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A new dawn for Open Badges

Today it’s been announced that Mozilla will transition development of Open Badges to the IMS Global Learning Consortium, a non-profit that maintains and develops technology standards in education.  Alongside this announcement comes the long-awaited refresh of openbadges.org, the dissolution of the Badge Alliance, and the continued harmonisation with the work of the W3C Open Credentials work.

Having had this news previewed to me a couple of weeks ago, I can’t say it’s a huge surprise. Mozilla, with financial backing from the MacArthur Foundation incubated Open Badges and ensured that it was kept going. However, it’s been the enthusiasm and dedication of the community that has ensured its success.

Although I couldn’t make it to Bologna for the ePIC conference this week, I am at the Mozilla Festival this weekend. Both there, and over the next few months, I’m looking forward to working with the community to ensure that there’s a ‘human’ side to badges, to complement Open Badges as a technological  standard.

This is a new dawn for Open Badges, a new chapter in its successful, history. There’s so many people who have been, and continue to be, part of the story — certainly far too many to list here. But you know who you are, and today, as we celebrate the continued viability of a movement built upon a technical standard, I’m raising a glass to you all.

Image via Sweet Ice Cream Photography

Some thoughts and recommendations on the future of the Open Badges backpack and community

Recommendation Theater

Intro

Back in January of this year, Mozilla announced a ‘continued commitment’ to, but smaller role in, the Open Badges ecosystem. That was as expected: a couple of years ago Mozilla and the MacArthur Foundation had already spun out a non-profit in the form of the Badge Alliance.

That Mozilla post included this paragraph:

We will also reconsider the role of the Badge Backpack. Mozilla will continue to host user data in the Backpack, and ensure that data is appropriately protected. But the Backpack was never intended to be the central hub for Open Badges — it was a prototype, and the hope has forever been a more federated and user-controlled model. Getting there will take time: the Backpack houses user data, and privacy and security are paramount to Mozilla. We need to get the next iteration of Backpack just right. We are seeking a capable person to help facilitate this effort and participate in the badges technical community. Of course, we welcome code contributions to the Backpack; a great example is the work done by DigitalMe.

Last month, digitalme subsequently announced they have a contract with Mozilla to work on both the Open Badges backpack and wider technical infrastructure. As Kerri Lemoie pointed out late last year, there’s no-one at Mozilla working on Open Badges right now. However, that’s a feature rather than a bug; the ecosystem in the hands of the community, where it belongs.

Tim Riches, CEO of digitalme, states that their first priority will be to jettison the no-longer-supported Mozilla Persona authentication system used for the Open Badges backpack:To improve user experience across web and mobile devices our first action will be to replace Persona with Passport.js. This will also provide us with the flexibility to enable user to login with other identity providers in the future such as Twitter, Linkedin and Facebook. We will also be improving stability and updating the code base.

In addition, digitalme are looking at how the backpack can be improved from a user point of view:

“We will be reviewing additional requirements for the backpack and technical infrastructure gathered from user research at MozFest supported by The Nominet Trust in the UK, to create a roadmap for further development, working closely with colleagues from Badge Alliance.

Some of the technical work was outlined at the beginning of the year by Nate Otto, Director of the Badge Alliance. On that roadmap is “Federated Backpack Protocol: Near and Long-term Solutions”. As the paragraph from the Mozilla post notes, federation is something that’s been promised for so long — at least the last four years.

Federation is technically complex. In fact, even explaining it is difficult. The example I usually give is around the way email works. When you send an email, you don’t have to think about which provider the recipient uses (e.g. Outlook365, GMail, Fastmail, etc.) as it all just works. Data is moved around the internet leading to the intended person receiving a message from you.

The email analogy breaks down a bit if you push it too hard, but in the Open Badges landscape, the notion of federation is crucial. It allows badge recipients to store their badges wherever they choose. At the moment, we’ve effectively got interoperable silos; there’s no easy way for users to move their badges between platforms elsewhere.

As Nate mentions in another post, building a distributed system is hard not just because of technical considerations, but because it involves co-ordinating multiple people and organisations.

It is much harder to build a distributed ecosystem than a centralized one, but it is in this distributed ecosystem, with foundational players like Mozilla playing a part, that we will build a sustainable and powerful ecosystem of learning recognition that reflects the values of the Web.

