Towards an Ethical Framework for Open Recognition

“Open Recognition” is the association of two words that, when taken independently, cover such a wide range of connotations and values that they can easily become confusing, while, when combined, they provide a powerful concept to discriminate between open/closed, recognition/rejection, inclusion/exclusion. For example, the very first Open Badge technologies were designed in such a way that individuals were de facto denied the right to recognise others, and therefore prevented the development of Open Recognition practices. The technology standard was open, the software implementing the standard was also open, but the recognition process was mainly closed. The 2.0 Open Badge Standard creates the conditions to put an end to this contradiction and enable the emergence of Open Recognition ecosystems.

While a new standard creates new opportunities, it does not eliminate poor practices of the past, such as linking a collection of Open Badges to the awarding of free pizzas or other “extrinsic motivations.” With the emergence of an even more powerful technology it is becoming critical to define an ethical framework for Open Badges in support of Open Recognition. Can we learn from our mistakes to mitigate the consequences of the next ones we are prone to commit?

“Open” to paradoxes

“Open educational resources (OER) are freely accessible, openly licensed text, media, and other digital assets that are useful for teaching, learning, and assessing as well as for research purposes.” (Wikipedia)

Open Educational Resources (OER), are primarily defined as a modality for accessing and licensing educational content. The definition does not say anything about the “openness” of the content itself. To have OER teaching creationism, neo-nazi or ISIS ideology, one only has to add a Copyleft of Creative Commons license to their mediocre and nauseating publications.

While it is possible to use Open Educational Resources to undermine the values of an Open Society, conversely, there are plenty of non-open resources available to nurture those who want to contribute to building an Open Society. When I bought Axel Honneth’s La lutte pour la Reconnaissance (The Struggle for Recognition), it was from Gallimard, a commercial publisher. My most valuable educational resources to work on identity, trust and recognition are to be found mostly in the catalogues of commercial publishers.

“Open” to discriminations

Open Badges, are not different from OER: it is not because they are based on an open standard, that they cannot be used to promote exclusion or even the war of everybody against everybody. There is nothing, but the law, to prevent a rogue town mayor running amok creating a “Blond Blue Eyes Open Badge” (BBEOB). The rogue mayor could argue that he has done nothing wrong by copying pieces of information already contained in national identity cards:

“I am not discriminating against those who don’t have blond hair and blue eyes. In fact, I have offered my BBEOB to Donald Trump who called to thank me: ‘I have a very unique hair dye [bright orange, ed.] that you can get from the White House souvenirs shop, but in reality I’m a true blond which is why I deserve to be invited to join this very exclusive group of people who are the fons et origo of our western civilisation.’” [one should suspect fake news as actual POTUS does not possess such an extended vocabulary, ed.].

If, for the time being, in Europe, there is a law preventing discrimination based on age, disability, sexual orientation, racial or ethnic origin and religion or belief, the reality echoes a dissonant sound. For example, in France, the many discourses on “equal education for all” do not abolish a reality that a number of researchers, practitioners and organisations have qualified as educational apartheid (c.f. L’Apartheid scolaire. Enquête sur la ségrégation ethnique dans les collèges by Georges Felouzis, 2007, Amazon).

What does it mean for Open Badge practices and technologies? Is there a risk of making things even worse, or can they be a cure? Is there an acid test that could tell whether a technology or a practice will lead to increased inclusion or discrimination? Can we mitigate the risks of making mistakes and their consequences?

“Open” to mistakes: The Beuth Hochshule case study

To illustrate the question of inclusion vs. exclusion and to elicit a possible ethical standpoint for Open Recognition I will use the “Digital awards for best performances” (“Digitale Auszeichnungen für Bestleistungen“) delivered by a teacher at Beuth Hochschule (link, English translation).

This teacher has devised two Badges, one for the Bachelor degree, the other for the Master degree. These badges are not delivered by the institution but by the teacher to the students who have achieved the top grade of 1.0:

“I award digital awards to my [grade 1] students” (“vergebe ich an meine Studierenden digitale Auszeichnungen”).

NB: in Germany, bachelor or master degrees receive numeral grades ranging from 1.0 (“very good”) to 4.0 (“pass”), and 5.0 (“fail”) (c.f. Wikipedia).

So, what is the story told by those “Open Badges”:

  1. An institution of higher education delivers a diploma to X students.
  2. Different grades are attributed to all X students’ diplomas.
  3. A member of the faculty decides to create an Open Badge to celebrate “grade 1 students”.
  4. The “grade 1 students” will be able to display Open Badges on LinkedIn and Facebook while badgeless students won’t .
  5. The “grade 1 students” who already had a competitive advantage due to their grade, have been given an extra competitive advantage they probably never asked for in the first place.
  6. The badgeless students, i.e. those who “just” have a degree might have learned that we live in a competitive world and that winners take all.
  7. The badgeless students might have also learned that faculty members have the freedom to recognise (or not) their learning at their discretion and introduce rules that did not exist when they registered at the Hochschule.

While the teacher could have decided to give all students a badge with the mention of their grade, why choose to deny those who did not get a “1” the possibility to display their own achievements with an Open Badge? After all, it is just a matter of transposing on a digital support the content of a paper document… Why take the risk of introducing new means of discrimination?

As Alfie Kohn wrote:

“Pitting students against one another for the status of having the best grades takes the strychnine of extrinsic motivation and adds to it the arsenic of competition.” (source)
“The only thing worse than a reward is an award”

Of course, there is a huge difference between a mayor running amok deciding to extract metadata from ID cards to create discriminatory “Open Badges” and a faculty member extracting metadata from a diploma to create their own flavour of “Open Badges,” but the process is the same: take something existing and reduce it to one of its components. It is a process of reification, or even Über-Verdinglichung (hyper-reification) as the reduction of a person to a diploma is already a reification. But this kind of reification does not only affect those who get the badge: those who do not get one are also reified… into non-existence…

The Digitale Auszeichnungen für Bestleistungen do not add anything to the original degrees, they discard their most important elements to elicit one that is probably the least important, they do not build on the original degrees, but undermine the value of those whose degrees have not been judged worthy of a digital token. While recognition should look at the individual as a whole, in all one’s complexity, what is happening with these types of Open Badges is the opposite of Open Recognition.

While it is clear to me that Beuth Hochschule would be wise not to pursue the Digitale Auszeichnungen für Bestleistungen any further, we have to accept that we still have much to learn and will probably make other mistakes in the future. If the Digitale Auszeichnungen für Bestleistungen initiative has helped us to learn what not to do, this would already be a useful contribution, and we should be grateful to Beuth Hochschule.

An ethical framework for Open Recognition

Open Badges are not innocuous. They can heal or kill, empower or control, enable or disable, recognise or exclude. In the perspective of Open Recognition, it is critical to define an ethical framework.

It will be a key element of the Open Recognition Framework, defined with the support of MIRVA (Making Informal Recognition Visible and Actionable), one of the main projects led by the Open Recognition Alliance. We are looking forward to the contributions of the Open Badges and Open Recognition communities.


Originally published at www.learningfutures.eu on November 30, 2017.

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