A Cure Against OBesity: The One Pixel #OpenBadges , #OpenPassport and #xAPI

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?

Carpet Baddging

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?

In a post entitled Badges: what comes between & before, Carla Casilli wrote (link):

These questions reveal a fascinating and somewhat unexplored area of badges: what, if anything, exists between a badge and no badge? And to torture a zen metaphor: what is the sound of an unearned badge?

Some folks have taken a page from games and begun using points in their badge systems. This presents an interesting discussion point. And while I’ll share my thoughts on this below, I encourage you to share your thoughts and opinions on it as well.

I’d like to suggest that we consider something other than points. And here’s why: points seem to me to move badges in the direction of counting, accruing, and quantification. Counting up or down until you’ve achieved a certain number of points. There’s something about points that seems to whisper, “This is a reward system, nothing else.” They seem gamification-ized and not in a way that promotes investigation, interest, or enjoyment.

As an alternative to gamification and carpet badging (she didn’t use the term but she would certainly include it), Carla suggests the approach of The Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt on tokens as things between badges and nothing (described in Carla’s post). How to represent those tokens, and more generally everything between nothingness and Open Badges? How can we keep the amount of displayed badges under control while not limiting their number?

A cure for OBesity: the Pixel Open Badge (POP)

In Open Badges are more than Pretty Pictures I wrote: “at one point I had the idea of a Pixel-Badge, i.e. the composition of a number of those Pixel-Badges would contribute to forming the picture of a whole badge.”  If we used just one pixel per badge, at least for some of them, it should be possible to display thousands of them on a single screen. One might object that it wouldn’t make much sense, but would having pretty pictures make any more sense? On the other hand, a good programmer could use the metadata in the POPs to create interesting representations which would be meaningful to a human. Badges could be displayed on a timeline and the metada exploited to tell a narrative.

My answer to Carla’s questions: in the void between nothingness and Open Badges are the POPs!

Why and how choose between a full badge and a pixel badge? Depending on the context, the choice might be more or less obvious. A first rule of thumb could be:

Occam’s razor version: if a single pixel (with its metadata) does the job, why bother with a pretty picture?

Nerdy version: Everything that can be expressed as an xAPI statement should be a POP
with it’s corollary: let’s use POPs as unifiers between Open Badges and xAPI!

NB: xAPI is the offspring of the SCORM community aiming at providing a flexible framework to record learning events and outcomes. There are great similarities between Open Badge assertions and xAPI statements:

  • Open Badge assertion:
    I trust Mary to design good badges based on this evidence” – issuer, earner, criteria, evidence
  • xAPI statement:
    Mary designed a badge” – actor, action verb, object

In the realm of SCORM, there is no need to state who the issuer is, as it is supposed to be a learning management system (LMS). On the other hand the simple construct actor / action verb / object is very intuitive and could be used to create a whole range of valuables badges.

Imagine a teacher who is good at providing feedback and wishes to materialise this feedback for the students to visualise the progress accomplished. If she likes Open Badges, she might consider issuing badges at different stages for the different activities involved in the learning journey. Is there a real need for pictures to visualise that? Probably not, as the interesting information is already in the metadata, so, instead of displaying a picture, the display of metada under the form actor / action verb / object would probably make more sense, especially as it could be used as the elementary block of a narrative.

One of the benefits of POPs is that, contrary to badges that require a holistic design, they can be generated on the fly. There is no need to set-up a committee and a process of design / implement / review. Anybody can issue and receive POPs. The main audience (“consumer”) of POPs is probably the earner, although if a POP is used to endorse an existing badge, then the audience is the audience of the endorsed badge.

Beyond the OB/POP dichotomy

I have mentioned several time that it might be interesting to define a grammar of badges, attribute meaning to colors and shapes. We could also imagine to combine it with ideographic languages (may be we should all take it as an opportunity to learn Chinese?). But why not have animated pictures, movies, sounds? Why not display directly the achievements that a badge is representing? a POP could contain a picture as evidence which could be displayed on the badge. The picture of the badge could be created dynamically, using its metadata, and something like a “style sheet” provided by the audience in order to create a pictures that is meaningful to him/her.

Software creating dynamic displays out or the collection of badges are still to be invented. Anybody interested?

We have hardly started to explore the power of the visual representations that badges’ metadata make possible. It is why, as Kyle Bowen writes, metadata is so important when it comes to Open Badges. Without a pretty picture a badge is still a badge. What makes it a badge is its metadata.


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