Open Thinkering


Tag: Mozilla

Seven Samurai and Open Badges

Film still from 'Seven Samurai' (1954)

During the UCL Systems Thinking short course I did last week, I was introduced to three different systems thinking approaches. Partly because it’s the name of one of my favourite films, but partly because it notes the importance of context, I quite liked the ‘Seven Samurai’ approach.

Now, this is possibly less exciting than it sounds. It’s named as such because there are seven things beginning with the letter ‘S’. But still, it seems like a handy approach.

Given that I’ve just registered for the Open University’s MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice, I thought I’d have a go at using the Seven Samurai model. If nothing else, it will allow me to have a good laugh at myself in the months and years to come. Here goes…

Let’s begin with an image of the whole diagram in the abstract, just to get it out of the way. This, no doubt, looks extremely complicated and slightly horrific.

Seven Samurai model with circles and lines

Let’s just break this down by going one step at a time. I may get this spectacularly wrong and, if so, I hope people reading this who know more than me can put me right.

I’m going to use as my example the Open Badges ecosystem, mainly because it’s one of the things I know most about, and it’s evolved during a time period where I’ve been paying attention to it.

The thing to keep in mind when looking at a Seven Samurai diagram is that it helps explain why the deployed system is not the same as the designed system. Also, new problems emerge when systems are deployed, and other systems are required to sustain the developed systems.

Problem 1 (P1) and Context System 1 (S1)

The original Open Badges for Lifelong Learning white paper did a good job of outlining a growing problem (P1) where learning happens everywhere, but isn’t visible:

Without a way to capture, promote and transfer all of the learning that can occur within a broader connected learning ecology, we are limiting that ecology by discouraging engaged learning, making critical skills unattractive or inaccessible, isolating or ignoring quality efforts and interactions and ultimately, holding learners back from reaching their potential.

The Context System here (S1) is all learners, of all types, everywhere on earth. The scope is huge.

Intervention System (S2) and Realization System (S3)

The whitepaper goes on to explain how the Open Badges Infrastructure (S2) can help with this problem:

Thus, badges can play a crucial role in the connected learning ecology by acting as a bridge between contexts and making these alternative learning channels, skills and types of learning more viable, portable and impactful. Badges can be awarded for a potentially limitless set of individual skills regardless of where each skill is developed, and the collection of badges can serve as a virtual resume of competencies and qualities for key stakeholders such as peers, schools or potential employers.

The Realization System (S3) around the Open Badges Infrastructure was the MacArthur Foundation’s grant funding, Mozilla’s technical expertise, and the enthusiastic international community that was growing around it.

Deployed System (S4), Collaborating System (S5), and Modified Context System (S1′)

The Open Badges Infrastructure (OBI) was never fully finished by Mozilla, partly due to funding drying up. A templated, easy-to-use badging system called ‘BadgeKit’ was shelved, and idea of federated ‘backpacks’ where individuals could move their badges around didn’t come to fruition. In other words, the Deployed System (S4) fell short of the original dream.

This caused a problem. The international community that had grown up around the idea were keen for Open Badges to develop further. Some universities started experimenting with Open Badges as, essentially, short courses and/or marketing materials for their longer programmes. They, along with professional associations, became the Collaborating System (S5).

Open Badges was spun out of Mozilla, first finding a home at the Badge Alliance (2014) and then at IMS Global Learning Consortium (2017) — which is now known as 1EdTech. As such, the Context System (S1) was now different, becoming the Modified Context System (S1′).

Sustainment System (S6)

In this example, I think that the Sustainment System (S6) for Open Badges were particular voices within the community. Kerri Lemoie, Nate Otto, and Sheryl Grant for example. There were many others. I may have been one.

These community members performed roles such as continuing to work on successive versions of the Open Badges standard, fighting off attempts to water down the orginal vision. Others evangelised the standard and what could be done with it. Still others developed the actual systems that allowed people to issue badges.

Problem 2 (P2) and Competing System (S7)

The Deployed System (S4) being quite different to the design of the Intervention System (S2) led to some problems. (P2) The chief one was that individuals were not as in control of their badges as originally envisaged. Although it was technically possible to move your badges between systems, in practice each issuing platform became a silo.

