Author Archives: carlacasilli

Open badges + credentials: the value of the not-credential

Image from page 205 of "Carnegie Institution of Washington publication" (1902-)

The value of things that count
We live in a world dominated by credentials. Credentials carry with them a public perception of rigor, assessment, brand. Credentials are the things that “count.” They’re what we look for on resumes, and what we ask about in conversations; they’re the lodestones and compass points of our social, cultural, personal, and political worlds. Unfortunately, some of our current social problems revolve around the basic binary nature of credentials: either you have them or you don’t. Either you have something that indicates your worth or you don’t.

The value of flexibility
Badges were designed to be agile tools: to operate in liminal spaces not currently acknowledged by other means. They were designed to capture learning whenever and wherever that learning took place, regardless of how or with whom. In short, badges are dynamic: flexible enough to represent formal education symbols (e.g., degrees, licenses) as well as informal social tokens (e.g., affiliations, friendships). Badges can fill the spaces that other learning acknowledgements leave fallow.

The value of credentials
I wholeheartedly believe that credentials (like degrees) can be and will be expressed as badges. Indeed, if there is a platonic ideal of a Connected Credential, it is an Open Badge. Open Badges include all of the quality dimensions defined in the ACE Quality Dimensions for Connected Credentials white paper: transparency, modularity, portability, relevance, validity and equity. Perhaps, even more importantly, they’re based on the concept of complete interoperability. Somewhat paradoxically, those are precisely the qualities that allow open badges to act as both credentials and things other than credentials: not-credentials, if you will. Badges let us move into a new world of inclusive “yes, and” types of learning recognition, affiliation, achievement, etc., replacing the restrictive “either/or” world of traditional credentials.

The value of public understanding
We exist in a world that already thinks it understand credentials, so let’s work with that. Let’s use open badges to wedge our way into the cultural conversation so that we can sow the seeds of change and encourage them to blossom. Right now, we still need badges to flourish in the non-regimented space of not-credentials—a world of value that has yet to be fully realized or appreciated—where the sliding scale of social and cultural currency changes depending on context.

The value of freedom
Badges should be allowed to take root anywhere: in the conceptual high steppes where learning growth has been stunted, in the loose, sandy soil of the low learning deserts, in places where learning recognition is thin on the ground, where acknowledgement encourages flourishing, where before there had been only barrenness. That’s where one of the most  important promises of open badges can be fulfilled: bringing free and unencumbered learning recognition into the spaces starving for it. We’ve already seen some promising results in this area. But we endanger further development by calling all badges credentials. With that term we enslave badges to existing understandings and expectations of the current crop of credentials. Expectations that severely limit open badges’—and by default our own—revolutionary possibilities.

The value of possibilities
Of course there will be new forms of credentials that are badges. But those aren’t the types of badges we need to worry about. The lonely, desolate corners where learning acknowledgment has been overlooked and undernourished, that’s where recognition is most needed. Let’s ensure that those places continue to get what they need by allowing them to develop and use whatever type of badge makes the most sense for them, credential or not.

The value of waiting
Let’s not limit the possibilities of the open badges ecosystem by forcing all badges to be credentials—before we’ve seen all the things that badges can become. Let’s be comfortable just a little while longer in our uncomfortableness—in this liminal and dynamic space of credentials and not-credentials. There’s still so much yet to be built, so much yet to happen. Let’s learn to welcome the beauty and value of letting a thousand different types of open badges bloom in their own time, some credentials, some not.

Badges + credentials, another visual take

My last post included a badges and credentials Venn diagram that elicited a fair number of responses, and in turn, triggered a number of my own considerations. An important conclusion: we must at least roughly agree on what open badges are and how they are being used if we’re to have a constructive discussion about the accuracy of a Venn diagram that illustrates open badges and credentials as an incomplete overlap. It’s also worthwhile to reference where they are being used so as to situate the conversation. In short, they are being issued in high schools, out-of-school environments, workforce, colleges and universities, and notably less so in social and civic environments, although there are inspiring efforts concentrated to increase that activity. Even that encompassing swath may not present a complete picture of the spread of open badges.

A version of the phrase attributed to Heraclitus, You can’t step into the same river twice, seems an apt way to describe the open badge ecosystem during the last five years: iterating, testing, and improving. It’s fair to say that the previous Venn diagram visually spotlighted a limited aspect of a much larger conceptual conversation about how and where this new credentialing world is moving—and where it may considering moving. Right now the credentialing world is also part of that swiftly moving river as it struggles to accommodate new members. The great part? We, the open badges community who have been building badge systems over the last half decade, can help to structure and influence the direction.

A constantly growing and evolving ecosystem is difficult to capture in a visual. And yet, there are numerous benefits to distilling things down to a visual representation, not the least of which is improved insight about its parts and a sense of its gestalt. To that end, I’ve prepared another graphic to illustrate the inherent flexibility and dynamic potential of badges, focused on where they might be issued / used / consumed.

Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 12.09.55 PM

Assertion: An open badge can be designed to represent a small thing, such as a fundamental principle or a single competency (micro level)—and an open badge can also be designed to represent a large thing, like a competency set, or a license, or a degree (macro level). This visual illustrates that badges can be used to represent any credential currently being issued. This may seem like a minor thing to visualize, but given what badges can represent, it’s one that is definitely worth understanding. Why?

Nothing else in the credentialing world operates like open badges.

Badges can slot into a variety of environments and be used in a myriad of ways, and so are the chameleon of the credentialing world. Or maybe they’re the cuttlefish of the credentialing world: able to assume various conceptual shapes and sizes according to their context. Either way, chameleon or cuttlefish, they are unique. For some people this wide ranging flexibility—to grow to the size of a degree and shrink to the size of an essential component—is a feature and for others, it’s a bug. Again, because nothing else has the capacity to be as flexible as this in the current credentialing world.

The last post’s Venn diagram referenced this dynamism in a roundabout way that may not have been readily apparent. But now that this power has been teased out with this discussion and visualization, what are your thoughts, open badges community? Are all badges credentials, regardless of conceptual size, depth of assessment, or amount of criteria? Or are some badges as big as our current understanding of credentials, and some badges as small as elementary principles within a course or experience?

