Open Recognition and its Enemies (1) — The genesis of Open Badges

Why have I not published lately?

A number of important events have occurred since my last post, starting with the disfiguration of planet Earth when a big orange blob fell and spattered across its surface. The fascination for this phenomenon has been a major distraction from my daily routine. I probably spend at least one hour a day trying to follow and understand what’s going on — why do people look like rabbits caught in the headlights, especially when the headlights are so dim? I must confess that under those circumstances, I find it difficult to follow Spinoza’s motto, nec ridere nec lugere sed intelligenre (neither laugh nor cry but understand) as I laugh a lot at what most likely makes my American friends scream or cry. With my attention focused on that part of the world I feel like that person who, in a plane, concentrates his mind on the flight events in the hope that it will help the plane land safely. The problem is that we are probably on Germanwings Flight 9525!

The other reason for my lack of public posts is that I had to digest what I was learning about the real impact of Open Badges and how people understand what they could do with them. Thanks to the notoriety and appeal of Open Badges (many find them “sexy”) and as there are not so many French experts on the subject, I have had the opportunity to be invited to meet a wide range of actors, both in the field of formal and informal education (and non-formal, but in the rest of this post, I’ll conflate non-formal and informal under informal). And what I have realised with great concern is that Open Badges are far from innocuous. They can have a very negative impact on learning and its recognition.

If we do not pay attention, Open Badges could become the weapons of mass destruction of informal learning!

This should not come as a surprise to those who have read some of my previous posts or listened to the lecture Alfie Kohn gave at ePIC 2015. What I have discovered, is that the source of our problems goes far beyond practitioners promoting the use of badges as rewards or those with a less than superficial understanding of the principles of gamification who think that adding badges is a means to gamify learning (no, it’s not, dummies!).

The problem I have discovered through my exchanges with a range of learning practitioners is that, while initially designed to recognise informal learning, Open Badges have been used efficiently by the enemies of informal learning and Open Recognition. If we do not pay attention, Open Badges could become the weapons of mass destruction of informal learning!

Informal learning is fragile and has been under attack long before Open Badges were invented. But while some might have expected that Open Badges would contribute to the revitalisation of the informal learning sector, there are a number of instances where Open Badges are overtly used to submit informal learning to the codes and rules of formal learning and, in doing so, destroy the very soul of informal learning. Among those spearheading a frontal attack against informal learning are the promotors of the idea that Open Badges should be “quality assured.” No, they should not!

Does it mean that we should ditch Open Badges altogether? Certainly not! Especially since the great work done with the Open Badge 2.0 specification that has corrected some of the most salient and potent weaknesses exploited by the enemies of Open Recognition, providing them with the tools to hack informal education to their profit. The original version of Open Badges have left wounds and scars that cannot be ignored. It is time that the friends of Open Badges take a critical look at our shortcomings.

NB: The title of that post was inspired by the title of a book by the philosopher Karl Popper: The Open Society and Its Enemies — For Popper they are Plato, Hegel and Marx!

About Informal learning and recognition

In Recovering Informal Learning: Wisdom, Judgement and Community (Hager & Halliday 2009) one can read:

“On our view, recent government attempts to try to formalise informal learning suggests an almost obsessive distrust of the role of judgement through agency. It is as if the community can only be manufactured through public education provision which develops an overlapping consensus of commonly acquired values and principles. It is as if informal learning risks fragmenting such a consensus when people pursue there individual learning interests to acquire privately held values and principles.” [my highlights]

While this quote comes from the world of academia (Paul Hager is from the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia ,John Halliday is Professor of Education in the Department of Educational and Professional Studies,University of Strathclyde, Glasgow) it is in line with the content of a report published by the CEDEFOP [already mentioned in previous posts and presentations]:

“At the 2010 European Adult Education Association (EAEA) / Nordic network for adult learning conference […] many participants had reservations and anxieties towards qualifications frameworks and associated validation of non-formal and informal learning. It was suggested for example that there is a risk in this sector that accredited courses might give learners the impression that they belong to the formal system, which may deter those with previous negative experiences of education from taking part. Delegates stressed that ‘learning for learning’s sake’ remains important and that there should still be support and financing for non-formal learning, study circles and development of social competences even if the learners choose this type of learning for personal development and do not intend to validate the competences. The conference delegates emphasised that it should be up to the learner to choose what should be validated and not.  [my highlights]

— Hawley J., Souto Otero M.,  Duchemin C. 2010 update of the European Inventory on Validation of Non-formal and Informal Learning – Final Report, CEDEFOP.

What is expressed through these two quotes is the tension between the worlds of informal and formal learning along with a tropism of recognition skewed towards formal recognition. The sub-text is that there is no recognition, at least, no valuable recognition, if not performed by or within an authoritative institution —school, college, university, employer, public authority, etc.

Another way to view this tension is through the dichotomy individual in search of recognition (for herself) and individual contributing to recognition of others, the agent recognised and the recognisant agent.

