Planet Badges

A few words on #Remain, #BadgeSummit, and #ISTE2016

Doug Belshaw

Thu Jun 23 2016 08:32:49 GMT+0000 (UTC)

Just to say that:

  1. If you’re eligible to vote in today’s UK referendum about membership of the European Union, I respect your decision to vote with your conscience. That being said, if you’re at all undecided, please vote to remain in the EU. I’m of the strong opinion that it will adversely affect future generations if we choose to stand alone.
  2. I’m flying to Denver today to keynote the Badge Summit tomorrow (Friday). My slidedeck currently stands at version 0.5, and you can view my progress on that (and comment on it) here.
  3. On Saturday, I’m teaming up with Ian O’Byrne, Noah Geisel, and Bryan Mathers (remote) to run an ISTE pre-conference workshop on building an Open Badges ecosystem. You can check out the agenda, etc. here. There’s still a few spaces left if you can make it!
  4. I’ll be at ISTE on Sunday (only) and would love to connect with you if you’re reading this and will be there! Tweet me: @dajbelshaw

3 Ways Open Badges Work Like the Web [DML Central]

Doug Belshaw

Mon Jun 13 2016 17:03:51 GMT+0000 (UTC)

3 Ways Open Badges Work Like the Web

My latest post for DML Central has now been published. Entitled 3 Ways Open Badges Work Like the Web, it’s an attempt to unpack a phrase I use often. It features a couple of great images from Bryan Mathers — one inspired by a Tim Berners-Lee quotation at the start of the post, and the other a visualisation of the ‘four freedoms’ of Free Software.

Read the post here

Note: I’ve closed comments here to encourage you to add your thoughts on the original post.

Open Badges: understanding the history and value of the backpack

Carla Casilli

Thu Jun 09 2016 18:16:34 GMT+0000 (UTC)

As an individual who has been helping to build Open Badges from their start, I often find myself in awe of the ecosystem’s dynamism and growth. I also periodically find myself in awe of how little public understanding exists with regards to many aspects of them. This post is part of my ongoing effort to provide historical background and conceptual context to the genesis of this amazing open badges movement.

I am happy to note that a portion of the growth and success of the open badges community, perhaps a very healthy portion, has come from an intentionally laissez-faire attitude toward the building of the open badge infrastructure (OBI). An open attitude that encouraged experimentation over control, and that resulted in a variety of different and vibrant approaches to open badges.

Assertion: a more controlled, top-down, prescriptive approach would not have allowed the open badges ecosystem to grow in the beneficial ways that it has, nor would we have achieved the success and adoption that we have enjoyed thus far.

At its origin, the OBI represented a proposed structure for how a fully developed open badges ecosystem might work. Even now, the growth of the Open Badges movement still depends upon a primary evolutionary conceptual ideal linked to a series of technical specifications. Open badges has been planned as a true ecosystem, and unlike Athena, it does not spring forth fully formed from anyone’s head. Instead its functioning parts emerge and combine bit by bit.

Consequently, the fact that not all of the originally-imagined and -proposed world has developed into actual tools in unsurprising. And not every tool that has been developed has been well documented or even fully explained at launch—which occasionally left the community at large to figure out what something was and how it might be or should be used.

Assertion: This is the outcome of a small group of people hurrying to effect change quickly; regardless of good intentions, some things simply get left behind in the rush to build, structure, and elevate. It’s the unfortunate Mr. Hyde side of the moving-fast-and-breaking-things Dr. Jekyll approach.

So much ink has been spilled already on the subject of the Mozilla badge backpack: almost from the start it has been both an important philosophical stake in the ground about personal data ownership as well as a raging battleground about its necessity. Questions about it have abounded. What works, what doesn’t. Who uses it, who doesn’t. What’s happening with it, what has happened to it. And yet, even with all of this back and forth, there has always been so much more to say about it. So here goes.

The Mozilla open badges backpack was one of the primary structural concepts of the OBI. And it was one of the ideas that ultimately manifested as a real tool. And what a complicated life it has led. So many high hopes for it and so many challenges to it. Unfortunately, the documentation of its initial conceptualization has never quite fully materialized and so the public understanding of it remains fuzzy.

Assertion: Not an excuse but a reality: in the small team development of open standards software, some areas receive more love (read: attention, money, time) than others. Some tools get a great deal of positive attention. Others languish in a benevolent neglect sort of way.

If a tool’s uptake is not satisfactory, it can be abandoned, i.e., no longer supported by the originating/sponsoring organization. In other words, it gets downshifted to maintenance, or to the even lower gear of community development. (An aside: There are a number of really intriguing Mozilla tools that have followed this trajectory, e.g., Thunderbird, Sunbird, and Persona. That last one is pretty significant in that it was a key aspect of the development of the backpack.) Over time the Mozilla Open Badges Backpack has drifted into one of the lesser support categories.

