Open Badges: the BOTOX of education? — beyond credentials

Two weeks ago, during the Badge Alliance weekly Community Call (link) when Nate Otto presented the outcomes of the Badge Alliance Board Meeting, one of the slides (c.f. below) triggered a discussion on whether Open Badges are “just about credentialing”:

Are Open Badges just about credentialing?

Earlier in April, Carla Casilli posted her reflections on “Open badges + credentials: the value of the not-credential” (link):

“Right now, we still need badges to flourish in the non-regimented space of not-credentials — a world of value that has yet to be fully realized or appreciated — where the sliding scale of social and cultural currency changes depending on context.”

Doug Belshaw responded to Carla stating: “ I just can’t see a situation where a badge wouldn’t also count as a credential — even if that wasn’t the original intention” (link). Doug further adds:

“What badges don’t have to be, even if they’re wholly contained within the ‘credential’ circle, is traditional. They can recognise all kinds of knowledge, skills, and behaviours — as well as all kinds of things we haven’t even thought of yet!”

While defending that badges are credentials Doug Belshaw claims that “badges don’t have to be […] traditional,” yet it is precisely because badges tend to be “traditional” that Carla Casilli writes “we still need badges to flourish in the non-regimented space of not-credentials.” Could there be a connection between thinking of Open Badges as credentials and the reason why they are not being more used in the “non-regimented space”?

“While Open Badges could become an authentic rejuvenating medicine, many are only interested in an educational BOTOX® for a cheap facelift.”

With the growing interest of institutions of formal education in Open Badges, I am afraid that we are more likely to witness the transformation of Open Badges technology and practices to fit the needs of formal education for conformance rather than the other way around. While Open Badges could become an authentic rejuvenating medicine, many are only interested in an educational BOTOX® for a cheap facelift — Don Presant detailed one such example in Problems with “Badges for Food”.

My claim is that the vocabulary we use to describe Open Badges and the processes they support can make the difference between authentic transformation and masquerade — and avoid BOTOX®mishaps!

Credentials, credentialing and recognition

Are Open Badges just about credentialing? When the question was raised two weeks ago, Don Presant suggested to use the word recognition instead. As I agreed with Don, I would like to develop the dangers of equating Open Badges to credentials, not that credentials is a dirty word but, like some substances that cure in small doses and kill in larger ones, I am afraid that we are on the verge of credentialing overdose. The good news is that there is a way to mitigate that risk, and shifting our thinking from credentialing to recognition might be part of the solution.

We cannot neglect the fact that words carry their own bagage, that meaning is contextual, it depends on who is speaking, the audience, the location, etc. — the very same joke can sound hilarious, outrageous or flat whether told by a woman or a man, a transgender, polygender or genderless individual!

Credentialing is value laden, and some people in the world of informal education have expressed their fears about credentialing:

“At the 2010 European Adult Education Association (EAEA) / Nordic network for adult learning conference […] many participants had reservations and anxieties towards qualifications frameworks and associated validation of non-formal and informal learning. It was suggested for example that there is a risk in this sector that accredited courses might give learners the impression that they belong to the formal system, which may deter those with previous negative experiences of education from taking part. Delegates stressed that ‘learning for learning’s sake’ remains important and that there should still be support and financing for non-formal learning, study circles and development of social competences even if the learners choose this type of learning for personal development and do not intend to validate the competences. The conference delegates emphasised that it should be up to the learner to choose what should be validated and not.
 Source: 2010 update of the European inventory on validation of non-formal and informal learning [the highlights are mine].

It would be a paradox if the Open Badges, an initiative dedicated to the recognition of informal learning would deter the learners involved in informal learning, in particular those who are “learning for learning’s sake”! Unfortunately, it is precisely what might happen if we continue insisting that Open Badges are credentials.

The crux of the problem is probably the lack of understanding of the differences between recognition and credentialing (or accrediting). To try to capture how they differ from each other, it might be interesting to analyse how they react when combined with a selection of adjectives:

The semantic value of recognition vs. credentialing

As those phrases elicit, recognition and credentialing do not have the same semantic value and surface. In fact, one is strictly contained within the other: credentialing is a specific modality of recognition, while recognition is not a specific modality of credentialing. I used to say credentialing is ancillary to recognition. Credentialing is a servant to recognition and it should stay in that subordinate position. Problems arise when the servant becomes the master — think of Dirk Bogard in Joseph Losey’s The Servant. I am afraid that it is the situation we are fostering when equating Open Badges to credentials.

Credentialing should remain the servant of Recognition

If we accept equating Open Badges to credentials we loose the opportunity to address the wider field of recognition, so my question is: what should we use as a means of recognition if Open Badges are just credentials?

As this is a rhetorical question, we will assume from now on that Open Badges are signs of recognition and that some of them are credentials.

Beyond the distinction recognition/credentials, credentials suffer from a congenital infirmity: asymmetry. When you ask someone “show me your credentials” what you are asking for is what others, usually authorities, have to say about that person. You are not asking what that person has to say about others, for example the people they trust, i.e. those they have issued credentials to. Yet, to have a fuller understanding of a person, why limit the information to half of what would be possible if people had the possibility to issue their own credentials?

The credentials issuedby a person can be very informative: “tell me who the people you trust/endorse are, and I’ll tell you who you are.” Had the Open Badge Infrastructure be truly open, when being asked “show me you credentials” one would have been able to respond “here is my trust capital, those who trust me and those I trust” — by displaying the badges received, issued and endorsed.

Unfortunately, the congenital infirmity of credentials, asymmetry, is also hereditary: it has been transmitted to the Open Badge Infrastructure. We have failed in providing learners with the means to issue their own “credentials” denying them the right to trust others.

As I have mentioned several times, the Open Badge Infrastructure (OBI) was primarily designed to support the formal recognition of informal learning — involuntarily paving the way for the Open Badges to be hijacked by institutions of formal education, something happening just now under our nose. Supporting the informal recognition of informal learning would have required a different architecture, empowering learners rather than institutions, looking for recognition rather than mere credentialing.

In the next post, we will explore the relationship between formal and informal recognition and why it is critical to make Open Badges truly open to the informal recognition of informal learning.

Originally published at on May 9, 2016.