Open Thinkering


Tag: questions

Answering questions from #durbbu

Over the past few days I’ve posted artefacts from my keynote presentation at Durham University’s elearning conference. First I shared my presentation, then I shared some of what participants created using index cards during the session. In this post, I want to answer the questions I was asked via the final side of the index cards. I answered other questions in the session, but I guess you had to be there (the audio was too poor to include that part in the recording I made).

So here’s the questions I was asked, followed by some imperfect responses. 🙂

How do you deal with the ‘Not Invented Here’ syndrome?

Well, first off, it’s worth saying that if I had a one-size-fits-all answer to that I’d be a very rich man. 😉

But seriously, I think it’s part of a wider question about how people feel collegiality within and across institutions. In my (limited) experience in universities I’ve found that this is tied to people’s identity. For example, when people start identifying themselves as an ‘Open Educator’ then it makes them look for opportunities to collaborate.

I mentioned in answer to one of the questions in the session itself that you can stop things getting ‘stale’ within an organisation by mixing things up regularly. This can be done through things like job titles and hierarchy, but even simply by moving furniture around, starting off interesting projects and even having a cake club.

So I guess my answer is that the ‘Not Invented Here’ syndrome (which I’ve seen many times) is tied to a wider issue around identity. There’s no quick fix, but improving the meta-level situation should lead to a decrease in the syndrome!

If Mozilla designed a VLE [Virtual Learning Environment] what would it look like?

What would your inclusive online learning environment look like?

These two questions were asked by the same person so I’ll answer them together.

I don’t think Mozilla would design a VLE because we believe that the web is the platform. A VLE or LMS (Learning Management System) is, almost always, something that is a walled garden, sectioned off, and separate from the open web. I’d point to Audrey Watters’ excellent talk at Newcastle University last year for a history of how universities’ online life has been enclosed by profit-making companies. I did find it odd, for example, during the Blackboard ‘roadmap’ presentation at the conference that they seemed to put ‘speed to market’ ahead of having a feature set that matched their current offering.

But anyway.

There are, of course, things that need not to be on the open web. Commercially sensitive information, personal details, things not ready to share with the outside world. But I don’t think we need some separate, monolithic platform for that. I’m a big fan of the ‘small pieces, loosely joined’. It’s how the web works. This approach means that people need more knowledge and web literacy skills, to be sure, but it means investing in your staff rather than large corporations driven by creating shareholder value.

So I guess it’s less ‘what would an inclusive online learning environment look like?’ and more what would it feel like? And my answer is: it would feel inclusive. And it would feel like that because it was co-designed with the people using it, who would have agency over the small pieces that are loosely joined. The VLE/LMS is a top-down command-and-control technology-as-power approach to edtech.

How does the idea of Radical Participation in HE [Higher Education] deal with students who prefer to stay passive? Would learners that prefer not to engage nor participate then not learn?

I think two things are being conflated here. I tried my best to separate them out during the presentations and the questions immediately afterwards, but let me try again. Radical participation is not synonymous with confrontation or conflict. Nor is extroversion a pre-requisite for those involved. In fact, in many ways radical participation is the polar opposite of this. It’s meeting people where they are, and allowing them, if they choose to participate fully in the life of the institution.

My issue, which I raised in the panel session and then touched on again during my presentation, is that too often in universities the student union is seen as representing ‘all’ students. I don’t think that’s the case any more than politicians of the party that is currently in government represent everyone within the country. There are other ways to get involved. And I don’t think that this has to be a huge deal. It’s about making small tweaks to everything, and more about mindset that policy.

One more thing (a bit of a can of worms, but I’ll open it…) is that people learn to be passive through formal education. Bring me a child from primary school and I’ll show you an active learner. What is it, then, that kills that desire for agency in learning? Could it be our method of assessment from secondary school onwards? Surely not!

Would instructor-less ‘group’ learning/studying work at all levels – e.g. FE [Further Education]?

When is change just for change’s sake?

Again, these two questions were asked by the same person. I’ll deal with the second of these first. Change for change’s sake is when an agenda is imposed on an organisation or institution and doesn’t come from a perceived need for change within the sector. Having said that, it’s not always evident to some people (who need to change) why that change is necessary. So I guess it depends on the specific context. I will say that those who say ‘is this change for change’s sake?’ are usually the ones who have a vested interest in the status quo. The natural order of things is change and flux. It’s us that make it otherwise.

