The Digital Badge as a Transitional Technology: A Raft on the Journey

I’ve written many articles about open and digital badges in the last six years, and I continue to be an advocate for the ways in which badges can help us broaden our sense of what is possible when it comes to democratizing recognition of learning. Over the past year, I’ve slowed on my writing about badges, not because I am any less supportive of the movement, but because I’ve started to notice more significant patterns in my analysis of future and emerging trends likely to impact education and recognition.

I started to share some of these ideas in their earliest form about two years ago when I was attending the the historic EPIC conference in Bologna Italy, the event where many of us signed on to the Bologna Open Recognition Declaration. Now I’m ready to share a bit more. In fact, I see several possible futures for recognition of learning, but I consider it beyond doubt that almost all such potential futures will include three key elements:

  1. Documentation of data points related to learning, experience, competence, accomplishments, dispositions, and even fixed traits
  2. Big data
  3. Artificial intelligence & algorithmic matchmaking

Notice that I didn’t include badges, certificates, diplomas or any other credential in that short list. Why? I suspect that badges, while they will persist well into the future, are not the central innovation. Rather, they are part of a set of transitional technologies. Since I’m using the term in a specific way here, allow me to explain what I mean by a transitional technology.

It is a technology with the following five traits:

  1. It helps expand people’s thinking beyond an existing, related, but increasingly too limiting technology (in this case, traditional diplomas, transcripts, and certificates). As such, it helps surface the downsides and limitations of that technology, expanding the community and conversation around the alternative.
  2. It it borrows from the existing metaphors and vocabulary enough that people can understand it, while adding new features, taking advantage of new and emerging technologies to do so. In fact, it is always sparked by the affordances of multiple new technological developments.
  3. It sparks experimentation and entrepreneurial endeavors that promote further innovation and refinement.
  4. Many early experiments remain limited to the metaphors and frameworks that informed practices with the preceding technology. While there are some who will experiment in fascinating ways, demonstrating entirely new applications not possible with the previous technology, most people see it as a supplement to or a replacement of the prior technology, missing the fact that it could actually lead to a completely different construct. Only it works largely within an established culture, beliefs, values, and norms.
  5. Due to these factors, its most important role is not to be a long-term replacement to its predecessor, but to aid in progress toward what is usually a completely new mental and cultural construct, and associated technologies. In this sense, it is the raft that gets us across the river, but that raft is left behind as we move on to the next part of the journey.

Badges are that raft. The journey is about connections and recognition, not credentials. Only we’ve worked in a credentialed context for so long that we find it hard to imagine what could be next. Now we can start to see what is next. This begs the question. What is next? What comes after (or alongside) badges?

Several years ago, I started to write and talk about the changing nature of assessment. death of testingI even hired a cartoonist who does quite a bit of work from the New Yorker to create the following (or to the right depending upon what type of device you are using to read this) cartoon to illustrate my point.

When we look at emerging innovation around data analysis, it seems to me that testing is eventually on its way out, or at least moving toward having a lesser role in education. This is not a one or two year prediction, but we will see it play out in the next two or three decades. The reason for this is the same reason that I point to when I contend that bagdes constitute a transitional technology. It is about the future of data.

We are now in the age of big data, algorithmic strategies and solutions, learning analytics, adaptive learning, and artificial intelligence. In such an age, a test is less necessary. Tests become embedded, integrated, even invisible. We can mine data constantly to track progress. Tests can still be used as a teaching and learning strategy, but their role as a separate measurement tool decreases in this emerging world of data.

The same thing is true for badges and other credentials. What is the purpose of a credential? There are actually multiple purposes, but they generally signify something: experience, accomplishment, traits, competence, relative growth (or the lack thereof), and much more. As such, they communicate something about a person. Over time, they even communicate more or less than the reason for their issuance might warrant. Some more accurately and persistently communicate something true about a person, group, or organization. Some do not. That has always been the case, just as it is with badges. Badges are sentences in the stories that we tell, and we all know that some stories are fiction, while others are non-fiction. Most are a blend of the two.

Yet, badges are only one of many devices useful in communicating a story to others. What is important is the story and connection people as a result of the story. That is where big data, artificial intelligence, and all the other related buzz words that I listed before come into play. As more integrated and easy-to-consume methods of connecting and communicating develop, badges and other credentials will begin to play a smaller role.

Each new day that we live with one foot in the digital world, we are becoming further acclimated to algorithmic living. We trust our favorite search engine to guide us toward that which we seek. We do the same when we listen to music, shop, or try to find a date (or spouse). We rely upon these increasingly intelligence systems to match, connect, guide, and direct our choices and decisions.

Of course, not all algorithms are created equal. There is a wide spectrum when it comes to sophistication, not to mention the fact that every algorithm amplifies certain values and muzzles others, prioritizing some things over others. And as much as I will continue to draw attention to this important fact, that will not slow the global move toward such a world.