What role do Open Badges play in that tension? Are they neutral or do they reinforce the power of the actors in one of the two camps? Who do they serve best: the recognised or the recognisant?

Eventually, the ultimate question should be: is informal learning possible without informal recognition?

Open Badges: friends or foes of informal learning?

While many authors tend to present Open Badges as the nec plus ultra modality for the recognition of informal learning, what they tend to omit in their discourses is one adjective, and not an innocuous one: “formal.” Open Badges were designed to support the formal recognition of informal learning. They were never designed to address the informal recognition of informal learning. There are many exhibits supporting that case, from infographics (where institutions are placed at the top, as the sources of all recognitions) to technical specifications and tools, in particular the Mozilla Backpack.

When examining the genesis of Open Badge technologies, it is clear that in the head of the initial designers, whether consciously or not, only recognised “authorities” had the legitimacy to recognise learning. While the Mozilla Backpack made it easy for people to collect badges (to be recognised), on the other hand, issuing badges (to recognise) required having your own server! Translated in the space of emails, that would mean that you could download an app to read and store your emails, but for writing emails, you would need to rent and configure your own Web server! If such  an architecture had existed for email, it would have looked more like the propaganda machine of an authoritarian state than the support to open and fluid exchanges among equals in a democratic society.

The Mozilla Backpack reduced individuals to the submissive puppets of institutional ventriloquists.

The Mozilla Backpack was certainly a tool that would have a high approval rate among those who have “an almost obsessive distrust of the role of judgement through agency.” With the Mozilla Backpack, there is no risk of developing any sense of agency at all, as its users had only been granted the right to store and display (or not) badges, the cherry on the cake being the option to feed-in the personal data Molochs that Facebook and LinkedIn are…

Once again, let’s recall that the power with badges, the agency, is with the entity that has the power to issue them. If you are provided with tools that do not give you the power to issue badges, you are powerless. With the Mozilla Backpack, people were denied the right to speak with their own voice, they were voiceless and only have the option to echo the voice of others (the “authorities”). The Mozilla Backpack reduced individuals to the submissive puppets of institutional ventriloquists.

It should come to no surprise that a review of 30 Open Badge projects that led to the publication of Badges Design Principles Documentation (Daniel T. Hickey, Nate Otto, Rebecca, Katerina Schenke, Cathy Tran and Christine Chow 2014) found:

“Looking across projects revealed the many ways that existing ecosystems constrained recognition practices. Where these ecosystems already existed, the existing goals, values, and curriculum constrained the kinds and ways that learning could be recognized.”

In other words, institutions of formal education, being genetically programmed to perform formal recognition, use Open Badges to do what they have always done. Although the word “peers” is present in 46 pages out of 138, the actual place of informal recognition in those projects remains principally ancillary to formal recognition: standards are defined by institutions, so are rubrics used for assessment, and the person who presses the button to issue the badges. If institutions of formal education love badges, it is not so much because they are the instruments of innovation and transformation, but because they allow them to continue business as usual while pretending to do something new. Moreover, Open Badges are an opportunity to expand their territory: Open Badges are the glass beads used by a new breed of colonists who have decided to take over the world of informal learning.

Another critical issue is that, before their invention, there was a clear separation between the formal and the informal spaces, and informal meant a sense of freedom and independence, at least not being under the scrutiny of institutions of formal education. Now, with the paraphernalia of standards and frameworks regarding “informal competencies” (I still find the concept odd) 21st century skills, cores skills, employability skills etc. (often stating the obvious…) and the many badges “aligned” to those frameworks and standards, it is as if we were 24/24 7/7 under the scrutiny of institutions of formal education to fulfil their desire to take into account, recognise, our informal learning.

We fought homework, something that could at least be confined within a limited space and time; with the way institutions of formal education want to use badges it is potentially the whole personal space and time that could be invaded…

Open Badges: friends or foes of formal learning?

providing the world of formal education with the weapons of mass liberation from the authoritarian models of education and recognition

From what precedes, it is clear that Open Badges are great friends of formal education, whether to the conservatives who can use their unique properties to issue unfalsifiable diplomas and certificates, to the innovators who want to explore new approaches to recognising learning (within institutional boundaries), or those who want to upscale gold stars and blue ribbons with digital gold stars.

Open Badges are relatively innocuous in the context of formal education, as long as learners are not empowered, when they are denied any agency in their learning and recognition. It might be time for a quid pro quo, providing the world of formal education with the weapons of mass liberation from the authoritarian models of education and recognition.

In the mean time…

To institutions of formal education I would say: start by reforming yourself before forcing your way into the world of informal learning. If you can’t, piss off and leave us in peace!

To the actors of informal education I would say: take the weapons out of the hands of your enemies and use them to open learning and recognition! The addition of endorsements to the new version of Open Badges is our first opportunity. Seize it! And join us to create new and even better ones!

Next post: Open Recognition and its Enemies (2) — No Informal Learning without Informal Recognition

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