I’m not sure whether the questioner thinks that I was advocating instructor-less ‘group’ learning/studying, but it appears so. Having taught in secondary schools, I’d say that instructor-less ‘group’ learning/studying certainly works for 11-18 year olds, as I’ve tried it! Not all the time, not for everything, but it’s certainly possible. It’s to do with mindsets and getting learners (and teachers) out of the mentality of spoon-feeding for exams. I’d like to see a lot less learned helplessness at all levels.

Are there any examples / case studies of truly RADICAL PARTICIPATION in HE [Higher Education] that go beyond traditional small group of individual MOOC style stuff?

I’m not sure I completely understand this question, but as I mentioned in my presentation, what works in one place doesn’t necessarily work elsewhere. What’s ‘radical’ in one organisation is run-of-the-mill and perhaps even a bit timid in others. One way to check whether you’re on the right trajectory is by looking at the guiding principles of the organisation. Does it have a mission/manifesto? What does that say?

Often, we tinker around the edges and are afraid of wholesale change. The lesson of Charles Handy’s Sigmoid Curve, however, is that we need to constantly re-invent ourselves and our institutions to stay current. To paraphrase what Heraclitus said a couple of thousand years ago, the river looks pretty much the same over time but you’re always stepping into different water.

Which books should we be reading?

Well now. I shared Antifragile: things that gain from disorder during the presentation as I’ve learned a lot from it. There’s lots of fantastic books from which you can learn ideas. Read lots – as Ryan Holiday does.

However, you also need to apply the ideas contained in what you read, after filtering them through your knowledge and experience. I think this is key. Some of that is just blogging or otherwise writing and sharing stuff that you think is worthwhile. I try and have a URL for everything so that I can build it up. If you’re not comfortable sharing that widely then you could just use Simplenote or a personal wiki.

They’re not new, but timeless books I come back to are:

I don’t know, perhaps they’re not useful to you. But I find those books useful that spur my thinking about the reasons why we do stuff. Getting to the foundations is important. For everything else – more practical, ‘one big idea’ stuff – I just read the Wikipedia article. Too often those kinds of books have five pages of explanation then 195 pages of filler. 😉

Update: Ben Leighton got in touch to remind me that, during the Q&A in the session I recommended Thanks for the feedback : the science and art of receiving feedback well (even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood) by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen. It’s a good book, but you can probably get away with reading just the first few chapters…

Image CC BY Matthias Ripp

Answering your questions about Open Badges

I spend about half my time working for Mozilla working on a new, open learning standard for Web Literacy. The other half of the time I’m evangelising Open Badges in the UK and Europe. Unsurprisingly, with the latter a lot of the same questions come up time and time again. These are legitimate concerns and curiosities that people have, so I thought it would be a good idea to have a URL I could point them towards. 🙂

Chewing (animated GIF)

Are Open Badges ‘transferable’?

It depends what you mean. Open Badges are issued with a learner’s individual identifier ‘baked’ into it. So if you try and take my badge and put it in your backpack, it’s not going to work. It’ll be rejected.

If, on the other hand, you talking about the ‘portability’ of badges then, absolutely, that’s exactly what we’re aiming for. Multiple badge backpacks, a completely open and decentralised system, and learner sovereignty. The learner earns badges from issuers and then chooses where to host and display them.

Why is Mozilla interested in creating a system for credentialing learning?

We’re a non-profit that believes in the Web. We believe that it’s a fantastic platform for innovation – but only if it’s open, democratic and built upon standards. Because learning today happens anywhere, including on the Web, we want a credentialing system that can bypass the ‘gatekeepers’ to learning. We want better ways to credential experiences, knowledge, interest and skills.

Oh boy! (animated GIF)

Are all Open Badges public?

They can be. By default when they’re issued, Open Badges are private and can only be seen by an earner who has accepted the badge and placed it in their badge backpack. Once added to a collection (named by the learner) they can optionally be made public and displayed across the Web.

What’s the difference between a ‘digital’ badge and an ‘Open’ badge?

It’s very simple, but with fairly profound consequences. An Open Badge is a digital image that has metadata ‘baked’ into it. So in the same way that you bake ingredients together to make a cake, so you bake a badge. And again, just as you can’t then remove an ingredient from the baked cake so you can’t change an Open Badge once it’s been ‘baked’.

