Mozilla is Doing a Hack Job on Open Badges

This week at MozFest in London there’s a session called “Hack the Backpack” where the Open Badges community is being asked to help contribute to long-standing open and unaddressed issues regarding the backpack. It needs some “love”. But why is the Backpack in such dire need of attention? Isn’t Mozilla working on it?

You’d think so. It’s actually unclear why it’s still called the Mozilla Open Badges Backpack at all since there is not a single full-time employee left at the Mozilla Foundation assigned to Open Badges. There is no Open Badges Team at Mozilla.

The team was disbanded well over a year ago. Not only was the backpack abandoned — technically put on “maintenance mode” — any real initiatives and plans for what the backpack was supposed to be were essentially put on hold since the spring of 2013. Resources at Mozilla for Open Badges were redirected to support Chicago Summer of Learning and after that to support Cities of Learning in late 2013–2014. The Open Badges team focused on the much hyped BadgeKit which was really only used as a private beta for Cities of Learning and then abandoned in the summer of 2014.

In the late winter of 2014, a handful of the Open Badges founders formed the Badge Alliance to support the work of the community and keep the Open Badges Specification and infrastructure moving forward. It was funded in a cooperative effort by the MacArthur Foundation and Mozilla but after 6 months, the Badge Alliance lost its anticipated 2 year funding stream. By December 2014, both the Badge Alliance staff and the Open Badges team at Mozilla were gone.

The Open Badges community, mostly unaware of this, remained and continued to grow. Through June 2015, the Badge Alliance staff kept going anyway — unpaid and unauthorized. They persisted with the hope that the funding would return and out of concern and loyalty for the work and community. Without that effort the Open Badges community calls and the specification work would have come to a screeching halt leaving a leadership vacuum and throwing the growing but still nascent ecosystem into uncertainty.

In late spring 2015, with much convincing by a group of us, the yet to be named or announced Collective Shift/LRNG agreed the Badge Alliance should continue but decided that it would be under their direction, funded solely by them, and staffed only part-time by Nate Otto, as Interim Director, and currently the only paid personnel working on Open Badges. Nate’s doing a good job maintaining the status quo while balancing his work at Concentric Sky but for how long can he sustain this and what would happen to the Badge Alliance if he were offered a different opportunity?

The “board” of this Badge Alliance is comprised of Connie Yowell (Formerly US Director of Education for US Programs at MacArthur Foundation, currently CEO of Collective Shift/LRNG), Mark Surman (Executive Director, Mozilla Foundation), and Rob Abel (CEO, IMS Global Learning Consortium). This group does not meet the scale, scope or need of Open Badges which extends well beyond K-12 in selected US cities and Higher Ed. They do have access to the capital the initiative needs, yet they won’t use it to commit to providing purposeful, dedicated resources.

All of this begs the question: How committed are Collective Shift/LRNG, Mozilla & IMS to Open Badges?

So here we are — a promising digital credential movement with a robust community in need of some real leadership and technology. And that technology ain’t the backpack, people.

The backpack was created as an example of a Badges consumption app. It was not intended to be the storage for all issued Badges. The backpack helped drive the needs of the specification in the early days of Badges. The specification coincided and aligned with the backpack work. When the Badges Team was disbanded, the specification and the backpack no longer aligned. For example, it’s likely that this weekend at the hack session one of the top topics will be how to update the backpack so that it properly validates and understands the 1.1 specification which launched early this year. Another will likely be getting rid of the antiquated Persona login (authentication software project abandoned, “transitioned to community development”, by Mozilla in 2014).

There’s a whole lot the backpack needs. It’s admirable that DigitalMe has stepped up to do some development on it and hopefully Mozilla is at least providing them with some funding. Kudos to the community members who step up to participate during the hack session. But really, best case is that it’s a stop-gap; worse case, a waste of everyone’s time.

Here are a few things that are really needed:

  • True ownership of the mission, road map and funding of Open Badges. Not a bunch of unfulfilled commitments by Mozilla to support the initiative they incubated and still claim to support. Not a bunch of post-it notes that get tossed when the hack session this weekend is over.
  • Fund the Badge Alliance as a truly independent alliance so that the initiative can be objectively supported and funded. When an initiative such as Open Badges is funded by one organization it is beholden to that one organization’s capabilities and needs. Everyone is certainly grateful for MacArthur’s funding of Open Badges but eventually the needs of that foundation became the primary goal of the initiative.
  • Build a new, modern infrastructure for Open Badges. Make the OBI, a real infrastructure. Let’s take a real look at the block chain and BitTorrent. Address the technical needs of the community and the consumers of badges. Dump the crusty, old backpack.

Mozilla shouldn’t be asking the already under-supported Open Badges community to finish their work. Sure, Open Source community development can be a great thing but only if the community is directed and supported.

If Mozilla/Badge Alliance can’t or won’t step up to their commitment to Open Badges (if there is actually a real commitment), then they should step away entirely and stop wasting the time and money of the community. Enough with band-aids and lack of transparency.

The simplicity of the Open Badges specification and the malleability that extensions provide fits a broad range of credentialing opportunities. While the community is providing the programs and opportunities that are changing lives, the dedicated leadership and technology efforts need to be realistically focused towards a mission that will get us to the next generation of digital credentialing.