Category Archives: Definition of Terms

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


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


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:

Badge system design: investigating assumptions

Last week during the Open Badges community call, we introduced a new repeating discussion area: badge system design. (We’re considering expanding badge system design into a standing call of its own and so we’re testing the depth of interest within the existing community call.) The first few questions I posed to our call tribe were, “What assumptions are there about badges? What have you been running into in your discussions? Where do your assumptions lie?”

Karen Jeffreys of ForAllSystems was kind enough to share her thoughts with the group and this, in turn, acted as a catalyst for additional thoughts within the group. After her initial verbal response, during which I took notes, a number of others began a flurry of writing in the etherpad. Folks also began to verbally pour out their thoughts on this subject. Success! We had hit upon a previously untapped area that was worthy of exploration and conversation. It seems that there are a number of assumptions that everyone is working with as they progress through the discussion, creation and sharing of badges.

While the group wrote and spoke about a number of different areas—and we ran out of time on the call—their responses tended to fall into these categories.

  • Languages/terminology/semantics assumptions
  • Usage/sharing assumptions
  • Perceptions of badge types
  • Process assumptions
  • Technical assumptions
  • Educational assumptions
  • Risk/assessment assumptions

Languages/terminology/semantics assumptions
Let’s expand upon these assumptions a bit further, starting with the first bullet point. The languages/terminology/semantics area is fairly large and covers a variety of assumptions. In particular, our community members noted varying interpretations of the word “badge,” the use of metaphors or other descriptors for that word, such as “micro-credentials.” This is definitely an area we have heard before and one that we will continue to investigate.

Usage/sharing assumptions
The occurrence of usage assumptions appears to be on the rise as more people become aware of badges. This may be due in part to folks assuming that all badges represent learning, when badges can be used to indicate affiliation, as well as achievements that are not related directly to “learning.” Badge usage represents an area for further study as it relates to the life cycle of a badge: issuing, earning, sharing, consuming. With regards to the sharing assumption, we have been assuming that once badges are earned that there would be a ready marketplace for them, not only from a personal representation perspective, but also from a community appreciation of them. But there may also be reasons why people choose not to share their badges: deeper investigation into different demographical behavior patterns for sharing / not sharing is warranted.

Perceptions of badge types
Perceptions of badge types is linked to usage assumptions as well as audience assumptions. Since by their nature badges are so protean, they can be used to represent a huge variety of different concepts, things, ideas. Mozilla has been building badge systems based on three types of badges: participation, skill, and achievement, but there are many other ways to slice the badge type pie. Contextual understanding of the conceptual framework of a badge system is necessary to fully comprehend not only its goals but its success at achieving those goals.

Process assumptions
The process assumptions seem to stem from different interpretations of how a badge might be used—and how a badge system might be implemented. There are many types of badge systems, therefore they can be interpreted in a variety of ways. As we share our badge work with the world, it’s important to realize that how we think that our badges will be used or perceived may not match up with the ways that they are perceived. Issuers may have assumptions about how they fit into their process and yet, hiring organizations may have an entirely different set of assumptions about how best to use badges. To that end, research and reflexivity should be built into the process.

Technical assumptions
From Mozilla’s technical perspective, open badges can be relatively easy to implement. However, from an outsider’s perspective, or a non-technical perspective, they can seem like a wonderful solution that can only be viewed behind a glass window. Differing levels of technical expertise can make the creation of an open badge system seem complex. There are differing perceptions of the technical chops necessary to implement badges effectively. While badge creation and issuing platforms are easing the process every day, there are new concerns being raised about vetting, consumption methodologies, and open source requirements surfacing. We must remain vigilant about assumptions about technical implementation and ease of use.

