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.

6 thoughts on “Open Badges Are a Joke

  1. Well, there is one thing you might have missed about open badges: it’s first and foremost a ‘trust’ relationship between the issuer and the recipient. This is quite a substantial value proposition, isn’t it? You can’t trust a CV, you can’t trust Linkedin, you can trust a badge… I agree that it might sound ridicule to get a badge for almost anything, like visiting a site or attending an event, this is why xAPI (almost like a badge, without a picture) could be a great alternative to record events… leading to the delivery of a trustworthy badge.

    You believe that Open Badges are not needed as we already have Linkedin. I believe that centralised systems like Linkedin will some day become obsolete to be superseded by P2P technologies. Open Badges have the potential to render Linkedin obsolete. It doesn’t mean that it will happen, this is just a potential achievement of a vibrant and innovative community.

    • I totally agree that verified badges for valuable credentials are a substantial improvement over LinkedIn. LinkedIn (to its credit!) is simply a giant resume database with some social proof to encourage honesty. If you could imagine LinkedIn profiles created by badge issuers (so the information is verified, passive, and comparable), that’s the vision I see for badges.

      However, what I’m saying is that open badges–and the Open Badge Initiative specifically–won’t get to that vision. Somebody has to not only create the standard but drive adoption and critical mass, and the open ecosystem is simply too open and the critical players (colleges and universities, employers) have no compelling reason to participate.

  2. Colin, I completely agree that badges have to represent value (e.g., something brand can convey) to achieve wide-spread significance.

    But I think there’s a big difference between saying that and saying that Open Badges are a joke. One could have made the same argument about Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn’s first cut at TCP/IP (before Al Gore helped them out with the invention of the Internet). Taking this a bit further, there were certainly many people (some still) in media that opined about “the unwashed masses” creating a public sewer of words and now video on the Internet. Oh the horror!

    But that’s all to overlook that amongst all the junk, today’s Internet is hard to imagine living without for all the good stuff in it. And the alternative approach–France’s Minitel is a great example–didn’t work out so well.

    Seems to me Open Badges has the potential to play a parallel role to that which TCP/IP and HTML have done for Internet content creators. It is a building block standard where alternatives have no value–but where access and standardization is innovation-enabling at the edge–just like what Cerf and Kahn recognized.

    The problem you identify will, it seems to me, be solved by innovative firms who can now rapidly create services that grant, trade, rank, consume branded badges on top of the OB platform–just as chaps like Marc Andreessen, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, and most recently, Jan Koum and Brian Acton have done on at the edge of TCP/IP.

    • I thought about that analogy to TCP/IP before posting because I wanted to be very careful about being stupid about “open.” I have been really stupid about the internet in the past! However it’s that same analogy that I believe has led Mozilla astray.

      TCP/IP is a technical standard. So are Open Badges. The value of the internet on the TCP/IP platform is the meaning and connections created on top of it. The same could happen with Open Badges, but it’s what’s built on top if them that will create value. TCP/IP is awesome in retrospect for what it allowed to happen. Maybe Open Badges will be retrospectively thought of that way, too. In that case they should be thought of as wishful thinking (or more generously, a vision)–a vision I agree with. But Open Badges won’t be both TCP/IP and Facebook/Amazon/Google. Whereas right now, Merit is not only both, but is driving institutional adoption far more successfully.

      • To continue on the TCP/IP metaphor, one could say that if we equate the OBI with TCP/IP, then Merit is more like the French Minitel — another ‘closed’ system, so successful in France that France Telecom claimed that there was no need for the Internet! Someone defined the Minitel as “the invention that everyone envies but nobody wants to buy”.

        So, while Merit might be very successful in the USA, nobody knows about it abroad, which means that there is a worldwide market for a Merit-like service. And such a service could be provided using Open Badges technology.

        CVTrust (, a Belgian startup is attempting to provide this kind of service in Europe. They don’t use Open Badges but a closed infrastructure, like Merit.

        So someone with an entrepreneurship mind and good connections could easily develop an alternative like “” (the domain name is free!) — I would love to join such an initiative! All the bricks are ready to build that service (and many more !).

        About jokes, let me share that one with you. It’s the definition of an academic: an academic is someone who sees something working in real life and wonders if it would work in theory 😉

      • I think it’s possible to push the internet infrastructure analogy too far, but I do love the joke! Two of my brothers are academics so I’m grateful for more dinner-table ammunition.

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