Open Thinkering


Tag: metaphor

Moodling around with a Jetpack metaphor

I’m busy ideating, and talking to people around, Project MoodleNet. When you’re explaining something that doesn’t yet exist, you’ve got to use touchstones and metaphors, starting from where people are to help them understand where you want to go.

Project MoodleNet landscape

In these discussions I’ve been using three things to help me:

  1. A great ‘landscape’ image from Bryan Mathers (see above)
  2. The 3D printing social network Thingiverse (which I wrote about here)
  3. The Jetpack plugin for WordPress

It’s worth, I think, unpacking the third of these — if only so I’ve got a public URL to point people towards when I reference it elsewhere! It’s an imperfect metaphor, as it involves more technical understanding than we’ll require for Project MoodleNet.

Anyway, here goes…

WordPress and Moodle are similar

  • Free (as in freedom)
  • Open Source
  • Host your own version
  • Have it hosted for you
  • Partnership network

How Jetpack works

Jetpack is a meta-plugin, a ‘plugin of plugins’ that adds lots of functionality to self-hosted instances of WordPress. In fact, it’s pretty much a no-brainer to activate Jetpack if you’re self-hosting. It connects your instance to your account, giving you:

  • Faster page loading (via CDN)
  • Additional security
  • Detailed site stats
  • Faster logins
  • Payment integration

Install Jetpack

Where’s the value for the organisation behind WordPress?

So lots of value for users, but (you may think), what’s in it for Automattic, the organisation behind WordPress? Well…

  • Secure, fast WordPress sites maintain brand value
  • Better metrics around installation numbers
  • Ability to upsell to customers direct from dashboard

Jetpack dashboard

Why is this a good metaphor for what we’re doing?

Project MoodleNet will be a standalone social network for educators focused on professional development and open content. It can be supercharged, however, by using a similar model to what WordPress have done with Jetpack.

Imagine users logging into a institutionally-hosted Moodle instance using their Project MoodleNet credentials because the two are connected in a similar way to how Jetpack works for the WordPress ecosystem.

To be clear, I’m not proposing that Project MoodleNet offers the same services as Jetpack, I’m saying that it serves as an example where you can create value in two places and additional value by linking them together.

This would mean…

  • Teachers: professional social networking within their existing learning platform.
  • Instructional designers: faster access to curated open resources.
  • Sysadmins: better security and potentially reduced hosting costs.

(if you’re wondering about ‘reduced hosting costs’ it’s because we’re tentatively looking at how IPFS could be used in the wider Moodle ecosystem)


This isn’t a perfect metaphor by any means, and so I’m looking for other ways to explain what we’re trying to achieve. However, the combination of Bryan’s image, referencing Thingiverse, and explaining JetPack is helping those I’m talking with to understand the kind of thing we’re trying to build.

What kind of metaphor would you use?

Main image CC BY-NC Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

Explaining Open Badges through analogy

One of the best ways to help people understand something they’ve not come across before is through metaphor and analogy.

A year or so ago, for example, my son had a cold and said “my nose is deaf” – and I knew exactly what he meant. It contained just the right balance of ambiguity.* When explaining Open Badges to people I’ve found “X is kind of like Y because of Z” helpful in getting them to grasp what I mean. The more useful metaphors, similes and analogies I can find, therefore, the better.

Below are some I’ve used recently to explain Open Badges. They may or may not help you or the people you’re talking to about badges. But give them a read and tell me what you think. Oh, and the animated GIFs are just for fun! 😉

The difference between ‘a badge’ and ‘a badge system’

Mozilla is developing the OBI – the Open Badges Infrastructure. People are free to use it to create their own badges for whatever purpose they like.


It’s a bit like a water company providing the infrastructure so that instead of having to go to a well, you can get water coming out of a tap. What you use that water for, what you mix it with, and how you share it is entirely up to you.

A different analogy might be that a badge is akin to an ‘app’ in an app store. Mozilla may produce some badges of its own, but it’s looking after the entire ‘app store’ in terms of the OBI. This metaphor breaks down for two reasons, however: there’s no one place to see all of the badges (at present) and it’s not a walled garden as many app stores are. Anyone can use badges for any purpose without reference to Mozilla. It’s an open, decentralised system and standard.

Metadata in badges

Metadata is data about data. It’s like when you tag someone in a photo on Facebook – you’re adding data about the data already in the system. In this case the data is the photograph and the metadata you’re adding is the name of an individual in the photo. The index at the back of a book is metadata as well – data about the data in the book.

