Just less than a year ago, I wrote a post entitled Why the future remains bright for Open Badges. There had been some turmoil in the ecosystem, and the ‘horses’ looked like they were getting spooked. I used Gartner’s hype cycle as a ‘convenient hypocrisy’ to explain that, at that point in time, the badges community was on the downwards slope towards the Trough of Disillusionment.
Right now, I think we’re coming out of that trough. We’re beginning to see people and organisations looking beyond individual badges towards connected credentials. There’s also renewed interest in badges as creating local ecosystems of value. Not only is LRNG continuing to expand, but the RSA is actively exploring ways in which badges could connect learning experiences across towns and cities.
For me, the key thing about the web is identity-at-a-distance. When I’m in front of you, in person, then the ‘three-dimensionality’ of my existence isn’t in question. There’s something about the bandwidth of in-person communication that is reassuring. We don’t get that when projecting a digital image of ourselves.
As an educator, I think the great thing about Open Badges is that they are packaged-up ‘chunks’ of identity that can be put together like Lego bricks to tell the story of who a person is, and what they can do. The trouble is that we’re used to thinking in silos, so people’s (understandable) immediate reaction is “can I put my badges on LinkedIn/Facebook/somewhere else I already have an account”. While the short answer is, of course, “YES!” there’s a longer, more nuanced answer.
This longer answer pertains to a problem, which like invasive advertising as a business model, seems almost intractable on the web. How do we demonstrate the holistic, yet multi-faceted nature of our identities in online spaces?
I helped set up, but then withdrew from, a group of people looking at ways in which we could use blockchain technology with badges. The trouble is, as Audrey Watters so eloquently pointed out in The ideology of the blockchain, that the prevailing logic when both technologies are used together is be to double-down on high-stakes testing. I’d rather find a way that recognises and fits human flourishing, rather than reductively retro-fitting our experiences to suit The Machine.
3 things we need to move forward
As I often mention during my presentations, the problem with linking to a particular venture-capital backed social profile (even if it’s LinkedIn) is that it shows a very two-dimensional version of who you are.
1. Progression pathways
What we need is a platform (ideally, decentralised and built upon interoperable standards) that allows individuals to display the badges they have, the ones they want, and — through an online dashboard — a constellation map of paths they can follow to employment or levelling-up their skills.
I’m not mentioning particular vendors in this post, but I feel that there are several platforms that are moving towards this model.
2. Granular permissions
Something else which would help on the identity front is the separation of badge display from badge evidence store. In the same way that YouTube allows you granular permissions over who has access to your videos, so platforms should allow you to make your badges public, but, if required, restrict access to linked evidence.
The only examples of this I’ve seen are people taking this into their own hands, by ensuring that the web address for the evidence going into the badge is under their own control. For example, if you put evidence in Google Docs, you can make that URL be entirely private, shared with specific people, publicly accessible, or fully searchable.
3. Long-term storage
We’re at the stage now where there are large enough vendors within the badges ecosystem to be ensure the long-term survival of digital credentials based on an open metadata standard. However, individual vendors come and go, and some ‘pivot’ towards and away from particular platforms.
For individuals, organisations, and institutions to be confident of establishing their long-term identity through badges, it’s important that the demise or pivot of a particular vendor does not unduly effect them.
The best way to do this that I’ve come up with is for there to be a non-profit explicitly focused on ‘deep-freeze’ storage of digital credentials, based on a sustainable business model. I know that there were conversations with the Internet Archive when I was at Mozilla, and there’s definitely a business opportunity using Amazon Glacier or similar.
I often talk about solutions that ‘raise all of the ships in the harbour’. It’s relatively straightforward to build a platform that extracts the most amount of money out of customers. That’s a very short-term play. Open Badges is an open metadata standard that connects everyone together.
These three suggestions will allow the Open Badges ecosystem become an even more flourishing marketplace of digital credentials. For employers, it means they are not forced to use chunky ‘proxies’ such as degrees or high school diplomas when they’re looking for a particular combination of skillsets/mindsets. Educational institutions can return to being places of learning rather than examination factories. And, perhaps most importantly, individuals can show what they know and can do, in a flexible, holistic, market-responsive way.
I consult on identifying, developing, and credentialing digital skills as Dynamic Skillset, which is a part of We Are Open co-op. I’m looking to partner with organisations looking to use Open Badges as the ‘glue’ to build learner identity on the web. With my We Are Open colleagues, we’ve already got one City Council exploring this, and we’d like to talk to more forward-thinking people.