On Badges: Why Evidence Is More Important Than Credentials

As John Seely Brown pointed out in his keynote at DML 2012, the lifetime of skills is getting shorter all the time. Rather than just recognizing skills, digital badges create new opportunities to come up with creative ways to support learners in reflecting on their learning experiences and planning new ones. Skills will become obsolete, but learning experiences will continue to be valuable. Digital badges can provide an open resource for collecting and sharing authentic work samples that demonstrate to employers the experiences and qualities that make an applicant a great hire. An ePortfolio for an engineering job that includes a video of the applicant at 14 years old presenting their science fair project could say much more than 1,000 words.

In the current version of the Mozilla Open Badge Infrastructure (OBI), the badge issuer is given full responsibility for hosting and managing: (1) the description of the badge and criteria for earning the badge and (2) the evidence with information about how the specific user earned the badge. I am concerned that this approach is going to weaken the usefulness of badges for the following reasons:

  • Ownership. Depending on the technology the issuer chooses to display the requirements and evidence, learners will not be able to save their assessment information for themselves. Learners should have the ability to retrieve and use their awarded badges along with the supporting information.
  • Privacy. At present, the evidence for an awarded badge is referenced by a URL and by default not secured. The release of learner assessment information should be under the control of the learner.
  • Persistence. If badges are going to be useful for supporting lifelong learning, then badge information needs to be available for a lifetime. Websites, companies and funding come and go. It is essential that all the information for awarded badges be managed by the learner and not by the issuer.
  • Validity. Over time, badge definitions will be updated and requirements could change. The URL in an awarded badge may not point to the same information that it did when the badge was issued. Similarly the evidence link might not always point to correct information.
  • Expiration. Once an awarded badge expires, how long is an issuer expected to keep badge information available? That video of the 14 year old presenting their science fair project is useful, even if the awarded badge has expired.
  • Open Display. Depending on how the requirements and evidence are displayed by the issuer, it may not be retrievable by displayers. The criteria and evidence for an awarded badge are important for display tools such as ePortfolios. The badge ecosystem should allow the software for displaying learner’s badges to be creative and invent new ways of sharing badge information that haven’t even been previously imagined.
  • Obsolete Data Formats. Supported data formats for digital media such as images and videos change over time and most all data formats will eventually become obsolete. The learner should be able to convert the requirements and evidence to well supported data formats.

Here are a some possible approaches to address these problems that I would like to offer to the discussion about the implementation of Open Badges:

  • In addition to issuers, learners and displayers, add a new role of “hosts”. Badge hosting services can play an important role in allowing Learners to choose where they want to host their badges. They shouldn’t be required to host with the issuer of the award. It also makes it less burdensome for issuers to award badges.
  • Define a standard export/import format for badges so that users can download and transfer their badges information between issuers and other badge hosting services. It seems like the technical issues are closely related to the issue of transferring blogs between blog hosting services.
  • Require or strongly suggest that badge requirements and evidence be tagged with Schema.org or LRMI metadata so that they can be accessed by displayers for creating ePortfolios and other reports.
  • Let the badge issuers be responsible for the authentication of the credentials awarded to a learner. The badge itself should just contain the URL where the credentials can be authenticated. With this approach, if for example it is discovered that the learner cheated or didn’t properly fulfill the requirements for the badge, then the issuer has the power to revoke the award.

The purpose of badges should be to support learners. As much as is reasonable, the technology infrastructure should assist in realizing that goal.