The development of the open badge ecosystem is at the heart of all of the work that I do. I am deeply invested in ensuring that the ecosystem grows and thrives. During the time I’ve been focused on this work, folks have repeatedly declared deep concern about badge rigor, usually expressed as an underlying fear of the ecosystem-imperiling power of the “lightweight” badge. I’d like for us as a community to investigate and dispel the myth of the meaningless, lightweight badge before it becomes ingrained into the ecosystem as an alleged truth.
First let’s begin by discussing badge types. Certainly there is a lot to be said about proposed and future badge typologies and I’m hoping that we can engage on them here at a later date. For now, though, let’s talk about the much maligned “participation” type badge. Participation badges are typically earned through a simple act of attendance. They usually have no associated criteria aside from physical or virtual attendance. Mozilla has issued MozFest Reveler badges for exactly this type of interaction. Considered by many in the badge community to be throwaway badges with little to no social meaning, in fact participation badges are markers and data points in the larger, more complex concept of self.
Am I who you say I am or am I who I say I am?
During the process of badge system development, implementation, or interpretation, certain types of badges like participation badges may appear to be devoid of much or any value. Let me say that again with emphasis: may appear to be so. They are not. All badges have some value. Badges layer upon each other: no badge is entirely independent of any other badge—at least not to the badge earner. Just as all badges operate in contextual ways, participation badges live alongside other badge types. They can and do interconnect in ways that may be far outside of their issuer’s original intent. This is one of an open badge’s best features—they act as connectors! Perhaps even better, all badges act as touchstones for the earners.
The concept of accretion will be readily understood by the scientists, accountants and financial thinkers among us. Here I’m using it to indicate the continued layering effect of badges being earned throughout a length of time. Earn a badge. Earn a badge. Earn three badges. Earn another badge. Accretion operates on a meta, ecosystem level as well as a smaller system wide level, and its power should not be underestimated. Why? Because the continued layering of earned badges from many different issuing organizations and experiences—the accretion—means that value arises in unexpected and emergent ways.
The multiplication factor
For example, while it may be possible to know how one badge is perceived by its earner in its original context, it is not possible to estimate how three badges from three different organizations may be perceived by an earner. Consequently, that “lightweight” badge that Josefina earned while attending The Museum of Natural History during a class trip may become a connector to an online natural sciences webinar may become a connector to a robotics class held at the local library. Combined, these “lightweight” badges begin to highlight potential pathways and future area of interest.
Weak signals, strong network effects
Interest-driven participation badges communicate in subtler ways than skill or competency badges do but they are sending signals to the earner as well as the larger social structure. They act as windows into alternate interpretations of self. Not only do they work to represent past experiences but also possible future selves. They accumulate and in their accumulation they tell different stories to both the earner as well as the public.
So, the next time you hear someone note a concern about “lightweight” or meaningless badges, think about Tennyson’s “Ulysses” quote below. Ask yourself if you’re not the composite of everything that you have experienced, large and small.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
Et voilà. The myth of lightweight badges is dispelled.
Tennyson, Alfred Lord. (n.d.) Ulysses. Retrieved from http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174659