Does Mozilla ‘police’ Open Badges?

Nope (animated GIF)

We’re looking after the ‘plumbing’ of the Open Badges Infrastructure (OBI). Our focus is upon the technical standards underpinning the whole ecosystem, not the pedagogical or social validity of badges. Some Open Badges will be frivolous and playful. Others will be rigorous and pedagogically sound. All of them will be technically valid badges. The value of a badge comes through a mixture of the reputation of the issuer and the rigour of the criteria for obtaining the badge.

What happens if I invest time in Open Badges and then Mozilla pull the plug?

We’re a non-profit who work (radically) in the open alongside the community. The OBI is a Mozilla product, but it’s more of a model where we’re the lead developers and advocates than having something than can be ‘pulled’. We’re committed to OBI for the long-haul, but even if we were all on several planes that crashed the Open Source community could still develop the infrastructure.

O RLY (animated GIF)

How can Mozilla maintain the quality of Open Badges?

‘Quality’ is an interesting word. Another variation of this question is How can Mozilla guarantee equivalency between badges? The short answer is, of course, that we can’t. That’s because we’re the ones developing the technical standard, but not those that are developing all of the badges within the ecosystem.

The OBI is a platform for innovation. We’ve already seen many high-quality badges that have been produced by lots of different organisations. But, of course, there will be poor badges. The value of the badge doesn’t come through how difficult it is to issue them, but upon the rigour of what you have to do to get them, and the evidence they point to. That’s within the metadata in the badge itself.

Badge anatomy
CC BY Kyle Bowen

One of the newer metadata fields that’s available within the OBI is a field that allows you to enter the URL of which standard you’re aligning to. So whether it’s a badge that aligns with the Common Core or the Web Literacy standard, there’s something you can point to as a common reference point. The ‘endorsement’ functionality that we’re working upon could then allow organisations to endorse certain badges as being good/valid representations of that standard.

What’s the quickest way of getting started issuing Open Badges?

There’s broadly three ways to start issuing badges. The first is to use a third-party badge issuing platform such as badg.usforallbadges or This is the easiest, but the URLs in the metadata of the badge point towards that third-party platform over which you have no control.

The second way to issue badges is to use a plugin for a popular Content Management System or learning platform such as WordPress, Drupal or Moodle. Doing this means that you don’t have to do any coding but the URLs in the Open Badges point back to your domain.

The third way is the most complex and involves being (or hiring) a developer and using Mozilla’s onboarding documentation to build your own badge issuing platform or plugin. Apparently it’s not that hard, but I haven’t tried it.

What happens when there’s millions of Open Badges in the ecosystem and everyone has thousands of them?

Well, first of all that will be awesome! The great thing about Open Badges is that the learner is always in control. That means you can choose which badges to display for what purpose. So, if you want to show all of your gamer and photography badges on Facebook and your professional badges on your online portfolio, you can.

Cat - worried about puppies

The other thing to remember is that an Open Badge does not stand alone, but is part of a wider ecosystem of value. One of the best ways of imagining this is through badge-based learning pathways. In the same way that you collect cheeses/pies in Trivial Pursuit, so badges can work together to unlock a larger, meta-level badge. Once you’ve unlocked your competency-level badge, it would point back to the five skill-level badges of which it’s comprised.

How can we trust an Open Badge? How do I know someone hasn’t just bought one?

Both very good questions. A combination of the Criteria URL and the Evidence URL should help with this, I think. The (compulsory) Criteria URL states what the earner had to do in order to be issued the badge, and the (optional, but to my mind very important) Evidence URL points to work done in order to get the badge. This is anything that can be displayed on the Web – images, text, videos, etc.

Do people buy qualifications now? Of course they do. Will people attempt to (and sometimes be successful in purchasing) Open Badges? Almost definitely. But the difference between traditional qualifications and credentials, and Open Badges is that the latter leave a breadcrumb trail of evidence. My Great Uncle built his entire adult life on a the claim that he attended Oxford University. After his death we found this to be false. That wouldn’t really have been possible in a badge-based system. He would have been found out very quickly!

Investigator (animated GIF)

Why are Open Badges any more than stickers? Aren’t they just extrinsic motivators?

