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! Continue reading

Beyond #OpenBadges: #OpenSignatures — the power to act, rather than the power to pack!

For a long time I have played with the idea of picture-less badges and one-pixel badges. The reason for that was the over importance attributed to what I often refer to as the “pretty picture” playing the proverbial role of the tree hiding the forest of trust. Picture-less badges and one-pixel badges force us to reflect on how to get value out of the metadata embedded in a badge: what can we do with a badge if we don’t have a “pretty picture” to display?

One of the most disheartening and yet fascinating thing with Open Badges is our inability (or lack of interest) in using them to inform even the most elementary service related to badges. For example, I remember very clearly a session during my first visit at the Mozfest in 2012 where the idea of “badge the badger”was discussed, i.e. use badges to control the right to issue certain badges. Four years later, nothing has changed. For an external observer, that could be interpreted as if we do not really believe in their value beyond displaying “pretty pictures.”

Thanks to the work done with the 2.0 spec, things might change, but change will not happen solely with the publication of a new standard: to exploit its full potential we need the right technology and, moreover, the right mind-set. Using Open Badges as verifiable claims to control access to services could have been done with the current version of the standard. If it has not happened, it is not primarily the fault of a defective standard, but the mind-set of some of those involved in the Open Badge ecosystem, in particular the excessive focus on badges as micro-credentials rather than verifiable claims. Continue reading

#OpenBadges: the Milestones of a re-Decentralised Web

In the digital world we live in, the main ground is possessed by the few, the Digital-Landlords. A whole paraphernalia of digital rights management, technologies, contracts, lawyers, regulations voted under influence and the cyber police make sure that we do not infringe their rights. To live on their lands often means accepting a relationship close to serfdom or digital slavery. To have a name, one has to pay a fee; that is if you want to have a domain of your own and not depend on someone else (a sub-domain) — come and join us at ePIC to hear what Jim Groom has to say on this!

The Emperor’s New Clothes has become The Commoner’s New Clothes: we believe that we are dressed-up, yet we walk naked

We, the digital-commoners, possess very little, if anything at all, at least nothing worth transmitting to our heirs. Not even our name… We should express our gratitude for having been relieved from the anxiety of inheritance, spared the burden of building the walls of our privacy and wearing clothes to protect our intimacy. In this world, the tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes has become The Commoner’s New Clothes: we believe that we are dressed-up, yet we walk naked. As for Digital-Landlords, they simply see a flock of sheep waiting to be shorn. Continue reading

The #OpenBadges Backpack: an obstacle to innovation?

In a recent post on the history of the Backpack, Carla Casilli wrote:

Conclusion: The Open Badges backpack was structured around the concept of equity, personal data ownership, and interoperability. It discouraged siloing of learning recognition and encouraged personal agency.

It is difficult to recognise, in its current implementation, the initial intention of the Open Badge Infrastructure designers as stated by Carla Casilli: the Backpack has become the pivotal element of a flawed infrastructure based on a profound asymmetry between (institutional) issuers and (individual) earners. The Backpack is the expression of a world where learners are valued as the subservient actors of a system where their only real power is to say NO! to a badge.

“Personal agency” is not related to having the ability to accept/refuse, show/hide badges based on externally defined criteria (which is what one can do with the backpack) but to the ability to define one’s own identity independently from any institutionally defined standards. A true sense of “personal agency” would require the ability for learners to formulate their own claims regarding their identity and not simply be allowed to pick and choose through predefined institutional pathways.

Far from encouraging innovation and personal agency the Backpack has now become an obstacle to innovation and personal agency. The current work engaged by Mozilla to “fix” a number of the Backpack’s current problems does not appear to be interested in addressing the systemic flaws embedded in the Backpack, but just to making them less painful to the compliant user.

Imagine — a world without a Backpack

Imagine a world of formal education where it is not the teacher who issues badges to learners, but learners who issue (or endorse) badges to other learners, teachers and more generally to any entity having contributed to their learning: “here by, I recognise your contribution to my learning.” Imagine a world where learners formulate their own claims, design their own badges and ask others to either issue or endorse them. In such a world, the current Backpack would have no place. 

