My ePortfolio, our Badge!

[The first idea for a title was: User-Driven Badges vs User-Driven ePortfolios.]

Yesterday, during the Open Badges weekly meeting (link), Patrick McGee (1) from The Volunteer Centre Blackpool, Wyre and Fylde’s  presented Do A Bit, a project using Mozilla Open Badges, in conjunction with a volunteer passport, to increase participation in volunteering and to reward participants (2).

One particular element of the strategy stroke my attention: volunteers are invited to tell what skills they would like to be recognised with an Open Badge. It is not the organisation that is deciding what are the badges worth delivering, but the participants deciding on which badges they would like to have designed, just for them.

Although this is very much in line with a presentation I attended some time ago where teachers were inviting students to establish together their badges awarding criteria [I need to add a reference!], this made me ask the following question: could something like that have happened with ePortfolios? After all, aren’t ePortfolios, like Open Badges,  designed for making learning visible to others and oneself – reflective learning? At that point of my reflection, the answer is… probably not…

This post is a first attempt at explaining why, although ePortfolios and Open Badges are supposed to be user-centric, Open Badges have a greater potential to be user-driven, than ePortfolios.

My ePortfolio, our Badge

One of the main differences I see between ePortfolios and Open Badges is the social dimension. Collective ePortfolios remain a rarity, a good theme for an inspirational keynote address at a conference! Yet, when reflecting on the dialectic between individual and collective ePortfolios, one can ask whether:

  •  a collective ePortfolio is an aggregation of individual ePortfolios, or
  •  the individual ePortfolio is a projection, on the individual plan, of a collective ePortfolio?

There is probably no such thing as a personal narrative that is not deeply intertwined with other people’s narratives. The interweaving of our stories are like the threads of a social fabric. Yet the technologies developed for ePortfolios lead to the creation of personal silos of information where the natural interweaving of our narratives is fragmented. We have lost the opportunity of presenting the threads of our narratives in the context of a rich, dense and colourful fabric (a possible variation of T. S. Eliot’s Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?). And from that point of view, there is certainly no advantage in using an ePortfolio platform over a simple blog system — ePortfolio platforms remain still useful for institutions (that are mostly silos!).

Open Badges set a different scene: they can be seen as the points of contact between our narratives. And there are many points of contacts at different levels of granularity: sharing an event (c.f. XAPI), a piece of knowledge, a competency, etc. When I have a badge, I can say it is my badge, and when there are many other people sharing the same badge, I can also say it is our badge.

In the context of The Volunteer Centre Blackpool, Wyre and Fylde’s, where the badges recipients are invited to design the badge they want to receive, even if they are very unique badges, they will also be able to say it is our badge, we have built it together. And the badge also will encapsulate the trust relationship established between the badge issuer and recipient. The badge is a shared object between the issuer and the recipient so, although the badge recipient is right to say it is my badge, it is in  something the badge issuer could say just as well, even if it is to mean something different.

Eventually, our badges could contribute to making my ePortfolio a thread in our shared narrative.


I have rarely experienced the kind of energy I find in the Open Badges community. The buzz of the weekly calls, like last wednesday’s, the online fora where practitioners describe what they do, what they would like to do, the feedback to/from the Mozilla development and project teams, the entrepreneurs who are developing new platforms and services, all this activity around this simple object is really impressive. The simplicity of a badge, a picture and a few metadata, makes it the Lego block of learning technologies (in the sense of technologies that learn from the community). Open Badges are perfect to practice bricolage, the outcomes of which can then used to feedback the design process.

One of the differences worth exploring between Open Badges and ePortfolios is the role played by the community in their design.  As a member of the ePortfolio community since 2003, I had the opportunity to be involved in the initial efforts in standardisation and interoperability. First was the EPICC project where we worked collaboratively with IMS-Global to establish ePortfolio specifications, then later with the Liberty Alliance (now the Kantara Initiative) to explore the benefits of trust architectures to create trustworthy ePortfolios, and finally TAS3 , a 4 years project to develop a trust architecture supporting services based upon personal information —healthcare and employability ePortfolios were the key targeted services.

NB for a future post: one of the possible flaws of many so-called trust initiatives is that they treat independently data from the infrastructure: keep the data as it is and our architecture, just like a magic wand, will make it trustworthy. The Open Badges is different: it is the badge itself that captures the trust relationship. It is the data that is trustworthy, the function of the infrastructure is to publish it and verify that it is what it claims to be.

One way to express the difference in my experience with ePortfolios and Open Badges design (and I’m still a newbie in Open Badges) is:

  • ePortfolio platforms are designed for the people, while
  • Open Badges are designed with the people — co-design

To be more accurate, I should say that ePortfolio platforms are primarily designed for the institutions. If a specific ePortfolio format is not required as part of an organisational process, then there is probably no real benefit in having an account on an ePortfolio platform — in my experience [is there a proper study on that issue?], when offered the choice, many of the students I know choose WordPress, or another blogging system, over any ePortfolio platform. When the institution does not give the choice, then things are different…

NB: one key issue with current ePortfolio platforms is that they are at the same time ePortfolio Management System (ePMS) and ePortfolio host. There should be a clear separation between those 2 functions, leaving the learners with the choice of their own ePortfolio host / authoring system (BYOD, bring your own device, should apply even more to ePortfolios!). The current architecture of ePortfolio systems clearly indicates that it is not the result of a process of co-design with the end users, the learners and citizens (in the perspective of a lifelong and life wide ePortfolio). So, while Mahara provides extremely well designed and powerful management tools, from the point of view of the learner/author, things are pretty poor when compared with what they could do with a tool like WordPress and its thousands of plug-ins… Moreover, using WordPress provides greater opportunities to develop high level techno-litteracy by being fully empowered in the management of one’s own space (including authoring one’s own extensions), instead of the predefined templates offered by ePortfolio systems. So, yes, institutions need ePMS, but ePMS providers should clearly separate the ePortfolio hosting/authoring from it.

Despite its many qualities, Open Badges are not either exempt from institutional bias. There is a problem of asymmetry between the badge issuer (most of the time an organisation) and the badge recipient (who has to carry the backpack with its badges). The badge recipient is not supposed to issue his/her own badges — s/he can, but it’s not part of the initial package, the backpack. Conversely, the badge issuer is not supposed to have a backpack. Why not? Probably because badge issuers were supposed to be trustworthy organisations, so why should we have to look at their badges? If organisations and badge issuers do not need badges, then we have an asymmetrical network, something that was certainly not in the intentions of the designers. So this should be easy to fix! Especially as the solution is already in the Open Badge itself: a badge is symmetrical, it points both to the issuer and the recipient. It could be both in the backpack of the issuer (the badges I’ve issued) and the backpack of the recipient (the badges I’ve collected). This problem is not so much technical than about mental representation: a badge is a trust statement, it is a token representing a relationship, it thereore belongs to both parties. It is their badge.

What does this has to do with co-design? From what I have experienced until now about the innovation capacity of the Open Badges community, I am confident that before one year, the Open Badge Infrastructure will be fully symmetrical and that this symmetry will create the conditions for the emergence of hundreds if not thousands of services exploiting the properties of a symmetrical network in the perspective of lifelong and life wide learning, employability and social inclusion.

If you want to get a feeling of what co-design is: join the Open b-Badges community! You can make the difference!


  1. Patrick McGee Project Officer, Do A Bit Project @ the Volunteer Centre Blackpool, Wyre and Fylde @mcgeetech; @blackpooldoabit
  2. Presentation:;  Notes from full discussion on research call:

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