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

Badges + credentials, a venn diagram

A wonderful and long hoped for event has been transpiring in the credentialing world: badges are being openly discussed, recognized, and included In the conversation. The new forms of credentials that have emerged over the last few years, e.g., badges, nanodegrees and even certificates, are being swept up and embraced by the credentialing club. This evolutionary development is welcome news—and a huge win that clearly indicates the growing public appreciation of badges and the value they carry. I extend my heartfelt congratulations and thanks to all members of the open badges community who have dived in, toyed with, worked on, pushed back, fought over, and exulted in open badges. You’re how we got here.

Now that badges are shifting to become an active member of the credentialing club, new requirements and responsibilities are ramping up. To that end, I am privileged to be able to represent the voices of the open badges community in a variety of discussions and initiatives sensitive to badges as one of the newest forms of credentialing.

As a number of conversations within different initiatives have progressed, a specific need has arisen, and that need is a starting point to orient the conversation—a commonality, if you will. The question being posed across two Lumina Foundation funded initiatives, Connecting Credentials and the Credentials Transparency Initiative is this: What essential aspect or component will allow us to collectively converse about value and meaning across many, if not all forms of credentials?

For all of the conversations that I have been privy to and participated in, the deliberations have homed in on competencies as one of the essential initial components. Let me pause to highlight the word initial and follow up with this caveat. As a member of the open badges community and as a long-term shepherd of the ecosystem, I recognize that for some people this credential / competency component decision can appear to be both a terrific structuring arrangement as well as a hair-raising disruptive concern. Why? Because badges cross many conceptual boundaries. More specifically, badge criteria are issuer defined, created, and designed. That means that badges are not required to express the same things that traditional credentials do, and a number of badge issuers do not want to use competencies as their lodestone.

However, because we need a basis to begin to create a mental model, illustrate concepts, and provide some guideposts to explain how we are shaping a new and more inclusive and representative world of credentialing, this is a fair enough beginning. Think of it as a beginning point of another journey: one that leads into the larger, more rough and tumble world of formal credentials.

As badges shift into a form of currency in the credentialing world, do we gain or lose anything by having a completely overlapping Venn diagram? Or, as I have long asserted, are badges and credentials an incompletely overlapping Venn diagram?

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 7.23.00 PM

To my mind, the answer is yes to the latter question, and here’s why. Badges, as they were envisioned originally, were created to capture learning whenever and wherever that learning occurs: formal, informal, public, private, group, individual. The overlap on the Venn diagram is sometimes referred to as microcredentials, and actually gives that term greater meaning and sense. Although, the overlap can still just be referred to as badges.

With this in mind, I’m eliciting feedback and encouraging open conversation about badges that are credentials and badges that are not credentials. What are your thoughts? Should all badges be considered credentials, or, as illustrated in the Venn diagram above, should we leave the door open to badges that fall outside of the requirements of credentials?

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts, open badges community!

Much more soon.
Talk to me at cmcasilli [at] gmail [dot] com


Credentials: not finished changing

Image from page 176 of "The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon" (1848)

“When you’re finished changing, you’re finished.” —Benjamin Franklin

From the gold standard to the floating exchange rate
The world of credentialing is evolving. Degrees have long been considered the basic unit of educational currency. But it appears that we’re experiencing an accelerating shift away from the gold standard of degrees and toward a more inclusive credentialing world that embraces badges, microcredentials and nanodegrees and is based on a market-driven floating exchange rate.

For the last decade we’ve lived through increasing degree inflation, watching jobs that previously required only a high school diploma become jobs that require not just an Associate’s degree but a Bachelor’s degree. In extreme forms of degree inflation some of those same jobs now require a Master’s degree or a Doctorate, or even post-doctoral work. What has happened to make this necessary? Have jobs changed that much in the intervening years? Is the world exponentially more complex? Could it be the degree itself causing these problems? My response to that last question is yes.

if u cn rd ths…
Our dependence on degrees as the primary means by which we collectively judge what someone knows and can do has effectively turned degrees into social and cultural shorthand. An unfortunate and increasingly inaccurate shorthand. An interpretive shorthand that attempts to speak to an individual’s qualifications well beyond what formal education currently provides, and one that gives informational short shrift to all stakeholders, perhaps most disappointingly, to the learners themselves. Why must the degree be so opaque? What does a transcript tell the student of their accomplishments other than the grades they received in a prescribed pathway? How does a course grade correlate to an amorphous future job? Is an A equal to a Job Grade Level V review?

Coke vs. Pepsi (or the problem with big educational brands)
Brand recognition should not be the calling card that gets most people in the workplace or college door. But it is. Ultimately, that’s primarily what our credentialing system has reified: brand. And not the brand value of the exiting learner—no, that would most likely be an incredibly useful metric. Instead the shorthand / reification focuses on the brand of the credential-issuing institution. Thankfully we’ve begun to see a questioning of this confused metric from both industry (EY + Penguin Random House as noted in Cracking the Credentialing Club) and through calls for research into college and university success rates in the somewhat de-fanged College Scorecard. These credential tremors are indicative of a larger and maybe-not-impending-but-already-happening tectonic shift occurring in education, learning, credentialing, and assessment.

Evolve or Die
I suggest that there is an implicit choice currently available to the credentialing world: evolve or die. You’ll note that this is the same choice that confronts every living thing and it affects both the small no-name brand and the very large, multinational brand. Academic and business systems are living things and must evolve in order to stay useful and relevant. The popular and useful thing of yesteryear may fade quickly into obscurity—and you don’t want to be the flightless bird in this story.

Consequently, we need to ask what we think we’re expressing when we hand out degrees and certificates. What is missing? What opportunities do new credentials like open badges offer? What are we hoping to effect and why? These questions must always acknowledge that context and audience are essential components of any answer. Because the credentialing environment is not composed solely of monolithic, faceless institutions struggling to survive, but rather thoughtful, circumspect individuals making hard choices about the potential, cost, and value of credentials in their own personal evolution.