If you scan the communities discussing the present and emerging future state of digital badges, you might notice some people concerned about various patents or applications for patents with regard to badges. Some are concerned about this development, but seeing badges as part of a set of transitional technologies, I do not anticipate that hindering the larger move toward a new way of matching and connecting, as well as the larger move toward open recognition. Once we reduce the developments to their least common denominator, we find ourselves talking about something that is far less hindered by anyone who might seek power or protection through the patent office.

Badges represent a set of fascinating technologies, certainly expanding and deepening our thinking about recognition. They have served us well in that sense, and will continue to do so for some time. Yet, sooner than later, we will find that they have taken us as far as they are able in this journey, and we will set them aside on our larger and far more significant journey toward open recognition and what I hope will be a transparent but useful ecosystem of algorithmic connections. That will bring (and has already brought) ample ethical challenges that we are wise to begin exploring and addressing, especially before the next generation of artificial intelligence.

Democratizing Dreams: #OpenBadges That Help Construct Buildings and Tell Stories

As part of my ongoing advocacy (yes, a University professor just used that word) for the democratizing of education and credentialing, I often return to the power of narrative and equipping people to tell their stories in the digital world. This storytelling is an important part of building connections, obtaining recognition, and often gaining or creating new opportunities. I was reminded of this in a recent interview with Sheryl Grant (you can listen to the full interview on this episode of the MoonshotEdu Show). When I asked Sheryl to talk about a moonshot that she has in the world of badges and credentials, she also talked about this idea. She envisions a world where people have some agency and control over the story that other hear about then in the digital world.

What do badges have to do with this?

I will use two different metaphors to answer this question. One is the building block metaphor. We combine blocks to create different structures. You can use the same set of blocks to build a tower, a castle, a barn, a high-rise building, or maybe even a spaceship. It it just a matter of how you put them together. Of course, certain blocks are more useful for some purposes than others, but you get the idea that the structure is more than a simple quantitative sum of its parts. When you build a structure with building blocks, you are drawing from the traits of different blocks to build something distinct, something that can serve many purposes.

If I build a castle with my blocks and you build a barn, would you say that one of us must be wrong? Or is it possible to accept that both are valid constructs that blend our unique vision with what might be a very similar or identical set of blocks. The same thing can be true about credentials. Individual credentials are building blocks that we can combine with our distinct and sometimes unique vision for how to represent ourselves to the world.

Not everyone is thinking about badges in this way, and that is okay. Some are thinking about badges as a way to standardize competence, or perhaps as a means of connecting people and employers on the basis of more granular skills, competencies, and accomplishments. This is incredibly promising. We can take advantage of such granular connections to help people be seen and to make meaningful connections with other people and organizations. At the same time, an individual credential is often just a building block. In general, badges have not matured to the point where people are learning how to construct their personal structures with badges.

Now let’s go to the second metaphor, namely badges as sentences, paragraphs or sometimes even chapters in the story or stories that you want to tell. If you are trying to build connections, forge new partnerships, and seek new opportunities, what story will you tell about yourself to do so? I hope that it is an honest and candid story, as the other kind might offer short-term benefits, but they are almost always unpleasant in the long-term. Apart from that, most of us have many stories to tell about ourselves, and badges can become sentences that help us craft and tell those stories, just as we use older credentials to tell our stories. Each credential (be it a traditional diploma, a certificate, a badge, or something else) brings with it meaning. As with any story, different people will extract meaning in a different way, but good storytellers learn how to make use of words, sentences, and paragraphs to help a target audience experience or learn something new.

Notice how my point with both metaphors is about empowering people, and not just turning them into a collection of discrete data points. As I already noted, data points are powerful and useful as well, but I do not want to lose site of this other important aspect. Badges can become something that allows us to tell our stories, but to do it in a way where people might resonate. At the very same time as we are blending badges and other artifacts to tell stories, we can combine it with increasingly robust data analysis tools that connect us with others on the basis of part or all of a story.

The alternative is that others claim the right to own and tell our stories to the world. This is something that struck me in that recent interview with Sheryl Grant, something that adds an even greater sense of urgency to spark this important conversation. Right now, much of our monetary value in online spaces comes from companies selling pieces of our experience and interest to others. While I expect that to continue and expand, I do not want to see that become the primary value of badges. I also want to see them as new and wonderful ways for each of us to have ownership and agency when it comes to building connections, representing ourselves, and cultivating positive reputations.

