Voice from the Industry

We Don’t Need No … Wait. Maybe We Do.

Does your education product need to support badges? Not the kind dismissed in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (or, later and less seriously, in Blazing Saddles), but the kind promoted by Mozilla’s new Open Badges technical standard?

The answer is, if you want to enable student-centric, competency-based education: Probably yes.

A short history. Increasingly, to help provide motivation and markers for milestones, ed tech products (like Khan Academy) have awarded digital badges to students or (like Schoology) allowed teachers to issue badges. But these badges, even if they reflect achievement of a skill, knowledge, or accomplishment, are trapped inside the product that created them. If a student wants to show them off to peers, parents, college admissions officers, or an after-school employer, he or she is stuck.

Enter the non-profit Mozilla Foundation, best known for the Firefox web browser. In March 2013, it released version 1.0 of the Open Badge Infrastructure. There’s a lot of technology under the hood, but in effect Open Badges let digital badges exist outside of the product or platform that creates them.

These Open Badges issued by different products (or teachers) are portable, can be combined (a.k.a. “stacked”), and shared by the student with others. And the achievement it represents may be quickly verified by one click on an Open Badge itself, since the badge image embeds information about who issued it, who earned it, the accomplishment it represents, evidence to support it, and when it was issued.

And since it’s an open standard, it’s free for anyone to adopt and implement. There are open source tools from Mozilla to help, but they’re not needed if a potential issuer wants to work directly from the open technical standard.

For those who attended my EdNET 2013 conference “View from the Catbird Seat” presentation on how Open Badges work, I won’t bore you with a recap (just check out the video). Let’s just say since that discussion, Open Badges are actively being issued from products ranging from middle-school math practice site BuzzMath to learning management systems Blackboard Learn and Moodle, not to mention by individual tech-forward educators who use platforms such as Credly and the private beta of Mozilla’s own open source BadgeKit tool to handle the mechanics.

(I’ll have more to say in a forthcoming EdNET Insight Report on Open Badges, in somewhat exhaustive detail, early this summer.)

But you’re busy. I can see that. So let me give you the bottom line, and you can dig into the details later.

The upside of Open Badges:

It’s an open standard. It’s free to adopt, and any Open Badges one organization creates or issues should play nicely with Open Badges from other companies, to the benefit of schools and students.

It’s student-centric. Students, not companies or educators, can choose what to do with Open Badges once they’re issued, including putting them on Facebook, LinkedIn, in digital college or job applications, or just showing them off on a personal website. Or they can keep them all private.

It’s verifiable. That is, the embedded metadata inside an Open Badge makes it extremely hard to counterfeit, and because one click indicates if it’s valid or not, it can be used to support competency-based education. Think, for example, of students collecting Open Badges for informal, web-based, computer coding courses.

But every upside has a downside:

It’s very new. While organizations from ETS to Pearson (with its Acclaim platform) have adopted them, Open Badges aren’t yet common enough to be immediately recognized. A critical mass will be necessary to realize the promise of “stacking” individual badges that represent micro-credentials into new forms of competency-based education credentials.

Quality varies widely. For every rigorous, assessment-based Open Badge representing an actual skill, accomplishment, or knowledge, there are probably at least as many issued just for showing up. And while these participation badges can have motivational value, viewers of Open Badges still need to sort out which Open Badges are from trusted issuers and are likely to have value over time, and which simply convey short-term bragging rights.

It sounds juvenile. While Mozilla apparently chose Open Badges terminology like “backpack” (as a digital place to store badges) to help it seem friendly and understandable, the language also can make Open Badges appear trivial instead of technically advanced. For students heading to college or into the job market, that can be a psychological obstacle.

That said, Open Badges seem to be one of the best, albeit nascent, solutions for giving students proof of educational accomplishment that can live on outside of a product, across products, and over time.

If your product or platform is thinking of adding some kind of a digital badge system to represent progress, rewards, or mastery, Open Badges are worth considering. Because a digital, granular, competency-based, informal-plus-formal educational world needs some kind of credentials. And they shouldn’t stink.

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Frank Catalano (@FrankCatalano) of Intrinsic Strategy is an independent industry consultant, author, and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies. He is a consulting senior analyst in support of MDR’s EdNET Insight service and also writes regular columns for the tech news site GeekWire and the edtech site EdSurge. He’ll again sit in the Catbird Seat for EdNET 2014. Frank can be reached at frank@intrinsicstrategy.com.