As stated above, the value of an Open Badge comes through the metadata contained. Learning design is the hard part of creating an ecosystem of badges; it’s the 90% of the iceberg you don’t see. So, of course Open Badges can be used to extrinsically motivate. But, like all credentialing systems, if designed well then they can also promote intrinsic motivation.*

*My rejection of intrinsic/extrinsic motivation as a binary will have to wait for another blog post…

How can issuers ensure their badges are taken as seriously as possible by institutions/employers?

An Open Badge is a metadata-infused credential. Whether badges are taken seriously depends on how trustworthy, relevant and useful they are to others. That’s a function of the reputation of the badge issuer but also on the rigour of the Criteria URL. What did the individual have to do to get the badge? Was that worth doing? Is there an Evidence URL pointing to what that individual actually did?

It’s a fact of life that people like (and trust) good-looking things so it’s worth spending some time on the visual design of the badge. But that’s the tip of the iceberg: it’s the learning design, the partnerships and the thinking through how individuals can ‘level up’ that’s important. DigitalMe have a great CC-licensed badge canvas resource to help you think through some of these things.

Finally, it’s worth having a useful way to display badges to institutions and employers. Purdue University, for example, have an iPad app that students can use to show their badges at interview. Badges can also be displayed on pretty much any kind of website, including e-portfolios and wikis.

Why would I want an Open Badge instead of a degree?

This is the $64,000 question, but one that misses the point in the short term. Often when a new technology comes along we think in terms of either/or. In practice, however, it’s more and/and/and. How can we use Open Badges to credential those things that we think are important but we don’t currently have a way of capturing? How can we make credentialing more granular? How can we make learning more personalised through badge-based ‘playlists’ or ‘pathways’? These are the questions which interest us a lot more than ‘Can X replace Y?’

Mind blow (animated GIF)

Have you got any more questions? Ask away below! (or on Twitter / Facebook / Google+) If I get enough I’ll probably do another one of these in a few weeks’ time. 🙂

Header image CC BY Bilal Kamoon

Ten big questions for education

Hello! It’s been a good few years since I published this post. Sadly, the wiki that I linked to at the end of the post no longer exists, but the ten questions remain pertinent.

You may find some of these things useful, too:

  1. 5 ways to make ‘textbook lessons’ more interesting
  2. 10 things I learned from ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’
  3. 5 things School of Rock can teach us about real education

Oh, and if you’re reading this as preparation for, or part of, your teacher training, good luck!

I need your input and help. It’s for a good cause. I’m a firm believer that educational innovation is a bottom-up process. Could you help me (and others) prove that?

I’ll try and keep this as brief as possible if you promise to do the background reading and try to contribute in some way. :-p


EduCon 2.0 is both a conversation and a conference.
And it is not a technology conference. It is an education conference. It is, hopefully, an innovation conference where we can come together, both in person and virtually, to discuss the future of schools. Every session will be an opportunity to discuss and debate ideas — from the very practical to the big dreams.

This year’s was 29th-31st of January at the Science Leadership Academy, Philadelphia, USA (which is why I wasn’t there).

Background Reading

Will Richardson blogged about what happened at Educon and the next steps required to turn conversations into action:


Will crowdsourced 10 questions that educators need to answer effectively:

  1. What is the purpose of school?
  2. What is the changing role of the teacher, and how do we support that new role?
  3. How do we help students discover their passions?
  4. What is the essential learning that schools impart to students?
  5. How do we adapt our curriculum to the technologies that kids are already using?
  6. What does an educated person look like today?
  7. How do we change policy to support more flexible time and place learning?
  8. What are the essential practices of teachers in a system where students are learning outside of school?
  9. How do we ensure those without privilege have equal access to quality education and opportunity?
  10. How do we evaluate and validate the informal, self-directed learning that happens outside of school?


The next step was the creation of a wiki – This is a place to continue the conversation and provide tangible results. Taking a step back but keeping an overview, Will has asked for volunteer moderators for each of the questions.

I volunteered for Question #6: What does an educated person look like today? I’m interested in how it relates to my thesis, the original title of which was ‘What does it mean to be ‘educated’ and ‘digitally literate’ in the 21st century’.

Help me out. Send a tweet to @dajbelshaw with the #10fored hashtag with some ideas. Or, better yet, add your thoughts to the wiki page!

Thanks in advance! 😀

(image CC BY CarbonNYC)