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What we need is an Open Badges community renaissance, free of IMS involvement

TL;DR: the Open Badges Google Group contains many members but has been moribund under the stewardship of IMS Global Learning Consortium. Time for something different?

Background

Yesterday, EdSurge published an article about Open Badges which included a quotation from me. It was the first I’d heard of it as the reporter didn’t reach out to me. My words were taken from the etherpad minutes audio recording of a meeting held towards the end of last year about Credly’s ownership of patents relating to badges.

It’s important to note that, while EdSurge mentions the fact that I work for Moodle in the article, my opinions on the subject have nothing to do with my (part-time) employer, and everything to do with my involvement in the Open Badges ecosystem since 2012. I have some things to say about IMS Global Learning Consortium, and I’m afraid I can’t be very complimentary.

Introduction

To my mind, three things led to the exponential growth of badges between 2012 and 2015:

  1. Mozilla’s technical expertise and reputation
  2. The MacArthur Foundation’s money and influence
  3. The Open Badges community’s evangelism and organisation

MacArthur’s money dried up after 2015, and while Mozilla’s involvement declined more slowly, they have been essentially non-existent in the ecosystem since they handed over stewardship of the Open Badges standard to IMS Global Learning consortium at the start of 2017. So what kept the Open Badges movement going between 2015 and 2017?

Community!

The thing I really want to focus here is the third thing: community. I may be biased given that I worked for the Mozilla Foundation at the time, but they did a fantastic job at attracting, feeding, and listening to a community around Open Badges. Since the transfer to IMS that community has withered. IMS doesn’t care; as a membership organisation they exist for the benefit of their members.

Right now the Open Badges Google Group, now controlled by IMS, has 2,603 members. It was a hive of activity five years ago, but now it’s moribund. This is a direct effect of IMS working in a way diametrically opposed to the conditions under which the community prospered: they are closed, secretive and unforthcoming. As the EdSurge article points out, IMS have even allowed one of its members to get away with patenting elements of the very standard it has been charged with stewarding.

With such dereliction of duty something has to be done. In similar circumstances, other open source projects have been ‘forked’. In other words, unhappy with the way a project is being managed, community members can take the underlying idea in a different direction. From my understanding having talked to some influential figures in the community, there’s a very real possibility that could happen in the next 18 months unless IMS ups their game.

Next steps?

What we need here is a a renaissance in the Open Badges community. The existing Google Group is administered by IMS and may no longer be fit for purpose. So, I’m wondering out loud whether the co-op of which I’m part should step up and host a new place for people who want to discuss Open Badges and digital credentials?

We’ve got a history of working with the community through projects such as Badge Wiki and Badge News (now The Learning Fractal). Most of us also worked for Mozilla during the glory days.

What do you think? Would you like to see an Open Badges community renaissance? How do you see that happening?


Photo by Marc Biarnès used under a Creative Commons license

A modest proposal for nudging young people into finding a direction in life

If you go to the Mozilla home page, right click, and ‘view source’, you see something like this:

Mozilla source code

Underneath the ASCII art of a dragon breathing fire (and the Mozilla logo), the page reads:

Hi there, nice to meet you!

Interested in having a direct impact on hundreds of millions of users? Join Mozilla, and become part of a global community that’s helping to build a brighter future for the Web.

Visit https://careers.mozilla.org to learn about our current job openings. Visit https://www.mozilla.org/contribute for more ways to get involved and help support Mozilla.

I don’t know if they’ve got any stats on how many people respond to this call to action, but when I was at Mozilla, there were lots of people who I wouldn’t consider your ‘usual’ tech contributors. I’m guessing things like this make a practical difference.

Last night I had a dream. No, stay with me. In it, I was advising someone who was having a real problem with kids trying to get around filters and firewalls he’d put in place in a school. It’s probably because tomorrow I’ll be at BETT in London where all kinds of technologies will be on offer trying to ever more lock down the internet to children.

Before I continue, I’m not advocating a free-for-all. Goodness knows I have to lock things down a bit for my 12 year-old son at home. However, I do think there’s an opportunity here, and it’s related to what Mozilla do with their home page.


For better or worse, most educational institutions now do some kind of forensic tracking and analysis of searches made and websites visited across their network. Given the duty of care they have and the times we live in, I’d expect nothing different. However, I’m pretty sure we could leverage that to help young people make some choices in life.