Why I Stopped Writing About Open Badges

Someone asked me recently why I stopped writing about digital badges. I decided to write this article as a public response to the question, just in case others were wondering the same thing. In fact, responding in writing allows me to do something that I probably would not do if we were chatting about this over a cup of coffee. I will give seven different answers. Each one is true, but you will see some tension between the answers. That is only proper given the persistent tension that goes on in my mind as I continue to reflect on badges and the related themes. So, why did I stop writing about digital badges? Here are my seven replies, depending upon the day and context of the conversation.

Answer #1

I did not stop writing about badges. It is just that I was writing two to three articles a month about badges from 2013 through the first months of 2016. Then things slowed down. However, if you look at my articles over the last six months, you will still find that word “badge” show up.

Answer #2

When the work around digital badges was as an earlier stage, there was not much written about them. As such, as I learned and reflected on the affordances and limitations of badges, I posted those as rough draft thoughts for others to read and consider as well. From 2013 to the end of 2016, I wrote over a hundred articles exploring the benefits, limitations, and possibilities of digital badges. Only, along the way, I found myself most interested in some of the related themes. People who frequent my blog might not see the word “badge” as often, but some of the associated concepts certainly persist in my work. I continue to think a great deal about:

  • the benefits and downsides of different ways to go about documenting evidence of learning,
  • the possibility of turning evidence of learning into a key data point for building meaningful connections between people and resources,
  • the democratization of education (including associated credentials),
  • the distinction between learning gateways and learning pathways and the role of credentials,
  • badges as one of many ways to create a credential associated with evidence of learning,
  • the way in which many of us in formal education create narrow definitions for terms, so much so that this often leads us to miss important and broader relationships (as I see happening around research on portfolios right now),
  • the ways in which people build connections and create opportunities through informal and “undocumented learning”,
  • the way in which alternative credentials are persistently inhibited by underlying efforts to maintain the status quo (…and likely to maintain job security. I do not think that much of this is conscious.),
  • the future of work,
  • the “risk” or “dangers” that come with the spread of centralized credentialing and documenting learning,
  • the continued growth of grassroots and democratic learning communities, and
  • the extent to which many of us (including myself) crave and willingly submit to traditional pathways for learning and obtaining credentials respected by employers and others in society.

These are incredibly rough draft thoughts in many cases, and there are some controversial elements to all of them. In fact, there are some strong judgements in there that call for serious reflection and vetting before sharing even my earlist musings. I have an outline for a potential future book on some of these themes (but I am not committed to it yet), and I was recently in conversation with a couple of academic publishers about turning this into a formal research/writing project, but I am still counting the cost. To do this well, I would need to find a way to devote 4-6 hours a day on it for at least six months. I’ve prioritized other projects for the remaining two and a half months of my sabbatical, and I will likely not be pursue this unless I have a publishing partner secured in advance. Plus, once I step into my full-time administrative responsibilities again, I do not know if I will have the energy to do this well.

Answer #3

My work has always been most appreciated in the stage of helping people imagine the benefits, limitations, and possibilities, and then converting those into some practical scenarios. In some ways, now is the time for more technical conversations and applied projects. That work fascinates me but I am not in a position to do much with that right now.

More specifically, for badges to go to the next level, there needs to be some major developments on the badge display and sharing side of things. Major corporate leaders in the social media and networking arena are the ones who have almost all the power right now. They each have corporate priorities that do not necessarily bode well for the open part of badges or badges in general.

At the same time, the mixing of badges, big data, and artificial intelligence is not happening in any significant way yet. Plenty of people are thinking and talking about this, and they are likely in a better position to lead that conversation right now. Perhaps that will change in the future.

Answer #4

Early on, I found opportunity to use digital badges as part of a new type of competency-based graduate degree, and that program continues. So, I could justify my time and research because it related to specific projects and possibilities. However, the badges have honestly not ended up being the most significant part of the project. It was the building of a massive collection of authentic projects by each student that turned out to be most most valuable part of the experiment. The badges still have many promising applications, but now that we have our model in place, it is going well, and badges are a useful (but not critical) part of the project, I do not have an immediate usage scenarios in my workplace to try out new ideas with badges.

Answer #5

While there have been some great events where people gathered to extend the work and thought around badges, I am rarely a part of those conversations at this stage either because I am unable to attend due to scheduling conflicts or because I am not invited. As much as I saw and continue to see the democratizing promise of badges, this is increasingly a matter for a smaller and select group of people, and the others whom they choose to involve. There are wonderful exceptions to this, especially some significant pockets on the K-12 level.

Answer #6

I think about badges every day, or at least the broader themes related to alternative credentials, documenting learning and accomplishments across a broad away of learning pathways, and subtle signs that formal learning organisations may be losing the battle to maintain their monopoly on opportunity generated through academic credentials. Yet, I am more conflicted than ever, and the issue is far more complicated to me. It requires much more careful, deliberate, in-depth thinking at this stage. So, this is not a time to produce a couple of articles a week or even a month.

