Following is a rough draft reflection about the values-laden nature of digital badges. These are tentative and early-stage thoughts, but I publish them here to provoke more conversation. What are the affordances and limitations of badges? What values will be amplified by their use and what values with be muffled or silenced by them? How will the inherent values embedded in the design of OBI influence how they are applied in the world? These are the questions that continue to occupy my thinking about the open badge movement. While this article does not address all the questions above, it does introduce the concept of values-laden technology and includes musings about how certain values embedded in the design of open badges are shaping the application, adoption and innovation around digital badges.
I ask for your patience as I set up such a reflection with background knowledge about the broad concept of values-laden technologies. My first readings about educational technology were not by evangelists, advocates, and champions of technological innovation. I started studying technology by reading Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death and later Technopololy, The End of Education, Conscientious Objectors, and Building a Bridge to the 18th Century. From Postman, I went to authors like Jacques Ellul, Lewis Mumford, Marshal McLuhan, Harold Innis, Walter Ong, Jack Goody, and Daniel Boorstin; those names often associated with media ecology. In other words, my ideas about educational and technology initially grew out of cultural criticism, philosophy, sociology, cultural history, communications theory, and the history of ideas. Such authors left me with a keen sensitivity to what Postman referred to as the values-laden nature of technology.
Is technology neutral or values-laden? Most advocates of educational technology today seem to work from an assumption that technology is neutral. That is what you often hear and read from so many educational technologists who say things like, “________ is not good or bad. It depends upon how you use it.” I reject that idea. Of course, how one opts to use a technology matters, leading one toward more or less ethical directions, greater or lesser social good. Yet, that isn’t the entire story. How we tend to use a technology is largely influenced by the design of that technology. A simple example is a hammer. Hammers are designed, in general, to hit things. That is why, regardless of the intent of the user, most people will end up using hammers to hit things. You don’t use a hammer to wash something because washing is not an affordance of a hammer. This is a simple example, and things become far more complex when we are talking about something like a computer or the Internet. That is because there are so many affordances built into their design. They function like a collection of technologies, each with their own affordances and limitations. In fact, with complex technologies, the designer can’t possibly anticipate all the potential affordances (things made possible by it) and limitations (things that its design discourages or restricts). Even if we do have an in-depth understanding of the affordances and limitations of a technology in a given context, changing the context may reveal other affordances that were dormant until awakened by new aspects of a different context.
As scholars examine historical and contemporary technologies, they sometimes talk about democratizing technologies. Those are technologies that increase access and opportunity or that are broadly accessible. For example, the mass-produced book, a technology made possible by another technology, the printing press, is democratizing in the sense that it made written knowledge more readily accessible to the masses. At the same time, creation of the mass-produced book gave immense power and influence to those who could afford to buy or build a printing press. So, even as there was a democratization of the mass-produced book, it also set the stage for powerful and influential companies in the publishing industry. In fact, it made the publishing industry both a possibility and reality.
The concept of democratizing technologies is one of those ideas that grows in complexity the more you study it. Yet, there are some general observations most can recognize. Take, for example, technologies that generate energy. Nuclear plants are more authoritarian by nature, while windmills are more democratizing. The former has attributes that make it more dangerous and expensive, resulting in regulations and policies to protect the public from inappropriate uses. The windmill has fewer policies because less is at stake. As such, the windmill is democratizing, allowing a large number of people access to power as well as the technology to generate it, while nuclear plants are authoritarian. This concept is further and more adequately explained in Lewis Mumford’s Authoritarian and Democratizing Technics.
What about digital badges, especially open badges? Are they democratizing or authoritarian? Which values are amplified by their use? Which ones are muffled or silenced? I’ve been exploring badges for some time, and I continue to struggle with answering these questions. While the Open Badge Infrastructure is a relatively simple technology, I continue to question my understanding of the values amplified or muffled by it. As such, I’ve recently spent more time comparing the open badge system as a credentialing technology to that of more traditional academic credentials, especially diplomas and certificates.
Democratizing or Authoritarian?
