5 Impending Badge Battlegrounds

Are we beginning to see evidence of impending battles about digital badges? Some of them are quietly but already underway. Others are on the horizon. All of them seem to be about power and control. These are admittedly speculative and editorial, and I welcome comments, but I see the following five emerging battlegrounds.

1. Badge Authorities

We are starting to see people identified as authorities in the badge world. Notice that I am saying “authorities”, not “experts.” There is indeed plenty with growing expertise, which is valued. That alone is not a sign of a potential battle, but I do see evidence in the use of words (even in my word choice). I am starting to see “should” and “ought” language dominate conversations that start previously focused upon “could” and “possibility.” It is as if there is a desire to prescribe and  control the use of badges according to the standards and desired outcomes of the growing authorities. In some ways, this is a natural part of wanting to standardize things for sake of growth and expansion. Yet, with this comes more prescriptions and warnings, overshadowing the language of tips and suggestions.  This is in line with the professionalization that we’ve experienced in much of the western world over the last century. In Disabling Professions, Illich, Zola and McKnight write the following about the legal system: “…instead of creating a ‘self-service cafeteria; it has been the mistake of every legal system to insist upon ‘waiter service'” (Disabling Professions, p. 102). This quote is about professionalization that leads to new gatekeepers and ruling authorities. I am seeing such language start to appear more often within the badge world as well. There is this caution that if you don’t heed the warnings of the authorities then your badge design is doomed, or worse yet, just plain bad. I support expertise, but I hope for expertise with humility and a value for openness and democratization.

2. Badge Power Plays

The growing conversation about trust networks is an important one, but expect to see more efforts to monopolize through the use of a new credential system. In fact, I wonder if we will see praise from some of the emerging “authorities” when certain companies and/or organizations succeed in establishing trust networks through what is essentially a monopolization of a new credentialing system within a community. I would not be surprised to see badges moved forward through full monopolies and authoritative mandates within a given sector.

As an alternate to the monopoly concept, I wonder about the role of competition. I value the largely collaborative nature of many interested in badges, but I do wonder if some of the most expansive badge “success” stories will come through competitive forces more than collaborative ones. In Kaihan Krippendorff’s Out Think the Competition, he argues that a key in the competitive advantage around innovation is to slow the competitive efforts of others (p. 13). That leads me to #3.

3. Challenges to the Open Badge Infrastructure / Proprietary Supplements

Because of the power plays and monopolies, there is the possibility of these “winners” largely disregarding OBI, establishing their own infrastructure. However, I expect that much of this will be hybrid infrastructures, taking OBI and building beyond it. There are badging system offering features not built into OBI that are in high demand by target audiences. This makes room for more differentiators among badge issuing platforms. I contend that these enhancements and expansion have an important role in the increased adoption of badge systems. This will probably help push badge adoption forward, especially when done by organizations with the financial and human resources necessary to manage badges on a global scale.

4. The Credential Conspiracy

I’ve become increasingly troubled by the often wide gap between the perceived value of a credential and the extent to which that credential consistently represents true skill, expertise, competence, and the like. We’ve all witnessed this: people with high school diplomas who are functionally illiterate, medical practitioners who keep their license even after experiencing literally mind-altering health issues, people with degrees in disciplines where they can no longer demonstrate competence (and this is far beyond the so-called diploma mills), etc. At the same time, I often experience limited interest in scrutinizing our current credentialing systems, even as we use those systems as justification to disregard or devalue emerging and alternate credentialing systems.

The  most consistent credentials are those that make no claim at actual skill or competence. Instead, the credentials are only issued when certain objective criteria are met: hours clocked, age verified, access granted, attendance verified, etc. Yet, even with these credentials, the trust networks and perceived public value around them seem to grow separately from what they represent. As such, the success of building new trust networks can become more about PR, marketing or even propaganda than building trust based upon what the badge more objectively represents.

Allow me to give an example from teacher education. I hold a 6-12 history license from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. I have not taught high school history for 15 years, but all I need to keep up my license is to write a check every 5 years and take 6 relevant credit hours of coursework (This process has changed now in Wisconsin, but the model still exists all over the place, in many different fields.). How does taking 6 credit hours prove that I still meet the criteria established for being a licensed teacher in the state? It does not. I contend that I do meet or exceed those criteria, but renewing the license does not indicate as much. The ongoing teaching license only shows that I have complied with the regulations. Yet, this credential makes me a viable candidate for some jobs that are closed to others who are probably far more competent. Such limitations of the many current credentials gain little attention.

I expect this to change. In fact, many of my predictions about the impact of digital badges in education depend upon such a change. I expect it to change under the pressure and influence of:

  • the standards movement;
  • competency-based education;
  • increased advocacy for personalized and adaptive learning which also pushes forward mastery learning;
  • demands from some employers for pre-requisite skills not guaranteed by existing credentials;
  • the expansion of malpractice lawsuits;
  • the growth in big data, data-driven decision-making in education, and learning analytics;
  • the do-it-yourself movement’s emphasis upon competence over formal credentials; and
  • the influence of the Internet of Things upon lifelong learning.

