An Update on Badges and Backpack


By Mark Surman, Executive Director, Mozilla

Innovative disruption takes time. It was more than 25 years from the time the first email message was sent to when email entered the mainstream of business and personal life in the 1990s.

It was with that type of disruption in mind that MacArthur and Mozilla set out to reinvent the way we recognize and credential learning. The idea was to use Open Badges — a digitally verifiable record of achievement — to empower and recognize individual learners. The core thinking behind Open Badges was this: we needed a way to recognize the learning that happens in many different contexts — not just school — if we wanted the connected learning approach to succeed.

This post offers an update on where things stand with the Open Badges work — and where things are going.

Early work

We set out to prototype the Open Badge concept starting in 2011. The idea was to create a common language with which people describe learning achievements from multiple sources. This included the development of the Open Badges Specification for metadata and signing (like the common format used by all email messages). It also included the development of a variety of open source tools for issuing and sharing badges, including the Mozilla Backpack. Many companies and organizations created similar early tools to work with the Open Badges Specification.

Funding from the MacArthur Foundation played a critical role in bringing this idea to life — and to get people to start using the specification. In particular, the 2013 Digital Media and Learning competition catalyzed dozens of projects that put badges into use in real learning environments. MacArthur also funded Mozilla to create a series of Open Badges that rewarded learners for a diverse set of skills including remixing, coding and editing.

Where we are now

Today, tens of thousands of organizations around the world are issuing Open Badges, and over 15 million badges have been issued. Launched as a collaboration between Mozilla and Digitalme at MozFest 2013, Badge The World shows the uptake of Open Badges from organizations across the globe and continues to spark collaboration around Open Badges.

The technology and services originally prototyped by non-profits like Mozilla and Digitalme and companies like Concentric Sky and Credly have now attracted corporations like IBM, Pearson and Microsoft. This growth had led to the proposal of an Open Badges Specification 2.0, authored by Concentric Sky in partnership with the Open Badges community and MacArthur spin-off Collective Shift.

As the opportunities for growth and development of badges became apparent, it was clear that a steward more closely linked to educational standards was required if Open Badges are to be truly successful. It was with this stewardship in mind that Open Badges has been transitioned to IMS Global Learning Consortium — the world leader in ed tech interoperability and innovation. The Open Badges project — and support for the community — is currently housed at IMS.

Innovative disruption not only takes time, it takes a multitude of different voices, applications and trials to make it successful. Mozilla is honoured to have been a part of this leg of the journey, helping to create Open Badges and plant the seeds for a new type of learning environment. As IMS and many others take up the next leg of the journey we look forward to seeing where these growth possibilities take us.

Future of Badges

Five years ago, Mozilla and MacArthur set out boldly to create more opportunity for learners. This vision included recognition, context, display, and portability of learning accomplishments. These goals and our potential to move them together remain intact, albeit led by a broader set of partners from the education sector.

As Mozilla takes a less central role in the Open Badges work, it will also step out of the role of direct service provider. After two years of careful stewardship from Digitalme, we will be retiring the Mozilla Backpack and helping users migrate to Concentric Sky’s free and open Badgr platform. This will give learners around the world a chance to collect Open Badges created with the official Open Badges 2.0 Specification supported by IMS. As Badgr evolves with strong community support, it will also mean true Badge portability in a fully federated learning ecosystem.

Mozilla will continue to play an active role as a champion of Open Badges as part of the IMS working group. That group will shape the specs for federation and push for W3C standardization of the Open Badge 2.0 spec. Concentric Sky will continue to innovate around federation in their Badgr platform, meaning the whole badges infrastructure will continue to evolve. Mozilla is proud to work in collaboration toward a world where learners can earn credentials across platforms and shape new learning experiences on the open web.

Lessons learned

As with early work in any field, there are many opportunities for learning.

Early badge work put learners at the centre of the design, treating them as the primary user. Over the course of the project however, emphasis was also put on the needs of individual connected learning program providers (ie. libraries) and large-scale systems involving many program providers and schools (eg. cities). The broad aim here was to have badges simultaneously provide learner empowerment and serve the needs of incumbent education providers like school systems. It became clear that badges alone wouldn’t attract learners or shift the terrain, they had to be designed alongside or on top of strong connected learning program offerings.

Similarly we saw the Backpack give learners new ways to organize and display their accomplishments, but in a way that is disconnected from the learning platforms they use to earn their badges. Federation and discovery need to be woven into the Backpack concept in order to create a truly connected and integrated learning experience.

This critical learning produced valuable insight at this early stage for the development of badges: learning about what is and isn’t possible. This has helped shape next step plans that will fuel both the future of badges and connected learning and will guide the work as new leaders, like IMS, Digitalme, and Concentric Sky continue to take this work forward.