This prequel blog post is part of an ongoing trilogy. The trilogy consists of three posts—the prequel, the “quel” and the sequel—plus a bonus paraquel post. The first post to appear, the paraquel, can be found here; the “quel” post can be found here; the prequel post you’re reading right now; and the sequel post is in process. All of these posts provide a window into our thoughts about pathways—past, present and future.
You may have noticed that these posts have come out of order. Why is this so? For a simple reason. Because they’ve occurred to me in this order. And somewhat poetically, their order underscores the exact ideas that I argue in all of these linked posts—that there are few simple linear trajectories, even with blog posts.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away
We started down the road toward making Open Badges a reality about 3 years ago, so it’s possible (and useful!) for us to take a look back to our inception to make sense of the past and provide us with clues about where we might head.
Episode IV: A NEW HOPE
In the beginning, the Open Badge Infrastructure (OBI) was focused on the development of software that allowed people to develop their own badges—badges without traditional definitions or parameters—and with little to no input from socially prevalent hierarchical organizations. Mozilla cheered badge systems that did not hew to limiting linear learning paths, badge systems that investigated new and dynamic ways to recognize learning regardless of where and when and how it occurred. And yet, in those early days we spoke about the OBI only as a sort of plumbing, as a tool that would privilege the earner rather than the badge issuer. By linking people who wanted to create badges with people who chose to earn badges with people who wanted to display and consume badges, we gambled that a meaningful marketplace would arise. This marketplace would foster new types of skill, learning, and competency acknowledgement and encourage new forms of assessment. And all of this would begin to occur in a new way thanks to the space of possibility created by this new tool, the OBI. And so it has.
The force is strong, or the power of disjunctive and conjunctive tasks
In retrospect, it’s easy to see that in addition to creating a dynamic and effective tool we were creating a community-driven movement as well. How did we arrive at that social movement? By alternately marching to the drumbeat outlined above and finding serendipitous alignments with other folks seeking similar objectives. Through the confluence of disjunctive / conjunctive tasks. But what exactly are disjunctive and conjunctive tasks?
The organizational theorist, I.D. Steiner distinguished between disjunctive tasks, those in which only one person needs to succeed and conjunctive tasks: those in which everyone’s contribution is critical. (Page, 2007, p. xv)
The OBI began as a disjunctive task. In other words, the disjunctive nature of the task required that Mozilla succeed at developing a functional technical implementation of the OBI. The success of the OBI as a tool was of primary importance. And I’m pleased to say that we have built a robust and dynamic, fully functioning tool.
And yet, Open Badges operates as both a tool (and soon a series of tools) and an ecosystem—an ecosystem that houses a series of other systems: individual badge systems created by many different issuing organizations as well as a variety of badge consuming organizations. Each of those systems acts in a conjunctive way in reference to the larger open badges ecosystem. They’re important for the growth, continuity, and development of the ecosystem.
Wheel within wheels
Given that they’re conjunctive for the ecosystem, here’s a bit of a mindbender: each of the individual badge systems operate as disjunctive tasks. They need to depend only on their own systemic integrity to thrive. Consequently, those systems are free to explore, consider and attempt various criteria, assessments, and systems design. Even more of a mindbender? All of those badge systems are in turn, conjunctive: the success or failure of them is dependent upon the individual badges—that are their own disjunctive tasks. And yes, this can all seem a bit fractal.
Indeed, this systemic plasticity creates a space of possibility and is one of the primary reasons why we (Mozilla) encourage so much developmental experimentation and why we support so many alternative approaches to assessment. The Open Badges ecosystem can accommodate significant speculative load. All this is to say that together, as a community, we’ve developed a truly distributed information project.
Setting the stage for growth
Or how we rely on the kindness of our community member to develop, improve, and police our system.
As the economic historian Paul David pointed out to [Scott Page], one of the great challenges in constructing distributed organizations is transforming conjunctive tasks into disjunctive tasks. For example, the success in open-source software development requires an initial template that modularizes the problem into a collection of disjunctive parts.
(Page, 2007, p. xvi).
Et voilà! Here you have the Open Badge Infrastructure. A loosely designed system rooted in this precise theory: distributed co-creation. And by direct and indirect extension, really any badge system that operates within the open badges parameters and framework.
Resilience as a result of a conjunctive system
It may seem obvious, but on the off chance that it’s not, let’s discuss what we’ve been somewhat indirectly addressing here: resilience. As I’ve noted in previous blog posts, there is great value to having an extremely resilient system. In its current iteration, the larger system (the Open Badges ecosystem) can accommodate failure because all of the systems can act both independently and interdependently. We might consider the open badges ecosystem’s ability to withstand failure—its resilience—to be one of its absolute strengths.
Some of this may have come from extremely savvy planning, some of it may have come from working with the community to build an agreeable tool and some of it may have come from luck. To quote from George Lucas, “when Star Wars first came out, I didn’t know where it was going either. The trick is to pretend you’ve planned the whole thing out in advance.”
All this talk about what’s come before, what about pathways? As noted above, these posts are stitching together our experiences thus far, seeking a narrative for our ecosystem pathway. Along similar lines, we’ve been finding some resonance with Bitcoin (open source P2P money) as an analogue to the development of a new system possessing social value. Of course that product also includes actual financial value as well and so is a whole other kettle of fish. (As for the conceptual trajectory Bitcoin has been tracing, now there’s an interesting pathway worth examining closely. Possibly more about that in a future post.)
To be continued…
Distributed problem solving can be thought of as a form of innovation. This opening up of innovation activities is sometimes called distributed co-creation. The diverse toolboxes that people bring to problems enable large populations to enable novel breakthroughs. (Page, 2007, p. xvii)
Using distributed problem solving as our lodestone, we’ll continue to move ahead. We’re creating new opportunities as we go, charting new directions for other organizations to follow, and encouraging the development of the badge universe to continue to expand. We’re embracing emergence and encouraging novelty.
Much more soon.
Page, S. (2007). The difference: how the power of diversity creates better groups, firms, schools and societies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Available from: http://press.princeton.edu/titles/8757.html
Hibbard, J. (2010). George lucas sends a letter to lost. Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Wars#Prequel_trilogy