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From #blockchain to #BadgeChain (3) — the trustworthy chain

In the previous post we added to the Open Badges’ DNA its first genes extracted from the blockchain. We obtained the following results:

  • Everything can be represented as a Badge — everything is relationship;
  • A BadgeChain is made of chained badges (not yet a blockchain);
  • A BadgeChain is a distributed database: badges are stored all over the Internet.
  • New objects can grow organically from the aggregation of badges in the BadgeChain — e.g. ePortfolios.

There are two points we have not addressed yet:

  • How is the BadgeChain practically stored?
  • How can we trust the content of the BadgeChain?

The trustworthy BadgeChain

Can we check whether the components of the BadgeChain, a badge, is authentic (the issuer is the issuer, the earner is the earner, etc.) simply by looking at it, just as we would do to check whether a banknote is counterfeit? The answer is yes, and the means to do it is named cryptography. Here are the conditions to create badges that resist effective counterfeiting:

  • Every participant in the network uses one or more public / private key pair;
  • The public keys are used as the identities of the participants in the network.
  • The private keys are used to encrypt information that can then be deciphered using the matching public keys.
  • Reciprocally, the private keys are used to decipher any information encrypted by the matching public keys

The picture below illustrates the process when Alice creates a badge containing the information that will be used to verify whether it is authentic or not.

How to create trustworthy badges using cryptography?

What happens when Alice creates a badge:

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From #blockchain to #BadgeChain (2) – the chained badge

In the previous post, we looked at the relationship between trust, Open Badges and blockchains. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, one could say: Open Badges and blockchains are two technologies separated by a common idea [trust].

To explore how Open Badges and blockchains could merge into a new technical object, my reasoning will pass through several stages. We will start with a BadgeChain that does not make any reference to the blockchain technology, then, step by step, we will describe the mutation of this initial object through the incorporation of new genes into its DNA — hoping that we will not have created a chimera!

BadgeChain take one: everything is a badge

To create something that looks like a BadgeChain, we need to link badges together; there are multiple ways this can be achieved:

  • Indirectly: badges are “connected” through each individual issuer and earner. The issuer is a kind of “connector” between all the badges issued (and their earners), the earner is a kind of “connector” between all the badges received (and their issuers). Badges can also be connected through the alignment metadata, a list of objects describing educational standards — a property of the version 1.5 of the standard that has not been widely exploited.
  • Directly: badges are literally linked to other badges. For example, an endorsement badge could use the address of the badge being endorsed as the identification for the earner of that badge.

An Endorsement Badge as connected badge

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From #blockchain to #BadgeChain – Introduction

While not initially coined to describe a technical object, but rather a team of Open Badge enthusiasts willing to exploit the benefits of blockchains, BadgeChain is also a word that might be used in the future to describe a new technical object resulting from the merger of blockchains and Open Badges.

When we started the BadgeChain group, the initial idea was to explore how blockchains could contribute towards improving the Open Badge technology and experience. There are a number of limitations to what one can do with Open Badges today that blockchains seem to be able to outsmart. Our initial reflection looked at the application of blockchain ideas to Open Badges. What has not yet been explored is the application of Open Badge ideas to blockchains: what could we do to blockchains if they used what we know about Open Badges?

About Trust

Both Open Badges and blockchains are related to trust but they do it in almost opposite ways. As I have written many times, Open Badges are trust statements that could be combined to create chains and networks of trust. The information on how the members of the network trust each other can be used as the basis to establish trustworthy transactions — if 32 Open Badge experts trust Slava’s expertise on badges as well as 53 clients, I’m inclined to trust Slava to work with me on my next project.

Blockchains on the other hand are a means to establish trustworthy transactions even if those engaged in transactions do not trust each other. The trustworthiness of the transactions is not a property depending on the participants, their behaviour or the data they provide but on an algorithm controlling the trustworthiness of the next blocks added to the chain. The blockchain technology was designed to eliminate the human factor from making the decision on whether a transaction is trustworthy or not.

BadgeChain vs. blockchain

NB: many articles on the Web describe blockchains as trustless. What is meant is that trustworthy transactions are possible without the involvement of any trusted authority (a bank, a notary or a registrar) and despite the fact that the parties involved do not trust each other. Trust is fully embedded in the blockchain infrastructure and does not need human intervention.

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