In some of my past writings about badges, I’ve touted them as adding a democratizing effect to credentials. Traditional academic diplomas are authoritarian in the sense that there is careful regulation and accreditation attached to them. Anyone can print and issue diplomas, but their perceived value is closely attached to the credibility of the issuing organization. When it comes to digital badges in academic settings, the same can be argued. The credibility of the badge issuer is an important factor. However, badge advocates point out that open badges have design features that allow for other possible ways to establish credibility and perceived value. The link to criteria needed to earn the badge along with endorsements and direct evidence of a recipient’s accomplishments, for example, provides more detail on what a person did to earn the credential. This requires a growing understanding of how such credentials function, but allows for a far more nuanced and complex credential than a flat diploma. It is this increased transparency and relative complexity that provides opportunity for a democratizing effect of badges. In other words, the open badge design has affordances that do not exist in the simple design of traditional academic certificates and diplomas.
Consider the examples provided earlier about the democratization of the book. The book was democratizing while the printing press was largely out of reach to the masses. A democratizing technology was generated through a more authoritarian one. The mass-produced book did not have an affordance of being easily replicated by the average person. What about open badges? Open badges can be seen as a democratized printing presses for the world of credentialing. The values embedded in the design of open badges democratize the issuing of credentials with features that are absent in traditional credentials. Many wisely point out the fact that being able to issue credentials does not guarantee widespread adoption. That requires building trust networks. However, regardless of whether trust networks exist, the value for democratized issuing of credentials is embedded into the very design of open badges. Open badges are biased toward democratized issuing of badges, and that bias will likely drive exploration, innovation and application of credential issuing that is less dependent upon the credibility of the issuer. Note that I am not disregarding the credibility of the issuer. As long as issuing is a feature of badges, there will also be a value for taking into consideration badge issuers. Regardless, the Open Badge Infrastructure includes features that amplify the value of more widespread credential issuing, including more ways to elevate perceived value and meaning in a credential. This is part of why they are open badges.
The Birth of a New Industry
Interestingly, the Open Badge Infrastructure was built to accommodate third-party customizations, making it possible for others to add more closed and controlled (but needed and/or requested) features that are not inherent in OBI itself. This is an OBI attribute that promotes the value of sharing, use, reuse, repurposing, innovation, and enhancement. It it also a value of openness, but one that ironically leaves room for organizations to capitalize upon the design of open badges while establishing features that can’t be easily provided by other issuers. This allows for the establishment of a modern equivalent to the printing press in the world of credentialing, a more authoritarian system for issuing and displaying badges, while still promoting some of the other open features of badges, like users owning the credential. In the process, however, we see the control of the credentialing technology likely shifting from academic institutions to outside corporate entities that have the expertise and resources to provide enhanced credentialing features.
We see the development of a new industry, the micro-credentialing industry, one that services academic institutions but also fosters uses of credentials that extend far beyond those institutions. While the printing press might have primarily served to mass distribute publications of the church, the academy, and the government; it did not take long for them to use the technology to create demand around different publications as well. The embedded values and affordances of open badges may have a similar result for credentials. Where academic institutions largely maintained a monopoly on the issuing of valued credentials, OBI makes it possible issuing organizations/companies to service academic institutions, other individuals and organizations interested in offering credentials, and to be stand-alone issuers of credentials. In the short-term, it is easiest to parter with academic institutions that already have public trust around their credentials, but the embedded values of open badges will likely challenge the notion that academic institutions are the only trustworthy source of credentials tied to new learning, skill acquisition and intellectual accomplishments.
Apart from open badges, there are already hundreds of organizations that are not traditional academic institutions but they provide valued credentials: prestigious awards, fellowships, and titles granted upon completion of specialized training from corporate entities (Google Certified Educators, Apple Distinguished Educators, etc.). These pre-existing examples show the possibility of future credentialing being spread to a larger base of organizations than just traditional schools, colleges, and Universities. In other words, open badges, by nature, promote the democratization of issuing credentials.
Open badges are values-laden, with openness being among one of the more obvious values. Even though it is obvious, the implications of amplifying this value in the world of credentialing are difficult to predict. Empirical studies on current and emerging uses of badges provide helpful insights, but those insights become less clear or certain as contexts change, and we are in an era of unprecedented educational change. Given that open badges are already beginning to result in the development of a new industry, we can expect to see this industry playing a new and potentially important role in the broader education sector, a role that is potentially as significant as the textbook industry was to P-20 American education or the Learning Management System industry in blended and online learning. The difference is that textbooks and LMSs rely upon academic institutions, but there is the likelihood that credentialing will not soley be for academic institutions. With the amplified value of openness in credentialing, we may be seeing the emergence of an entirely new ecosystem of credentialing organizations. This is far from certain, but the features of OBI lends themselves toward such a future.