Open Badges: understanding the history and value of the backpack

As an individual who has been helping to build Open Badges from their start, I often find myself in awe of the ecosystem’s dynamism and growth. I also periodically find myself in awe of how little public understanding exists with regards to many aspects of them. This post is part of my ongoing effort to provide historical background and conceptual context to the genesis of this amazing open badges movement.

I am happy to note that a portion of the growth and success of the open badges community, perhaps a very healthy portion, has come from an intentionally laissez-faire attitude toward the building of the open badge infrastructure (OBI). An open attitude that encouraged experimentation over control, and that resulted in a variety of different and vibrant approaches to open badges.

Assertion: a more controlled, top-down, prescriptive approach would not have allowed the open badges ecosystem to grow in the beneficial ways that it has, nor would we have achieved the success and adoption that we have enjoyed thus far.

At its origin, the OBI represented a proposed structure for how a fully developed open badges ecosystem might work. Even now, the growth of the Open Badges movement still depends upon a primary evolutionary conceptual ideal linked to a series of technical specifications. Open badges has been planned as a true ecosystem, and unlike Athena, it does not spring forth fully formed from anyone’s head. Instead its functioning parts emerge and combine bit by bit.

Consequently, the fact that not all of the originally-imagined and -proposed world has developed into actual tools in unsurprising. And not every tool that has been developed has been well documented or even fully explained at launch—which occasionally left the community at large to figure out what something was and how it might be or should be used.

Assertion: This is the outcome of a small group of people hurrying to effect change quickly; regardless of good intentions, some things simply get left behind in the rush to build, structure, and elevate. It’s the unfortunate Mr. Hyde side of the moving-fast-and-breaking-things Dr. Jekyll approach.

So much ink has been spilled already on the subject of the Mozilla badge backpack: almost from the start it has been both an important philosophical stake in the ground about personal data ownership as well as a raging battleground about its necessity. Questions about it have abounded. What works, what doesn’t. Who uses it, who doesn’t. What’s happening with it, what has happened to it. And yet, even with all of this back and forth, there has always been so much more to say about it. So here goes.

The Mozilla open badges backpack was one of the primary structural concepts of the OBI. And it was one of the ideas that ultimately manifested as a real tool. And what a complicated life it has led. So many high hopes for it and so many challenges to it. Unfortunately, the documentation of its initial conceptualization has never quite fully materialized and so the public understanding of it remains fuzzy.

Assertion: Not an excuse but a reality: in the small team development of open standards software, some areas receive more love (read: attention, money, time) than others. Some tools get a great deal of positive attention. Others languish in a benevolent neglect sort of way.

If a tool’s uptake is not satisfactory, it can be abandoned, i.e., no longer supported by the originating/sponsoring organization. In other words, it gets downshifted to maintenance, or to the even lower gear of community development. (An aside: There are a number of really intriguing Mozilla tools that have followed this trajectory, e.g., Thunderbird, Sunbird, and Persona. That last one is pretty significant in that it was a key aspect of the development of the backpack.) Over time the Mozilla Open Badges Backpack has drifted into one of the lesser support categories.

But before we start singing dirges for the backpack, let’s examine its promising early history. Its original intent was as a referatory for open badges—any and all open badges from any and all issuers. Just fyi: the decision to create a referatory was based on the underlying structure of the open badge.

But let’s be even more precise: the Mozilla Open Badges Backpack was created as a reference implementation of how a badge backpack could work. It was designed to be completely agnostic with regards to where an open badge had been issued and by whom.

Assertion: With the backpack, the open badges initiative further enshrined interoperability as a key aspect of the open badges ecosystem.

The backpack, as originally designed, was also an opportunity to express creativity and personal agency. Its structure allowed earners to make decisions about what badges should be public vs. private, what badges might be linked together to create even more relevant connections, and what badges had greater social or personal relevance. It acted as an accretive, personal diary of achievements, experiences, and relationships.

Assertion: By providing a way for an earner to gather their badges together in one place, group them as they saw fit, and share them with whomever they deemed worthy, the backpack took deadly aim at existing and future learning silos.

One of the best unheralded benefits? When a badge earner used the reference implementation of the Mozilla Open Badges backpack, there was no requirement for them to be a member of a separate, corporate-owned social network in order to display their badges. Not at all.

Because in its original implementation, the backpack had the concept of equity baked into it. And yes, I buried the lede all the way down here.

