Master a new skill? Here's your badge

The Open Badges Project shows off skills with a reworked version of an old idea.

Open Badges ProjectEarning badges for learning new things is an entrenched idea. Legions of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts have decorated their sashes with badges, demonstrating their mastery of various skills. A badge is a symbol of personal achievement that’s acknowledged by others.

The Mozilla Foundation and Peer-to-Peer University (P2PU), among others, are working to create an alternative — and recognized — form of certification that combines merit-earned badges with an open framework. The Open Badges Project will allow skills and competencies to be tracked, assessed, and showcased.

In the interview below, I talk with the project director, Mozilla’s Erin Knight (@eknight), about the genesis and goals of the Open Badges initiative.

How did the Open Badges project come about?

Erin Knight: At the core, it’s really just a general acknowledgement that learning looks very different today than traditionally imagined. Legitimate and interest-driven learning is occurring through a multitude of channels outside of formal education, and yet much of that learning does not “count” in today’s world. There is no real way to demonstrate that learning and transfer it across contexts or use it for real results.

We feel this is where badges can come in — they can provide evidence of learning, regardless of where it occurs or what it involves, and give learners tangible recognition for their skills, achievements, interests and affiliations that they can carry with them and share with key stakeholders, such as potential employers, formal institutions or peer communities.

This problem space is particularly interesting and important to Mozilla for a couple of reasons:

  1. It is our mission to promote the open web, get more people involved in making it and help people capitalize on the benefits and affordances of it. There is so much learning that is occurring, or could occur, through the web — through open education opportunities like P2PU, information hubs like Wikipedia, and even social media. We want to help people capitalize on these opportunities and make this learning count and get them real results.
  2. We also care about supporting and encouraging more people to become open web developers, and much of this learning is typically based on social, informal and personal experiences and work. For example, you may look at someone else’s code on github to figure out how to solve a specific problem or tinker on your own to develop a deeper mastery. None of this is taught through a formal curriculum, and in fact, the space moves so quickly that formal curricula are often outdated by the time they can put a syllabus together. We want a way to acknowledge the work and skills of web developers at all stages of their careers, both to motivate them to learn new skills and become better as well as to connect them with jobs and opportunities.

Tell me about the technology infrastructure behind the Open Badges system. How do you validate a badge?

Erin Knight: One piece of the Open Badges initiative is the Open Badge Infrastructure (OBI). This came out of early conversations. We spent a lot of time talking about core aspects of an individual badge system: What are the badges? What does assessment look like? How do we ensure validity? We realized quite quickly that to truly solve the problems we are trying to solve and to support learners wherever they are learning, we were not just talking about a badge system, but a badge ecosystem.

In this ecosystem, there would be many badge issuers offering different types of badges for different learning experiences, and each learner could earn badges across issuers and experiences. This requires that badge systems work together and are interoperable for the learner.

The big missing piece was a core infrastructure that could support a multitude of issuers, allow a learner to collect badges into a single collection tied to his or her identity, and then connect to many display sites or consumers to extend the value of the badges. This middle “plumbing” needs to be open and decentralized because if this is as successful as we all think it can be, we are talking about critical identity information here. It’s important that the user remain in complete control.

We’re building this to be as open and decentralized as possible. All elements, including the Hub, or main badge manifest repository, and the Backpack(s) — the user interface on the Hub (users will have their own Backpacks showing them all of their badges and allowing them to manage, control and share out badges) — are being built open source and extensible so that anyone can create their own instance. Mozilla will build and host the reference implementations, but we want to support decentralization as much as possible.

We’re also working with a large advisory group with representation that spans informal education providers, academia, federal agencies, and development communities to make sure that all of our assumptions and approaches are fully vetted and thought through from multiple perspectives and interests. And finally, we’re building this to be as lightweight as possible, especially at this point so early in the game, and pushing the innovation to the edge. This means that issuers completely control and decide what their badges are, how they are earned, and so forth. And on the other end, displayers control how badges are displayed, such as with filters or visualizations, etc. We want the OBI to support innovation, not constrain it in any way.

How do badges benefit learners and badge issuers?

Erin Knight: The OBI supports an open and decentralized badge ecosystem where the value of learning experiences can be extended to very real results very easily. It gives the learners the ability to earn lots of different badges across lots of different experiences and not only combine them into one big collection, but remix them into subgroups to share with specific audiences. This allows learners to tell complete stories about themselves, backed by the badges and the evidence they are linked to.

For the issuers, the platform allows them to support the learners further, extend the value of the opportunities they provide, and promote themselves through the badges. For the displayers, they can pull more information backed by evidence into profiles, job opportunities, etc., as well as discover people based on badges.

Is there a connection between the Open Badges project and gamification?

Erin Knight: There is an element of gamification in all of this in that we’ve all experienced badges or levels in games, and we know that they can be motivating. That’s important. Badges will range from smaller motivational badges, to larger certification-type badges, but as people are designing badge systems, many of the principles of game design do and should apply. Badges from game providers will be important for the ecosystem because they represent reputation, identity and achievement that will be valuable for some users in various contexts.

Where does the Open Badges project go from here?

Erin Knight: We’re working on developing a number of badge systems for Mozilla projects, including the School of Webcraft; a partnership with P2PU offering free, open opportunities for web developer training; and Hackasaurus, a program to get youth involved in hacking and building the open web.

On the Open Badge Infrastructure front, the goal is for this to be completely open and accessible to anyone who wants to be an issuer (push badges in) or a displayer/consumer (pull badges out). We are developing and releasing a set of APIs and a badge metadata spec, and we’re launching the beta version of the OBI by mid September. It will be a critical feature-complete infrastructure with a number of initial issuers.

Anyone interested in participating in that beta can contact me via Twitter @eknight. We plan to publicly release the OBI, the metadata spec and APIs in early January 2012. At that point, all the documentation and code samples will be there so anyone can plug in. For more information, people can check out MozillaWiki and “An Open Badge System Framework.”

This interview was edited and condensed.


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