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.

Eight Challenges for the Future of Education, Credentials and Recognition

The 2016 EPIC conference just ended last week, and I walked away with:

  • forty pages of notes,
  • new friends and colleagues,
  • and swirling thoughts about the role and possibility of open recognition systems.

I might even have a new book project coming out of this experience, but I’ll share more about that later.

It was an honor to be one of the early keynotes for the event. I was given the topic of “the future of education,” so I worked from that to come up with the title, “Exploring Futures of Credentials & Education: A Case for Missional Innovation.” Drawing from some of my work on innovation in education, I juxtaposed a series of sometimes competing concepts for our consideration.

When I write and talk about the future, I don’t do it as the sort of futurist who claims to be able to predict what will happen with certainty. Instead, I look at past trends, highlight potential futures, and give those of us in the present opportunity to consider how each of us will contribute to creating one of those futures.

What is clear to me is what Blaschke and Hase wrote in 2016, that “We are in an age of knowledge and skill emancipation” (p. 25). The Internet and way in which it helped us imagine the possibly for life and learning in a connected age, frees and extends knowledge, learning, skill acquisition and much more. This doesn’t make existing learning organizations obsolete, but it does challenge their claim to have a “corner on the education market.”

Instead, and as I’ve written about before, we are at a time in which there are multiple roads that one might travel on a learning journey. There is still the stable degree drive, completing a series of courses and requirements at a formal school, leaving with a valued credential, and hopefully some learning as well. Yet, there is also continuing education court, a road that is widening as more organizations and groups are creating free, inexpensive, open or alternative ways of learning (as evidenced by the popular example of the emerging coding bootcamps, MOOCs, open education resources, and more). Along with that, thanks to the digital world, we have self-directed street. The person with competence and confidence to learn independently has ample resources to do so. Now we are also seeing greater interest in and effort to connect these three roads, allowing one’s learning journey to shift from one road to the next. Yet, we’ve not historically had ways to recognize the learning that happens across these three streets. Our recognition and credentials remain stuck to one of the streets in most case. All of this begins to change as we embrace the power and possibility of open badges and, more broadly, strategies for open recognition.

And so, in such a context, we have some decisions to make. There are tensions that we are wise to consider, eight of which I shared in my keynote, and I will briefly revisit here. I don’t contend that one must win or defeat the other. Sometimes, even often, the tension is good. Paradox and tension is something to be understood, not always something to be eradicated. Of course, as you will see in my forthcoming comments, I do see wisdom in giving greater emphasis to one over the other in a given time and context.

Pathways Versus Gateways

Gateways are about checks, balances, control, accountability, and quality. They are part of what formal learning organizations promise to the public. If a University issues a medical degree to a person who is completely unqualified to practice medicine, then that credential and the issuing entity will eventually lose the trust of the public. It will cease to benefit anyone. This is the perspective that defends the importance of gateways in the modern education ecosystem. At the same time, gateways are not always just about this public trust. Sometimes policies, rules, and systems become gateways that limit or restrict people who are indeed qualified. We create rules that restrict and inhibit. We even take pride in this, noting that we are weeding out the unqualified. Yet, there is no question that there are usually multiple pathways to learning something or achieving mastery in a given domain. The question is whether we are willing to help create a modern learning ecosystem where we can recognize learning from multiple pathways, maintaining a commitment to a public trust without unnecessarily restricting the aspiring learner.

Protecting Corporate, Educational and Government Control Versus Protecting Public Interest and Individual Rights

Ideally, corporations, educational institutions and government agencies are protecting the public interest and individual rights. Yet, we would be naive to assume that this is always the case. In fact, the nature of organizational operations is that they sometimes go against such ends unintentionally. Or, there are personal and organizational interests that compete with other interests for people outside of those organizations. It is no surprise that these formal organizations and the people within them will often have self-preservation as one among other priorities.

Yet, some of the potential challenges and opportunities of this age, especially when it comes to open learning and open recognition, will clash with the interest of these organizations and institutions. If corporate interest dominates, there is a good chance that the next generation of open badges will be about securing financial benefits for these corporate stakeholders. If educational institution’s interest dominate, then there is a good chance that these institutions will be set up and defended as the sole or preferred means by which learning is properly recognized, even though there are countless individuals whose access and opportunity may be diminished by such an effort. If government control dominates, there are likely to be policies that restrict promising innovations in open learning and open recognition, not intentionally, but simply because these entities have narrower priorities and measures by which they are making their decisions. As an example, consider the incredible restrictions to innovation in the modern United States higher education system because of policies intended to protect the government’s massive investment in the financial aid program.

