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.
Are all badges credentials, regardless of conceptual size, depth of assessment, or amount of criteria?
Last year I wrote for DML Central entitled Taking Another Look At The Digital Credentials Landscape. In it, I created a visual representation of how I, and others I’d consulted through my work with City & Guilds, saw the current digital credentialing landscape. As you can see from the image below, we situated everything within a meta-level circle of ‘credentials’.
What I (spectacularly) failed to do in that post was to define what I meant by ‘credential’. I assumed that everyone was using the term in the same way as I (and I assume most Europeans do). The Quality Dimensions for Connected Credentials report from the American Council on Education uses the Lumina Foundation’s definition of a credential as:
A documented award by a responsible and authorized body that has determined that an individual has achieved specific learning outcomes relative to a given standard. Credential in this context is
an umbrella term that includes degrees, diplomas, licenses, certificates, badges, and professional/industry certifications.
While this is not a bad definition, it is rather limiting; I think it’s overly-focused on traditional education. The word ‘credential’ comes from the Latin ‘credentia’ via the English word ‘credence’. To give credence to something is to ascribe validity, often via a recommendation; it is a state of belief in something as being true. Credential letters in the Middle Ages were handed from a person unknown to the recipient from someone known to the recipient (if only by reputation). As a result, the recipient would be more likely to see the person in front of them as ‘credible’. It was credibility by association.
The meanings and definitions of words change over time, of course, but I think that the second half of the Lumina Foundation’s definition, the part that talks of ‘credential’ as an ‘umbrella term’ is key. I’d just reject the first half where it talks about ‘responsible and authorised’ bodies and a ‘given standard’.
This ‘umbrella term’ approach to defining ‘credentials’ also meshes with the definitions from sources that I find reasonably convincing:
“A qualification, achievement, quality, or aspect of a person’s background, especially when used to indicate their suitability for something” (Oxford English Dictionary)
“A credential is an attestation of qualification, competence, or authority issued to an individual by a third party with a relevant or de facto authority or assumed competence to do so.” (Wikipedia)
“The abilities and experience that make someone suitable for a particular job or activity, or proof of someone’s abilities and experience.” (Cambridge Dictionaries)
“Personal qualities, achievements, or experiences that make someone suitable for something.” (Macmillan Dictionary)
I think Carla and I are arguing for the same position from two different vantage points. For example, after sharing a diagram showing two circles overlapping (but not completely) she states:
Badges, as they were envisioned originally, were created to capture learning whenever and wherever that learning occurs: formal, informal, public, private, group, individual. The overlap on the Venn diagram is sometimes referred to as microcredentials, and actually gives that term greater meaning and sense.
I definitely agree with that original vision for badges. I just can’t see a situation where a badge wouldn’t also count as a credential — even if that wasn’t the original intention .
As both the image from my DML Central post, and the image in Carla’s subsequent post demonstrates, it’s nearly impossible to do justice to the complexity of the credentials landscape in just two dimensions. Carla says:
An open badge can be designed to represent a small thing, such as a fundamental principle or a single competency (micro level) — and an open badge can also be designed to represent a large thing, like a competency set, or a license, or a degree (macro level). This visual illustrates that badges can be used to represent any credential currently being issued. This may seem like a minor thing to visualize, but given what badges can represent, it’s one that is definitely worth understanding.
I agree: if represented in three dimensions, badges would be orthoganal to the current credentialing system. They’re certainly acting at some kind of different ‘layer’. But, I would argue, if we’re forced to represent them in two dimensions, they appear to be wholly contained with the circle we currently call ‘credentials’.
What badges don’t have to be, even if they’re wholly contained within the ‘credential’ circle, is traditional. They can recognise all kinds of knowledge, skills, and behaviours — as well as all kinds of things we haven’t even thought of yet!