But before we start singing dirges for the backpack, let’s examine its promising early history. Its original intent was as a referatory for open badges—any and all open badges from any and all issuers. Just fyi: the decision to create a referatory was based on the underlying structure of the open badge.

But let’s be even more precise: the Mozilla Open Badges Backpack was created as a reference implementation of how a badge backpack could work. It was designed to be completely agnostic with regards to where an open badge had been issued and by whom.

Assertion: With the backpack, the open badges initiative further enshrined interoperability as a key aspect of the open badges ecosystem.

The backpack, as originally designed, was also an opportunity to express creativity and personal agency. Its structure allowed earners to make decisions about what badges should be public vs. private, what badges might be linked together to create even more relevant connections, and what badges had greater social or personal relevance. It acted as an accretive, personal diary of achievements, experiences, and relationships.

Assertion: By providing a way for an earner to gather their badges together in one place, group them as they saw fit, and share them with whomever they deemed worthy, the backpack took deadly aim at existing and future learning silos.

One of the best unheralded benefits? When a badge earner used the reference implementation of the Mozilla Open Badges backpack, there was no requirement for them to be a member of a separate, corporate-owned social network in order to display their badges. Not at all.

Because in its original implementation, the backpack had the concept of equity baked into it. And yes, I buried the lede all the way down here.

Conclusion: The Open Badges backpack was structured around the concept of equity, personal data ownership, and interoperability. It discouraged siloing of learning recognition and encouraged personal agency.

With all of this historical reference information now clearly articulated, your opinion of what the Mozilla open badges backpack was and what it might be is more informed. Although the discussion about the backpack has waned over time—some individuals call for it to be eliminated altogether, some still want it to survive—in either case, this background information serves to foreground the significantly thoughtful consideration that went into the original construct of the open badges ecosystem.

Stay tuned for more historically-informed discussions of conceptual and philosophical basis for the open badges ecosystem.



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

Doug Belshaw

Thu Jun 02 2016 10:44:49 GMT+0000 (UTC)

Recommendation Theater


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.


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

Beyond ‘low-hanging fruit’: why I’m no longer an Open Badges evangelist

Doug Belshaw

Mon May 23 2016 17:04:38 GMT+0000 (UTC)

TL;DR: Open Badges have hit a tipping point and no longer need my ‘evangelism’. This is to be celebrated. What’s needed now is the dynamic and differentiated use of the technology to effect real change. This is why I’m continuing my work with organisations as an Open Badges strategist and change-maker.

Low-hanging fruit

Almost exactly five years ago, I stumbled across a pilot being carried out as a collaboration between the nascent Mozilla Learning team and P2PU around Open Badges. It’s fair to say that this discovery, made while I was doing some research in my role for Jisc, altered the course of my professional life.

As an educator, I realised immediately the immense power that a web-native, decentralised, alternative accreditation system could have. I carried out more research, talking about Open Badges with anyone who would listen. This led to me being invited to judge the DML Competition that seed-funded the badges ecosystem and, ultimately, to being asked to work for Mozilla.

I’m not going to turn this post into a blow-by-blow account of the last few years. This is a time for looking forward. That’s why I’m happy to say that, as of today, I no longer consider myself merely an Open Badges evangelist, but an Open Badges strategist. I’m interested in working with people and organisations who are looking to implement Open Badges in new and interesting ways.

What do I mean by that? Well, here’s a few examples:

  • Building badge-based ‘playlists’ for learning (with an emphasis on diversity and co-creation)
  • Developing new extensions and ways of using the standard in informal learning contexts
  • Scaffolding participation and activism through badges that ‘nudge’ positive behaviours in individuals and groups

One way of looking at this is to use Ruben Puentadura’s SAMR model, which I cite in my book The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies:

SAMR model

There’s some interesting preliminary work I do with clients around ‘Augmentation’ but, as quickly as I’m able, I try to get them to think about the top two tiers of the pyramid.

If you’re an organisation looking for mere ‘Substitution’, then Open Badges ecosystem is now developed enough for you to do this by yourself. It’s never been easier to use one of the many badge issuing platforms to simply digitise your existing credentials. There’s documentation around how to get started all over the web, including the Open Badges 101 course that Bryan Mathers and I have curated during our time working with City & Guilds.

I’d challenge organisations and, in particular, universities, to go beyond what they’ve been able to do for the last few hundred years, and think about how to do true 21st-century credentialing. This is a situation where forward-thinking businesses, charities, non-profits, and institutions are in a strong position to drive not only organisational change, but societal change. The nature of hiring and onboarding, for example, can be entirely changed and revolutionised through a fresh look at how we demonstrate knowledge, skills, and behaviours to others.

Over the next few months, I’m looking to build on my doctoral thesis and the work I’ve done over the last few years, to help clients identify, develop, and credential digital skills. If you think I may be able to help you, then please do get in touch:

Image CC BY Ian Carroll