From Badges to BadgeChain: Part 1

The Open Badges Part

This post kicks off a series of five blog posts designed to explore, inform, and encourage public discussions about the possibilities, opportunities, and challenges arising at the intersection of Open Badges and blockchain technology.
Carla Casilli & Kerri Lemoie

Starting from open

Working together with the community to build the Open Badges ecosystem over the past five years has always been both exciting and rewarding — and if response to our first Welcome to BadgeChain blog post is any indication, this year will be even more so. Since that post went live we’ve been blitzed with questions, excitement, and interest from a variety of individuals and sectors. With this series of blog posts, we’re continuing to work in the open by sharing our thinking and experimentation, aiming to address some outstanding questions, and as always, encouraging continued community participation and development.

A brief history of Open Badges

The concept behind Open Badges sparked into life during a session at the 2010 Mozilla DrumBeat Festival, “Learning, Freedom and the Web.” A small team of individuals gathered together to focus their thinking on a way to capture the learning opportunities now on offer thanks to the growth of the World Wide Web. Despite the impressive slew of learning opportunities available, the resulting educational experiences and learning outcomes were going unrecognized and unacknowledged. The group sought to directly address that issue by shifting that new learning into a recognized and acknowledged space, and the notion of badges appeared to be an excellent way to do just that. Their primary assertion: that learning, skills, and achievements could be recognized in a digital and portable format regardless of where, when and how they were learned. This assertion was formalized in an exploratory white paper, written by Erin Knight in collaboration with Philipp Schmidt for P2PU and Mozilla. That document served to coalesce the loose idea borne at the Mozilla Festival into a more concise, workable approach.

Over the next few years, the Open Badges team experimented with this novel idea even further, ultimately spinning out of Mozilla to form The Badge Alliance, a network of organizations helping to build and sustain the open badges ecosystem. The BA accomplished a great deal in its first six months: in addition to hosting regular open community calls, speaking with subject matter experts, building software, presenting at conferences, and sharing thinking publicly through blogs and discussions, the team shepherded over ten Working Groups aimed at addressing a variety of ecosystem development areas including Research, Higher Ed, Endorsement, Workforce, Policy and the Open Badges Standard.

The power of open

Throughout all of this development and growth, the primary distinguishing characteristic of an open badge has remained its openness. This declaration is no minor aside: it’s something that separates Open Badges from mere digital badges. Open Badges are open in two ways, both conceptually and technically. Conceptually open through their open ethos expressed through openly readable criteria and shareability, and technically open through their open source software and open community development. Transparency sits at the heart of both of these attributes.

Open Badges technology: an evolutionary process

The Open Badges Specification defines the technical construct for all Open Badges. According to its website, the specification describes “a method for packaging information about accomplishments, embedding it into portable image files as digital badges, and establishing an infrastructure for its validation.”

The original 0.5 specification grouped all badge metadata in a single JSON file. The subsequent 1.0 specification split the metadata into three JSON files: assertion, the earned badge record; badge class, the generic badge description; and issuer object, the issuer information. When the specification evolved from 1.0 to 1.1, it changed from pure JSON to JSON-LD. The 1.0 to 1.1 iteration aimed to maintain the integrity of badges built on the original 1.0 standard. In other words, it sought to ensure that badges built on platforms using the earlier specification would not break.

Even with the 1.1 specification, badges can become siloed on issuers’ servers because they are hosted as isolated files and rely heavily on web-hosted resources for links to evidence, criteria, and other metadata. In a few high stakes environments, anxiety related to rigor, fraud, duplication, and spoofing have influenced Open Badges conversations. Calls for greater attention to challenges related to validation, earner identity, evidence storage and criteria remain open.

Alongside the Open Badges Specification the Mozilla badge backpack made its debut, although its documentation is meager at best. The backpack was originally imagined as a reference implementation — an example — of a badge referatory. With it, the Open Badges team sought to ensure that earned badges could be stored privately until an earner decided to share any and all of their badges publicly. There is a catch to the validation process for badges held in backpacks, or really, badges displayed anywhere. If an issuer stops hosting data referenced by a badge, that badge becomes orphaned (sometimes jokingly referred to as a zombie badge) and ultimately becomes impossible to validate, even if previously it had been a properly functioning badge. This complexity weakens individual control over earned and owned badges by limiting the ongoing validation of accomplishments to issuers. In other words, an orphaned badge puts the historical record of an individual’s earned achievements at risk, if it’s kept in a backpack or not. For an initiative that endeavors to put earners at the center of the learning recognition experience, this presents a true philosophical conflict.

Understandably, certain aspects of ecosystem development have slowed due to worry over some of the issues discussed here. Happily, the BadgeChain team’s exploration of new technology complements the Badge Alliance’s preparation for the Open Badges Specification 2.0.

What’s next

This brief synopsis of the birth and technological foundation of Open Badges provides essential context for the areas that we’ll be covering in this and following posts. We’ve reviewed several of the evolutionary turning points and technical challenges because they provide the rationale for how we ended up on the road to BadgeChain. Our next post will investigate theblockchain, its origin, many conceptual benefits, and technical challenges.

We welcome your questions and comments and encourage you to contact us at badgechain.com. Thanks!