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Decentralising the description of skills with OSMT

Skills don’t exist. Not really. They’re a shorthand way of describing human attributes and potentials which break down if you analyse them too closely. That’s not to say that defining skills isn’t “useful in the way of belief” as Pragmatist philosophers such as William James would put it ⁠— but rather that they only exist, or represent some “truth”, in as much as they have cash value.


There’s a couple of video games I’ve played for over 20 years, on and off. They’re both football (“soccer”) games, one being EA Sports FIFA and the other Football Manager (these days actually Football Manager Mobile). Both games attempt to quantify various skills and attributes important to the sport.

Screenshot of Football Manager Mobile, taken from fmmvibe.com

The above skills or attributes are out of a maximum of 20, and they’ve been handily colour-coded so that those playing the game can see at a glance how strong or weak a footballer is in a particular area.


The example I gave above of a video game neglects other things that real-life football teams can and do look for in players they wish to sign. For example, how adept at are they at gaining a social media following? Can they speak to the press confidently? What are they like in the dressing room? Are they volatile?

When we talk about skills in an education or learning and development context, we’re often implicitly talking about them for reasons of employment. Like the footballer represented by colour-coded numbers each out of a maximum of 20, it would make the life of employers a lot easier if they could view job applicants in this way. That’s not to say that they should, it just feels a lot like that’s where we’re heading.

Whoever decides on and controls the numbers is therefore in a very powerful position. They get to decide what is important, provide ways of quantifying those things, and report on them in ways that have real-world outcomes. In this way, it’s very similar to the work I’ve done about digital literacies: whoever gets to decide who or what counts as ‘literate’ holds the power.

LinkedIn is an example of a company (now owned by Microsoft) that would love to provide this level of quantification of human skills. The screenshot below is from a video embedded in an article from last year announcing their ‘Learning Hub’.

Screenshot from LinkedIn video announcing their Learning Hub

Who defines these skills? Well… LinkedIn do. They control the taxonomy. We should be wary of this.


One of the things that really attracted me to Open Badges more than a decade ago was that it democratises the “means of production” of credentialing and recognition. Although there are always attempts at re-centralisation (this week it was announced that Pearson have bought Credly, one of the major players in the landscape) the whole thing, thankfully, is built on an open standard.

If skills are to be a currency with a cash value, then we need to ensure that the skills represented by badges and credentials are also democratically defined. All of which takes us finally talking about the Open Skills Management Tool:

The Open Skills Management Tool (OSMT, pronounced “oz-mit”) is a free, open-source instrument to facilitate the production of Rich Skill Descriptor (RSD) based open skills libraries. In short, it helps to create a common skills language by creating, managing, and organizing skills-related data. An open-source framework allows everyone to use the tool collaboratively to define the RSD, so that those skills are translatable and transferable across educational institutions and hiring organizations within programs, curricula, and job descriptions.

At the heart of OSMT’s functionality are Rich Skills Descriptors (RSDs): machine-readable, searchable data that include the context behind a skill, giving users a common definition for a particular skill. With the open source release of the OSMT, other organizations can now develop and collaborate on individual RSDs as well as on RSD collections.

The power here is in providing common definition for skills within a particular context. This definition, or standard, can then be referenced in the metadata of Open Badges in the AlignmentObject field.

I realise that this sounds rather technical and dry, so let’s look at an example given by Nate Otto during a meeting of the Open Recognition workgroup as part of the Open Skills Network yesterday.

Skills represented in human and machine readable ways

Just like Open Badges, these skills descriptors can be read by humans in words and machines as code (JSON). Let’s look at an example of a skill.

The 'Communicate Time Zones' skill

There’s a lot more I could say about this, as there’s a real balance to be struck here between the flexibility that allows a thousand flowers to bloom, and a level of complexity that could stymie innovation.

One of the reasons that I’m moderately excited about the possibilities is that it slots neatly into that AlignmentObject field I mentioned above which is part of the existing Open Badges 2.0 standard. This harks back to work I was doing while at the Mozilla Foundation, linking Web Literacy skills to Open Badges.

Another reason is that Nate and the good people at Badgr are behind it. Not only have they got great people with the best interests of the ecosystem there, but they’ve also got the technical expertise to make it a reality. The next step is to get many, many OSMTs in existence so that we can decentralise the means of skill description!

Free Software and two forms of liberty

Somehow, I missed a BBC Radio 4 series on A History of Ideas, both when it originally aired (2014-15) and then when it was repeated a couple of years ago. The ‘history of ideas’ is, of course, another name for the study of Philosophy, the subject of my first degree, and something which remains a lifelong interest of mine.

Starting with the beginning of the BBC series, I’ve begun listening to a philosopher, neuropsychologist, theologian, and lawyer debate what it means to be ‘free’.


