Open Thinkering


Category: Blockchain

Boring crypto definitions

We do tech a disservice when we over-hype it. After all, as Clay Shirky said, things get socially interesting when they become technologically boring.

My aim in defining some terms used in crypto in ‘boring’ ways, therefore, isn’t to dismiss them but to help people consider how they may be used practically in their sector. Magical thinking helps precisely no-one.

Blockchain — an append-only database stored on multiple computers.

Cryptography — using technology to try and stop third parties reading and/or modifying data.

DAO (Decentralised Autonomous Organisation) — an organisation (but not an ‘organisation’) without a currently well-defined legal status using blockchain and smart contracts to automatically process votes made by people who hold the right tokens.

Dapps (Decentralised Applications) — apps built on a blockchain using smart contracts to perform actions.

DIDs (Decentralised Identifers) — ways of identifying things in a verifiable way using cryptography, usually using a blockchain.

NFT (Non Fungible Token) — a token that can be verified using cryptography to prove that it is unique and therefore scarce and subject to property rights.

Self-sovereign identity — a method of identifying people using DIDs that they themselves control.

Smart contract — rules defined by code that are run on a blockchain.

Token — a digital asset which can be used for money, voting rights, or pretty much anything else.

Wallet — a place to store tokens.

Web3 — a way for people to refer to all of the above in a less-confusing way. Basically putting everything on some form of blockchain.

There are obviously a lot more terms, but these are the ones I think most people would benefit from learning and being able to discuss dispassionately. For more terminology, the Learn Crypto glossary is a good place to start, followed by Alexandria from CoinMarketCap.

Open Badges, BlockCerts, and high-stakes credentialing

I was in a conversation this morning with some people seemingly from the four corners of the earth, who were exploring Open Badges, blockchain technologies, and other developments with a view to building a new platform. My introduction to the group came through Vinay Gupta, who’s not only a extremely clear thinker, but a great connector, too.

Now that badges are what Clay Shirky would call technologically “boring enough to be socially interesting”, people naturally want to think about them in relation to the next big thing. For many people, that ‘next big thing’ is blockchain.

There’s a whole series of rabbitholes to go down if you interested in blockchain-related technologies. In fact, doing so is as fascinating from a learning-about-neolibertarianism angle as it is about new technologies. However, for the purposes of this (education-related) post, it’s enough to say that blockchain is a ‘supply-side’ technology, that allows vendors, platforms, and intermediaries a way of verifying ownership or that ‘something’ happened at a particular time. You should, of course, read the outcome of Audrey Watters’ research project.

MIT have recently launched BlockCerts, which I discussed on this blog recently as being friends of Open Badges. That’s the great thing about open specifications: they play nicely with one another. However, just to clarify my position on this (and it is just an opinion), the thing that blockchain-based credentials are good for is in high stakes situations. I’d be happy for my doctoral certificate, for example, to be on the blockchain. That seems like a good use case.

Where I don’t think that blockchain-based credentials are a good idea are for the more holistic (‘weird and wonderful’) credentials that I might want to earn. These show different facets of who I am, rather than putting everything in the academic, high-stakes bucket. In fact, this is the reason I became interested in badges in the first place.

At a time when major employers are saying that they’re more interested in what people can do rather than their high-stakes credentials, it seems strange that we’re doubling down on the digital equivalent of degree certificates.

Would I use and recommend BlockCerts in my work with clients? Absolutely! But only if what was required involved either zero trust between the parties involved in the ecosystem, or high-stakes credentials. For everything else, the verifiable, evidence-based claims of the Open Badges metadata standard work just fine.

Blockcerts are friends of Open Badges

This morning I read the latest news from MIT about their blockchain and badges project. It’s exciting news for those interested in high-stakes credentials such as university degrees. They’ve given this new standard a name: Blockcerts.

Many will think that this puts Blockcerts in competition with Open Badges, but, of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Philipp Schmidt, Director of Learning Innovation at the MIT Media Lab — and author of the post announcing Blockcerts — was one of the originators of Open Badges when he was at P2PU.

Schmidt writes:

Blockcerts provides a decentralized credentialing system. The Bitcoin blockchain acts as the provider of trust, and credentials are tamper-resistant and verifiable. Blockcerts can be used in the context of academic, professional, and workforce credentialing.


Certificates are open badges compliant, which is important, because there is an entire community of open badges issuers that we want to support, and because open badges is becoming an IMS standard.

He’s perhaps let the cat out of the bag with the last sentence. I’ve had conversations over the last few weeks which point to an upcoming Mozilla announcement in this regard.

Any way you look at it, this is a great move for those in the ecosystem. Blockcerts is Open Badges-compliant, and provides a solution for organisations dealing in high-stakes credentialing. I know the BadgeChain group will be pleased!

The thing that attracted me to Open Badges, and which remains my goal, is to explore alternative credentialing. While there’s definitely a need to move high-stakes credentialing into the digital realm, I’m interested in ways in which we can provide a much more holistic view of the learner.

Want to find out more about Open Badges? Check out the OB101 course that Bryan Mathers and I put together!