I’m not in the habit of doing this, and I’m not one of the authors, but this is an important, useful report related to Open Badges which many people may never get around to reading. The report can be downloaded for free from the Lumina Foundation’s website, and I’ve also included a link to a backup at the Internet Archive in case that site is ever down:
The first thing to say is that this report speaks into a specific context: Higher Education in the USA. Despite this, I think there’s much to glean for international audiences, and those outside of the university system. There are some areas in which I disagree with the authors (e.g. the definition of a ‘credential’, around the role of endorsement, and the need to prop up the existing system) but I’ll save that for another time. Overall, the report is excellent.
What follows is lengthy quotations from the paper, divided into the sections the authors themselves use. I’ve tried to avoid any sections specifically tied to the American education system. I’ve added my own where necessary by means of introduction and connection to help you understand the flow of the paper.
The authors identify problems around the granularisation of credentials, as well as the disintermediation of educational institutions:
[T]he diversity of credentials is not always meeting the needs of students, educational institutions, and employers, and unfortunately the proliferation of credentials is causing confusion. There is a lack of shared understanding about what makes credentials valuable, how that value varies across different types of credentials for different stakeholders, what constitutes quality, and how credentials are connected to each other and to opportunities for the people who have earned them.
It’s worth noting that the work leading to the paper was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation:
It provides context for higher education decision makers by describing the problems caused by fractured credentialing systems, articulating quality dimensions that help to address these problems, and visualizing how institutions can improve their credentials to increase their value while meeting the
needs of diverse stakeholders.
Competency-based education is all the rage in the US at the moment, although not everyone agrees with the approach:
This paper is closely related to another resource from the ACE Center for Education Attainment and Innovation, Communicating the Value of Competencies (Everhart, Bushway, and Schejbal 2016), which focuses on how to improve communication of the value of competencies among educational institutions, students, and employers. These papers are related because connected credentials are premised on two foundational concepts: that the competencies a credential represents should be clearly defined, and that these competencies can carry independent value, including the possibility of individual competencies
having currency value as very granular credentials. The competencies paper dovetails with this paper in that understanding and improving the value of connected credentials is directly applicable to communicating the value of competencies (and vice versa). Therefore, improving the value of competencies
is a targeted set of approaches in the broader context of improving the value of credentials. Definitions, concepts, and the dimensions of quality are shared across these two papers, with different focuses.
There are frustrations in the current landscape shared by earners, issuers, and consumers of credentials:
Students do not always have reliable ways to compare credentials with regard to what they include, their market value, their transferability, their relationship to other credentials, and other important factors.
Educational institutions need well-defined information about the value of their credentials for employment, career advancement, civic engagement, and other desired outcomes in order to attract students
and guide them to successful credential attainment.
Employers have difficulty understanding the competencies potential employees may or may not have mastered through the credentials they have earned.
There are, however, ways to deal with these issues:
Many organizations are already contributing to initiatives to support connected
Defining common language to profile the types and levels of knowledge and skills credentials represent, enabling explicit description of the relationship between one credential and other credentials
Using clearly defined descriptors to characterize credentials with regard to market value, transfer value, assessment rigor, third-party approval status, and more, empowering institutions to publicize the
characteristics of their credentials
Providing students with clear milestones based on modular components of credentials and relationships among credentials, helping them to understand and document their progress over time along career pathways
The best way to connect credentials is not in some top-down ways, but through more grassroots approaches:
A top-down or “authoritative requirements” approach is not desirable, and in fact, probably would not work, given the diversity of credentialing. Approaches to quality connected credentials more
appropriately emerge from within communities of practice. The framing premise of this paper is that higher education leaders and decision makers are well-positioned to contribute to national initiatives already underway and improve their own credentials in ways that are appropriate for their institutions and communities
What Are Credentials?
The authors use the following definition of a ‘credential’:
“A documented award by a responsible and authorized body that has determined that an individual has achieved specific learning outcomes relative to a given standard. Credential in this context is an umbrella term that includes degrees, diplomas, licenses, certificates, badges, and professional/industry certifications” (Lumina Foundation 2015a, 11).
