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
One aspect of the question regarding a possible relationship between blockchains and Open Badges is to wonder whether the blockchain should be treated as some kind of add-on to the existing Open Badge structure/standard, or should Open Badges be integrated within a blockchain?
A starting point for an informed answer to this question is to do a simple test: take an Open Badge generated by one issuing platform and try to import it into another issuing/hosting platform. I have done this experiment recently, taking only a very small sample, and the results were rather… (un)conclusive — BTW, one suggestion for the Standards Working group would be to run a real life interoperability test (not just through a formal proof) across all platforms and publish the results.
Interoperability is a classical problem to which the ePortfolio community was confronted some years ago and to which no convincing answer was ever provided — the IMS-Global ePortfolio and Leap2A specifications (2 specifications for interoperability is already one too many!!!) are only used by a handful of ePortfolio platforms — notwithstanding that there are many ePortfolios that do not use any ePortfolio platform at all! Moreover, when we organised plugfests during previous ePIC conferences, we had to admit that 3 platforms using the same technical specification (IMS ePortfolio at the time) had problems understanding each other: exporting one ePortfolio from one platform then importing it to another did not always work properly…
One could have imagined that with a structure much simpler than ePortfolios, the problem of interoperability would have disappeared. It has not. And now that we have allowed extensions to the specification, the order of magnitude for potential interoperability problems has increased geometrically, not just arithmetically. Yet, the possibility to extend the specification, even by one single issuing platform, willing to gain a competitive advantage, with a better or innovative service, should probably be allowed. We certainly do not want a “one-size-fits-all” issuing platform. Innovation must go on!
Are blockchains the solution to Open Badges interoperability?
Last Thursday, as I attended a meeting at the old Paris stock exchange (palais Brogniard) with people working on blockchains to discuss the Open Badge Passport, what did I discover? A number of the ideas we wanted to develop with the Open Badge Passport (as services exploiting the content of badges metadata) were already in full development using… blockchains, not Open Badges. That was some reality check! The following morning I read Certificates, Reputation, and the Blockchain (link) where Philipp Schmidt, from the MIT Media Lab, explains how they are moving from paper certificates to blockchains after a short encounter with digital badges…
Issuing a certificate is relatively simple: we create a digital file that contains some basic information such as the name of the recipient, the name of the issuer (MIT Media Lab), an issue date, etc. We then sign the contents of the certificate using a private key to which only the Media Lab has access, and append that signature to the certificate itself. Next we create a hash, which is a short string that can be used to verify that nobody has tampered with the content of the certificate. And finally we use our private key again to create a record on the Bitcoin blockchain that states we issued a certain certificate to a certain person on a certain date. Our system makes it possible to verify who a certificate was issued to, by whom, and validate the content of the certificate itself.
Suddenly Open Badges seemed to have regressed from a technology that could conquer the world to a parochial technology solely at the service of the great priests of education spraying badges like papal indulgences so their parishioners could join the heaven of employment… one day… if their prayed with enough fervour. Continue reading