There were other problems, as well. For example, Open Badges relied on email addresses that people no longer had access to after leaving institutions or organisations. The evidence behind them also was subject to ‘link rot’ as badges work like the web.

As a result, a Competing System emerged (S7) which reconceptualised badges as ‘microcredentials’. Although some of this uses similar infrastructure, there are different developments for example around NFT certificates, blockchain-based credentials, and LERs. These tend to foreground the organisation rather than the individual learner.


Well, that was fun! This was mainly for my own benefit, but maybe you learned something along the way. As I said above, if you’ve used this approach before, or have anything you’d like to point out to help my learning, please comment below.

The role of endorsement in Open Badges and Open Recognition

Lately, I’ve been rethinking the importance of endorsements in the Open Badges ecosystem. This is due to changes in version 3.0, which now links Open Badges with a model called Verifiable Credentials. These changes have made me revisit some of my earlier ideas, especially as I’ve been doing more work on Open Recognition.

Some context

After leaving Mozilla in 2015, I worked as a consultant for City & Guilds, focusing on badges and digital qualifications. Originally coming from a background in formal education, I found it really interesting to see how organisations made sure their assessment systems were credible.

Validity, Reliability, and Viability combining to produce Credibility

Image CC BY-ND Bryan Mathers

To explain the above diagram:

  • Validity refers to the extent to which an assessment accurately measures what it is intended to measure. In other words, a valid assessment is one that successfully captures the skills, knowledge, or attributes it claims to evaluate.
  • Reliability is concerned with the consistency and stability of assessment scores over time and across different conditions. A reliable assessment will yield similar results when administered multiple times under similar conditions.
  • Viability refers to the practicality and feasibility of the assessment system. This includes considerations like cost, time, resources, and the technological infrastructure needed to administer the assessment.

These three elements combine to produce Credibility in the assessment system, by which we mean that stakeholders such as educational institutions, learners, and employers have confidence in the results it produces.

While it’s good that established awarding bodies like City & Guilds are using badges, my main interest is in challenging the existing system. That’s why it’s crucial for more people to understand the concepts that these organisations use.

What is endorsement?

When we’re unsure about the importance of something or whether to pay it attention, we often look for signs to help us decide. As William James said, “Our faith is faith in some one else’s faith, and in the greatest matters this is most the case.” So, if someone or an organisation you trust vouches for another person or topic, you’re likely to see it in a positive light.

This trust is often formally known as ‘endorsement,’ and it’s a feature of the Open Badges standard that’s often overlooked and underused.

In a 2016 book chapter called ‘The Role of Endorsement in Open Badges Ecosystems,’ Deb Everhart, Anne Derryberry, Erin Knight, and Sunny Lee highlighted how crucial endorsement is. It’s not just about supporting badge pathways but also about building networks of trust. These networks are key to the practice of Open Recognition.

Endorsement encourages the development of trust networks and connections among stakeholders in communities such as education, government, standards bodies, employers, and industry associations. Badge endorsers make their values known by analyzing the quality of specific badges, including how the badge is defined, the competencies it represents, its standards alignments, the process of assessing badge earners, and the qualifications of the badge issuer to structure and evaluate the learning achievement represented by the badge. With endorsement, badge earners are better able to understand which badges carry the most value for their goals. Badge issuers benefit from external validation of their badges. Educators, employers, and other consumers who evaluate learners’ achievements can better determine which badges are most appropriate in their contexts.

At the moment, the majority of badge platforms use v2 of the Open Badge standard. Endorsement isn’t a mandatory field when setting up the badge’s metadata. So, what’s the benefit of using it?

Taking City & Guilds as an example, they endorse the RSA’s City of Learning Badging Standard. In other words, they put their reputation behind it after checking that the RSA’s approach is valid, reliable, and viable.

Just like anyone can follow a curriculum, anyone can align their badge system with the Engage / Participate / Demonstrate / Lead approach. But this doesn’t guarantee their badges will get endorsed. To get an endorsement, there needs to be a relationship between the one giving the badge and the one endorsing it.