Much more soon.
Talk to me at cmcasilli [at] gmail [dot] com

Cracking the credentialing club

The Open Badges movement has grown and evolved in sometimes tumultuous ways over the last five years. And we’re beginning to see ideological light in places where previously there was only questioning shadow. For example, there have been inklings in the professional world that despite—or perhaps because of—creeping degree inflation, the long-term infatuation with the degree may be fading. Indeed, some rather large employers, like Penguin Random House and Ernst & Young (EY), are venturing into relatively unknown territory by dispensing with degree requirements altogether. While it might seem disorienting, this is a good thing for both the learner and for the traditional degree granting institution.

The Credentialing Club
Too much has been asked of degrees as representational communication objects. Our assumptions about them have grown to be enormous and consequently, virtually impossible to fill. Additionally, the degree granting system has perpetuated the degree-granting system: discussions about any learning experience after high school are typically had by people who have attended higher ed—and more than likely possess an advanced degree. In a feedback loop such as this, how can we guarantee that new ideas will be appreciated and promoted?

While graduates of four year degree programs are the majority in any discussion about post-secondary education, a little less than half of the individuals who pursue some form of education after high school attend community colleges or technical schools, among other educational environments. The power, impact, and usefulness of these educational opportunities should not be underestimated. And here’s a surprise: that 44% percent also includes people with higher ed degrees. It seems that a healthy minority of folks who attend some learning institution after high school go to a community college at one time or another. Yet somehow when we talk about post-secondary education, our conversation defaults to four year colleges and universities. This must stop.

And stop it shall, particularly as our society moves toward embracing different forms of credentials. On a related note, I’ve ceased using the term alternative credentials in my discussions about these new initiatives. Why? Because that word introduces an adversarial quality to the conversation. It suggests that the new forms of credentialing might be alien or less dependable or less robust or less valuable than a degree. Horsefeathers!

I’ll take time in another essay to distinguish among the new credentialing forms (there are more similarities than differences) but for a second, let’s just consider some of these new representational possibilities:

  • online degrees
  • course certificates
  • badges
  • microcredentials
  • nanodegrees

And the best part? They’ve been developed already and they’re here, operating in the real world, right now. The credentialing club is about to start accepting new members.

Interrogating the new world of credentialing
From the consumption perspective, this impressive burgeoning might indicate that right now and for the foreseeable future, there are too many forms of credentials. On the one hand, isn’t that wonderful? It means that many more people have many more ways to represent their abilities, competencies, experiences, and skills. On the other hand, it means that potential consumers of those credentials now have to sift through hundreds and thousands of different permutations of learning representations. If we’re concerned that degrees have become an unfortunate elision of abilities, a surfeit of new credentials can prove equally problematic. Happily, there are initiatives (more on these in future posts) looking at the many and varied aspects of what constitutes a good credential—and not just from the credential issuer standpoint, but also from the other stakeholders in this process, e.g., the credential earner and the credential consumer.

Educational map ≠ learning territory
This discussion brings to mind Clay Shirky’s cognitive surplus hypothesis: the massive collective power released by shifting from a social construct based on consumption to one based on creation. To me, the credentialing boom is just one of the reverberating results of the big bang of the internet. The web’s continuing expansion seems to indicate that our current system just isn’t broad enough or powerful enough to adequately address the experiential, social, professional, and personal representation requirements that it has engendered. A quick test: for those of you who hold a degree, would you feel comfortable saying that it accurately represents all of your capabilities? And for those of you who hold multiple degrees, why wasn’t the first one enough?

These challenging questions help us to understand that the educational map is not the learning territory—that our abilities are so much broader and more nuanced than anything a degree imparts or a transcript indicates. We’re capable of so much more than what any one credential says we are. And that’s where badges, microcredentials, nanodegrees, etc. come in.

I’m glad that the credentialing club is beginning to accept new members. It’s about time.

Much more soon.
Talk to me at cmcasilli [at] gmail [dot] com

Catching up with open badges

Apple Macbook Air on Wood Tabletop with Espresso Cup, Notepad, Pen, and iPhone

Hey all, after a very long interregnum, I’m back. Many thanks to all who’ve read (and reread!) my past posts; I’m grateful to you for your thoughts and encouragement.

I’m going to make this post a quick one to quote Andrew Carnegie who said, “My heart is in the work,” to tell you that my heart continues to be in the open badges work—and has expanded to include the digital credentialing work—and that I have a significant number of backlogged draft posts and new ideas waiting to meet you.

Sometimes I wish I could just give you the keys to my drafts folder one by one and tell you to have at it. Then I could sit back and wait to hear your thoughts, comments, appreciation, criticism, etc. So much of what I write it is intended for open discussion and conversation—as well as edification, both yours and mine, so please feel free to reach out and share your opinion. We’re working together to change the world.

One of my top posts from several years ago was titled, “Mozilla Open Badges: the ecosystem begins to take shape“: the last few days I have been noodling on a blog post idea tentatively titled, “Open Badges: the ecosystem continues to evolve.” That said, there are a number of other ideas that are waiting to be discussed and old post series that need to be completed. Let me know what you think.

And if there’s an area that you have been wishing I would write about, let me know. Many thanks.

Much more soon.
Talk to me at cmcasilli [at] gmail [dot] com

Open Badge Opticks : The prismatic value of badges

During a recent Twitter foray, I jumped into an ongoing conversation about where education is headed and the role that badges might play in where education is headed. The discussion stemmed from Kevin Carey‘s insightful and provocative NYTimes article, “Here’s What Will Truly Change Higher Education: Online Degrees That Are Seen As Official” (based on an excerpt from The End of College.) During that Twitter exchange, Anya Kamenetz (who has recently written The Test) was commenting on Carey’s book and mentioned that she felt that badges have been operating in—and will continue to operate in—perpetual beta. When I asked her why she felt this to be true, she tweeted, “I don’t see the value.” I tweeted back saying that badge value was prismatic. This post is an exploration of that position.