They also supply a (long) definition what they mean by ‘badges’:
Badges use digital technologies to represent learning achievements; however, not all digital badges are open badges, in that not all badges use open standards that support interoperability and connections among systems and contexts. In this paper, “badge” refers to “open badges” and therefore includes technical and conceptual frameworks for openness, transparency, and interoperability (for more context on open badges, see Derryberry, Everhart, and Knight 2016). “Badges signify accomplishments such as completion of a project, mastery of a skill, or marks of experience” (Casilli and Knight 2012, 1) and can be created and awarded by institutions, organizations, groups, or individuals. Badges are flexible with regard to how issuers create them, define their use, and develop their criteria (which are publicly
viewable, embedded in the badge, and verifiable). Therefore badges can be used in numerous ways to meet a community’s needs, to represent granular competencies as well as deeply linked, rich experiences and complex learning. Badges are being used in conjunction with and/or as modular components of traditional credentials such as degrees. In some cases, especially when badges link to evidence, they are being used as representations of credentials. Badges can expire or be revoked, making them useful for credentials that are not continuously valid. Given their flexibility, badges bridge traditional, accredited credentials, professional and industry-recognized credentials, and nontraditional, experimental credentials.
Importantly, the authors explain that their approach is separate from the (controversial) approach of ‘competency based education’:
Note that a focus on the value of competencies is not the same as “competency-based education,” that is, the restructuring of academic programs to focus on mastery of competencies rather than focusing on time. References to competencies in this paper are relevant for knowledge and skills in all types of credentials and academic programs.
The authors also give a definition of ‘connected credentials’ which seems to be a Lumina Foundation shorthand for an emergent taxonomy of badges:
In the context of this paper, “connected credentials” refers broadly to multiple aspects of connectedness, including connections and relationships among credentials, connections to purpose and value in multiple contexts, and connections to opportunities for credential earners.
Collective Impact for Connecting Credentials
There are many different types of credentials, serving different purposes, and issued by different kinds of organisations. This is confusing for people:
In the face of… many variations, stakeholders struggle to make sense of how credentials are related to each other. This is a particularly poignant struggle for those who seek to earn credentials, since they have few guides or coordinated information to help them make decisions and appropriate investments.
The authors outline the particular problems in the US, which I think are more widely applicable:
The Connecting Credentials Initiative’s Making the Case paper provides a clear overview of the situation, outlining the contextual factors that put pressure on our credentialing ecosystem (Lumina Foundation 2015b, 1–4):
The diverse range of students pursuing postsecondary education, including approximately 85 percent post-traditional students (Soares 2013, 6)
The mismatch between what employers need and job seekers’ capabilities
Lack of clear credential pathways to help students understand and reach their goals
The proliferation of education and training providers, with most people using multiple providers
Lack of transparency and consistency in quality assurance for credentials
The report goes on to reference many different aspects of the Connecting Credentials initiative, including their Beta Credentials Framework, which “uses competencies as common reference points to help users understand and compare the levels of knowledge and skills that underlie all credentials” — although this is, of course, focused on the American system.
The authors introduce some useful nomenclature for describing the differing roles of stakeholders in the ecosystem:
For the purposes of these descriptions, the complexity of participants in credentialing ecosystems has been simplified to focus on four types of stakeholders:
Earners are “the people who attain credentials”. They have a number of problems around comparing credentials, signaling their competencies, credentials expiring, a lack of modularity and ‘stackability’ in credentials, ‘dead ends’, a lack of on-ramps, socio-economic issues, issues around transparency, and a lack of employer/industry understanding of the credentials they have earned.
Issuers are “organizations that award credentials to earners”. Their problems are around the ‘market value’ of their credentials, how credentials stack together, collaboration with other issuers, and the lack of common descriptors for popular credentials.
Consumers are “those who use credentials to make judgments and decisions about the qualifications and competencies of earners for specific purposes”. Their problems include understanding what the credential represents, and the burden of ensuring employees have the skills to go with the knowledge they earned while earning a credential.
