Open Badges in 2016: A Look Ahead

The Open Badges project is growing up. We’re now in our 5th year, so in many countries around the world, we’d be about ready to enter school. There has been a continuous community gathered around this technology from the very start, populated by dedicated individuals, organizations, companies, nonprofits, and foundations. We came together in 2014 to form the Badge Alliance, to stake a claim in this belief that when we build a distributed ecosystem of educational credentials together, we will give people the tools to manage their digital footprints themselves, without requiring a relationship with any one particular mega-corporation. We believe that by working together in the open, we can build systems that improve access and equity of educational and career opportunities.

As we have discovered over the course of our work, as the Open Badges project has migrated from its original team embedded within the Mozilla Foundation to become a globally distributed effort across hundreds of organizations, building a distributed ecosystem is hard work. It is much harder, for instance, than building another walled garden where users pay to play with their personal data. It requires sustained effort and support, and the ability to react to the feedback of the users within the system. It requires buy-in from a larger set of stakeholders, consensus-building processes, and the awareness and coordination with the world outside our project to ensure that we are building the right thing in the right way.

The Mozilla Foundation with the support of the MacArthur Foundation helped seed this ecosystem with a set of open source tools and libraries, and hundreds of organizations have started to use them, marking their investment in the Open Badges vision for connected credentials. It is now the responsibility of a wider community to ensure that our tools are the right ones for what we are trying to build and to make good use of the past and future investments of all our partners. The Badge Alliance community is excited to hear promises of Mozilla’s continued engagement, and we recognize that Mozilla will continue to be an important partner in this work.

The Badge Alliance will push forward this January with a strong schedule of work to define the continuing vision for Open Badges, turn this vision into a new version release of the specification by mid-year, and work to ensure broad support for this evolution in the open source libraries and compatible services developed by Alliance members. In addition, the Badge Alliance will continue to facilitate cooperation and organization between its members, and adoption of the specification through events, meetings, publications, and communication channels.

Time to Double Down

In some ways, the Open Badges ecosystem has not met our goals. Some key open source packages have suffered for lack of maintenance, and we still do not have the end-to-end user experience for badge issuers, earners or consumers, that we plan to build. The power of endorsement remains dormant. Open Badges met a strong hype cycle early in its life, and much of that initial excitement has worn off. If we are to succeed in the long term, we need to focus deeply on delivering a solid user experience.

2014–15 proved that the interest in verifiable, shareable, portable badges is strong. We must now focus on the work of completing the ecosystem with the partners who are engaged. Issuers have invested in the ecosystem, and there are developers ready to work. We will now set out the agenda for 2016, identifying the problems that we must solve, organize the spaces in which we can collaborate on solving them, and then get down to work. In many cases this will involve investigating our original core assumptions and weeding out practices that we have found do not meet the needs of badge users.

With just a few significant issues solved and our core solidified we will be able once more to start evangelizing the specification beyond our community to increase the reach of Open badges. But it would be dangerous to focus our efforts on selling the idea to end users too early, because the users who will grow the movement next will be the ones who are inspired by how well Open Badges can solve problems they have encountered for too long.

As 2016 begins, we have a new set of technical resources and committed partners to make sure we build the right and complete ecosystem to enable the use cases first outlined by Erin Knight’s team at Mozilla and their first collaborators in 2011.

Open Badges Technical Future

Here’s a sketch of the initiatives that the Badge Alliance Standard Working Group is considering for the 2.0 specification. These are divided into work on the Specification and work on the Ecosystem of software and services that implements the spec. We will expand on each of these sections in future posts.

Specification Initiatives

  • Identity and Privacy, including COPPA-compliant badges for under-13s and Linked Data recipient profiles
  • Connected Badges — Learning Pathways & Stackable Badges
  • Linked Data Signatures
  • Endorsement
  • Templates for Multiple Issuer Badges
  • Badge Content Licenses
  • Linked Data Embedded Criteria & Evidence
  • Multi-language Badges & Internationalization

Ecosystem

  • v2.0 Issuer Adoption
  • Federated Backpack Protocol: Near and Long-term Solutions
  • Open Badges Service Framework
  • Standard Compliance Certification with partner IMS Global

Badges Community

The Badge Alliance serves as a hub for the Open Badges community. Though discussions about badges are common in online spaces and around water coolers worldwide, it is part of the BA’s core mission to provide open and accessible spaces to advance the Open Badges ecosystem through communication and collaboration. In 2016, the BA-supported community will be organized into three categories: Publication, Communication, and Collaboration.

Publication

2016 will see a renewed effort to publish well-organized resources for a variety of audiences with a special emphasis on those who are implementing the Open Badges specification. As we identified at the June 2015 Open Badges Leaders Summit in Los Angeles, there needs to be better central organization of Badge Alliance resources, which have been distributed across a multitude of wikis, blogs, documents, and websites. The BA continues its emphasis on publishing materials free for all to access.

The main focus of our new technical writer will be consolidating and updating resources into two main publishing channels: Medium and openbadges.org. This means that the resources to help you understand what Open Badges are, where they are being used, how to use them yourself, and how to connect to the community will be better organized, up-to-date, and accessible than at present. Timely official publications on special topics from the Badge Alliance and its members will have a single home on our Medium publication, and everything will be connected at openbadges.org.

Communication

The Badge Alliance works hard to make sure there are adequate spaces to discuss badges, from a wide variety of perspectives and serving many user populations. We’re glad to see that as the ecosystem has grown, people have felt empowered to dive into new spaces they have organized, to spin up new collaborations and communities of practice. The Badge Alliance itself will focus its efforts on ensuring there are adequate spaces for implementers and users to discuss badges, ask questions, and share news. Weekly Community Calls, Instant Messaging via our Slack channel and IRC, the core mailing list and developer list, the Open Badges page on Facebook, and the #OpenBadges hashtag on Twitter will be channels we support for badge conversations. All are welcome to take these discussions and others into their own spaces and communities as well. Let us know how we can promote your work.

Collaboration

The Badge Alliance provides space and resources for direct collaborative work on advancing the Open Badges specification and its uses. This takes the form of Working Groups and Task Forces. Our existing members are familiar with the wide range of working groups that were chartered for the 2014 cycle and the much smaller set in operation in 2015. In 2016, we’ll be evolving the Badge Alliance model to support two types of group. The familiar Working Group will be a standing group of subject experts continuously working on a specific facet of the Open Badges ecosystem. The second, a Task Force, will be a short term objective-based ad-hoc committee chartered to create a specific deliverable or solve a specific problem. Often the output of a Working Group will be continuous updates to specification, documentation, and resources, where the output of a Task Force will be a singular white paper, prototype, or specification extension recommendation.

Working Groups and Task Forces for the first half of 2016:

  • Standard Working Group
  • Higher Ed Working Group
  • Taxonomies Working Group
  • Endorsement Task Force
  • Localization & Internationalization Task Force
  • Federation Task Force

Stay tuned for announcements about each of these groups in January.

We have a lot to look forward to this year from your fellow Open Badges community members, and the field of digital badges is advancing quickly. We are glad to have the continuing support of the Open Badges community, which is made up of a diverse bunch of educators, technologists, developers, and lifelong learners. Join our Community Calls on Wednesdays at noon Eastern (5pm UTC) to learn how to get started.