Traveling around the world over the last four years, introducing people to open badges and helping them to understand their possible and actual uses, I’ve had quite a bit of time to listen to questions about badge value. Followers of my blog know that I’ve written about value before here and here, and no doubt will again, but as for my thoughts on that subject right now, in Q1 2015, here’s where I am.

Value can mean so many things to so many people. Of course a generic dictionary definition exists but what does value mean in action? Exactly where does value lie? Just so we’re all on the same page here, here’s my view: value is a thing’s capacity to be perceived and interpreted as having some resonant meaning that translates into a degree of assumed importance. Still, that’s pretty fuzzy, right? That definition is somewhat academic and perhaps still difficult to apply. So let’s take this thing apart to see where the values (plural!) of badges reside.

My primary assertion: badge value is prismatic.
We can’t talk about badge value without talking about a badge’s audience because that’s where the possibility of value is first perceived and then created. Maybe wherever we see the word “value” we can just pop in the word “audience” right before it. That will help to remind us that value is derived by audience interpretation and therefore it is always contextual and situated.

Now, let’s make like Isaac Newton and compose an Open Badge Opticks so as to identify and demarcate the spectral components of badge value.

1. Personal value
First, and I would suggest foremost, badge value is initiated by the earner. This value, the one most often dismissed by critics, is perhaps the most important value of all. Badges represent skills, competencies, activities, and achievements but they also represent the person who has earned them. If by earning a badge, an individual gains greater insight into themselves and their abilities, then the value of the badge is extremely high. This consideration turns traditional learning / achievement on its head because it recognizes that the process of earning a badge can be construed as an intrinsically rewarding effort. So, one form of value is entirely dependent upon the perception of the earner.

2. Institutional value
Institutions that go to the trouble of issuing badges are betting that their badges have value. Another way to think of this type of value is as intended value. Indeed, badge issuing organizations seek to impart their values through their badges. It takes a commitment of time, money, and resources to develop and issue a badge, even more to develop a badge system, so issuing a badge that carries no institutional value is an exercise in waste. The vast majority of the badges currently in circulation have been designed to impart values representative of the issuing organizations.

3. Social value
The social value of a badge is complex. There are a number of ways that badges contain and contribute to social value, including: academic value; professional value; cultural value; and group value. I could probably write a few long paragraphs about each of these types of value but in the interests of brevity and because you’re smart, try thinking through those on your own. I will note, however, that somewhat perversely, the group value of badges appears to be the most under-appreciated of all of the possible values. Considering that society is predicated on the concept of in-groupness and out-groupness, this under-appreciation always strikes me as odd. Badges are indicators of community and consequently carry the values that are related to the communities in which they circulate.

4. Consumer value
We might consider the consumer value the strongest representation of exchange value for open badges. Consumer value might also be thought of as market value. We might ask ourselves, in what way does a badge, or a series of badges, enter the marketplace of conceptual exchange? Is it the same way that we understand the value of a service or good? In the past I have referred to badges as having different levels of currency: some badges might be considered the equivalent of a silver while other badges might attain the lofty levels of high-value paper currency. We’ve long argued that a freely operating badge marketplace will define consumer values over the long haul.

5. Generic value
Generic value is rooted in the desire for a standard exchange rate. Because of that it is the trickiest value of all to imagine and to calculate: within a shifting marketplace where exchange rates vary over time, it’s a challenge to define a firm basic unit of value. This is not unusual: our own monetary system is in constant flux—and our socially constructed understandings of degrees and certificates are as well. A BS from one college is not always equivalent to a BS from another college. Nonetheless, the public perception of badges and their value ultimately will be equated as a generic or system wide value.

Conclusion: a spectrum of value
So here are 5+ areas supporting the idea of prismatic representation of badge value. I sincerely hope that you can now feel comfortable in saying that badges have different perceptual values across their many audiences.

One last note, though, related to my first assertion. Here is its corollary: just as light has a spectrum that includes both visible and invisible properties, so does badge value. More on this in a future post addressing emergent value in and across badge systems.

Much more soon.

Talk to me at cmcasilli [at] gmail [dot] com

Open Badges, wicked problems, and that thing called hope

"feather bad weather" by Erik bij de Vaate

“feather bad weather” ©2008 Erik bij de Vaate, used under CC-BY-SA

Open badges: they are so tantalizing to so many people, so full of possibility. They appear to offer so many solutions to so many different problems. They encourage us to look at old problems with new eyes. And precisely because of their dynamism, their precious novelty, we occasionally find ourselves overwhelmed with the hope that they’ll solve all of the problems. Everything.

This, my friends, this is precisely what’s at issue with introducing badges to our current social structure: recognizing that there are problems with existing acknowledgement and recognition systems. Problems that have not been adequately addressed. We need to crack that nut wide open as we begin to figure out how badges might change the game. We need to figure out what works and what’s worth saving in this new badge world. We need to look hard at the wicked problems that they might at least influence.

The issues most often raised about badges—accessibility, injustice, value, meaning, and rigor—are not necessarily about badges themselves but instead are rooted in wicked problems, the larger systemic social, political, and economic issues that surround learning and recognition. When viewed from this perspective, it’s obvious that badges are not a panacea. So, let’s be realistic in our discussions about the ability of badges to solve all issues of access, fairness, and equity: nothing so far has solved those issues and badges alone won’t do it, either. This is a known known; let’s not waste time arguing this point. Instead, let’s wrestle mightily with the all-too-familiar feeling of impotence when discussing any possible inroad to wicked problems. Because discuss them we must.

On the plus side of this discussion, here’s a tiny sample of what badges can do. They can provide markers of social and professional possibilities, they can acknowledge varying degrees of expertise in social skills, they can indicate job skills compatibility, they can evidence a variety of important learning experiences including capturing prior learning, they can demonstrate continued professional engagement, they can represent vastly different company and brand values, and perhaps most importantly, they can provide important and meaningful personal insight.

So for now, while we’re building this ecosystem together, let’s hold tight to that thing with feathers—our sense of hope, our sense of possibility—for when seeking change, particularly systemic change, odd though it may feel and sound to outsiders, optimism is a feature not a bug.


