A Constellation of Microcredentials

Open Badges with Doug Belshaw

Image by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash.

Jobs and careers are changing, education is changing, many skills seem to have an ever shortening “shelf life.” We need to always be learning in order to stay relevant. How can you show and prove what you know? How do you identify the path you might follow to gain recognizable expertise in the field you want to work in? Microcredentials, more specifically Open Badges, are one answer and we spoke with one advocate of the format; Doug Belshaw. He’s been involved with the standard for years and his one of the most interesting and clear spoken voices around technology and education.

Patrick Tanguay — Let’s start with the basics; what are Open Badges and why are they useful / important?

Doug Belshaw — An ‘open’ badge is one that conforms to the Open Badges Specification, a metadata standard. Although they’re largely invisible to everyday users, technology standards are extremely important. They’re the reason, for example, why we can visit sites in any web browser. The Open Badges Specification does something similar for digital credentials.

Some people get hung up on the word ‘badges,’ but so long as what you’re issuing conforms to the specification, you can call them whatever you want. I’ve seen terms such as ‘microcredentials’ gain more traction in certain sectors, but, as I say, you can call them ‘moon tokens’ so long as you conform to the spec.

Open Badges are images with information baked in. The way I often describe it is that it’s like making a cake — just as you can’t get the ingredients back out of a cake once it’s baked, so you can’t change a badge after it’s been issued. If you try and pretend that someone else’s badge is your own, that just won’t work. Someone else’s identifier is literally hard-coded into it.

I see Open Badges as being hugely empowering and democratising.

As to why I’ve spent over five years of my life being unreasonably excited about a metadata standard, I see Open Badges as being hugely empowering and democratising. I’m an educator, and spent a total of 27 years in formal education myself. The more granular we can make credentialing, the less we have to use ‘chunky’ academic credentials and job histories as imperfect proxies when proving to others who we are and what we can do.

But the most important thing for me about Open Badges is that they can contain evidence. You can link to anything that can be put on the web. So, for example, not only can you claim that you’re great at building a wall, you can actually show yourself building one!

In one of the presentations you’ve done on the topic, you said that badges can be useful for “re-interpreting existing courses and making interdisciplinary links.” Can you expand on that?

DB — Yes, understandably, universities and existing awarding bodies are well-positioned to respond to Open Badges. There’s some great work that’s been done by universities such as Deakin in Australia, the Open University in the UK, and Purdue in the US. However, most of it follows the same traditional logic of existing credentials, just on a more granular level.

Innovation around technology comes from the edges, where people do unexpected things. So, for example, in formal education institutions, badges can be used in an emergent way to shake up existing silos and power structures. Instead of top-down reorganisations, how about bottom-up connections and rhizomatic meshes?

Innovation around technology comes from the edges, where people do unexpected things.

Done well, this bottom-up reorganisation and innovation from the edges provides cross-fertilisation and pollination between disciplinary areas. As a Philosophy graduate, I see huge similarity at the root of many subjects. However, each subject and faculty area is currently incentivised to be uniquely ‘different’ rather than celebrate areas of crossover and synergy.

To use a specific example, I’d like to see badges that encourage the kind of knowledge, skills, and behaviours that make organisations better places for humans to be. For example, in recognition of being an encouraging and effective PhD supervisor, for working interdisciplinary projects, or for discovering new ways to teach established, ‘safe’ ideas and approaches.

In that same presentation you also have an interesting section where you show the difference between a series of stepping stones, a collection of items and a constellation as metaphors for learning paths. Please tell us more about this representation.

DB — Ah, so this came out of a discussion I had with Grainne Hamilton, now at Digitalme, but a former colleague at Jisc. We were talking about metaphors for representing progression, which resulted in a diagram sketched on a flipchart. Bryan Mathers kindly turned it into something much more beautiful!

As educators, we often do the equivalent of standing at one side of the river, across from ‘stepping stones’ that we’ve set out. These, we think, enable students to successfully get across to the side on which we stand. However, not only do some students fall off, but (to extend the metaphor), sometimes the river is too high for them to get across, they don’t necessarily want to get to the place that you’re standing, or the gap between the stepping stones is just too wide. Why not place more stepping stones in the stream, and allow students to take different ways across?

Common practice is to break down degrees into modules which can then be taken in various configurations. This is like the Trivial Pursuit image: it doesn’t matter which order you collect the pieces of pie (or ‘cheeses’) so long as you’ve got them all before you head into the middle of the board. There’s plenty of badge systems for making credentialing more granular, which is fine, but hardly revolutionary.

What does push the envelope is imagining a ‘sky full of stars’ (to quote a Coldplay song!) in which every star is actually a badge within a wide ecosystem. The ancients stared up at the sky and defined constellations such as ‘The Plough’ or ‘The Great Bear,’ but to do so was a product of their location upon the earth — and also within the universe. Others have come up with different constellations since then, and there’s nothing stopping us coming up with our own. I can remember going to an observatory a couple of years ago, where my son was obsessed with the number of ‘triangles’ he could could make between the stars he could see.