 

Tech suggestions

I’m delighted that there’s some very smart and committed people working on the technical side of the Open Badges ecosystem. For example, yesterday’s community call (which unfortunately I couldn’t make) resurrected the ‘tech panel’. One thing that’s really important is to ensure that the *user experience* across the Open Badges ecosystem is unambiguous; people who have earned badges need to know where they’re putting them and why. At the moment, we’ve got three services wrapped up together in badge issuing platforms such as Open Badge Academy:

OBA venn diagram

One step towards federation would be to unpick these three aspects on the ecosystem level. For example, providing an ‘evidence store‘ could be something that all badge platforms buy into. This would help avoid problems around evidence disappearing if a badge provider goes out of business (as Achievery did last year).

A second step towards federation would be for the default (Mozilla/Badge Alliance) badge backpack to act as a conduit to move badges between systems. Every badge issuing platform could/should have a ‘store in backpack’ feature. If we re-interpret the ‘badge backpack’ metaphor as being a place where you securely store (but don’t necessarily display) your badges this would encourage providers to compete on badge display.

The third step towards federation is badge discoverability. Numbers are hard to come by within the Open Badges ecosystem as the specification was explicitly developed to put learners in control. Coupled with Mozilla’s (valid) concerns around security and privacy, it’s difficult both to get statistics around Open Badges and discover relevant badges. Although Credmos is having a go at the latter, more could be done on the ecosystem level. Hopefully this should be solved with the move to Linked Data in version 2.0 of the specification.

Community suggestions

While I’m limited on the technical contributions I can make to the Badge Alliance, something I’m committed to is helping the community move forward in new and interesting ways. Although Nate wrote a community plan back in March, I still think we can do better in helping those new to the ecosystem. Funnelling people into a Slack channel leads to tumbleweeds, by and large. As I mentioned on a recent community call, I’d like to see an instance of Discourse which would build knowledge base and place for the community to interact in more more targeted ways that the blunt instrument that is the Open Badges Google Group.

Something which is, to my mind, greatly missed in the Open Badges ecosystem, is the role that Jade Forester played in curating links and updates for the community via the (now defunct) Open Badges blog. Since she moved on from Mozilla and the Badge Alliance, that weekly pulse has been sorely lacking. I’d like to see some of the advice in the Community Building Guide being followed. In fact, Telescope (the free and Open Source tool it’s written about) might be a good crowdsourced solution.

Finally, I’d like to see a return of working groups. While I know that technically anyone can set one up any time and receive the blessing of the Badge Alliance, we should find ways to either resurrect or create new ones. Open Badges is a little bit too biased towards (U.S.) formal education at the moment.

Conclusion

The Badge Alliance community needs to be more strategic and mindful about how we interact going forwards. The ways that we’ve done things up until now have worked to get us here, but they’re not necessarily what we need to ‘cross the chasm’ and take Open Badges (even more) mainstream.

I’m pleased that Tim Cook is now providing some strategic direction for the Badge Alliance beyond the technical side of things. I’m confident that we can continue to keep up the momentum we’ve generated over the last few years, as well as continue to evolve to meet the needs of users at every point of the technology adoption curve.

Image CC BY-NC Thomas Hawk

3 things I learned during my time at Mozilla

Introduction

On my to-do list for the last year has been ‘write up what I learned at Mozilla’. I didn’t want this anniversary week to go by without writing something, so despite this being nowhere near as comprehensive as what I’d like to write, it at least shifts that item from my to-do list!

The following are three (plus one bonus) personal learning points that I felt were some of my main takeaways from the three years I spent working for the Mozilla Foundation. After being a volunteer from 2011, I became a member of staff from 2012-15, working first as Badges & Skills Lead, and then transitioning to Web Literacy Lead.

1. Working openly by default is awesome

Mozilla is radically open. Most meetings are available via public URLs, notes and projects are open for public scrutiny, and work is shared by default on the open web.

There are many unexpected benefits through doing this, including it being a lot easier to find out what your colleagues are working on. It’s therefore easy to co-ordinate efforts between teams, and to bring people into projects.