It doesn’t have to be ASCII art and volunteering for a tech company! How about the following?

  • Repeated searches for food leads to an email invitiation to cookery club
  • Visiting a bunch of beauty and fashion sites leads to a prompt to ask if they’ve considered doing a qualification in design
  • Violations of school security and privacy policies lead to recruitment to being an ‘ethical hacker’ for the organisation

Schools and other educational institutions have so much data on young people these days. I just wonder whether, with a few little tweaks and some lateral thinking, we could make that useful to students, too?

I’d love to know if anywhere is already doing this! Have you seen any examples?

Pearson, WTF? Badges, patents, and the world’s ‘least popular’ education company

I was all ready to write an angry blog post about Pearson’s attempt to patent the Generation, Management, and Tracking of Digital Credentials when it came to my attention that they have closed their DRM-Free ebook store, and will now proceed to delete all ebooks from their customers’ accounts. After posting the biggest loss in their history earlier this year, I think (hope?) Pearson’s days are numbered. They’re certainly acting like it.

If people had understood how patents would be granted when most of today’s ideas were invented, and had taken out patents, the industry would be at a complete standstill today. (Bill Gates)

Instead of getting angry, however, let’s just take look at that patent for a moment. While I’m no legal expert, I’ve seen naive ‘SEO optimised’ pages repeat key words fewer times than this document repeats the words ‘digital credentials’. It almost looks like Pearson are trying too hard here to prove that they invented something they’ve only ever tried make money from.

Here’s the highlights for those people whose lives are too short to read legal documents:

  • Filing date: 25th March 2016
  • Claim 1 is for a ‘digital credential issuance system’ made up of:
    • Digital credential template owner device
    • Digital credential issuer device
    • Digital credential platform server
  • Claims 2-10 go into further detail about Claim 1.
  • Claim 11 is for a ‘method of authorizing issuers of digital credentials’ which includes receiving, storing, and transmitting a digital credential template.
  • Claims 12-20 go into further detail about Claim 11.

The ‘background’ section uses language very similar to the Open Badges for Lifelong Learning working paper published in 2012 by Mozilla. It talks about changes in technologies and society, how credentials should be available for any kind of learning, but that there are challenges around “publishing, verifying, and tracking the sets of technical skills and proficiencies that these individuals have obtained”.

Although Pearson’s patent application features the phrase ‘digital credentials’ in its title, the ‘background’ section mentions ‘digital badges’ are explicitly:

[C]ertain institutions may issue digital credentials (or digital badges) to qualifying individuals, and these digital credential earners may use the digital credentials to certify the skills or qualifications that the earner obtained vis-à-vis the institution.

As anyone who has paid any attention to Open Badges since the original pilot in 2011 would know, Pearson didn’t invent digital credentials, digital badges, or anything remotely innovative in the area — in 2016, or at any point after or before that. Their game is targeting and enclosing particular markets, as I pointed out  in February 2016, in a post which pre-dated this patent application.

Unlike the Salesforce patent granted earlier this year (see Open Badges community discussion), Pearson’s patent is a lot more wide-ranging. While Salesforce’s patent focuses about ‘achievements’ and requires a system that involves specific roles, recommendations, and a social network, Pearson’s is about digital credential platforms. It even includes analytics.

Now, I can understand why a struggling publicly-traded company would try to go all-out to find a way to return to profitability. That does not, however, mean that we as a community should stand for it.

The good patent gives the world something it did not truly have before, whereas the bad patent has the effect of trying to take away from the world something which it effectively already had. (Giles Sutherland Rich)

I used to be mildly amused that Pearson played in a sandpit so obviously at odds with their raison d’être. Perhaps I should have been more cynical, as they obviously are. I note, for example, that Pearson waited until Mozilla handed over stewardship of Open Badges to IMS Global Learning Consortium (who have said they will not contest the patent) before filing.

If you’re reading this and are worried about the future of Open Badges, then don’t be. Pearson have shot themselves in the foot in several ways during this process that means that either they won’t be granted this patent, or will find it almost impossible to enforce. I’m not going to enumerate all of those ways here, but they perhaps should be a bit more careful about joining W3C working groups before filing patent applications…


I’m closing comments on this post as I’d prefer people added their voice to this thread on the Open Badges Google Group. Please get involved, particularly if you know of a viable way that this can be challenged and shown up for the ridiculous posturing it is.

Image CC BY-SA opensource.com

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