From ePortfolio to Open Badges – on the Individuation of Technical Objects


In 2004, during the second international ePortfolio conference (La Rochelle, France) a group of participants agreed to launch a campaign on the theme ePortfolio for all! Their objective was “by 2010, every citizen will have an ePortfolio!” 10 years later, despite a growing number of ePortfolio initiatives worldwide, we are still very far from achieving this goal.

This text is an attempt at exploring why the global adoption of Open Badges is likely to succeed and how it might feedback into ePortfolio technologies and practices. For that purpose, in the perspective of the genesis of technological objects, I draw a parallel with the evolution of computer technology from the early generation of computers to the advent of integrated circuits and computer chips (CPU, central processing units). The emergence of Open Badges will be analysed as a result of the evolution of ePortfolios, their concrétisation (reification). ePortfolios are more abstract, Open badges more concrete as the result of an individuation process.

While the genesis of technological objects and the process of individuation has been described with talent by philosophers like Gilbert Simondon and Bernard Stiegler, this post simply aims at inviting the members of the ePortfolio community to reflect on their practices and the possible futures for ePortfolio technologies.

On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects

In Du mode d’existence des objets techniques (On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, 1958) Gilbert Simondon describes the concrétisation of technical objects as the ability of objects to become more autonomous, self-regulated, in relation to the associated milieu in which they operate. This process has a corollary, abstraction, which is when an object becomes more dependent on its associated milieu, as is the case with a number of genetically modified organisms — e.g. induced sterility in order to control the crop market, regulations, etc.

From a functional point of view, mainframe computers and integrated circuits are identical. They are both designed to carry out calculations. The very first computers were highly dependent on humans, to switch cables, feed-in decks of punched-cards, move bands and hard disks. They were also dependent on the site, the building, the air cooling system, etc. They were like the blueprints of today’s ubiquitous integrated circuits that have created the conditions for the emergence of the Internet, the Web and now the Internet of Objects — and tomorrow’s Internet of Subjects! Integrated circuits have created their own associated milieu.

From a functional point of view, ePortfolios and Open Badges are very similar: they are both designed to make learning visible, either to support actual learning or recognise learning. The later is a concrétisation (reification) of the former. An Open Badge is to the ePortfolio, what the micro-computer is to the computer — a kind of micro-portfolio that can be used, but not only, for micro-credentials. As what happened with micro-computers, they are in the process of creating their own associated milieu, and it is called the Open Badge Infrastructure (OBI).

Open Badges, the embodiment of ePortfolios?

An Open Badge describes a criteria- and evidence-based trust relationship between a badge issuer and a badge recipient. Criteria, evidence, issuer and recipient are represented as a set of metadata ‘baked’ into a picture, the actual visual representation of an Open Badge. Like ePortfolios, Open Badges can contribute to reflective learning — reflective learning also happens without the need for ePortfolios or Open Badges: they are one of the possible outcomes, not a necessary condition.

Like ePortfolios, Open Badges are evidence-based — while ePortfolios might have a large evidence repository, Open Badges have a single metadata pointing to evidence. While ePortfolios might have a large reflective journal, Open Badges have a single metadata pointing to criteria, which could just as well contain reflective elements.

Open Badges are more concrete than ePortfolios and conversely, ePortfolios more abstract than Open Badges (in the sense of G. Simondon). Both contribute to making learning visible to oneself and others, to reflect on and demonstrate learning. Both can be used while learning, to get an accreditation for prior learning or find a job. Yet, one is more concrete than the other, i.e more autonomous in its associated milieu.

What makes the ePortfolio, as a technological being, more abstract is the existence of both ePortfolios as products and the tools being used to support the process leading to their creation — notwithstanding the confusion in the discourses between ePortfolios and ePortfolio platforms. As a product, an ePortfolio can be generated from many different systems, including those that have not been christened ePortfolio platforms. ePortfolios, like the very first computers are idiosyncratic in their design, they require a lot of manpower for their maintenance and need a human interface to interact with their associated milieu — just like a human being was needed to regulate the speed of steam machines before the invention of the centrifugal governor by Matthew Boulton and James Watt.

What makes Open Badges, as technological beings, more concrete is their capacity to have a life of their own within their associated milieu, the Open Badge Infrastructure (OBI). Of course, like ePortfolios they require a human intervention at their creation (although a number of badges are generated by automata, e.g. after responding correctly to a multiple choice question, or visiting a place on the Web!), but once created, they can have a life of their own  — e.g. a decaying badge, inviting its holder to regularly resubmit new evidence to keep it alive, a Tamagoshi-like badge!

From Open Badges back ePortfolios

Looking at a single badge (a picture and a set of metadata) will probably provide a very different experience than when looking at today’s ePortfolio and their sometimes rich multimedia narratives. Looking at a page displaying 60+ badges will not make it either, ???? notwithstanding that no badge grammar (the meaning of shapes and colours) has been defined yet, making it thus even more difficult for the casual reader to understand what they see. On the other hand, as Open Badges are just a set of metadata, it should be possible to create Open Badge readers that would display the information contained in a page with 60+ badges in a meaningful way.

One way to do it would be to associate narratives to Open Badges. This could be achieved by either adding a new metadata connecting the badge to a narrative, or exploiting one of the existing metadata (evidence or criteria). This way, one could imagine that the narratives could be in any of the places under the control of the author (a combination of blogs, personal sites, emails, videos, etc.). What should be avoided at all costs is the fragmentation of the discourse, like having a field named ‘reflection’ that had to be filled-in when uploading a piece of evidence to an ePortfolio…

If the Open Badges collected were to be treated as the raw material for the creation of a sort of patchwork, then the narratives would be the threads fastening the pieces together to create meaning.

Conclusion (invitation)

The genesis of technological objects is a field of study worth exploring if we want to better understand the relationship between ePortfolios and Open Badges — and learning technologies in general. Written by someone who is not a philosopher by trade, this article has to be understood as an invitation to the ePortfolio and Open Badges community to establish a bridge with a school of thought that could inform, if not enlighten, our reflections and practices.

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