If you’re reading this and nodding your head, you might also appreciate this related post from Badge Alliance Executive Director, Erin Knight: More Beefs

Much more soon. carla [at] badgealliance [dot] org


A foundational badge system design

The last two years or so have found me investigating and contemplating many different types of badge systems. Along the way I’ve been wrestling with considerations of badge types, potential taxonomies, and conceptual approaches; feeling my way around a variety of assessment types including summative, formative and transformative. Working in badge system design rewards a person with a continuing sense of adventure and opportunity.

A badge system structure for many
After much thought and many contemplative examinations, I’ve developed an archetypal badge system structure that I’m happy to recommend to the open badges community. Here are the many reasons why I think you’ll want to implement it.

  1. It’s simple.
  2. It’s modular.
  3. It’s easy to implement.
  4. It encourages a range of creativity.
  5. It works for organizations of vastly different sizes.
  6. It accomplishes the difficult task of working from bottom up, top-down, and middle out.
  7. It not only allows for growth, it thrives on it.

Introducing the 3 Part Badge System
This badge structure is the one that I developed for the Mozilla badge system that we are in the process of building. I’m calling it the 3 Part Badge System (3PBS).

It’s composed of three interlocking parts and those three parts create a flexible structure that ensures feedback loops and allows the system to grow and evolve. Or breathe. And by breathe, I mean it allows the system to flex and bow as badges are added to it. While some community member organizations have expressed a desire for a strict, locked-down, top-down badge system to—in their words—guarantee rigor (and you already know my thoughts on this), this system supports that request but is also designed to include active participation and badge creation from the bottom up. I’d say it’s the best of both worlds but then I’d be leaving out the middle-out capacity of this system. So in reality, it’s the best of all possible worlds. This approach is a vote for interculturalism—or the intermingling and appreciation of cultures—in badge systems. Its strength arises from the continuous periodic review of all of the badges, in particular the team / product badges as well as the individual / community badges.

Don’t tell me, show me
It’s easier to talk about this system with some visuals so I’ve designed some to help explain it. Here is the basic 3 part structure: Part 1) company / organization badges; Part 2) team / product badges; and Part 3) individual / community badges. This approach avoids a monocultural hegemony.

Carla Casilli's 3 part badge system design

The basic components of the 3 Part Badge System

Part 1: Company / organization badges
Many companies and organizations have specific needs and concerns about branding. This system addresses those concerns directly. In this proposed system, an advisory group defines, creates, and governs the highest level of badges—the company / organization badges—providing control over the all-important corporate or academic brand. While not all systems have a need for such strict brand maintenance requirements, this approach allows for conceptual levels of badges to be created while interacting in organic and meaningful ways with other types of badges. An advisory group creates and vets these badges based on the organization’s foundational principles and values. The company/organization badges transmit the most important values of an institution and they address organizational concerns regarding brand value and perceived rigor.

Part 2: Team / product badges
Few organizations exist that do not have some middle layer accomplishing the bulk of the work of the organization; the 3PBS proposal recognizes the team / product groups as necessary and important partners. In addition to acknowledging the contributions of this collection of folks, 3PBS engenders them with the ability to respond to their public through badges. Different teams and products groups can clearly and unequivocally communicate their closely held qualities and values through the creation and issuance of their own badges. These badges are created entirely independently of the Part 1 company / organization badges. In a bit we’ll discuss how the team / product badges play a role in influencing other aspects of the 3PBS.

Part 3: Individual / community badges
So your organization is comprised only of management and teams? Of course not. The 3PBS honors the folks who are on the front lines of any organization—the community—by empowering them to define their values internally as well as externally. These badges operate outside the requirements that define the Company/organization badges and the Team/product badges. The community badges can be created by anyone within the community and do not hew to the visual requirements of the other two subsystems. What this means is that an individual or community can create any types of badges they like. In other words, it provides the ability to publicly participate—to have a voice—in the system.

How the three different parts influence one another in the 3 Part Badge System
How do these parts interact? In order to communicate how these subsystems can affect each other, I’ve created some color based graphics. You’ve already seen the first one above that describes the initial system. But first a little basic color theory to ground our understanding of how these subsystems work together to create a dynamic and powerful system. The basic 3 part structure graphic above uses what are known as primary colors, from the Red, Yellow, Blue color model. Centuries of art are based on these three colors in this color model. (Learn even more about color theory here.)

The following graphics further explore the RYB color model and move us into the world of secondary colors. Secondary colors result from the mixing of two primary colors: mixing red and yellow results in orange; mixing yellow and blue results in green; mixing blue and red results in purple. Now that we’ve established how the color theory used here works, we can see how the parts represented by these colors  indicate intermixing and integration of badges.

Individual / community badges influence team / product badges
The 3PBS concept relies on badge development occurring at the individual and community level. By permitting and even encouraging community and individual level badging, the system can will continuously reform itself, adjusting badges upward in importance in the system. That’s not to say that any part of this system is superior to another, merely that these parts operate in different ways to different audiences. As I wrote in my last post, meaning is highly subjective and context-specific.

individual / community badges influencing team / product badges

Individual / community badges influencing the team / product badges in 3PBS

This graphic illustrates the team / product created and owned badges assimilating some badges from the individual / community created and owned badges. The graphic also indicates that the company / organization badges can be held separate from this influence—if so desired. Periodic review by the team / product groups of the individual and community badges likely will reveal patterns of use and creation. These patterns are important data points worth examining closely. Through them the larger community reveals its values and aspirations. Consequently, a team or product group may choose to integrate certain individual / community badges into their own badge offerings. In this way a badge begins to operate as a recognized form of social currency, albeit a more specific or formalized currency. The result of this influencing nature? The team and product group badge subsystem refreshes itself by assimilating new areas of interest pulled directly from the larger, more comprehensive and possibly external community.

Team / product badges badges influence company / organization badges
Company and organization level badges operate in precisely the same way, although the advisory group who is responsible for this level of badge can look across both the team / product badges as well as the individual / community badges. That experience will look something like this in practice.