Sunglasses on

One way to think about Open Badges is that they’re a bit like barcodes that can be understood by humans. Just as when you scan a barcode you get extra data such as the price of a product, so when clicking a badge you get details of what the earner had to do to get the badge, the evidence for it, etc.

The metadata is hard-coded into the Open Badge. So, just like when you make a cake, it’s made up of lots of different ingredients (the name of the badge, the identity of the badge earner, the Criteria URL, etc.). Once you’ve baked the cake or the badge, you can’t change those ingredients or get them out. That badge is unique to the individual. If you’ve baked a chocolate cake and now you want a Victoria sponge, then you’re going to have to bake another cake. Similarly, you can’t change a badge once it’s been issued.**

Badge pathways

In life, some pathways and routes definitely lead somewhere. That could be a route into employment, a journey to a holiday destination, or some other ‘place’ that you want to get to. There are almost-guaranteed ways to get to that destination, such as going to a travel agent and getting them to take care of your flight, transfers and accommodation. Likewise, completing a recognised project management qualification greatly increases the chances of being employed as a project manager.

Cat high five

There are other ways of getting to your holiday destination and becoming a project manager, however. You could book all of the different parts of the trip yourself. You could hitch-hike. You could use websites like Couchsurfing or Airbnb. Likewise, with the project manager position you could have learned how to manage projects on the job and have lots of experience of delivering successfully. Or, indeed, you may have transferable skills.

But there are some people for whom the journey is the destination. They don’t have a particular path in mind – or, perhaps, they’re blazing a new trail unsure of where it will lead. Being able to capture the knowledge, experience and skills they gain along the way would seem to be a useful thing to do. It surfaces the slightly meandering journey that I think we’ve all experienced during our careers. Badges can help validate these non-linear pathways.

Badge quality

Think of the last time you stayed in a hotel. Unless that was booked on your behalf, how did you end up staying where you did? Some of it may have been down to money, but what other factors were involved? There would have been the 5-star rating system which, until recently, would have been one of the only ways to ascertain the quality of a hotel. But is that the only thing you used? I bet, nine times out of ten, it was either TripAdvisor or some other social ratings/recommendation system.

Wow - men in suits drinking tea

The value of an Open Badge comes from at least from three different places. First, there’s the reputation of the individual or organisation that issues (or, in future, endorses) the badge. Second, there’s the (essential) Criteria URL in the badge that tells the consumer what the earner of the badge had to do to get it. And, finally, there’s the (optional) Evidence URL that shows just what the earner did with that criteria. It’s a triangulation very much akin to deciding which hotel to stay at: the star rating, a description of the facilities/amenities, and reviews from sites like TripAdvisor.

The point here is that top-down ‘quality’ systems can work, but they’re even more powerful (and can sometimes be replaced) by horizontal, peer-to-peer recommendation engines. It’s the difference between how a system should work and how it actually works.

Badge equivalency

Deciding that one thing is equivalent to another is not something that Mozilla is (at the moment, at least) concerned with.

Baby losing it

I think of badge equivalency as being a bit like mobile phone tariffs. There’s many different plans and tariffs that it’s possible to use/sign up for as a mobile phone user. Most of them offer fairly similar combinations of talktime minutes, SMS messages and 3G data. Some, however, may offer 4G data. Even if there are differences between providers, it’s still possible to weigh up what’s best for you. What you decide to be ‘equivalent’ might not be the same as what someone else believes to be so. It depends upon context.

There will potentially be many different providers of similar badges. The value of the badge will be ascertained by employers and other people providing opportunities by comparing those badges against the others available. Credentials are always used for a purpose, after all. Eventually, some kind of ‘BadgeRank’ algorithm (similar to Google’s ‘PageRank’) may help both earners and employers find the most relevant badges in their industry.

Badge backpacks

Badges are hosted in a badge backpack and then displayed across the Web. It’s similar to videos being stored on YouTube or Vimeo and being embedded on many different websites. Likewise, you can make them private or public. The difference here is that, once we’ve got federated badge backpacks, you will get to choose where your ‘videos’ (badges) are hosted as well as where they’re embedded.

Unwrap - BOOM

Some of these work better than others. I’d very much appreciate feedback as well as any analogies you’ve used successfully! 🙂

* More about different types of ambiguity in this paper that I (co-)wrote.

** So, technically, we are thinking very carefully about badge revocation but we don’t want people reaching into people’s badge backpacks willy-nilly and changing them. There possibly will be a ‘nuclear’ option for revocation, however – such as when you’ve accidentally awarded a PhD-level badge to a six year-old…

Image CC BY-NC-SA howard.hall

What I Talk About When I Talk About ‘User Outcomes’: #1 – Douglas Adams, Feng Shui & controlling behaviours.