A balance, in my view, is not acceptable. This tension should lean toward public interest and individual rights while acknowledging the needs and interest of these organizations. Yet, this calls for a visionary and missional approach to the matter. We must collectively remain committed to the larger view and greater purpose, namely increased access and opportunity.

Competency as Static Versus Competency as Dynamic

When it comes to both credentials and recognition, this is an interesting contrast. When you graduate with a degree, and many perceive that degree as evidence of your competence in a given area, you maintain that degree for life, even if your competence diminishes or disappears altogether. You can put it on a resume. You can use it to open doors of opportunity. Yet, not all credentials or forms of recognition work that way. Some credentials expire or require ongoing verification that you do indeed have the knowledge and skills that you once had.

We are working from a flawed view of learning if we think that competency is something that you earn and own for life as if it were a tangible object. Competency grows and shrinks. It strengthens and weakens. This is an important tension for us to remember as we think about the role of recognition and credentials today.

Summative Credentialing Versus Formative Credentialing

We don’t typically use the terms “formative” and “summative” in reference to credentialing, but I contend that they allow us to look at recognition and credentials in important ways. As I so often say, formative is the check up at the doctor, and summative is the autopsy. The former is about checks and progress while the latter is about a final judgement or assessment. Yet, who is to say that credentials and recognition must always be summative? As with the static versus dynamic contrast, we can also begin to think about what it would look like to create and use forms of recognition and credentials that represent where you are at the moment, but adapting and changing as you grow and develop. Innovations around learning analytics and big data have potential to help us bring such musings into reality.

Credentialism Versus Matchmaking

Credentialsim is credentials at their worst. It is when credentials are used to restrict access and opportunity, intentionally or unintentionally. A credential is required for access to some opportunity in society when, in actuality, it may not be necessary. We are wise to remain vigilant in avoiding this persistent risk with our use of credentials. Yet, and again drawing from the developments around learning analytics and big data, we may be entering a future where credentialism can be reduced as more of a matchmaking understanding can gain traction.

Imagine an online reputation system that includes a collection of credentials and various forms of recognition (including endorsement and artifacts that provide evidence of your accomplishments and expertise). Now imagine systems that can mine that data, mine the data of other people and organizations, and help you connect with those people and organizations that might be a good fit. Such an innovation could transform the way that we think about talent searches and connecting with people and groups. It certainly has its risks and limitations too, but I offer this as a possible future, one that could also increase access and opportunity while diminishing credentialism.

Portfolio as a Collection of Credentials & Artifacts Versus Portfolio as a Dynamic Personal Narrative

When I learn about how learning organizations today are using portfolios, they are quite often attached to standards in a program. Or, they might be used as a place for personal reflection about one’s learning. Yet, there is that other outward facing side of portfolios, using them to show your work to the world and hopefully connecting with people and organizations. Imagine a portfolio system where your lifelong and lifewide learning story is being told and updated persistently. Tied to the matchmaking idea that I just explained, this would establish rich data by which we can do some impressive matchmaking, both technologically and serendipitously.

Standardize or Personalize

I used the well-known cartoon to point out this tension. There is a lineup of animals. There is a bird, monkey, penguin, elephant, goldfish, seal, and a dog. Then there is a man sitting behind a desk saying, “For a fair selection everybody has to take the same exam: please climb that tree.” The question is whether the future of learning and recognition will reflect or challenge that cartoon. Standardization plays an important role in society and certain contexts, but it is not without its limitations. Personalization is the same. Yet, this is where the vision and mission comes into play. What drives the extent to which we go toward one or the other has to do with how we answer the question about what is best for the public interest and individual rights? Our answers will differ, but any promising future of education, credentials, and recognition will remember these tensions.

Learner as Pupil/Patient/Customer Versus Learning as Co-creator

As I explain in my book, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, Kathryn Church is an inspiration to me. She was a mental health professional who found herself a patient in a mental health facility. She had the truly unique perspective of looking at the experience through both of these lenses and published an incredible piece of scholarship about it called Forbidden Narratives: Critical Autobiography as Social Science. Her work challenged the clean separation of researcher and subject as she was both.