Educational assumptions + Risk/assessment assumptions
Badges have been received into the educational world with open arms. Consequently, a variety of assumptions about usage within that environment and possible best practices have arisen, too. Assumptions are rampant about varying pedagogies, the dilution of educational efforts, the devaluation of formal credentials and the meaning and value of different types of assessment. Education is a cultural touchstone and masses of perceptions exist about how and what are the best ways to teach or to learn. What does it mean to introduce another form of assessment within the educational world? How will it be used and by whom? Badges help to expose many of our pre-existing tacit assumptions in this realm. Accordingly, it’s vital that we work to unpack the thinking associated with badge use within this existing, extremely complex system.

Badges open many doors to many solutions, but those doorways need to be investigated and understood as having their own meanings as well. The only conclusion to be reached here other than understanding that badges are dynamic, vital things that can be interpreted in many very different ways, is that it is useful to understand the contexts in which we are creating, sharing, disseminating and conversing about badges.

Thanks to the community for sharing their thoughts on assumptions. I invite you to share yours as well. More soon.

Boundless learning: the continuum of web literacy

There are a lot of people who think that our educational system is broken. I tend to think of it as problematic rather than broken—because it still works for some people, just not everyone. Wouldn’t it be great to have a system that works for more people in new ways?

A look back to look forward 
Here’s how we may have arrived in this confusing spot regarding education, a spot that is overripe for reimagining. The web.

The web is limitless. And its limitlessness has revealed to us the profound limits bound into earlier systems of knowledge measurement. Let’s use an example. Books were a previous primary yardstick. And we thought that all of them gathered together in the form of libraries constituted a window onto the edge of knowledge.

The lure of the past
But with the rise of the web in the last few years, we’ve realized that that was a false limitation. Libraries, even spectacularly large ones, that previously seemed like they contained all the information in the world are competing against an ever-growing, easily accessible accumulation of knowledge from around the world. The last Encyclopedia Brittanica—for years considered the gold standard for reference to be found in a printed set of thirty-two bound volumes at the cost of $1395—is now dwarfed by a free site on the web. That free site? Wikipedia. Over four million articles can be found on Wikipedia; it contains over twenty-nine million pages. That’s just one site on the web. And interestingly enough, it’s a site to which many editors contribute but that no one person “owns.”


“The web has allowed us to see that the world is significantly more complex and interesting than we thought it was.” (2012, Weinberger) Indeed, the web mirrors much of our world in that it:

  1. contains massive amounts of information,
  2. has a distributed ownership model, and
  3. a large part of the information found on it is entirely free.

A new model for learning
Thanks to a lot of people who recognized the value of the web (and who like teaching and tinkering and sharing) learning can now happen and is now happening anywhere and everywhere. So, how can we break free from the limited thinking that chains us to book learning and formal academic levels? Can there be alternative methods of information dissemination?

The learning continuum
Let’s agree on this: learning is a process. There is no endpoint.  But what does this mean for education? That there is no cap to the amount of knowledge we can accumulate. And now because there is no endpoint, we need to rethink how people might find their way through this glut of information. We need something to fill in the space of what was there previously—or at the very least to find a way to acknowledge the new learning spaces that we’re beginning to see.

The last printed Encyclopedia Brittanica was published in 2010. It’s now 2013. The world has not stopped amassing information in that interim. So, we must become comfortable with the idea that there are volumes of knowledge that we’ll never know. It’s simply not possible to do that anymore; it’s not possible to put edges or boundaries on learning opportunities. This is where badges can provide their greatest value: as guideposts in an increasingly complex knowledge universe. Badges can be issued on an atomic level. We can start to acknowledge the primary elements  that constitute a basic level of knowledge.

I’m hesitant to even use the word level here. Due to its requirement for contextual definition, the idea of educational levels often leads straight to a bizarro world where levels are spoken about as if they’re universal, but their implementation reveals that they are most distinctly not universal in application.

