Open Badges Are a Joke

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.

The Coming Credentials War

As a long-overdue followup to my post about Reid Hoffman’s vision for a “networked diploma,” I’ve put together a landscape of the people fighting to create and own that credentialing platform. It has been a quiet, cold war up until now, but I believe 2014 is when it heats up.

Because this is a greenfield vision, there are not just competitors, but competing technologies and business models. The stakes are high because, as  Hoffman said in is post, a truly disruptive form of credentialing could upend both education and employment.

First you have to understand that this fight isn’t about MOOCs vs. traditional colleges, or whether a college dropout with good GitHub profile is a better hire than someone with a CS degree from MIT. What we’re talking about is how you discover, exchange, and verify credentials, not how you get them.

There are 5 main contenders:

Mozilla’s Open Badge Initiative is a “pure play” technology for moving credentials earned into a shareable, portable, online profile. It allows any organization to use the Open Badge framework to “badge” any type of credential. However, it’s a technology without a business model. While Open Badges represent a powerful way to move credentials online, a new credentialing system requires a standard-bearer to establish and promote a marketplace in which critical mass of participants are interacting on the same terms. Interestingly, Pearson has just announced that they’re building a badge service, Acclaim, that’s built on Open Badges but it’s not clear what the model behind it will be.

LinkedIn is a big, established player. They’re important because they have so much mindshare among professionals that they’re a natural place to showcase credentials. However they don’t have any special expertise for acquiring or verifying them, nor have they shown significant traction among students and learners. LinkedIn might be a natural place for credentials to live, but some other entity has to actually certify them as Reid Hoffman said in his post.

Blackboard just bought MyEdu, a course-planning startup that was attempting to pivot to a student-profile site. Adding student-driven profiles to Blackboard’s LMS platform could connect the dots between learning activity and their public outcomes, giving Blackboard a natural path from education to credentials. Blackboard also has deep and rich relationships with thousands of educational institutions. On the downside, Blackboard’s market penetration is almost exclusively in education, so finding a way to deploy their credentials infrastructure beyond that could be challenging.

Parchment doesn’t start with profiles; instead, it’s a secure document exchange technology that’s sold to schools for easily transferring transcripts among high schools, colleges, and other institutions that require a verified transcript. They build a viral distribution model that encourages adoption by schools and has driven broad penetration in K-12 and higher ed. Now, they are aiming to allow students to own and display their Parchment data as verified credentials. This model benefits from having the institution create data for the students based on their verified learning outcomes, so user acquisition isn’t an issue. However, they’ll have to move beyond the transcript-driven use case to be a true credentials-exchange platform.

Merit also starts with school data rather than with profiles, allowing schools to update and verify a public profile of every student automatically. Because it’s explicitly sold as a credentials-promotion and verification tool they don’t face the FERPA issues that Parchment may. While Merit’s adoption curve ramps slowly because of their B2B deployment model, once deployed there are no profile-acquisition costs because the institutions create and verify students’ profiles automatically. Now Merit is adding credential granters outside of higher ed–like national honor societies, scholarships, and even employers. Merit’s biggest hurdle is overcoming the mindshare and funding lead by its larger competitors.

Usefully, these players can be plotted in a  matrix:

credentialing landscape

Contrary to most consultants’ 2x2s, the upper-right quadrant isn’t Reid Hoffman’s Promised Land. His vision of a networked diploma lives in the lower-right quadrant: a verified, updated record created on behalf of every learner that complements LinkedIn (the company he founded).

What’s especially interesting is what would happen if any of these credentialing players not only realized Hoffman’s vision, but exceeded it: a verified credentialing platform that dominated that lower-right quadrant the way LinkedIn completely owns the upper-left one, but moving north into a networked, verified resume that supersedes LinkedIn or the traditional resume itself. That would be truly disruptive.

It’s worth mentioning a few other people who have done some positioning around credentials, but whose offerings don’t fit Hoffman’s model:

  • Chegg is attempting to own the “student graph” (comparable, in their terms, to Facebook’s social graph or LinkedIn’s professional one), by engaging students with textbook rentals, coursework support, and internship matching. However, they may not be able to deploy or afford an entry into credentialing itself.
  • HigherOne’s 2012 acquisition of CampusLabs gives it the ability to offer co-curricular transcripts and more traditional ePortfolio content to a consumer-facing student profile, but so far they seem focused on their B2B offerings to institutions.
  • Portfolio sites targeted at students–including Pathbrite, Seel.io and, before it was acquired, MyEdu–aim to show the evidence of work completed as well as visually illustrate milestone accomplishments. These sites range from simple iterations on the “e-portfolio” academic fad to infographic-styled splash pages and have yet to show widespread acceptance.