Endorsers have “traditionally… been accrediting bodies or other independent third parties that vouch for the institution or organization and the quality and validity of its credentials. [They] are often also the ones who authorize issuers to award specific credentials. In the case of certifications and licenses, these authorizing entities can be licensure boards, state agencies, or industry organizations.” Endorsers’ problems are around determining the value of credentials, a lack of transparency and clear frameworks, and the paucity of information on which to base their endorsements.
Dimensions of Quality for Connected Credentials
This is the ‘meat’ of the report, in which the authors outline six dimensions for quality, ‘connected’ credentials:
[The dimensions] are not all-encompassing, but they provide useful ways of discussing credentials and how they can be improved, both generally and in the analysis of specific credentials.
The dimensions overlap and also mutually reinforce each other. For example, modularity supports portability by making it easier to move credentials from one context to another; transparency supports relevance, by making it easier for consumers to understand what a credential includes and therefore how it is relevant for their purposes.
The authors outline what they mean by each of the six dimensions in bullet point format. To avoid making this long post even longer, I will simply quote the summary at the end of each dimension.
Transparency supports connectedness by making credentials easier to understand and compare, facilitating the definition and implementation of relationships among credentials. Transparency also supports connections to opportunities by helping all stakeholders understand how credentials are valuable.
Modularity supports connectedness by making credentials more componentized and less monolithic, leading to more connection points and possible relationships among credentials. Modularity also helps students understand the components within credentials and how they connect to each other and to larger goals such as socioeconomic mobility and lifelong learning.
Portability supports connectedness by making credentials more applicable in multiple contexts, connecting to multiple purposes and opportunities. Portability also facilitates connections among different types of credentials in different environments.
Relevance supports connectedness by illuminating the applicability and purposes of credentials for specific stakeholders in their own contexts, thereby connecting to opportunities in those contexts. Relevance also connects and amplifies different types of value by helping stakeholders understand the
network of verification, documentation, evidence, and social interpretation supporting the credential.
Validity supports connectedness by illuminating the broad frameworks of meaning and value that connect the credential to opportunities. Validity provides a shared understanding and trust of how the credential is defined, including the evidence and quality assurance structures that are necessary to implement well-defined relationships among credentials.
Equity as a dimension of quality credentials helps people overcome their disadvantages and connect to opportunities. Equity provides a network of flexible access points and supports that connect students to credential attainment and the benefits of lifelong learning.
Describing the Current State of Credential Types
This section applies the six dimensions of quality as defined by the authors to different types of credentials, including badges. They find that badges pass all of the tests, with the only problems being (unsurprisingly, given the nature of the report) around the lack of a common language/framework for connecting them together.
Challenge Questions for Analyzing Credentials and Visualizing Potential Futures
The final section before the report’s conclusion is a series of questions under the six quality headings that issuers can ask of their credentials. For example:
Are the competencies (knowledge and specialized skills, personal skills, and social skills) represented by this credential clearly defined?
What value does this credential carry for specific stakeholders that you identify as important? How do you know what these stakeholders value? Are they involved in your credential improvement
These are extremely useful questions for any issuer of credentials to consider.
Conclusion: Call to Action
The authors list various ways that those reading the report who are in US Higher Education can get involved. These include forming working groups, writing papers and book chapters, hosting workshops, and reading other papers by Connecting Credentials.
[A] willingness to ask and seek answers to these questions is an essential first step in breaking down the credentialing silos that sometimes impede student progress and cause our systems to be less effective and beneficial than they could be.
We encourage you to complete the arc of your journey: Identify your credentialing ecosystem stakeholders, articulate the problems they encounter when credentials are not connected, use the challenge questions to analyze and discuss the current state of your specific credentials with regard to the quality dimensions, and then establish a realistic plan and timeline for developing more valuable, robust, and connected credentials that reflect your new approach.
I’d recommend reading the report in full here and, more importantly, think about how you can apply the findings no matter what your context.
For more on Open Badges and how to get started with them, check out Open Badges 101, a free, open community course Bryan Mathers and I put together.