Let’s just say that there are continua of knowledge and as a whole we are on them. To quote my colleague, Doug Belshaw, from our in-progress web literacies* white paper, “Literacy is a condition to be obtained not a threshold to cross.” The key to that statement centers on the idea of conditions: we are continually moving through and across boundaries of knowledge. This is one of the beauties of the web—and of life. In general, the boundaries we experience have been created and defined by us in the development of our society. Badges let us reimagine what those boundaries are and where they might appear. Thus, we can move ever closer to aligning our ability to acknowledge all of the learning now possible with the web’s vast capacity for increased knowledge acquisition.

Learning pathways 
Right now we’re focusing on what a web literacy standard might look like and how it might be implemented. A significant portion of this thinking will include developing potential learning pathways. Along those lines, we will be thinking through the framework’s ‘Beginner’ and ‘Intermediate’ levels before considering ‘Pre-Beginner’ and ‘Advanced’. Taking this approach will allow us to produce multiple touchpoints and signposts along the way to web literacy. We’ll use those touchpoints and signposts to develop a web literacy badge system that accommodates various learning pathways, builds upon the web literacy framework, encourages continued community badge creation and aligns with Mozilla’s Open Badges Infrastructure.

The honor of your presence is requested
There are many ways that you can participate. Here are just a few:

  1. Join our weekly web literacy standard community call on Thursdays 8am PST / 11am EST / 4pm GMT. Here’s a canonical etherpad agenda that includes dial in information.
  2. Visit our continually updated wiki.
  3. Continue to read and respond to these posts.
  4. Share your ideas about what might be useful indications of learning.
  5. Begin to imagine a world where web literacy is an easily understood literacy with badges that communicate where someone might be on that arc.

We’re gathering together with you at the forefront of our understanding of what web literacy is and we’re aiming to map out a workable future. We’re pretty excited and we’re really glad you’re here.

* It’s worth noting that we’re distinguishing between our earlier work with web literacies and our new efforts for a web literacy learning standard.

Flickr image CC by mikeedesign

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

Co-constructing a framework of web literacy and badges

Two weeks ago on Thursday we held our first web literacy framework / standard conversation. We, along with interested and influential folks, are thinking through what a web literacy standard might look like and how it might be implemented.

You can read more about our first gathering on this etherpad and check out our recorded interaction here—but before you fall too much in love with that pad or deck, take a gander at this etherpad, too. Because we held another web literacy online gathering just yesterday. (By the way, if you haven’t introduced yourself in the web literacy group of the webmaker list, please do.)

Participants at both of these public interactions began to think through and converse about some of the many complex questions surrounding this effort. Things like, what do we mean by the term “standard,” and what about people who are educationally or socially underserved, or those folks who are not even on the internet? While we don’t have answers to all of these questions, we do anticipate that this communication opportunity will spur a number of lively conversations and perhaps some complex philosophical and sociological inquiries, as well. Of course we want to talk, but more importantly, we want to listen, too.

Questions we’re asking
In essence, we’re asking a number questions and we’d like your thinking on them. Here are a few that we’ve been obsessed with lately.

  • What are the basic, intermediate and advanced skills that are essential to becoming a productive participant of the web?
  • How many are necessary to produce useful competencies?
  • What are the related outcomes associated with those skills and competencies? In other words, what might those skills and competencies get you in an applied setting?
  • Can we build assessments that support and acknowledge those skills and competencies?
  • Can we build APIs that allow you to begin to use these skill and competency assessments right on your own site?
  • How can badges be designed that accurately represent those skills and competencies?
  • What sorts of badges make sense in a distributed system like this?

And another question that’s close to my heart:

  • What goes into a badge framework that will encourage other individuals, organizations, educational institutions, etc. to build upon our web literacy badges efforts so that together we construct a viable, meaningful, and valuable network of activities, assessments and badges?