In an ecosystem full of badges, we can follow prescribed paths that have led to success for other people, or we can describe our own trajectory through them. Badges can be ‘meta-level.’ In other words, they can represent smaller badges that are earned through pathways. That excites me, as it means that credentials can be extremely personalised.

In addition, for those contributing to the badge ecosystem — those who are making and issuing the badges — they only need to create ones that don’t exist, or meet their needs. They can choose to endorse ones that already exist, which saves time, effort, and money. As a result, you potentially get multi-organisational/institutional badge pathways.

Stones, collections, constellation — Sketch by Bryan Mathers

In some fields, what can be learned in any “traditional” University degree is not necessarily an exact match to what companies actually need. There might also be a difference between something a degree says and what students can actually do or some recent developments and essential skills might not even be reflected in the curriculum. There’s quite a bit of talk around various forms alternate credentialing, in some cases using badges, to better represents candidates’ skills. What are your thoughts on that trend?

DB — Well, the first thing I would say is that any form of education should not automatically be first and foremost about employment. I think to do so is reductionist and reduces the surface area for true human flourishing.

For me, anything that seeks to represent individual human beings more holistically has got to be a good thing.

That being said, there does seem to be something of a crisis around educational institutions being incentivised to produce the kind of students that are not what employers are actually looking for. Consequently, a lot of interest in badges at the moment comes from those looking to develop ‘employability skills.’

For me, anything that seeks to represent individual human beings more holistically has got to be a good thing. If it’s difficult to tell the difference between applicants and candidates based on their CVs or LinkedIn profiles, then we’re doing something wrong. Perhaps we need to change the way we do these things, and I think badges are a perfect jumping-off point.

The prestige (and some of its value) of a degree from a well known University is now somewhat diluted or lost in the noise of a proliferation of so-called Universities, of online MOOC based companies, of company certifications, etc. It’s already hard to tell what a degree or certificate means and if it’s worth something. Open Badges validates the acquisition of a skill but how can one determine the value of the issuer?

DB — Well, I’d push back on the assumption behind this question a bit, actually. I think we’re living in unprecedented times when it comes to the power of brand recognition. I know people who seem to sail through life due to being graduates of Oxbridge, or the Ivy League universities. Likewise, people who have worked for well known companies — especially in tech. Brand power in the age of the internet is very powerful.

Where Open Badges come in is that, as I said before, they bring with them evidence. Credentials are emergent, and universities have had hundreds of years to establish brand recognition around the degree. I’ve yet to meet anyone — employer or otherwise — who, when I’ve shown them Open Badges, hasn’t said that they’re a great idea. It’s chicken and egg: people will recognise them when they see people using them.

The problem we’ve got is that both hiring and university admissions seems pretty broken. It’s based on an archaic system predicated on scarcity. We need to remake it for an era of abundance, a time when people (and their credentials) are just a convenient web search away.

A team at MIT has been working on the Blockcerts project which mixes credentials (compatible with Open Badges) and the Blockchain. Where the latter “acts as the provider of trust, and credentials are tamper-resistant and verifiable.” Is that something that’s needed down the line for Open Badges as a whole? What are your thoughts on Audrey Watters opinion (greatly simplified and paraphrased here) that the cultural background of the Blockchain (neoliberalism, libertarianism, and global capitalism) should disqualify it from being used in a credentialing system?

DB — Around 18 months ago, I actually co-founded a research group around the confluence of Open Badges and blockchain technologies. However, at the time, I was also setting up a co-operative with some former Mozilla colleagues and friends. Whereas co-ops are all about trust, humans, and community, blockchain technologies seem to be about the opposite of this.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a time and place for blockchain in credentialing. For example, I’d be happy for my university degrees to be Blockcerts, especially as that system is compatible with the Open Badges specification. However, as Audrey Watters has pointed out, every technology has built-in values, assumptions, and prejudices. They’re designed by people for a particular purpose. I’d like to see blockchain as an option, but not as something that’s fundamental to the whole ecosystem.

You know, we’ve managed for the past however long using a system of certificates that, let’s face it, are pretty easy to forge. We need a certain level of verification when dealing with digital credentials, but it’s my belief that this is more than catered for within the existing Open Badges Specification. Putting them on an immutable, tamper-proof blockchain seems to be the wrong kind of solution. To my mind, trust is something that emerges from several data points, rather than being absolutely sure a single data point is valid.

Originally published at We Seek — Presented by e180.

e180 is a social business from Montreal that seeks to unlock human greatness by helping people learn from each other. We are the inventors of braindates — intentional knowledge sharing conversations between people, face-to-face. Since 2011, e180 has helped thousands of humans in harnessing the potential of the people around them, and we won’t stop until we reach millions.