While watching the live stream of last week’s Summit to Reconnect Learning‘s opening presentation I felt like I was living that old SNL skit where Kevin Nealon reviews a movie called “Heavy Into Jeff” (which sadly I can’t find online, so only you old timers will get the joke): interested… confused… upset… amused… VERY interested… then not interested at all. Open badges aren’t interesting because the vision for them is a joke.
Maybe not the “vision,” which is only ridiculous insofar as how utopian and naively privileged it is. Changing the world should be naive and utopian sometimes! But the plan for making that vision into a reality is so kumbaya, so impractical, that the Open Badge Initiative should not be taken seriously in its current form.
I couldn’t bring myself to write a long takedown of the whole project since it seemed like popping the ego of a kid whose parents always say he does a really great job, but thankfully Frank Catalano has done it for me in a far more constructive (but still devastating) column at edSurge called Digital Badges Need Mass to Matter. His points boil down to this: badges won’t mean anything until everyone decides they do. Open badges have a fundamental chicken-and-egg marketplace building problem.
Why is it a marketplace problem? Because when you cut through all of the talk about alternate learning, competency-based certification, goal mapping and more, the most important, practical, and radical outcome is that it will help more people connect with better jobs, and to do that there must be a mechanism for people and employers to discover each other based on the meaningful information conveyed by the badges.
Let’s compare this to the current state of affairs. There is a longstanding “open” format for displaying credentials to employers called a résumé. It documents important learning milestones, life experiences and employment credentials, often with supporting information in a widely-adopted and accepted format.
Résumés have several weaknesses: discoverability (they’re scattered on hard drives or physical pieces of paper), verifiability (there’s a whole industry of background and reference checking to deal with that) and participation (not everyone keeps an updated one handy), among others. But many new businesses have improved on the résumé over the past decade. LinkedIn, notably and to its credit, has convinced hundreds of millions of people to recreate their résumé’s online, via a LinkedIn profile that creates the inventory needed for a two-sided marketplace of employers and certain types of potential employees. Github and Behance solve not only the discoverability that LinkedIn addresses but add skill-based evidence of expertise (via code and portfolios, respectively) in place of assertion.
So how does the Open Badge Initiative improve on this? It doesn’t. Open badges are only a technical standard, not a credentialing one. As Frank notes, any jamoke can start issuing badges for any dumb thing they want to do, filling the Mozilla Backpack with undifferentiated junk. It’s as if people wrote résumé’s that included everything from attending an event to loving coffee. “Openness” is a huge handicap without standards and adoption to guide usage.
Besides which, there doesn’t seem to be anyone building an actual discovery platform for these badges. Right now, they’re simply “portable,” i.e. you can put a widget on your blog. Who cares? That’s exactly the same as telling someone they can paper-clip a blue ribbon to their job application. Without a deep marketplace of comparable, valuable, searchable credentials, the badges are nothing more than a trophy.
And what’s going to drive badge usage by institutions, anyway? As I wrote last year, open badges offer no immediate value proposition to the institutions that would grant them.
I could go on and on but instead of simply being a hater, I’ll point out that we’ve built and deployed a better solution in Merit. Merit is a closed badge initiative. Only institutions that we approve and on-board can grant badges using Merit (verification), which are backed up by a flexible taxonomy (quality) that makes badges issued by one organization comparable to everyone else on the platform (discoverability).
And as for the mass and gravity that Frank writes about: well, we’ve kept our mouths shut for a long time, but hundreds of colleges and universities are issuing these verified, high-quality badges to more than 2 million students every year using Merit; so are national honor societies and even selected high schools.
I hate to beat up on Mozilla and open badges, but it’s really past time to realize that their reach far exceeds their grasp. The revolution they want will happen, but their open badges won’t be carrying the banner.