Definition of terms
A lot of this work is contingent upon us reaching some universal agreement about what we mean when we talk about web literacy.* In order for us to make any headway with the development of a standard, at the very least we’ll need to be aligned in our understanding and use of this term. Also, you may hear us talk about a standard and a framework somewhat interchangeably: we’re focused on building a framework from which a standard will emerge. Our approach for the web literacy badges works similarly: we aim to construct a conceptual framework that encourages other organizations and individuals to form their own badge system nodes in this network. While we’re still figuring out how all this gels, we’re forging ahead with designing a web literacy badge system that derives its excellence from a variety of  committed, web-literacy-standards-aligned issuers contributing to it. I’ll explore this idea in detail in future posts.

Systems thinking
One of my favorite posts that I’ve written on badge system design is Building Trust Networks, Creating Value. If you have questions about how we see this all coming together, you’ll find a number of answers there. In short, that post reviews the ways in which trust networks may evolve in the Open Badges ecosystem. It also purports that a system will function at its best if trust grows right along with it: trust that is both internal to the system as well as external to the system. A slightly different way of saying that is that a system will become more resilient if trust becomes and integral aspect of its network effect. The hallmarks of a successful system include resilience and flexibility: we’re working to build those into our web literacy badge system.

How we’re getting there from here
We’ve been considering what web literacies might look like. We’ve released a preliminary set of badges based on low level achievements that can be accomplished using one of our tools. We have a killer team assembled to begin tackling incremental assessment, creating activities that are both informative and inspirational, designing badges that act as guideposts to the standard they represent, and devising possible pathways for people to get from one skill or competency to another.** We’re analyzing the best ways to make this an open standard; imagining ways that an API might be able to be useful for things like those incremental assessments.

An invitation
Over the next few days we’ll be roughing out a lightweight roadmap; there you’ll find specific dates and goals. And exciting next step will be to hold regular weekly calls to publicly investigate, evaluate, and scrutinize this work—this most definitely will be a group effort. You’re invited! Please make a point of joining us for our inaugural weekly meeting on Thursday, Feb 28 at 08:00 PST / 11:00 EST / 16:00 GMT. I’ll post more specific dial-in details when they’re finalized. Dial-in info can be found on the Web Literacy Standard Community etherpad.

We’re excited to have you join us on this journey. Together we will co-create a new web literacy standard, develop badges that reflect that standard and begin to define pathways that lead to rewarding educational, social and personal experiences.

* A quick and appreciative nod to individuals who have been ruminating on digital literacy, digital divides, and technological literacy for years.
** A foundational badge pathways post is coming within a few days. This is a lynchpin concept.

More soon.

Mozilla Open Badges: building trust networks, creating value

“…the value of a unit of currency is not the measure of the value of an object, but the measure of one’s trust in other human beings.” (Graeber, 2011)

In the last few posts we have discussed ways in which badge systems can be segmented, considered, or categorized within existing social structures. And I have hinted at the sociocultural infrastructure necessary for badges to become useful and effective, social, professional, and personal currencies. This concept of currency stems from the notion of badges as elements of trust networks. They may be trust networks that exist presently but in this post, I suggest that badges may help to engender the creation of dynamic new trust networks.

These dynamic new trust networks will most certainly arise from constituent parts of existing trust systems—it’s worth noting that we’re building on top of those already with the idea of badges themselves. Open Badges are built to recognize and acknowledge different forms of learning, associations, achievements, affiliations, skills, competencies, and type of expertise from such diverse areas including academic, informal, professional, social, personal, etc. With Open Badges providing such a wide net for recognition and acknowledgement, it behooves us to rethink exactly how much value we place in current, culturally-steeped interpretations of such a protean system. In other words, what else can we imagine coming into being that does not exist right now?

In earlier posts about badge system design, we focused on the some of the better ways to begin thinking about how to create a badge system where little to nothing existed previously. Recognizing that a badge system is situated and will interact with a wide variety of other systems, each badge system is interwoven with, complements, and depends upon other systems to exist. Let’s consider a badge system that acknowledges prior learning. In order for it to function effectively, that system would need to take into account existing social, professional, and cultural memetics. It would benefit from being based on current understandings of educational value; existing professional environments that might find value in such badges; investigation into personally derived meaning and value. At the risk of stating the obvious, the key word in all of those phrases is value.