There are fundamentally two types of freedom, as defined by great thinkers: freedom from and freedom to. Some people frame this as ‘negative’ liberty (i.e. freedom from) and ‘positive’ liberty (i.e. freedom to).

In general, I would say that it’s negative liberty that most of us mean when we talk about freedom. That’s the freedom from coercion, so that you can do what you like with your time, your body, or your possessions. This is different to positive liberty, which can be thought of as the freedom to participate in society on your own terms.


The question of technology is an interesting one to consider here, as I’ve always understood negative liberty to be the main driver behind the Free Software movement:

Free software (or libre software) is computer software distributed under terms that allow users to run the software for any purpose as well as to study, change, and distribute it and any adapted versions. Free software is a matter of liberty, not price: all users are legally free to do what they want with their copies of a free software (including profiting from them) regardless of how much is paid to obtain the program. Computer programs are deemed “free” if they give end-users (not just the developer) ultimate control over the software and, subsequently, over their devices.

Wikipedia

Interestingly, although the Four Freedoms talk about ‘freedom to‘ they’re actually, to my mind at least, all couched in terms of negative liberty. For example, the first of these is “The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose”. This could perhaps be more accurately be rendered: “The freedom from being prevented from running the program as you wish, for any purpose.”

In short, we in the Free Software community often miss the importance of positive liberty. While negative liberty frees us from the constraints of others, positive liberty allows us to act upon our free will, something that’s (sadly) often still a lot easier with well-designed proprietary services.


Ben Werdmuller, who has spent his career trying to push forward easy-to-use Free Software, said recently:

The only real way to avoid tracking and surveillance is to host things yourself, but that’s not an option because hosting things yourself is still too hard for most people and it’s easy to compromise on security. We need the iPhone of self-hosting.

Twitter

In other words, when it comes to technology, most people have the freedom to do things but not the freedom from some of consequences of using proprietary services. For example, it’s easy to express a controversial political opinion using Facebook, but not to avoid being tracked and surveilled on that platform.

I think we’re at a bit of an inflection point. There are those of us who have enough technical skills to be able to self-host and spin up a VPS to run Free Software. We can experiment and express ourselves however we wish. And then, sadly, there’s everyone else.

We Free Software enthusiasts value our negative liberty and use it to promote our positive liberty. Less technical people have only the amount of positive liberty allowed by proprietary services under capitalism. I believe we need to focus on enabling that positive liberty with Free Software under socialism, even if that means compromising a bit of negative liberty.


This post is Day 77 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com.

Open source community calls in the wake of GDPR

I am a supporter of the intentions and sentiment behind the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that came into force last month. However, it comes with some side effects.

Take community calls for the open source community, for example. Here’s how they often work:

  • Agenda — someone with a level of responsibility within the project creates an agenda using a service you don’t have to login to access and to which everyone can contribute (e.g. Etherpad)
  • Synchronous call — at the appointed time, those wishing to participate connect to some kind of audio and/or video conferencing services (e.g. Zoom)
  • Recordings — those who are interested in the project but couldn’t participate at the time catch up via the agenda and recording.

I’ve been running community calls using this kind of approach for the last five years or so. It’s an effective method and a process I do so automatically, I didn’t even think about the GDPR implications.

Yesterday, however, I was informed (very nicely!) by Carlo Polizzi, Moodle’s DPO and Legal Counsel, that I needed to delete the data I’d collected in this way and find a new way to do this.

GDPR requires that (unless community members contribute anonymously) we must, at the very least:

  1. Gain consent from each individual that we can store their personal data and that they agree to our privacy policy.
  2. Inform individuals what that data will be used for and how long we will be storing it.
  3. Give them the option of withdrawing that consent at any time and having their data deleted.

This means, of course, that community members are going to have to register and then log in to a system that tracks them over time. I’ve written before about creating an architecture of participation for episodic volunteering. This certainly prevents more of a challenge for the ‘easy onboarding’ part of that.


So, not sure what to do, put up the Bat-Signal and asked my network. Out of that came suggestions to use:

  • An encrypted etherpad solution that auto-deletes after a specified amount of time (e.g. CryptPad)
  • Forum software that feels quite ‘realtime’ (e.g. Discourse)
  • A Moodle course with guest access open (e.g. MoodleCloud)

On a more meta level, I also had some feedback that synchronous communication discriminates users for whom English isn’t their first language and/or who are disabled.


For now, given the above feedback, we’re going to end community calls in their current guise. I’ve met with Mary Cooch, Moodle’s community educator to discuss a few options for how we could do things differently, and we’re going to explore using the existing MoodleNet discussion forum at moodle.org along with BigBlueButton.

If you’ve got any questions, comments, or suggestions, I’d love to hear them, as this is something that many other open source projects are going to have to grapple with, as well!


Image CC BY-SA opensource.com

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