What are Open Badges worth?

Grades, grades, how are you like money? Let me count the ways…

1) You earn grades

2) You are given grades in return for work

3) The higher the value of your work, the higher the value of your grades

I don’t really want to count all the ways grades are like money, but I do want to write about Mozilla’s Open Badges, which are a bit like grades, but friendlier and more 21st century.

It started with a problem. People nowadays are doing online courses but they aren’t getting any recognition for it.

Mozilla step in. They create an open standard whereby institutions can issue a badge to whoever merits it. You’ve completed our online course in robotics? Have a badge. In the world of Open Badges, this is an image file encoded with metadata. Anybody can click on it and find out who gave you the badge, what for, when it was given, and so on. You can show off your collection of badges to the world on a profile page called your Mozilla Backpack (actually an “authorized data storage space and management interface”).

There’s something unashamedly geeky about the whole enterprise, right down to the Scouting metaphor. That’s fine though; we’re all geeks now, after all.

But now that I’ve explained the basic idea, here’s the big reveal: Open Badges are not just for online courses. They can be used to recognise almost any kind of achievement. Work sends you on a training day? Badge. You presented a show on the school radio station? Badge. You want to prove that you have hard skills like coding? Badge. Soft skills like co-operation? Badge.

Because the idea is rooted in openness, if you’re an organisation that wants to issue badges, Mozilla will be more than happy to welcome you in. For the programme to succeed as a standard, it needs to have as many people taking part as possible. Like many web-based projects, the ambition is big. At times, there’s an almost evangelical zeal to the movement. The edu-tech community want to get in on the ground floor because this could be the big one. Nasa, the Open University, Disney and Intel are on board already. Next: your school or company.

I wanted to temper the evangelism, so I googled open badges criticism. I found this by Henry Jenkins, warning that giving accreditation for informal learning carries dangers. When there’s a system of accreditation in place, this brings with it a power dynamic where the adult grants something upon the child. This risks upsetting a more equal dynamic where adults and children are finding out something together – maybe not something you want dominating school interactions, but something that could be valuable in an after-school club.

Jenkins also warns of the gamification of learning, with badges acting as extrinsic motivators. It’s better, he says, to build on people’s love of learning rather than adding on a points system to something they were going to do anyway. He must be right here. If a kid is going to build a plane out of wood in their after-school carpentry class, why do you need to give them a badge for it? It’s a nicer world (to me at least), where the kid wants to make a plane out of wood because it’s fun and satisfying for its own sake. A teacher slapping a badge on the kid’s arm cheapens that to me somehow. Scouts might disagree of course.

In his presentation here, Open Badges advocate Doug Belshaw stresses that badges can augment traditional educational practices. “Not simply and/or – Both/and!” he says. This is interesting to me, because I work in a school that has two potential uses for Open Badges. In both cases, the badges would be an adjunct rather than a replacement for what we do already.

Student accreditation

Students who successfully leave our college get a place at the University of Brighton. That’s what they’re here for. But there’s no reason we couldn’t offer badges alongside our courses, perhaps going into more detail about what the students have done to earn them.

Staff training

A lot of staff training goes on internally. We’re encouraged to keep records of what we’ve attended but there’s nothing beyond that. People who move on to other jobs would have something to take with them. With Open Badges added on to our training, we could learn a whole new skill for work and have a way to demonstrate competence at it.

This all brings me back to accreditation as money though. What are badges really worth? Once you’ve got them, who cares?

At the moment, I would hazard a guess that the answer is almost no-one. A badge from an institution like Google or a top university might carry some weight with an employer, as long as it had taken some work to get it. But for an Open Badge to be regarded as a valuable currency, they need to be more widely adopted. Hence the push to keep the momentum going. If the movement runs out of steam, the badges become abandoned image files on an unloved website.

On the other hand, if Open Badges become widely embedded into online courses, schools, universities and workplaces, they may gain traction as a worthwhile thing to have.

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