In a similar way, we are in an era that has growing interest in student voice and student agency as a way of nurturing voice and agency throughout life. We see significant attention to movements like user-centered design and empathetic design, approaches that are rooted in a deep understanding of the users. Alongside both of these, we know that collaboration is an increasingly critical skill in the 21st century landscape. These are finding their way into education as well, challenging us to consider how we might adjust from education as something done to students to education as something that is done with students. This extends from the learning to the credentials, recognition and representation of that learning.

As I mentioned in my keynote, technology and innovation always brings with it affordances and limitations, benefits and downsides. All of these potential futures of education and recognition are the same. There will always be winners and losers, different ones depending upon the context and technology. Yet, if we are committed to creating a learning and recognition ecosystem that increases access and opportunity, I contend that these are the types of considerations that warrant our time and attention.

The Future of Education Credentials: 5 Potential Influencers

What is the future of education credentials? Is the diploma worth the cost of college tuition? Why are certificates programs increasing in enrollment? Are nano-degrees the new associate’s degree or new pathway to career transitions? What, if any, role does the digital badge play as a form of recognizing learning? Are we experiencing “credential creep” and how might it be increasing or decreasing access and opportunity for people? Is the bachelor’s degree the new high school diploma? These are some of the many questions that people are posing, exploring and debating as we talk about modern education and credentials.

Education will always be about more than credentials, but many developments, innovations and experiments have the credential as an important aspect. Education is important independent of credentials, but credentials play a role in symbolizing, recognizing, and displaying educational experiences and achievements, new knowledge and skills acquired, and milestones.

What are the entities and developments that will influence the future of educational credentials? There are certainly dozens of key influences, but following are five that seem to be emerging as especially strong levers for credentialing innovation. Each of the five represent current conversations, existing innovations, or emerging ones. I offer them as ideas for more conversation and consideration.

Credential Review, Translation and Representation Services

With a growing collection of diplomas, certificates, badges, nano-degrees, and micro-credentials; how will people in the world understand their diverse and complex meanings? For better or worse, this question creates opportunities for new and emerging business ventures along with external regulatory agencies. We have many existing models from which we can explore this development.

If we look at continuing education processes in various health professions, we can find a myriad of examples. In some health professions there is a central professional organization that must review and approve any continuing education that counts toward maintaining one’s ability to continue to practice in a given health profession. Some provide the credentialing. Others just approve the training and the credential (if there is one) is issued by the provider of the training.  Still others provide a translation or transcription service that allows you to gather training from multiple sources, put it all together on a single transcript, and then submit it to another agency to verify that you meet the criteria for maintaining licensure.

These examples give us a glimpse into what we may expand beyond continuing education in the health professions. How else will employers keep track or make sense of the variety of credentials? They just want to know if the person is qualified and can do the job well. This may, in time, create a new set of startups as well as a new set of roles for units in Universities, professional organizations and other existing education organizations.

Credential Standards Organizations

As I’ve talked to different people working on open badges, non-credit boot camps and the growing space of education providers not directly tied to regionally accredited Universities, there is continued conversation about one or more entities developing or existing entities volunteering to take on the responsibility to help create standards for credentials and/or determine their validity, authenticity, or quality. Some suspect that this will be existing accrediting agencies. Other private sector partners also seem interested in helping with this. Still others argue that it could reside with existing education institutions.

The Rise of Portfolios and the Marriage with Analytics

A common critique of both micro-credentials and portfolios is that they offer too much information. What employer would sift through all that information to find the right candidate for a job? Yet, a portfolio is a way to provide a rich description of who you are, your experiences, your knowledge and skills, and more. Instead of just thinking about traditional portfolios used in learning organizations, consider the idea of LinkedIn as a sort of portfolio, a place where you can share and display as many artifacts and links as you like to represent to describe yourself. Add to that the growing means by which people can mine the rich data in such “portfolios” and you have ways for employers and others to quickly identify people on the basis of a small or large set of criteria. This development leaves room for badges, traditional credentials, narrative descriptions, testimonials, peer ratings and more. It is as easy to review as a résumé and as LinkedIn grows or other similar services emerge, we will see a shift in how people go about connecting (including employers and future employees). Other organizations like Degreed.com are contributing to this development as well.

The Rise of the Non-Higher Education Credentialing Organization

This almost seems like old news by now. There are more providers of training and educational opportunities than ever before, and new ones are starting up every week. Some offer credentials. Others just focus on knowledge transfer, coaching, or offering other forms of learning experiences. Yet, there is a trend toward them offering ways to recognize the learning and accomplishment, which means more and different types of credentials. Combine this with the previous developments and we begin to see how this future learning ecosystem may well develop.