Answer #7

Some of my other recent writing projects and the theme of my sabbatical called for me to set credentials aside for a time, at least as a major theme in my scholarship. I am in the process of re-evaluating and establishing my writing and scholarship priorities for the next couple of years. I already have a couple of commitments, and I expect one strand to be focused upon the future of learning and recognition, especially as it relates to impending changes in society and the workforce due to artificial intelligence, big data, informal and grassroots learning communities, robotics, cyborg studies, and other developments. As such, badges represent a piece of my work, but they are not the main topic.

I suppose there are some commonalities among my seven answers, but you can also see that I am still working this out in my mind. Regardless, I can at least say that I have no intention of abandoning my thought and work around badges. Using the analogy of a photograph, open badges are not the focal point in the picture, but they still make up an important and notable feature in the overall image.

Why I Signed the Bologna Open Recognition Declaration

Just returning from the EPIC Conference in Bologna Italy, we finished this year with a revealing of the Open Recognition Declaration, a document that I proudly signed and endorse. In Bologna, Italy, where the Bologna Declaration was released in 1999, a new group of scholars and practitioners gathered to explore the role of recognition in a connected age. We discussed open badges, e-portfolios, blockchain, identity, trust, the future of education, and much more. We examined these topics across contexts, from higher education to supporting refugees to turning entire cities into ecosystems of learning and the recognition of that learning. Yet, the culminating moment of our three days together occurred on that final morning with the unveiling of a document that outlines the critical role of recognition in a contemporary world. As noted in the declaration, this is, “a call for a universal open architecture for the recognition of lifelong and lifewide learning achievements.”

This is about the recognition of learning across organizations and contexts. Open badges are a current expression of this effort, something that I’ve written dozens of articles about over the years, but we’ve only started to see the promise of such efforts. I write about this so much because it is increasingly apparent to me that our dominant approaches to the recognition of learning are not adequate for life in a connected world, and because our current systems limit and restrict too much and too many. In reality, these current approaches were probably not adequate for past ages either.

Yet, we are at a crossroads. We must decide whether we are willing to re-imagine a learning ecosystem that is founded upon principles of openness and transparency, one that respects the fact that there is usually more than one valid way to learning something. We must recognize that this may or may not happen within the confines of a traditional school.

We have a learning ecosystem today that is arguably more about establishing gateways for people than providing and honoring multiple pathways to learning. While I appreciate the appropriate use of gateways for some credentials, I contend that this has become such a focus that we have unintentionally dis-empowered too many people. As I wrote in my article about the Lincoln Test, there are more ways to mastery, learning, and competence than what is often presented to us in a given schooling context. When the provided pathways is not adequate, we’ve too often remained unmoved and inflexible, even if it is not best for that learner.

If we are going to value the inherent ability of each person to learn, grow, and contribute to society; we are wise to create a learning ecosystem and recognition system that reflects as much. Among other things, it means schools willfully giving up their claim to a monopoly of recognition for learning. This is not to diminish the value of schools, it is just a declaration that it is no longer morally defensible for schools to claim some sort of inherent right to decide what learning should or should not be recognized. There will still be gateways in some contexts, but it need not be the case for most. We much celebrate schools, but do so in a way that does not diminish other pathways to learning and ways of recognizing learning beyond what is currently in place within schools.

A great start is to move toward a more open form of recognition for learning and growth. This can be used in and out of schooling contexts. It can extend across the lifespan and the many contexts of life and learning. Many argue that education is a critical human right of our age. As such, they argue for tuition-free or debt-free educational options. They argue for sending as many people as possible through schools. Yet, we often fail to recognize that schools themselves can be barriers to education. Our vision is one of education and opportunity, and schooling is only one piece of that. Now is the time for us to expand our collective commitment to education and the recognition of learning, not just schooling; and we see that at work in the open recognition movement.

In fact, the Open Recognition Declaration points out that this is even more significant when we recognize that learning is not just within the confines of school, even for those who choose that pathway. Learning is lifelong, lifewide…across the many contexts in our lives. Recognition for that broader learning is often absent. Yet, the open badge and open recognition movement is about creating a means by which the breadth of one’s learning and growth can be recognized, displayed, celebrated and shared. In doing so, we empower people to have greater agency, to better represent their identity in the connected age, to build meaningful connections with people and organizations (even employers) on the basis of this recognition.

I contend that we are wise to invest even greater energy in a recognition system for learning that empowers individuals, increases access and opportunity for the recognition of learning regardless of one’s means, and one that does not depend upon formal credentialing  organizations to manage this effort.

This is about creating a more open currency for the recognition of learning and it is why I signed and support the Bologna Open Recognition Declaration. I encourage you to read it and consider whether you can join me in supporting this good and important work.