And from whence does value arise? It’s a complex, socially and personally derived concept. A concept rooted in cultural semiotics and one that, I would suggest, at its base contains one very necessary aspect of all true communication: trust.

Badge systems, as well as their constituent badges, if they are to take firm root and drink deeply from the vast underground sea of social semiotics must not only engender trust, but actively work to build it. How might this occur? I discussed some of how this might happen in a previous post, “Badge System Design: what we talk about when we talk about validity.” Here I’ve created some visuals to help us think through a plan of how we get there from here.

A bit of background first, though. Thanks to the many interesting conversations we’ve had with folks involved in traditional academia, we’ve been very much influenced by the notions of trust that seem to be intertwined with traditional academe. Over the years, formal academia has developed a virtually crystalline structure* of trust based on: reliability, replicability, credibility, validation, certification, accreditation, verification, and authentication.

First up: what are the items that come together in a strong badge system that allow for it to move out into a broader social economy? What are the items that are both necessary and sufficient for this to happen?  (btw, when clicked on, the graphics below will enlarge for improved readability.)

Open Badges: suggested components for trust to develop

While I’ve listed a variety of elements in that graphic—elements that have overlap with one another—note that the question of which elements are necessary and sufficient to coalesce into a trust network is entirely open. And even within that question, which of these are necessary and sufficient, how much of each of these are necessary and sufficient? Trust is a delicate alchemical reaction based on complex and varying degrees of components, environment, perceptions, etc.

If we begin to intermix these varying badge systems together, some of which contain all of the elements of trust, some of which contain very few of them, we begin to find similarities, natural alliances or links between them. The items with grey backgrounds are systems that have managed to produce types of trust. Those with just a thin grey circle encompassing them have yet to develop a sense of trust about them. This does not mean that these badge systems are any less meaningful or useful to the ecosystem, simply that they have not yet developed the sort of trust that carries social value.

Open Badges: permutations of trust

These smaller trust system permutations may cluster naturally by themselves, finding opportunities for collaboration, or building or scaffolding upon each other’s badge systems. Or it may be that third parties may find that there are social, monetary, political, or cultural benefits to connect them together. The evolution and development of different sorts of trust networks appears below.

Open Badges: the evolution of trust networks

As we begin to imagine the future of badge systems with varying degrees of trust building upon and aligning with other badge systems with varying degrees of trust, we can see how new forms of value might arise from such a dynamic system. It may happen that complete, robust trust networks form and coalesce in addition to continuously forming incipient trust networks. In the Open Badges ecosystem, we anticipate immense initial growth of badge systems followed by issuer alliances, the development of endorsing systems, related third parties entering the scene, and employers beginning to “consume” badges. In short, a system with emergent properties.

And if we look out even further than that, we may find that our perception of the future entails new forms of social, professional, personal, political, and cultural currency—or, as the anthropologist David Graeber notes, trust.

*Note that a crystalline structure is brittle; the system design underpinning Open Badges endeavors to encourage structures that are strong and resilient, firm but flexible.

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More soon.  carla at mozillafoundation . org

Graeber, D. (2011). Debt: the first 5000 years. Brooklyn, NY : Melville House Publishing.

Badge System Design: beyond a binary approval system

For those who labor long and hard to craft good and just standards, as well as those who have suffered from their absence. On the one hand, the fight against the tyranny of structurelessness. On the other, the fallacy of one size fits all  (Lampland & Starr, 2009).

This book dedication found in Standards and Their Stories captures the inherent paradox of badge system design. By seeking to standardize the process we risk the introduction of systemic rigidity. And yet by developing badges without a plan we risk the possibility of ideological entropy. In my writing about this topic I’m attempting to walk the middle path: somewhere in between fanatical dictums and a mad free-for-all. I wish I could say that it was easier than this, but then I’d be lying.