Team / product badges influencing company / organization badges in 3PBS

Periodic review of the team / product badges by the advisory group responsible for company and organization badges may reveal duplicates as well as patterns. Discussion between the advisory group and the teams responsible for those badges may indicate that a single standard badge is appropriate. Considering that teams and product group badges are created independently by those groups, apparent duplication among teams may not necessarily be a bad thing: context is all important in the development and earning of badges. That said, examination and hybridization of some badges from the team and product groups may create a stronger, more coherent set of company and organization level badges.

Individual / community badges influence company / organization badges
In addition to being able to examine and consider team and product level badges, the advisory group responsible for the company / organization badges can also find direct inspiration from individual and community created badges. Since there are few to no rules that govern the creation of the individual / community created and owned badges, insightful, dramatic, and wildly creative badges can occur at this level. Because they come through entirely unfiltered, those sorts of badges are precisely the type to encourage rethinking of the entirety of the 3PBS.


Individual / community badges influencing company / organization badges in 3PBS

Here we see how the individual / community created and owned badges can significantly color the company / organization badges. Since the company / organization badges communicate universal values, it’s vital that those values remain valid and meaningful. Incorporating fresh thinking arising from individual and community badges can help to ensure that remains true.

Three parts, one whole
So, if we loop back to the original system, prior to the (color) interactions of one part to another, we can see how each part might ultimately influence one another. This is the big picture to share with interested parties who are curious as to how this might work.

The 3PBS model with different types of influence.

The 3PBS model with different types of influence.

So, that’s the 3 Part Badge System in a nutshell. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.


Much more soon. carla [at] badgealliance [dot] org

The myth of the lightweight badge

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.

Value accretion
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.

More soon.

Tennyson, Alfred Lord. (n.d.) Ulysses. Retrieved from

Badge System Design: ideas to build on

Hey there, happy new year! I hope that the new year is going well and continues to go well for everyone. Over the holidays—and for quite some time actually—I’ve been meditating on some thoughts about badges and systems. And in the interest of starting 2014 off right, I have decided to throw them out here for discussion. Some of the ideas I’m pretty committed to and others are drifting in a bit more of a nebulous state. Still, overall there’s good content in here worth discussing, content I plan to build on throughout the year.

So how about a bit of context for this content? Last year saw me working closely with Radhika Tandon on ideas for illustrating and communicating badge system design tenets. Her innovative thinking led me to rethink some of my own proposed concepts and continue to explore others. What you’ll find below in the first set is a distillation of some ideas previously expressed in the (still fledgling) white paper about a the framework—previously principles—of a complex adaptive badge system. You’ll note that I’m now intentionally including the “complex adaptive” descriptor. Why? Because it’s a mistake to call an effective badge system a simple system. Indeed, a truly functional system is one that grows, changes, and evolves. It is one that adapts and eventually produces emergent qualities. I’m hoping that we can begin talking about and seeing some emergent qualities emanating from complex adaptive badge systems this year. (Suggestions welcome!)

Outline / framework for badge design
A quick explanation of the list: it began with enumerating a set of single words that encapsulated a primary, defining idea for badge system design. The second word came into being when I began to try to explain the first word from a slightly different perspective. Interestingly enough, the second word performed more of a conceptual rounding out than I had anticipated. Additionally, the second words provided new ideological possibilities because the first and second words began to create sets. In other words, they had a multiplying effect that resulted in sums greater than their parts.

I’m listing these quickly here in an effort to get them out there so we can begin talking about them in detail. Obviously, they’re somewhat stripped of their context—that will come! Even so, I’d love to hear your response to these basic structural tenets. No doubt the third one will invite a lot of discussion. I certainly hope so. But, here they are.

  1. Ethos / Intent
  2. Content / Recognition
  3. Assessment / Estimation / Appraisal / Reckoning
  4. Visual / Interpretation
  5. Tech / Implementation

7 aspects of roadmapping + resource management
This set of ideas sprang from our MOOC on badges. In addition to building the badge system for the MOOC, I also ran two labs; one about badge system design and one about badge system roadmapping. What you see below is the streamlined view of the latter lab. I truly enjoyed this lab: it stretched my capabilities in thinking about and expressing tangential yet vital aspects of developing a complex adaptive badge system. The order is not necessarily pointing toward any deep meaning; however, some of the enumerated points may be contingent upon others.

I hope to dive into this list this year. There are many ideas here that deserve their own discussion. For example, Funding appears to be a continuing concern for many badge creators. This concern might possibly be mitigated by developing partnerships between organizations. In my discussions and research, this has not been a typical finding. Okay, so take a gander at these, we’ll be visiting them again this year.

  1. Funding
  2. Partnerships
  3. Research
  4. System design
  5. Timing / time management
  6. Technical resources
  7. Design resources

2014 is going to be an exciting year for the open badges ecosystem and I’m looking forward to discussing it with you here, during MOOCs, on blogs, and during the Mozilla Open Badges Research / System Design call.

Much more soon.

Badge pathways: part 0, the prequel

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.


A single badge system, consisting of a number of badges.

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.


Similar types of badge systems begin to coalesce into a rough typology.

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).

Dawning of the open badges ecosystem

Dawning of the open badges ecosystem: many types of disjunctive badge systems begin to form.

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.


As badge systems increase within the ecosystem, system strengths and network ties appear.

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.”


The open badges ecosystem continue to evolve, developing systemic resilience.

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)


The thriving open badges ecosystem contains various types of badge systems: an expansive, inclusive universe.

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:

Hibbard, J. (2010). George lucas sends a letter to lost. Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved from Wikipedia:

Badges: what comes between & before


“Dryland” ©2011 Dennis Kleine, used under CC BY-SA 2.0

As I’ve been thinking through the concept of badges and how folks might interact with them from a systems standpoint, I keep coming returning to the idea of the void. The empty space around a badge. Not just what comes between the earning of one badge to the next but also what comes before earning a badge.