The technology of open badges is not enough to result in the potential impact touted by myself and others. For our predictions (and sometimes hopes) to become reality, it depends upon growing scrutiny of existing credentials that leads to dissatisfaction and a willingness to invest in advocacy for an alternate. In a way, open badges are the alternative energy of the credentialing world. We don’t see gas-run cars as retaining dominance because they are the best of all options. The same can be said for the dominant credentialing systems.

5. Agility of Alternatives to Formal Education Institutions

Many promising educational experiments are happening outside of academia. While some educational institutions are using badges, they already have a long history of an established credentialing system. These emerging providers of education do not. These groups need to establish some way to communicate the accomplishments and document the evidence of learning among their users. This is fertile soil to grow new trust networks around alternate credentials. Their financial success and social impact partly depends upon the ability to build trust and gain credibility, and they will innovate their way to a working solution. Their investors expect as much, and they do not have the scrutiny of accrediting bodies and government oversight (because they don’t take part in federal funding of education) to slow them down.

As I stated at the beginning, these are speculative musings, and maybe even more rough draft than my typical writings on this blog. At the same time, I am interested in a broader conversation about these topics, and I hope that this post will help spark such dialogue.

7 thoughts on “5 Impending Badge Battlegrounds

  1. ottonomy

    #1 is something to keep considering over the next year. I’m glad the forthcoming DPD Project report will emphasize the infeasibility of extracting “best practices” from case studies. But we are getting to the point where there have been lots of badge programs implemented, some successfully and some discontinued. We can definitely learn a lot from these cases. We’ll have to be careful about what lessons we draw from their experience and maintain a spirit of experimentation rather than focusing on closing down known “unsuccessful” design patterns. There are some lessons to be drawn though, but not specific design patterns that will fit all contexts.

    The Open Badges technology provides lots of room to grow and explore in terms of building possibilities that mesh well between issuer and consumer

    • Bernard Bull Post author

      Well said. I often prefer the phrase “promising practices” to that of “best practices.” That is part of why I appreciate the case study approach in the DPD Project, with an emphasis upon description instead of prescription.

  2. Michael Olneck

    Bernard Bull is very likely prescient about “battles” emerging around digital badges, although I suspect these battles will be polite, and not hostile, more on the order of friendly disagreements or rivalries. So far, participation in broad public discussions around badges has involved even individuals from private firms which compete with one another.

    I want to comment here on just two related points. Bernard wonders about how emerging badge “authorities,” among whom are no doubt university-based individuals, will react if badge monopolies are established by self-interested firms or organizations (Point 2). He also wonders about the impact of potentially “agile” and highly innovative badge issuers outside of academia, for whom there is “fertile soil to grow new trust works (sic) [networks] around alternative credentials” (Point 5).

    I suspect that, at least in the intermediate term, a more likely scenario is the continued cooperation of academic and private badge providers. The legitimate authority of academic credentials is not something that is likely to erode quickly, even though criticism of higher education appears widespread and intense. Trust in colleges and universities is simply too entrenched or, in sociological jargon, institutionalized, to be dislodged by the direct competition of “alternative credentials.” Families are far more concerned about paying for college than they are interested in finding alternatives to college.

    Moreover, one way badges will gain legitimacy will be through their association with brick-and-mortar colleges and universities with which the public is familiar. This will, however, involve “partnerships” between academic institutions and private firms. Rather than the academic – private firm boundary being a site of conflict around badges, it is more likely, for the foreseeable future, to be a site of mutually beneficial cooperation and exchange between firms and individual academics. How this cooperation and exchange will, along with other academic institution – private firm trade (e.g., Learning Management Systems), affect the contours of academia remains to be seen.

    • Bernard Bull Post author

      Thank you for the thoughtful comment, Michael. I have two responses after reading your comment.

      1. I grappled with whether or not to use the terms “battle” and battleground.” I am sensitive to the dangers and limitations of a war metaphor, but I ended up sticking with it in this case. I agree that the work so far has been cooperative and civil, and I expect that to remain a part of the Badge Alliance. At the same time, I am encountering more language that is competitive in nature: beating others to market, defeating competitors by ________, dominating the _______ sector, etc. There are also more gentle versions where people talk about establishing a universal standard or creating more centralized systems by which badges issuers will be vetted. I am hopeful that there will be a continued cooperative spirit more broadly than even the Badge Alliance, but we will see how that holds up if some establish a corner on a given market.

      2. I agree that cooperation between established providers of credentials (like higher education institutions) and the private sector will continue and help establish more credibility around badges. I am not yet sure if that is where we will see badges take hold the fastest. I am looking at the larger population of people who do not have a direct relationship with higher education institutions. I am thinking of the majority of Americans who do not hold a college credential as well as those who seek credibility in areas that are not typically credentialed by higher education institutions.

  3. Jade Forester (@jade_forester)

    Another great post! Just wanted to add that the OBI has been designed to be built upon, and we’re excited to see how people will extend and customize it to best serve their communities. The Open Badges Standard Working Group – http://www.badgealliance.org/open-badges-standard/ – spent Cycle 1 focusing on coming up with the best technological solution for adding metadata extensions to the current open badges specification. Folks who are interested can read more on their wiki page: http://wiki.badgealliance.org/index.php/Standard_Working_Group

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