Conclusion: The Open Badges backpack was structured around the concept of equity, personal data ownership, and interoperability. It discouraged siloing of learning recognition and encouraged personal agency.

With all of this historical reference information now clearly articulated, your opinion of what the Mozilla open badges backpack was and what it might be is more informed. Although the discussion about the backpack has waned over time—some individuals call for it to be eliminated altogether, some still want it to survive—in either case, this background information serves to foreground the significantly thoughtful consideration that went into the original construct of the open badges ecosystem.

Stay tuned for more historically-informed discussions of conceptual and philosophical basis for the open badges ecosystem.




4 thoughts on “Open Badges: understanding the history and value of the backpack

  1. Simon Grant (@asimong)

    Thanks for your reflections here! As a backpack skeptic, what you’ve written gives me a sense of something, but the picture is still hazy to me. When you write about the backpack avoiding the “requirement for them to be a member of a separate, corporate-owned social network in order to display their badges” I wonder if you are thinking of a way not to be tied to (let’s name the current incumbents) Facebook and LinkedIn? Sure, let’s avoid that, I’m with you. How would that work, then?

    You write “The backpack, as originally designed, … acted as an accretive, personal diary of achievements, experiences, and relationships.” Are you thinking here of the backpack as a kind of lightweight e-portfolio concept? An e-portfolio as a backpack … I can get that, fine, as they are both things you carry stuff around in, with you. What you lose in imagery for the “folio” as evidential, you gain in imagery for something that can easily go with you everywhere.

    The e-portfolio concept speaks to me about showing off selected things when you open it up. The badge concept, in very essence, to me, is of the kind of things that are displayed up front, things that can lead another person to ask what they are about, what they mean; or even, if one is lucky, symbols that are recognised even without having to ask. The two concepts can tie together: a badge displayed in an e-portfolio system can link naturally to the display of evidence, etc. And the evidence a badge points to could be anywhere.

    So, maybe one thing we’re all trying to do is to work out the mechanisms for pointing at evidence, more information, or whatever. And I still see a good part of your point. We don’t want this pointing mechanism to be owned by corporate interests. We don’t really even want it being redirected through analytics engines, recording who has looked at what.

    And, of course, the Open Badge metadata does allow pointing to relevant stuff in a sensible way. So we can put badges on a web page, on a blog, in an e-mail even, as well as a portfolio; or even (should the person really want to go that way) on a social networking service. We can hope that a person looking at the badge will click through from any of these places to wherever we point them, rather than being trapped in their walled garden.

    I’m left with the question, why can’t we do all these important things without a backpack? What exactly are we losing by not having a backpack, and are their other ways of meeting this need that take a different approach? The clearer we are about the essential functions of the backpack, and the risks it counters, them more we will be able to weigh up the backpack against alternatives.

    1. Serge Ravet

      “I’’m left with the question, why can’t we do all these important things without a backpack?” I agree with you Simon as it is perfectly possible to issue verifiable credentials (signed badges) that can be stored on any Web pages (it’s a picture after all) that are under the control of the learners (blog, social network, etc.). On the other hand, if you want to manage different access levels with a high level of granularity (e.g. the right to see the evidence or not) you would need some kind of proxy where the badge owner will be able to set the rights. The fact is that the elementary access control initially provided by the backpack has not evolved beyond show/no-show something anybody can do without the help of a special piece of software. One issue that I find much more annoying that you do not mention is the *asymmetry* of a system where learners are just supposed to collect badges (“backpack rats”) and not to issue them. It would be interesting to analyse into more details why the initial designers decided that it would not be possible to issue badges from the backpack (that issuers were not required to have a backpack to show their “credentials”) and that a special application (instead of an extension) would be required for that — was it an unconscious transfer of the educational model they went through where only “authorities” had the right to issue credentials?

      It is why last year I submitted to the DML challenge the Open Badge Passport as a means to make everybody a badge issuer and earner and provide services exploiting the metadata contained in a badge. For example, one of the first services we are developing is using a badge as a kind of mailing list / Twitter ID to support communication between the holders of the same badge (they form a community). To make this kind of service possible, you need to have some kind of application running on a computer or a smart phone. If the badges can be stored anywhere on the Web (even with multiple copies) you need a place (a kind of table) to tell services where to find them, thus combining the flexibility of autonomous badges and the power of exploiting their metadata. It is what we are working on and will be presented at ePIC 2016 ;-)

  2. Pingback: The #OpenBadges Backpack: an obstacle to innovation? | Learning Futures

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