The Marriage of Institutions of Higher Education & Education Companies

Where does all of this leave higher education institutions? We already see higher education institutions partnering with these other new education providers. The IHEs have the history and reputation, and these companies have the in-demand education and people to provide quality programming…at least in many applied and professional areas. As such, we see Universities offering credit and progress toward credentials based on the learning done through the offerings of a non higher education organization. These organizations are often willing to pursue a revenue share because it adds credibility to their training, provides a new pool of learners, or allows them to offer credentials that they could not do otherwise. The IHEs get revenue, benefit from the expertise of these agencies, and get to dabble in a new education space. Look for such partnership to grow rapidly in 2016 and 2017 as government regulations shift to empower this, even making financial aid available to learners through such partnership programming.

The more that I study the landscape, the more convinced I am that each of these these be five powerful influencers in the ongoing evolution of credentials.





Badges, Self-Directed Learning, & Positive Psychology

What do digital badges and self-directed learning have in common? Add the concept of positive psychology, and it might be hard to imagine how these three intersect in a meaningful way. Yet, the intersection of the three is becoming a growing interest of mine, one that I suspect has promise to help us better prepare people for learning in a connected world. Badges, at least for some, are about meeting pre-established criteria for earning a micro-credential that the recipients control and display as they see fit. Self-directed learning is about people becoming increasingly independent in establishing goals, determining pathways to meeting those goals, self-motivating, tracking one’s own progress, and determining how to show or prove one’s learning to others when necessary. Positive psychology, among other things, is a field that produces research on well-being and success. Where is the cross-over and connection between these seemingly distinct concepts?

It is important to recognize that badges are a technology (applied systematic knowledge), self-directed learning is a concept or construct, and positive psychology is a branch or sub-field in psychology. Yet, they are all values-laden. Badges, by design, amplify the value of making evidence of learning visible and giving greater control of this credential to the recipient (although some badge platforms are seeking to adjust this). Self-directed learning amplifies the value of human agency. Positive psychology amplifies values like well-being and success. Put these values together and we begin to see possible synergies.

Some advocates of self-directed learning are cautious about the use of badges, but not all are cautious for the same reason. Some see badges as elements of the larger concept of gamification. As such, they look at them as extrinsic incentives, something that potentially detracts from a vision of self-directed learning that includes learners who take responsibility for motivation and volition of one’s own learning. Others are concerned because badges focus upon displaying evidence of learning, where many self-directed learning advocates seek to amplify process over demonstrable product. The moment you start to focus upon assessment, testing, and credentialing; you risk having the tail wag the educational dog. The end is no longer learning but evidence of learning. That is like confusing a piece of priceless art with a certificate of authenticity or other forms of validating a piece of art.

Proponents of mixing badges with self-directed learning might embrace that last analogy. A certificate of authenticity does nothing to take away from the art. Rather, it seeks to protect and validate its value to a broader audience. It bridges the world of artist with the realities of the art world and beyond. A certificate of authenticity has value because someone appreciates art that is authentic over that which is forged.

What about the role of positive psychology? In a recent post, I argued that more of us in education might want to attend to initiatives like the KIPP school’s focus on character strengths, recognizing that there is more to a student’s formation than academic achievements, especially given the growing research around the importance of traits like grit, self-control, optimism and curiosity when it comes to preparing people for success in work, family, and society.

Right now, many in education recognize the importance of character strengths, but most learning organizations have yet to re-imagine education in a way that intentionally nurtures student development in these areas. Similarly, it is rarely argued that self-directed learning is undesirable. It is just that there is little room for nurturing self-directed learning in many existing school models; on the primary, secondary and tertiary levels. Character strengths are often commended, but they are less often nurtured. Educators are trained in teaching content more than mentoring students in character development and the capacity for self-directed learning. Even amid the recognition that these are important conversations, the national (and international) conversation in education remains largely focused upon academic standards.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are a growing number of learning organizations grappling with new ways of thinking about teaching and learning. What are the essentials of getting the most from the affordances of life in a connected world? Without attention to character strengths and self-directed learning, we risk perpetuating a new form of digital divide, one that is not determined by access but by the core skills and mindsets necessary to capitalize upon life and learning in a connected world. Yet, we also want to find ways to recognize student development and progress. It is amid this conversation that I’m beginning to see connections between the open badge movement, the longstanding but expanding conversation around self-directed learning, and the growing body of literature coming from positive psychology. Could it be that these three distinct conversations can blend to give us new and promising visions for education in a connected world?