As we’ve seen badge systems being developed, we’ve repeatedly heard questions similar to these: What [conceptual] size should I make my badges? How foundational should their criteria be? Should I create levels for our badges? What about developing meta-badges, don’t they begin to recreate the existing system, replicate existing power structures?

These questions reveal a fascinating and somewhat unexplored area of badges: what, if anything, exists between a badge and no badge? And to torture a zen metaphor: what is the sound of an unearned badge?

Some folks have taken a page from games and begun using points in their badge systems. This presents an interesting discussion point. And while I’ll share my thoughts on this below, I encourage you to share your thoughts and opinions on it as well.

I’d like to suggest that we consider something other than points. And here’s why: points seem to me to move badges in the direction of counting, accruing, and quantification. Counting up or down until you’ve achieved a certain number of points. There’s something about points that seems to whisper, “This is a reward system, nothing else.” They seem gamification-ized and not in a way that promotes investigation, interest, or enjoyment.

Because it’s the Mozilla view—and mine, too—that badges act as recognition of activities, learning, achievements, affiliations, etc., the concept of badges as a reward seems antithetical. So I’d like to suggest that we consider a concept that I first heard about back during the third and final pitch phase of the 2012 DML Competition, Badges for Lifelong Learning. The suggested solution that I reference here comes from The Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt. Their discussion of tokens as things between badges and nothing struck a chord within me and continues to do so.

The issuing of tokens is tremendously appealing to me for a variety of reasons:

  1. Tokens can allow for the creation of rigorous, deep and complex badges;
  2. Tokens can be used to acknowledge incremental progress toward a goal;
  3. Tokens can highlight and encourage traversing multiple pathways to meaningful, socially valuable badges;
  4. Tokens can streamline the signal to noise ratio by de-cluttering the system;
  5. With tokens you can build in functional pathways that allow for repeated attempts (read failure);
  6. They can function as stand-ins for badge levels, thereby simplifying badge systems;
  7. Tokens can reinforce badge systems goals by communicating in an internal and highly contextual fashion while permitting badges to act as truly interoperable, social currency.

Now that’s not to say that we’re going to be introducing tokens into the ecosystem anytime soon, but it is to say that I’m floating this idea to see if it resonates. And if so, let’s work together to figure out what our next steps might be.

Much more soon.

Yes, the pathways posts are coming along as are the additional CSOL posts!

Badge Camp + Open Badges badges


“Pattern” ©2004 Zach Chandler, used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The Open Badges team has been sprinting on one thing or another for months now. At this point, it may be more apt to call what we’ve been doing a badge marathon rather than a series of badge sprints. And so, it’s high time for some much needed reflection and introspection. Perhaps some navel-gazing is in order. So, yeah, we’re about to participate in a team badge camp. Did I mention that it’s in Maine? Vacationland? Niiiice.

We probably all have ideas about summer camp: some summer-long sleep-away camps, some day camps, some great experiences, some we’d like to forget. Just like the term badges, the word camp carries a lot of baggage with it, too. (It’s a noun, it’s a verb, it’s an adjective: what can’t it do?) But we digress, let’s talk agenda.

A time for reflection—and swimming
Our badge camp will be the first ever for us as a team: a week long experience packed full of sun, water, food, drink, exercise and, wait for it… badges. Well, really badge thinking. But hey, this is camp and so in addition to the prerequisite navel-gazing, we’ll also be doing some arts and crafts, too. Yes! Arts and crafts! Who doesn’t love that? And that means we’ll be making badges. Markers. Felt. Glue. Bedazzling.

I want to wear it
We’ll be constructing both virtual badges and real, physical badges. Sure, this approach is a bit beyond where we started with badges—as digital representations of experiences, affiliations, learning. But over the last year and a half, our badge exploits and our community’s badge exploits have taught us a thing or two about physical objects. The power of the physical object cannot be overestimated. There’s something about being able to physically interact with an object—to touch it, to subconsciously weigh it, to roll it around in your hands—that turns it into not just a thing but a talisman.

Badges as talismen
So as we’re combing the beach for treasures, we’ll create a few talismen of our own. These badges we create may not translate beyond next week, but the act of creating them should prove informative and will help us consider what makes a badge special and where its power might lie. Our primitive badge making will be transporting us into the world of issuers and earners, soaking us in what it means to actively participate in badge system design.

Open Badges badges
Yes, there’s method behind this felt + marker + bedazzling craft-y madness. Recently our team created a questionnaire for the Open Badges team to complete. Its primary purpose? To unearth all of the hidden, unspoken, barely-floating-at-conscious-level thoughts about badges. What each member of the team thinks of them, what they’d like to see be created and issued, if there is a single badge that might represent them precisely, what excites them about badges and what makes them sad about badges. We’re diving into the unconscious world of our own hopes and dreams for badges. Our goal? To develop a way to acknowledge/recognize/appreciate/reward our badge tribe. In short, we want to make badges for and about Open Badges.

Patterns + pathways
While we’re frolicking in sun and sand, we’ll be sorting through the responses to our badge questionnaire, looking for patterns. Those patterns will reveal some potential next steps—some possible pathways for recognition. But like the sand on the beach, new patterns will arise with each successive wave.  So, even after badge camp we’ll keep at it—investigating our values and our community’s values, responding to what’s most meaningful, delving into what constitutes and enhances group participation, enlarging our own understandings of badge systems—so we can create useful, compelling Open Badges badges for all.

Of course, I’ll keep you apprised of what we learn and what’s next. Right now, I wish you glad summer tidings.

Much more soon.

Yes, the pathways posts are still in progress as are the additional CSOL posts! Hang in there with me. :)

Chicago Summer of Learning: thoughts on badge design

Screen Shot 2013-07-09 at 10.27.37 PMIn my initial post about the Chicago Summer of Learning (CSOL) badge system, I quickly sketched out the rough outline of it. In this post we’ll talk through the components of CSOL badge design and the rationale that led to our decisions about them. First, a quick two sentence recap of what CSOL is and what it seeks to accomplish. The Chicago Summer of Learning is the first citywide implementation of an open badge system. It includes in-school badge-issuing programs as well as out-of-school and governmental badge-issuing programs—all of them focused on combatting the summer learning drop off.

