there’s some very smart and committed people working on the technical side of the Open Badges ecosystem. For example, yesterday’s community call (which unfortunately I couldn’t make) resurrected the ‘tech panel’. One thing that’s really important is to ensure that the *user experience* across the Open Badges ecosystem is unambiguous; people who have earned badges need to know where they’re putting them and why. At the moment, we’ve got three services wrapped up together in badge issuing platforms such as Open Badge Academy:

OBA venn diagram

One step towards federation would be to unpick these three aspects on the ecosystem level. For example, providing an ‘evidence store‘ could be something that all badge platforms buy into. This would help avoid problems around evidence disappearing if a badge provider goes out of business (as Achievery did last year).

A second step towards federation would be for the default (Mozilla/Badge Alliance) badge backpack to act as a conduit to move badges between systems. Every badge issuing platform could/should have a ‘store in backpack’ feature. If we re-interpret the ‘badge backpack’ metaphor as being a place where you securely store (but don’t necessarily display) your badges this would encourage providers to compete on badge display.

The third step towards federation is badge discoverability. Numbers are hard to come by within the Open Badges ecosystem as the specification was explicitly developed to put learners in control. Coupled with Mozilla’s (valid) concerns around security and privacy, it’s difficult both to get statistics around Open Badges and discover relevant badges. Although Credmos is having a go at the latter, more could be done on the ecosystem level. Hopefully this should be solved with the move to Linked Data in version 2.0 of the specification.

Community suggestions

While I’m limited on the technical contributions I can make to the Badge Alliance, something I’m committed to is helping the community move forward in new and interesting ways. Although Nate wrote a community plan back in March, I still think we can do better in helping those new to the ecosystem. Funnelling people into a Slack channel leads to tumbleweeds, by and large. As I mentioned on a recent community call, I’d like to see an instance of Discourse which would build knowledge base and place for the community to interact in more more targeted ways that the blunt instrument that is the Open Badges Google Group.

Something which is, to my mind, greatly missed in the Open Badges ecosystem, is the role that Jade Forester played in curating links and updates for the community via the (now defunct) Open Badges blog. Since she moved on from Mozilla and the Badge Alliance, that weekly pulse has been sorely lacking. I’d like to see some of the advice in the Community Building Guide being followed. In fact, Telescope (the free and Open Source tool it’s written about) might be a good crowdsourced solution.

Finally, I’d like to see a return of working groups. While I know that technically anyone can set one up any time and receive the blessing of the Badge Alliance, we should find ways to either resurrect or create new ones. Open Badges is a little bit too biased towards (U.S.) formal education at the moment.


The Badge Alliance community needs to be more strategic and mindful about how we interact going forwards. The ways that we’ve done things up until now have worked to get us here, but they’re not necessarily what we need to ‘cross the chasm’ and take Open Badges (even more) mainstream.

I’m pleased that Tim Cook is now providing some strategic direction for the Badge Alliance beyond the technical side of things. I’m confident that we can continue to keep up the momentum we’ve generated over the last few years, as well as continue to evolve to meet the needs of users at every point of the technology adoption curve.

Image CC BY-NC Thomas Hawk