In fact, I think that working openly is such an advantage, that I’ve been advocating it to every client I’ve worked with since setting up Dynamic Skillset. Thankfully, there’s now a fantastic book to help with that evangelism entitled The Open Organization by the CEO of Red Hat, a $2bn Open Source tech firm.

2. The mission is more important than individuals

This feels like an odd point to include and could, in fact, be seen as somewhat negative. However, for me, it was a positive, and one of the main reasons I decided to spend my time volunteering for Mozilla in the first place. When the mission and manifesto of an organisation are explicit and publicly-available, it’s immediately obvious whether what you’re working on is worthwhile in the eyes of your colleagues.

No organisation is without its politics, but working for Mozilla was the first time I’d experienced the peculiar politics of Open Source. Instead of the institutional politics of educational institutions, these were politics about the best way to further the mission of the organisation. Sometimes this led to people leaving the organisation. Sometimes it led to heated debates. But the great thing was that these discussions were all ultimately focused on achieving the same end goals.

3. Working remotely is hard

I do like working remotely, but it’s difficult — and for reasons you might not immediately expect. The upsides of remote working are pretty obvious: no commute, live wherever you like, and structure your day more flexibly than you could do if you were based in an office.

What I learned pretty quickly is that there can be a fairly large downside to every interaction with colleagues being somewhat transactional. What I mean by that is there’s no corridor conversations, no wandering over to someone else’s desk to see how they are, no watercooler conversations.

There are huge efficiency gains to be had by having remote workers all around the globe — the sun never sets on your workforce — but it’s imperative that they come together from time to time. Thankfully, Mozilla were pretty good at flying us out to San Francisco, Toronto, and other places (like Portland, Oregon) to work together and have high-bandwidth conversations.

Perhaps the hardest thing about working remotely is that lack of bandwidth. Yes, I had frequent video conversations with colleagues, but a lot of interaction was text-based. When there’s no way to read the intention of a potentially-ambiguous sentence, dwelling on these interactions in the solitude of remote working can be anxiety-inducing.

Since leaving Mozilla I’ve read some studies that suggest that successful long-term remote working is best done based in teams. I can see the logic in that. The blend I’ve got now with some work being done face-to-face with clients, and some from home, seems to suit me better.

(4. Technical skills are underrated)

This is a bonus point, but one that I thought I should include. As you’d expect, Mozilla was an environment with the most technology-savvy people I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. There were some drawbacks to this, including an element of what Evgeny Morozov would call ‘technological solutionism’, but on the whole it was extremely positive.

There were three specific ways in which having tech-savvy colleagues was helpful. First, it meant that you could assume a baseline. Mozilla can use tools with its staff and volunteers that may be uncomfortable or confusing for the average office worker. There is a high cognitive load, for example, when participating in a meeting via etherpad, chat, and voice call simultaneously. But being able to use exactly the right tool for the job rather than just a generic tool catering to the lowest common denominator has its advantages.

Second, tech-savvy colleagues means that things you discuss in meetings and at work weeks get prototyped quickly. I can still remember how shocked I was when Atul Varma created a version of the WebLitMapper a few days after I’d mentioned that such a thing would be useful!

The third point is somewhat related to the first. When you have a majority of people with a high level of technical skills, the default is towards upskilling, rather than dumbing down. There were numerous spontaneous ways in which this type of skillsharing occurred, especially when Mozilla started using GitHub for everything — including planning!

Conclusion

Although I’m genuinely happier than I’ve ever been in my current position as a self-employed, independent consultant, I wouldn’t trade my experience working for Mozilla for anything. It was a privilege to work alongside such talented colleagues and do work that was truly making the web a better place.

One of the reasons for writing this post was that I’ve found that I tend to introduce myself as someone who “used to work for Mozilla”. This week, one year on, marks a time at which I reflect happily on the time I had there, but ensure that my eyes are on the future.

Like so many former members of staff, I’ve found it difficult to disentangle my own identity from that of Mozilla. I purposely took this past year as time completely away from any Mozilla projects so I could gain some critical distance — and so that people realised I’d actually moved on!

So who am I? I’m Dr. Doug Belshaw, an independent consultant focusing on the intersection of education, technology, and productivity. But I remain a Mozillian. You can find me at mozillans.org here.

Image CC BY Paul Clarke (bonus points if you can spot me!)

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