Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Open Badge Infrastructure (#3)

First post of 2011! What better way to ring in the New Year than a post about the 3rd (and final) piece of the badge system - the open badge infrastructure. I have already (briefly) talked about the assessments and badges, but there is a bigger piece that extends beyond our pilot and even our own definition of badges (hint: the badge infrastructure). As I have discussed before here and here, an alternative form of assessment and certification are necessary because learning is happening all around us, all across the Web and other experiences and yet none of that learning ‘counts’ or is transferable to other contexts. Assessments and associated badges can help us with this by providing a mechanism to demonstrate and capture the learning wherever it happens and then carry the evidence with us back to recruiters, formal institutions or our peer community.

Yeah yeah yeah, I have said all of this before, but the key part that I have not yet addressed is the ‘wherever it happens' piece (hint: that's where the open badge infrastructure comes in)… A lot of my day-to-day work lately has been mapping out an assessment/badge plan for the School of Webcraft, a set of P2PU courses on web development. And that’s really cool and important because it is a free, accessible and open path to learning and its also a peer learning environment - all of which are relatively unchartered territories as far as assessment and certification goes. And through these focused efforts we will learn a bunch, potentially (hopefully) provide more incentives for P2PU learners and even provide a model for other people to work from. All good and critical things, but they are still isolated. If we only build our system, we are not supporting learners much better than any individual institution does.  If someone chooses another perfectly legitimate path, it won’t ‘count’ because they can’t get the proof or evidence (degree, badges, etc).

So what are the options?  Well, we could work to design/vet/support badges that cover everyone for every type of learning and every skill/topic and manage all of the badges centrally… Hopefully that concept seems as ridiculous to you as it does to me. Who are we to try to do that? The beauty of the world we live in now is that again, learning is happening everywhere and that everywhere changes and grows constantly. So a truly valuable badge system is one that supports badges from that everywhere. It should support badges from any issuer, collect those badges to a persistent identity (for each individual) and allow the badges to be shared out back into the everywhere. It must be open so that every need and path can be captured and demonstrated and the learner remains in control. This is the open badge infrastructure. And Mozilla is building it.

The open badge infrastructure will support badges issued by anyone across the Web, and allow an individual learner to collect these badges (from those anyone), store them to a single identity and then carry them with them and share them across contexts. Said in plain(er) English, if I am taking a few courses at P2PU and I am also using a series of OER materials in another context that is issuing associated badges, I can collect badges from these independent issuers, have all of the earned badges connected with my open identity, and then I can take those badges with me to interviews, back to my formal institution or post on this blog or LinkedIn profile to demonstrate my learning and skills for various audiences.  This infrastructure is critical to truly support learning across the Web.

Now obviously this is idealized somewhat. In order for ‘every need and path’ to be supported, there would need to be badge issuers at every step. We can’t control who issues badges but we can provide the infrastructure to support anyone who wants to. So we are. And eventually, if and when the value is apparent, sites/providers/communities will want to have badges. And if it is truly open, learners could even create or suggest badges along the way.

Open scares a lot of people. I have heard a colleague say (paraphrasing): “Everyone loves open education until they consider education being truly open.”  Wait, ANYONE can issue badges? It could get messy! There might be a lot of badges?! There might be ‘bad’ badges! And people might game the system! True. All things to watch closely. But a centralized or closed system WILL NOT solve our problems, and in fact will simply recreate the ones we already have by only supporting a small subset of the learning that is occuring, putting the power to decide what ‘counts’ in a small number of hands, created prescribed learning paths, demotivating learners…and so on and so on.

Besides, I seem to remember a similar case in the early days of the Web. Wait, ANYONE can create a website? It could get messy! There might be a lot of websites?! There might be ‘bad’ websites! Then we had Google and various services that help us find, rate and share websites that are credible and/or are valuable/relevant/interesting to us.  Maybe we will need something like that for badges, we don’t know yet.  But just as a closed and controlled Web would have never resulted in the explosion of creativity, expression, transparency and access that we value and depend on today, a closed badge system will never reach full potential. Open badge infrastructure FTW!

It goes without saying that Mozilla, ambassador of the open web, is the right entity to be building this open badge infrastructure. There is a team already cranking away to open up badges and take this thing the the next level. They built a prototype in Barcelona and haven’t looked back. More to come over the next few months!



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