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
In a previous post, I explored the potential deleterious consequences of equating Open Badges to credentials. My point was not to critique credentials, nor the use of Open Badges as credentials (there is nothing wrong with that), but to build on Carla Casilli’s call:
“we still need badges to flourish in the non-regimented space of not-credential.”
To understand the urgency of a response to that call, we need a reality check and to pay proper attention to the actual state of Open Badges. If we had to infer a definition based on current Open Badge practice and technology, we would have to write:
Open Badges: an institution-centric credentialing technology designed to support formal recognition of learning.
The Open Badge Infrastructure gives institutions the power to act, i.e. create and deliver badges (‘spray’) and learners the right to collect and display badges (‘pray’). While learners have to carry a backpack to prove their credentials, issuers do not!
In this post, we will move the discussion from the critique of equating Open Badges to credentials to exploring the potential of badges as signs of recognition, setting the foundations for making informal recognition as valuable and potent as formal recognition. This can be achieved by moving the centre of gravity of Open Badges from institutions to individuals and self-organised communities.
Formal and informal recognition
While there are many initiatives towards the recognition of prior learning and recognition of prior experience, what is usually meant is formal recognition of prior learning as in accreditation of prior learning. Although there is abundant literature on the [formal] recognition of informal learning (including almost the whole literature about Open Badges!), there is almost none on the informal recognition of informal learning, the “non-regimented space of not-credentials” evoked by Carla Casilli.
To frame the question of Open Badges as signs of recognition I start by eliciting two key dimensions:
- formal / non-formal
- traditional / non-traditional
Audrey Watters recently published a series of posts in the hope “of writing a clear explanation […] of what blockchain is”: The Blockchain in Education: Questions, The Blockchain for Education: An Introduction, and The Ideology of the Blockchain (for Education)
Part 1 challenged the author’s understanding of “trust” and the use of non sequitur, part 2 challenged the author’s understanding of the complexity of the relationship between technical objects, technology and ideology and the use of non-refutable statements (like the one quoted below). This part will challenge further the understanding of the author and her capacity to construct well structured arguments.
To elicit Audrey Watters’ sense of argumentation, let’s take the following statement:
Technologies, particularly the new computer and communications technologies of the twentieth century onward, help reinforce dominant ideology
While this might sound like a profound insight to the casual reader, the problem is that it fails the most elementary falsification test — being able to refute its contents. For that we suggest the following questions:
- What technologies have not reinforced the “dominant ideology”?
- Did computer and communications technologies only profit the “dominant ideology”?
In the third post, The Ideology of the Blockchain (for Education), Audrey Watters makes some sweeping statements:
“All digital technology is ideological. All education technology is ideological”
“Technologies, particularly the new computer and communications technologies of the twentieth century onward, help reinforce dominant ideology”
One problem with the word technology is that it both refers to a “collection of techniques, skills, methods and processes” and the technical objects, the artefacts where they are embedded.
Technology is the collection of techniques, skills, methods and processes used in the production of goods or services or in the accomplishment of objectives, such as scientific investigation.
Ideology is a collection of doctrines or beliefs shared by members of a group. It can be described as a set of conscious and unconscious ideas which make up one’s beliefs, goals, expectations, and motivations.
For the clarity of this part of the rebuttal I will use “technical objects” to refer to artefacts and technology to refer to the “collection of techniques, skills, methods and processes.” With that being said, a blockchain is a technical object that, as any object, is subject of investigation and discourses, including ideological.
The problem with statements like “All digital technology is ideological. All education technology is ideological” is it can be applied to everything without adding an iota of understanding. Remove “digital” and you have “all technology is ideological.” Then remove “technology” and you have “Everything is ideological.” Well, so what? Continue reading
In 2016, Open Badges will encounter blockchains and this will most likely change the way we issue, store and exploit Open Badges and open credentials. This change will also affect Open Badges themselves, or more precisely, we will have a chance to get rid of the dictatorship of the “pretty picture” and move beyond the narratives of the girl and boy scouts’ merit badges.
