Why the #OpenBadges infrastructure is not, and should not be “learner-centred”

To those who still believe that Open Badges are learner/earner centred, just have a look at one of the slides of a presentation Nate Otto and I gave at OpenEd 2014. I’ll repeat it ad nauseam until we have fixed this issue, but the current Open Badge Infrastructure (OBI) is 100% centred on the issuer. As the vast majority of issuers are organisations the truth is that Open Badges are organisation-centred. Anybody pretending that Open Badges are learner-centred tells a fallacy, unless their idea of centredness  is that of a firing squad — the only difference being that the person at that centre doesn’t have the option to put the bullet in their backpack!

Is this Learner-Centred????? (I= issuer, E= Earner)

Is the the current issuer-centredness a defect that could be corrected by making the Open Badge Infrastructure more earner-centred? Is it the centre we should aim for? Or should we aim for multiple centres or no centre at all?

While there is no technical reason for keeping apart the functions associated to issuing and earning badges (even in the mercantile world of eBay, everybody is a buyer and a seller) it would be very interesting to look back and understand why, in the world of education, it was decided that there shall be issuers, there shall be earners, there shall be consumers, but they shall not mix. Maybe the answer is in the question: the world of education is an asymmetrical world, where power is unevenly distributed, it should not therefore come as a surprise that technologies embody those existing power structures.

To address the issue of centredness, we need to move away from the idea that an Open Badge should be centred on any particular role. It should not be centred on any role! As an educator who believes that learning is social, what I am interested in is a system that is “learning centric” so such a system can take into account the many different dimensions of learning: individual, community, organisational (learning organisations) and territorial (learning cities, learning regions). There are many different ‘centres’ and they are all legitimate. The solution is not to decide where is the best centre, often to comply with an ideological discourse, but to sublate the contradictions, the tensions into something of a higher order.

As Open Badges are about trust, what I want is a system that is trust centric. In the previous post, I made reference to SDSI, the specification for A Simple Distributed Security Infrastructure. Here is an extract:

“Principals are public keys. Our system is “key-centric”: SDSI principals are public digital signature verification keys. These public keys are central; everything is based around them. The notion of an “individual” (e.g. person, corporation, process, or machine) is not required. Of course, such individuals will actually control the associated private keys, so that the public/private keys can be viewed as “proxies” for those individuals.” (source)

Just replace ‘public keys’ with Open Badges and you have in essence what we should be aiming for with the Open Badge Infrastructure. I want to be able to issue a trust statement to a person, to a badge assertion, to a badge class, to a badge issuer, to an organisation, to a corporation, as well as to a process or a machine!

Making the OBI infrastructure badge centric is a great solution to the current discussion regarding the identification of the earner (I am not convinced that we spend as much energy discussing the identification of issuers…): we all agree that an email address is problematic (who hasn’t received a badge at a wrong email address and therefore couldn’t push it to the backpack?); should we allow a Twitter handle, a Facebook ID, an IP address, a UUID (universally unique IDentifier), all of them?

Once we agree that the OBI should be badge-centric, the answer is obvious: a badge! Let’s use badges as the identifiers required to issue/earn a badge: a badge from the issuer and a badge from the earner —that could be self-issued and/or issued by a third party, depending on the requirements. One could have multiple of such ‘aggregator’ badges, reflecting the different facets of their identities.

By making possible a badge-centric OBI, the new endorsement extension allows us to:

  • endorse a person/organisation by endorsing the badge representing that person/organisation
  • endorse a specific competence of a person/organisation by endorsing a specific badge instance/assertion
  • endorse a badge class, endorse the organisation that has designed the badge or the organisation issuing badges of that class

With the new endorsement extension, endorsement are badges, badges are endorsement. There is almost no limit to what we can now do with Open Badges to create networks of trust!

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