The status quo
Even while we’re in the midst of talking about a potentially reconstructive idea like Mozilla Open Badges, I still rather rotely refer to my own typically conventional educational route with “my undergrad degree this” or “my grad degree that.” Perhaps this is to be expected. It certainly hearkens to one of the issues that the open badges in the wild will have to confront: the seeming intractability of the status quo. In the Open Badges world this desire for stability echoes within the repeated request for a standard method of validation; it’s mated to a deep concern about badge quality. In unfamiliar situations such as these we tend to rely on current cultural understandings and touchstones. In this case, degrees and certificates, accreditation systems and educational rankings.

The status quo of our formal academic system has transmogrified into a sort of binary approval system. You pass or you fail. You go to a respected school or you go to a second-tier school. You graduate or you don’t. It all seems pretty inexorable. We gravitate toward that which is customary. The familiar often appears to be less threatening than the entirely unknown. Indeed, there is a robust academic research field that studies this tendency, especially with regards to our proclivities toward risk and reward: behavioral economics. (For a deep and delightful dive on this read Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational.)

I’m hoping that some day people will refer to not only their formal schooling but their non-traditional learned experiences as well (hopefully badged in the open way) without speaking of one of them as second-rate or less than the other. That noted, I’ll return to my rather classical undergraduate education to make a point. I double-majored in graphic design and writing. The classes I took in design inform a significant amount of the way that I think. This is not to say that every design class I took made sense or built on every preceding design class so that one day I had taken enough of them to—ta-dah!—be called a designer. On the contrary, I gleaned information from a variety of sources. My deep learning occurred in many different venues, a bit of it very much outside the realm of what typically would be called design. Nevertheless, some aspects of design that I learned in those college classes continue to reverberate within me.

One of the most resonant aspects of those years pertains to users and audiences and owners and consumers and interested parties and even uninterested parties. The idea of multiple audiences pulses within me at the root. Akin to that concept, another: juxtaposition. What is there versus what is not there; what has been asked versus what has not been asked; the solid versus the void. Good designers are problem solvers, not stylists or skinners. They interrogate situations and ask why? They poke around in seemingly unrelated categories. They consider the complicating factors of temporality and fickle end users while acknowledging that a problem owner requires resolutions. They know that solutions can have many audiences and that things that seem simple and straightforward can be damn complex. (Massimo Vignelli has spoken eloquently on this subject in Massimo Vignelli on Rational Design.” Actually, read all the interviews on Steven Heller’s Design Dialogues site.)

Hard questions
Why do I mention all of this? Because as you begin the process of badge system design, you, too, will be delving into these areas. You, too, will be learning to act as a designer. You’ll be gathering information from many sources—no doubt a few of them entirely unexpected. And most likely you’ll find yourself asking deep and sometimes existential questions. I encourage you to remain open to the idea that periodically, like the question, the answer will prove to be both complex and difficult and very much not binary. Sometimes you will have to try something to know if it works because there will be no answer until you do. Accept this. Your badge system will benefit from this sideways approach. That is, believe it or not, the middle path.

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Much more soon.

Ariely, D. (2008). Predictably Irrational. New York, NY: Harper Collins.
Lampland, M. & Starr, S. L. (2009). Standards and their stories. (p. dedication). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Vignelli, M. (1998). Massimo Vignelli on Rational Design. In Heller, S. (Ed.), Design dialogues (pp. 3-8). New York, NY: Allworth Press.

Open Badges Lexicon: Earners and Issuers

We’ve leapt into Badge System Design in some earlier posts (1, 2, 3) and we’ll be returning to it shortly, In the interim, I’d like to step back to consider a small number of basic Open Badges tenets. In this edition, we’ll address our evolving lexicon and in particular the nomenclature of Earners and Issuers.