Open Badges are wonderful and it was a brilliant idea to store metadata within a picture, but let’s face it, there is a time, in fact many of them, where designing a “pretty picture” to recognise one’s achievements or competencies is simply a waste of time or a hindrance — and the use of pre-digested graphics often an insult to our sense of aesthetics! We have now reached the situation where it is the tail wagging the dog: the “pretty picture” is the “need to have” in order to issue any credential in the happy world of Open Badges. No “pretty picture”, no credential! Does it have to be so?
Moving the Open Badge movement from infancy to adulthood needs new metaphors and narratives — the badge for the girl and boy scouts. It is precisely what the blockchain technology is offering. The metaphor on which the blockchain narrative is constructed is the ledger, a word everybody can understand.
A general ledger account is an account or record used to sort and store balance sheet and income statement transactions. Examples of general ledger accounts include the asset accounts such as Cash, Accounts Receivable, Inventory, Investments, Land, and Equipment.
A Personal Ledger is a means to account for one’s assets, credits and debts. In the context of open credentials, the credentials received can be considered as debts (one is indebted to someone for the trust received) and the credentials given as credits (the recipient of our trust is indebted to us). A ledger can be further subdivided into multiple accounts, so each entry could store the information contained today in various Open Badges.
When I started exploring Open Badges a few years ago, I rapidly realised that not only were they a solution to several of the problems we had with ePortfolios, but they also had the potential to help us reinvent them — the Open Badge Passport initiative is our contribution to this. And now that I have started exploring the possible application of blockchains to Open Badges, I realise that not only were blockchains the perfect solution to a number of Open Badge problems, but they could also be a means to review our ideas on Open Badges altogether.
What is a blockchain?
A blockchain is the historical record of all the transactions between the participants (nodes) of a network. This record is referred to as a ledger, the artefact accountants use for book keeping. Adding new entries to the ledger, or modifying existing ones, is done by adding a new block to the chain — previous blocks are the faithful representation of the ledger’s previous states.
Moreover, the blockchain technology makes ledgers unfalsifiable. How is this possible? By providing a copy of the full ledger to all members of the network and defining an ingenious protocol for adding new blocks to the chain so that even if someone tried to add an invalid block, the network would detect the fraud and reject the chain containing the invalid block.
One vital point about blockchain technology is privacy: while transactions are public, they can be verified without having to know the real identities of the participants. Identities remain masked.
What could the representation of an Open Badge in a blockchain be?
The first time a badge is issued, a block is created to record a set of metadata. In a sense, one could describe the first block as a badge: instead of being “baked” into a picture, the metadata is “baked” into a ledger. If the same badge was issued to 300 people, the first block of the ledger would record that piece of information — a block usually records several transactions. Continue reading
While my experience with competency-based education initially led me to think that we should only get badges for “serious stuff” like the demonstration of a mastery, or possibly a competency (although this could lead to fragmented learning and assessment, and that will be the subject of another post), I have changed my position some time ago. I believe that it is perfectly adequate to deliver a badge for less”serious stuff,” like attending a conference.
A conference’s badge could be given to all the participants without any distinction, there could also be special badges for speakers and organisers. Badges for speakers and organisers could be delivered by the participants. In fact, rather than new badges created specifically for one event, they could be endorsement badges, i.e. endorsing a badge already owned by the authors and organisers.
There are other interesting benefits in delivering badges at a conference; one service that will be built on top of the Open Badge Passport is the ability for someone holding a certain badge to communicate with all the other holders of the same badge. Open Badges will behave like mailing lists. This will provide an easy way for the holders of the same badge (or same pattern in a collection ) to establish conversations without having to disclose any personal identifier. Of course, it will be easy to opt-out at the time the badge is collected in the passport — and to opt-in later.
Should everything be badged?
Since I realised that Open Badges are statements of trust, to those querying whether having too many badges might be a problem, my response is: who would complain for receiving too many tokens of trust?
Yet, while I changed my position regarding the quality and quantity of badges (sometimes the change in quantity can lead to the emergence of new qualities) I am still not satisfied with the fact that Open Badges are being delivered for almost anything, like visiting a website or answering correctly to a multiple choice question.
It is now so easy to issue badges that we can witness “Carpet Badging,” a term coined by Kyle Bowen (@kyledbowen) in 2013! The issue Kyle raised was about the importance of metadata. While there is certainly an issue with badly defined or poor metadata, may be the problem lays elsewhere. May be poor medata is a sign that Open Badges were not the right answer in the first place?