The Importance of "Open" in Mozilla's Open Badges Project

The Mozilla Foundation officially announced its Open Badges Infrastructure Project today. Here's how the foundation describes it:

"Learning today happens everywhere, not just in the classroom. But it's often difficult to get recognition for skills and achievements that happen outside of school. Mozilla's Open Badges project is working to solve that problem, making it easy for anyone to issue, earn and display badges across the web -- through a shared infrastructure that's free and open to all. The result: helping learners everywhere display 21st century skills, unlock career and educational opportunities, and level up in their life and work."

And yes, I realize it's terribly witty to invoke The Treasure of the Sierre Madre here: "We don't need no stinkin' badges." Har-har-har.

But with that joke out of the way, let's be serious about the project: its technological infrastructure, its implementation, its acceptance by both institutions of learning (formal and informal) and by employers, and its implications for (re)thinking how we view accreditation, and by extension probably, assessment. While Mozilla has laid out the plan for the technology that underpins the Open Badges Project, it's pretty clear that the rest of those pieces are not yet in place.

The Open Badges Infrastructure

Let's start with that technology infrastructure (the OBI), because while it might be the least interesting to some educators, I think it's a crucial piece of the project. The diagram below maps out what this infrastructure will do (and you can find all the technical documentation here, as well as read an interview I conducted with Mozilla's Erin Knight over on O'Reilly Radar where she addresses the technology under the project's hood).

Each learner will have a Backpack, an authorized data store where all their badge information and credentials stored. Each badge will contain metadata badge describing it -- the issuer, the issue date, evidence URL and so on. The badges will be verified through an API so that you can't simply post a badge to your website, for example, without it being authenticated by the issuing organization. And that issuing organization can be anyone participating in the Open Badges Infrastructure.

That openness is incredibly important here. The openness of who can issue badges. The openness of the code (Here's the GitHub link). That means this isn't proprietary technology, nor is it some sort of proprietary accreditation process. The emphasis on Open Badges is "open."

Fixating on Badges

The emphasis I think most people are looking at today (based on the reactions I saw via Twitter at least) were on the "badges" aspect. Is this just a digital version of getting a star next to your name when you line up nicely and quietly to go to the library? Are badges juvenile? Are badges just a trend? Do badges reward inconsequential achievements? Are badges better/worse than grades, than graduation certificates? Are we focusing too much on extrinsic motivations? Are badges another crude way to "gamify" education? Should we be concerned that Arne Duncan thinks badges are a "game-changer"?

There are a lot of questions about the project, true. And I hope that the Digital Media and Learning Competition, which this year is asking for proposals that address "badges for lifelong learning" can help fill out the educational and instructional pieces to complement the open infrastructure that Mozilla has created.

I keep repeating "open" here because that's one of the things I like most about the project. It has the potential to challenge those who've long controlled what constitutes accreditation and certification. That means schools and universities, but it also mean government agencies and corporations too. You can have an engineering degree from Carnegie Mellon, for example, just as you can be a Microsoft Certified IT Professional. You can take classes in accounting, for example, or you can get your training from H&R Block.

It seems to me that as the education system faces the challenges of a changing workforce, one that requires skill-sets that may or may not be reflected in certificates from these traditional (academic or corporate) programs, that someone is going to become the new certifying agency. Will it be LinkedIn? Will it be Pearson? Will it be Kaplan? Will it be Chegg? (I'm serious. Think about it. That's where they're all headed.) After all, there's money to be made in such power. And if it's not an open project -- one in which anyone can participate, even on a peer-to-peer level -- not only will it fail to solve the problems we face now, but it will create a whole series of new inequalities.


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