In theory, individual badges (called ‘assertions’) can get their own endorsements, separate from the general type of badge (known as ‘badge class’). But this is rare in practice. It’s usually the case that an organisation endorses a ‘Leadership’ badge as a whole, rather than endorsing a specific person’s ‘Leadership’ badge. However, this is getting easier, as some platforms are now set up to handle mass endorsement requests.

Changes to endorsement with v3.0 of the standard

Earlier this year, I published a post highlighting key updates to the Open Badges standard as it transitions to version 3.0. One significant change I didn’t mention at the time is how endorsements are managed.

The following example is taken from the endorsements section of the specification. I’ve rewritten it as the original is quite confusingly worded:

Ralph received a badge from the hospital where he works. This badge lists the skills needed for his role. He asks his workmates to vouch for these skills. The badge platform helps by sending this request to his peers, letting them review his skills, and then giving out endorsement badges. These new badges link back to Ralph’s original badge, name his colleagues as the ones who endorsed him, and show that Ralph is the one who received the endorsement.

A note from the editor below this example clarifies that, unlike previous versions of the standard, v3.0 requires giving out extra credentials for endorsements. This means endorsements are usually added after a badge has already been given. In previous versions, endorsement details could be part of the original badge, included in a reissued badge, or kept separately on the badge platform.

The change is possible because Open Badge v3.0 and Verifiable Credentials do not require a badge image. Although I saw this as some kind of sacrilege when I first heard of it, I’ve come to appreciate the merits of such an approach. It makes a lot sense for endorsements.

How endorsements enable Open Recognition

Another part of the v3.0 specification mentions self-assertion, which means an individual issuing a badge or credential to themself. We’ve talked about this ever since the early days of badges, but it was seen as either dangerous or frivolous by those with a vested interest in the status quo.

I’ve again slightly reworded the example found in the self-assertion section of specification for ease of understanding:

Stacy has made a mobile app that shows off her skills in coding, design, and product management. She sets up an account on a badge platform and designs a badge that lists these skills. Using her digital wallet app, she links to the badge platform and gives herself this badge. The badge includes screenshots and a link to her mobile app as proof. Stacy uses this badge and similar ones as items in her verified portfolio.

The editor’s note explains that in older versions of the specification, it was possible for individuals to create badges for yourself and colleagues. However, the details about who issued the badge were designed to be used by organisations. Now, v3.0, these details can refer to either an organisation or a person, with both the issuer and the recipient profiles having similar optional details. This makes means that an organisation can also be listed as the recipient of a badge.

Person giving a badge to someone else. A cloud of 'credentialing' surrounds them, with a wider cloud of 'recognition' around that.

Image CC BY-ND Visual Thinkery for WAO

This is huge for the purposes of Open Recognition:

Open Recognition is the awareness and appreciation of talents, skills and aspirations in ways that go beyond credentialing. This includes recognising the rights of individuals, communities, and territories to apply their own labels and definitions. Their frameworks may be emergent and/or implicit.

It means the following workflow is possible (and entirely legitimate):

  1. An individual self-issues a badge for something that makes sense to them, in their own language, and in their own context/community
  2. They ask for this badge to be endorsed by other members of the community
  3. The individual uses their badge, endorsed multiple times, to gain greater recognition in their community/sector/field

It’s worth noting that this doesn’t require traditional awarding bodies to validate or acknowledge their experience. This is key. While it’s possible for these bodies to do so, the groundbreaking aspect of Open Badges has always been to democratise the issuing of credentials, allowing anyone to issue badges to anyone, for anything.


Person standing in concentric circles entitled 'Self-issued', 'Issued', 'Verified', and 'Endorsed'

Image CC BY-ND Bryan Mathers

The above image came out of a conversation I had with Bryan back in 2017. At the time, endorsement was still a very organisation-centric way of creating credibility within the Open Badges ecosystem.

What I’m delighted to see is that finally the early revolutionary promise of badges is being recognised at a technical level. I can’t wait to see how individuals and organisations start using endorsement with v3.0 of the standard, and I’m excited to help them explore ways of doing so!

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?


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.


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?


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