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Open Badges: Portable Credentials for Learning

by Bill Brandon

January 28, 2013

Feature

by Bill Brandon

January 28, 2013

“Are badges frivolous, superficial, or worthless? Will employers, job applicants, and providers use them or not? Time will tell, but what is certain is that the way is open to anyone who wants to learn almost anything and to do it at the time and location of their choosing. The means of certifying and documenting that learning are evolving now, and badges are becoming a viable alternative.”

Disintermediation rolls on. The next target is diplomas, certifications, and other “official” records of learning, education, and skills and knowledge achievement. Learning takes place everywhere, all the time, and not just in traditional venues (schools or training classes) at times set by traditional providers (educational institutions or employers). The challenge is to credential this continuous learning and to make the credentials available and portable.

Credentialing initiatives

In one development now underway, Mozilla and the MacArthur Foundation are working toward widespread recognition of a credentialing system that uses badges from providers, awarded directly to learners, and maintained and displayed by those learners, independent of employers, and publicly available. This is the Open Badges initiative, and it is not the only such effort.

So what are these Open Badges and similar credentials, how do they work, and are they just another gimmick or do they have some serious purpose?

What are badge-based credentials?

It is important to understand right away how Open Badges and similar credentials differ from digital badges. Digital badges are basically icons, such as those displayed on your tablet by an app (for example, to show how many unread messages are in your Mail file) or when a game starts up on your computer. A digital badge is an image file: What you see is what you get, and not much else.

An Open Badge (or similar badged credential) on the other hand, includes metadata with value beyond the image; for example, the metadata will usually include the identity of the badge issuer, the date of issue, and the criteria the badge holder met. In spite of the superficial resemblance, and the use of the word “badge,” Open Badges and credentials are not an example of gratuitous gamification.

How do these badges work?

Badge issuers (which could be any organization ranging from an after-school program to a traditional institution of higher learning) award certified badges to learners. Learners manage their own badges; in the case of the Mozilla Open Badges (see Figure 1), learners have a Badge Backpack. A badge holder can display any badge from the backpack in any online location, such as a website, social media, or a résumé or employment site. A prospective employer, client, or other interested party can view the metadata, which certifies the authenticity of the badge and which can provide additional details of the skills that the badge represents.

 

Figure 1: The Mozilla Open Badges infrastructure (from https://wiki.mozilla.org/Badges/About CC BY-SA 2.0; used with permission)

Other badge-providing credentials operate (or will operate) in a similar manner, with refinements appropriate to the various issuers using the credentials.

For example, the ProExam Digital Micro-Credentials that Professional Examination Service (PES) is launching this spring provides the assessment, verification, and security features that employers who will use the system require. (Learning Solutions Magazine will publish their press release later today.) Individuals who have earned badges will be able to manage them and display them. The badges will be portable as an individual moves from employer to employer, as long as that individual continues to meet the requirements of the badge. This is important when a badge comes from a professional standards organization, such as the Project Management Institute (PMI), the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), or the HR Certification Institute (HRCI).

What organizations are interested in these systems?

A number of organizations are advancing or are interested in using Open Badges and similar credential systems. As already mentioned, Mozilla and the MacArthur Foundation have the Open Badges effort underway, and some educational institutions are already using this methodology. Professional Examination Services is working in cooperation with employers in four key industries and with professional organizations to launch ProExam Digital Micro-Credentials in the next couple of months.

Various other groups are interested in providing credentials for a number of purposes. For example, there are projects underway to make badges available for military veterans in order to facilitate their transition to civilian life. By documenting the transferable skills and competencies these men and women gained while in the armed forces, it should be easier for hiring managers to make employment decisions. Universities, too, are realizing that a degree does not give an employer the level of detail about skills that a hiring manager needs to know. Badges can address these problems.

There is even interest at the level of public school systems. In Rhode Island, the Providence After School Alliance (PASA), working with the Mozilla Foundation, provides badges and academic credit for learning experiences outside the classroom.

Other examples of interest in badged credentials include:

  • Khan Academy, which provides badges for watching videos and for passing standardized tests
  • MIT, in cooperation with OpenStudy, which issues badges for participating in and contributing to discussion forums
  • Microsoft, which uses in-house programs to track mastery of computer systems

What’s in it for users

Learning providers who adopt badged credentials offer additional value to their clients, giving the learning providers a competitive advantage. In addition, since badges carry their brand and are publicly visible, these credentials provide an additional marketing opportunity.

Learners (which includes almost everyone) gain portability and therefore increase the visibility of their skills portfolio to potential employers, clients, and interested parties; skills portfolios are no longer hidden within corporate walls. Badging provides a skills-and-competency pathway and a record of certification. Badges are available quickly, without taking four years (or longer) to achieve, as degrees require.

For employers, badged credentials support better hiring through open certification of skills. Metadata makes the badges more reliable than résumés and more granular than degrees.

What are the challenges?

These systems are still under development; there are some significant requirements that they must meet and some questions that the systems must address in order to achieve acceptance.

  • Credibility—does a badge credential actual skills or does it merely document superficial or irrelevant activities? Did someone just “buy” the badge?
  • Reliability—does a badge accurately represent the skills that it claims to represent?
  • Verifiability—can an employer verify when a badge was earned, who granted it, and if the credential is still valid?
  • Security—is a badge "faked," or otherwise fraudulent?
  • Ownership—who owns the badge? The issuer? The learner? The employer who paid for the training or experience that the badge credentials?
  • Do badges cheapen learning or mastery? How does a system deal with the problem of “badge collectors” who never actually learn anything?

What’s the current status of badge initiatives?

These systems are still under development and they are not yet standardized. You can view the Open Badges roadmap at https://wiki.mozilla.org/Badges/roadmap to get a better idea of that initiative.

Summary

Are badges frivolous, superficial, or worthless? Will employers, job applicants, and providers use them or not? Time will tell, but what is certain is that the way is open to anyone who wants to learn almost anything and to do it at the time and location of their choosing. The means of certifying and documenting that learning are evolving now, and badges are becoming a viable alternative.


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Badges could be an indication of possible competence, just as a person's CV listing of skills and experience should be taken with scepticism. Any employer should look upon badges as a guide rather than definitive proof. Perhaps badges could be endorsed by the employer or colleagues just as LinkedIn does to say 'in real life, John Smith can actually do this and I have seen it'
@agross, nobody likes buying a pig in a poke. That's why the badge programs now underway all provide metadata that includes the identity of the badge issuer and the nature of the qualification. In the case of the PES program, for example, the qualifications and the badges will be based on an actual examination that certifies competency. This will lead to more trustworthy information than the LinkedIn endorsements, which are practically useless to potential employers.
A colleague is virtually attending the EDUCAUSE conference in Denver this week. She can earn badges for submitting three or more tweets. It that's how we're going to use badges, there is no hope.
@klwilcoxon, there is certainly the potential for abuse and for foolish misuse of badges. Badges for tweets would be an example, and it disturbs me that EDUCAUSE (of all groups!) may be undermining the idea by doing this. (To be fair, their badge titles only indicate participation, not skill competency, and the one for tweets just says they registered and submitted at least ten tweets, not three. It's still, in my opinion, undermining the potential value of badges by offering badges that are essentially of no value.) However, the hope is in the metadata and in standards development. I'm concerned that Mozilla's approach is too loose (they offer badges for some trivial stuff, and they offer badges for some meaniningful skills, but no control or standards), and my hope is more for the type of badging that PES is developing. The PES model probably won't work for every case, but at least they are concerned about standards. Wait and see. I wrote the article because it looks like an idea with potential. It seems to me to be too early to decide that it's hopeless.
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