As I’ve discussed in previous posts and as I noted during this week’s Open Badges Community call, there are a number of considerations associated with design and badge design in particular. While it can be argued that content defines a good deal of the social value of a badge, visual appearance also plays a significant role.* Visual processing accounts for half of the human brain’s operational capacity so it follows that how something looks can alter how it’s perceived. With that in mind, as I imagined the visual badge system that would arise from a panoply of organizations issuing disparate badges, my years of experience in design consulting told me that a strong shape with a required set of elements would bring conceptual cohesion, reduce visual confusion, and provide a much needed sense of family, a unifying principle if you will, to the group.

A template to the rescue
With these desires in mind, we created a badge design template that was hexagonal in shape with a banner draped across it that included 2 blue stripes and 4 red stars.


The banner design referenced the iconic elements found on the City of Chicago’s flag. This template served a variety of purposes:

  1. it identified each of these badges as Chicago Summer of Learning badges;
  2. it created a cohesive and easily understood family of badges despite being assembled from very different organizations;
  3. it provided the city with an easy way to find, reference, and display badges as a full set not only during the experience but afterwards as well;
  4. it branded the badges as Chicago specific; and
  5. it provided a way for issuing organizations to indicate to the public and to future funders that they had participated in the groundbreaking experience of CSOL.

Our goal with the template was to provide a Chicago flavor to the badges and indicate a family feel while allowing enough room for organizations to customize badges to suit their needs. So, how did this fly? This template arrived in a way that may have seemed like an edict to some and yet it was perceived as a gift by others. Nevertheless, with the imposition of such a strong requirement to participate in the system—and it was an absolute requirement for all entry level badges—there were additional issues for the team to work through together. Some organizations already had pre-existing badges that didn’t fit the new template; some organizations had no access to designers; and some organizations had no strong design style or branding to implement.

A badge design tool for all
Since one of our goals for the template was to ease folks’ fear of design in general—particularly those who were organizationally or financially challenged—we also developed a badge design tool. The beauty of this tool, Badge Studio, developed by Atul Varma & Jess Klein, was its adaptability. If an organization had little to no design expertise, using it one could pull together a respectable looking badge that had all of the required elements. On the other hand if an organization had experienced design staff or access to professional designers, the template could be manipulated quite easily to accommodate unusual visual elements or objects that extended beyond the hexagonal shape.

For the organizations who already had existing badges, we suggested resizing them and dropping them into the hexagonal portion of the template—or we provided them with an Illustrator template. Since all of the organizations with pre-existing badges had design staff or access to professional designers, this option worked out quite well.

Issues of branding
Since Mozilla was tasked with addressing the first two badge levels of the CSOL experience, entry level badges and city level STEAM badges, we focused solely on a family appearance. To that end, we did not develop standards for color use or typography—two important mainstays of a branding system. However, we did provide some recommendations regarding type use. That suggestion was to avoid using type unless it remained readable & legible at highly reduced sizes. We also suggested avoiding type as the sole indicator of different badge levels, e.g., beginner, intermediate, advanced.

Indeed, we shared with the badge issuing organizations that badge design is akin to logotype or mark design in that it has similar constraints. Badges need to read at both small sizes (50 x 50 pixels) and larger sizes (600 x 600 pixels). Happily, most organizations succeeded in making their own branding work comfortably with the new badge template wrapper.

As for the city level STEAM badges, they hewed to the hexagonal structure and incorporated the word Chicago in them. Using her previously designed entry level badge template as a starting point, Mozilla’s Jess Klein designed three sets of beautiful S-T-E-A-M badges. After a comprehensive review and discussion, the larger team selected the style that hearkened back to the Chicago Summer of Learning identity program.

CSOL city-level STEAM badges

See the lovely results above for yourself. Each badge visually references the subject area that it represents; take a moment or two to admire the layered meaning embedded in each one of these badges. They’re wonderful examples of badge designs that function as well as a group as they do independently.

As to the top level badges of the CSOL experience—the city-wide challenge learning experiences badged by Hive Chicago and the Digital Youth Network—they function in a somewhat separate aesthetic because the use of the badge design template was not a requirement for their development. Subsequently, the shapes and colors of the challenge badges issued by these organizations may appear significantly different than the entry level or city-level badges. They do not all retain the Chicago flag banner and they may be shapes other than hexagonal.

Retraining the focus
After all of this discussion of the visual design of the badges, it’s important to consider why this badge system came into being. The learning is what’s important here: the badges act as various representations of that learning. We are really pleased to see the beautiful, mixed bouquet of badges that resulted from working with a simple standard template combined with the challenge badge accents. This summer provides a test bed for not only open badges but also summer programs and the nascent tie between in school and out of school learning. We could not be more excited.

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As always, I welcome your thoughts. In the next few blog posts we’ll cover the badge system hierarchy including the type of badge system CSOL represents, thoughts on assessment, team requirements, plus an examination of additional tools built for this endeavor.

So yes, much more soon.
carla [at] mozillafoundation [dot] org

notes & references
*It’s worth noting that while I strongly suggest that design play a role from the beginning of the process, obsessive concerns about the appropriateness or inappropriateness of the visual appearance of a badge can stunt or entirely inhibit development. Still, content + design = a whole that is unmatched by its individual parts.

During the July 10, 2013 Open Badges community call, I paraphrased a quote by Massimo Vignelli (1998), designer of the iconic NYC subway map and wayfinding, that I found in an intriguing book of interviews, Design Dialogues. You can find that quote below.

There are two kinds of graphic designers: One is rooted in history and semiotics and problem-solving. The other is more rooted in the liberal arts—painting, figurative arts, advertising, trends and fashion. These are really two different avenues. The first kind is more interested in looking to the nature of the problem and organizing information. That’s our kind of graphic design. To me, graphic design is the organization of information. The other kind is interested in the look and wants to change things all the time. It wants to be up-to-date, beautiful, trendy.
(M. Vignelli, 1998)