This is the first in the series of a series of occasional posts in which I attempt to explain, either through my own words or those of others, what I mean by my ongoing project of ‘improving user outcomes’. The title of this series is inspired by Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, itself inspired by Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

In September 1998 the late, great, Douglas Adams gave an off-the-cuff speech at Digital Biota 2, held at Magdelene College Cambridge. Whilst I’d recommend reading the whole thing, what I find fascinating about the following extract is the nuance in his approach. It’s a fantastic example of why our relationship with others and our environment is so complex – and why we often require metaphor as a lens:

I want to talk about Feng Shui, which is something I know very little about, but there’s been a lot of talk about it recently in terms of figuring out how a building should be designed, built, situated, decorated and so on. Apparently, we need to think about the building being inhabited by dragons and look at it in terms of how a dragon would move around it. So, if a dragon wouldn’t be happy in the house, you have to put a red fish bowl here or a window there. This sounds like complete and utter nonsense, because anything involving dragons must be nonsense – there aren’t any dragons, so any theory based on how dragons behave is nonsense. What are these silly people doing, imagining that dragons can tell you how to build your house? Nevertheless, it occurs to me if you disregard for a moment the explanation that’s actually offered for it, it may be there is something interesting going on that goes like this: we all know from buildings that we’ve lived in, worked in, been in or stayed in, that some are more comfortable, more pleasant and more agreeable to live in than others. We haven’t had a real way of quantifying this, but in this century we’ve had an awful lot of architects who think they know how to do it, so we’ve had the horrible idea of the house as a machine for living in, we’ve had Mies van der Roe and others putting up glass stumps and strangely shaped things that are supposed to form some theory or other. It’s all carefully engineered, but nonetheless, their buildings are not actually very nice to live in. An awful lot of theory has been poured into this, but if you sit and work with an architect (and I’ve been through that stressful time, as I’m sure a lot of people have) then when you are trying to figure out how a room should work you’re trying to integrate all kinds of things about lighting, about angles, about how people move and how people live – and an awful lot of other things you don’t know about that get left out. You don’t know what importance to attach to one thing or another; you’re trying to, very consciously, figure out something when you haven’t really got much of a clue, but there’s this theory and that theory, this bit of engineering practice and that bit of architectural practice; you don’t really know what to make of them. Compare that to somebody who tosses a cricket ball at you. You can sit and watch it and say, ‘It’s going at 17 degrees’; start to work it out on paper, do some calculus, etc. and about a week after the ball’s whizzed past you, you may have figured out where it’s going to be and how to catch it. On the other hand, you can simply put your hand out and let the ball drop into it, because we have all kinds of faculties built into us, just below the conscious level, able to do all kinds of complex integrations of all kinds of complex phenomena which therefore enables us to say, ‘Oh look, there’s a ball coming; catch it!’

What I’m suggesting is that Feng Shui and an awful lot of other things are precisely of that kind of problem. There are all sorts of things we know how to do, but don’t necessarily know what we do, we just do them. Go back to the issue of how you figure out how a room or a house should be designed and instead of going through all the business of trying to work out the angles and trying to digest which genuine architectural principles you may want to take out of what may be a passing architectural fad, just ask yourself, ‘how would a dragon live here?’ We are used to thinking in terms of organic creatures; an organic creature may consist of an enormous complexity of all sorts of different variables that are beyond our ability to resolve but we know how organic creatures live. We’ve never seen a dragon but we’ve all got an idea of what a dragon is like, so we can say, ‘Well if a dragon went through here, he’d get stuck just here and a little bit cross over there because he couldn’t see that and he’d wave his tail and knock that vase over’. You figure out how the dragon’s going to be happy here and lo and behold! you’ve suddenly got a place that makes sense for other organic creatures, such as ourselves, to live in.

So, my argument is that as we become more and more scientifically literate, it’s worth remembering that the fictions with which we previously populated our world may have some function that it’s worth trying to understand and preserve the essential components of, rather than throwing out the baby with the bath water; because even though we may not accept the reasons given for them being here in the first place, it may well be that there are good practical reasons for them, or something like them, to be there.

I’d argue that there’s many such metaphors at work in our everyday life and that, in fact, almost everything we do is predicated upon cultural norms that colour our perception. This is known as the ‘theory-ladeness’ of observation and, taken to one extreme, would mean that we do, in fact, encounter the world entirely through metaphor.

What does this mean for user outcomes? Controlling metaphors means controlling behaviours.

Image CC-BY-SA Aditya Grandhi