A common language
In addition to their ability to transcend physical boundaries, badges introduce many potential languages, e.g., visual, verbal, cultural, pedagogical, etc. Badges will activate these languages, sometimes one at a time, sometimes all at once. Each of these languages may speak to different audiences, and often to many audiences at once. As simple as we try to make our badges, they will be deeply influenced by our worldviews: imbued with our community’s understandings, desires, and values—and those will be intertwined with the earner’s understandings, desires, and values. In turn, those perceptual strands will be woven through the general public’s social assumptions and cultural fibers. Teasing out a strand (or badge) will not reveal the germ of the process but it may help point toward some of what has influenced it. In short, badges can stand alone, but will remain bound into a complex sociocultural system.

Consequently, flexibility in our system design is key. As we attempt to build and rationalize an open badges lexicon, we recognize that a need for individuation, modification, or personalization will always exist. This is built into the OBI system. By designing an extremely flexible product, we’ve accommodated many different potentials.

What does all of this flexibility get us? For one thing, it opens the door to cultural interoperability. The ability to have the Open Badges system accommodate many different cultures, communities, and values. Given that badges exist as forms of cultural representation that interoperability is essential to a robust system. (We will, no doubt, revisit this concept in a later post.)

Along these lines, we began a document for people to share their ideas about Open Badges definitions of terms. In a nice turn of events, this open approach has lead to some fascinating questions about intent and prescriptiveness. Some questions raised in that document have yet to be answered: it’s an ongoing discussion, one that requires back and forth, give and take. We anticipate that it will continue to raise questions, too. And we’re excited about these provocations because they’ll help us to better understand the ecosystem and improve upon our Open Badges system.

Earner vs. holder vs. owner
One question in that open google document queried our choice of the word, “earner.” As with all things Open Badges, we arrived here after considerable thought—along with the aid of some legal help. (You can read more about our legal considerations here.)

A bit of background: we started with “learner” and ended up at “earner.” Believe it or not, dropping the initial consonant involved quite a bit of in-depth thought. We wended our way around to that term after close consideration of the people who might come into possession of a badge. Even the term “earner” presents some weaknesses. Badges can be used to show affiliation, skills, competencies, associations, etc. Some of the folks we’ve spoken with have suggested that badges can and should be earned by organizations themselves. In point of fact, we don’t know all the ways badges can be used, yet. That’s the beauty of a flexible system.

We chose earner for fairly prescriptive reasons: because we’d like to suggest that badges must be earned, not simply received. However, as badge meaning is initially defined by the issuer, this moniker may change. The earner can be referred to in the way that makes sense to your group. It’s worth remembering, though, that your earner/holder/recipient/whatever will be interacting in a broad ecosystem along with many Issuers, Displayers & other earner/holder/recipient/whatevers. They’ll have an opportunity to speak for and about themselves and may choose their own sobriquet.

Because the earner exists as the hub of their own personal Open Badge ecosystem they wield quite a bit of power: power of self-representation, power of social contracts with Issuers, power of control with Displayers. Earners define their association with the entire ecosystem: what to earn, where to earn it and with whom, and then, ultimately, how to display what they’ve earned. As Erin Knight has said so eloquently about a personal collection of badges housed in a badge backpack, they can act as “a living transcript.”

This one is pretty obvious as to why we chose it: these groups, organizations, individuals, institutions, corporations, etc., do the hard work of issuing badges. Not only do they create badges and badge system designs that transmit their values to badge earners, and a variety of additional publics (cf., Michael Warner’s Publics and Counterpublics, much more on this in later posts)—they also build the criteria for those badges, develop badge progressions, create scaffolding opportunities, and undertake the difficult problem of assessment. Plus, they make the commitment to civic participation in the broader Open Badge ecosystem.

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In a future post I’ll address Mozilla’s approach to privacy, as well as explain our rationale for naming Displayers and Endorsers. Much more soon.

Warner, M. (2005). Publics and Counterpublics. Boston, MA: MIT Press