The Future of Assessment, Accreditation & The Internet: Deconstructing Mozilla’s Open Badges Project
12.15.11 | By the time I first heard about Mozilla’s Open Badges project, the whole thing had reached the point of near mania. I went online to learn more and found myself drowning in blog posts and tweets. When you’re drowning, it’s hard to think clearly. Every day I dived in, and every day I felt I understood less.
Soon an idea began to form in my mind: Within the Open Badges project lies all the possibility and all the pitfalls of the internet itself.
But let’s start at the beginning.
For a good long time now, people in education, literacy and digital media circles have been talking about how learning happens in all kinds of places beyond the classroom—especially as the digital age expands the options to learn anywhere, any time. Digital media and online communities inspire kids—and make it so much easier—to pick up real skills around their own areas of interest beyond the classroom doors.
Indeed, the very skills that kids are picking up as they explore and learn online, from learning to be responsible digital citizens to expressing their opinion in a video—are an important part of what it means to be literate in the 21st century. Yet there are no meaningful official structures in place to recognize their development. Self-guided or informal learning rarely is recognized, particularly when the powers-that-be don’t understand that which is being learned.
The Open Badges project is an attempt to change this.
We see badges as way to connect people to expertise.
– Mark Surman, Mozilla Foundation
On Sept. 14, Mozilla released the Beta 1 version of its Open Badges infrastructure, and the next day HASTAC announced that its fourth annual Digital Media and Learning Competition—Badges for Lifelong Learning—would solicit content, design and technology to support the Open Badges project. Partners in the badges competition come from all corners: the U.S. Department of Education, Microsoft, NASA, the 4-H Council, the Manufacturing Institute and the Department of Veteran Affairs, to name a few, with support from the MacArthur Foundation. The idea is nothing short of creating an alternative nationwide assessment and accreditation system.
Now, unless you’re already deeply enmeshed in this world, you may have no idea, in any concrete sense, what these people are talking about. I certainly didn’t. A few hypothetical examples may help.
Let’s say a 15-year-old boy is doing terribly in school but is making digital movies at his local community center that he writes, shoots, and edits himself. In addition, he’s been teaching younger children at the center how to fix computers. Right now, the official record of his education will only show that he’s nearly flunking out of school, which won’t be particularly impressive to prospective employers, nor will it do much for his own self-esteem. But what if the community center had a system for evaluating his work, and rewarding him for having met certain criteria established by the center? And what if that community center could publish the badge online for future employers to see, and for the kid himself to show his friends?
Or, let’s say an accountant wants to get into environmental research. He’s taken classes on his own, and leads a team in his local park that handles bird migration patterns, but prospective employers keep telling him he’s not qualified. What if there were a way for him to obtain credit for the assorted classes he takes, and for his leadership work at the park?
The Open Badges project proposes that people in these situations would receive virtual badges for informal learning. Institutions would establish criteria for awarding the badges, and then publish the criteria on Mozilla’s open platform. Mozilla would not advocate for any particular standard. That would be left to the institutions and organizations issuing the badges.
Mozilla’s role is to provide an open infrastructure where people would keep “backpacks” in which to put their badges. Potential employers or colleagues could click on the badges to view which skills were acquired, how, and the criteria used.
Badge and badge-like systems already exist, but the problem is that they often start and end with an individual organization. MOUSE, for example, is a youth development program that starts by helping kids lead and manage technology help desks in their schools. MOUSE’s education director, Marc Lesser, who’s also on the advisory board of Mozilla’s Open Badges project, said MOUSE gives out badges online for “community participation” and acquiring “specialty skills.” It calls these awards “Wins!” and accumulated wins earn profile-displayed badges for participants as they advance.
“But right now, it’s hard for users to display the ‘cred’ they’ve earned through our program network to outsiders for higher stakes uses like getting jobs or applying to college,” Lesser said.
Or there’s P2PU (Peer 2 Peer University), which focuses on informal online learning and issues online certificates for finishing a class. However, it has no degrees, so it’s hard to gauge how much traction students might get out of the work they do.
One of the big ideas behind the Open Badges project is that by creating a space online to display all the awards given at all these disparate places, badges will become portable.
“There’s an opportunity here to for people to demonstrate what they’re learning,” said Erin Knight, project lead on the Open Badges project. “We’re not looking to replicate an isolated system or support a single badge system. We want to make all the different badge systems out there work together.”
It might have been at this point that I began to think that in trying to make sense of the Open Badges project, I was facing all the wondrous possibility and all the dangerous pitfalls of the internet itself.
First of all, it replicates the obsession with personalization that is so prevalent in online culture. There’s a lot of talk among Open Badges folks about “learners” creating their own “pathways” of learning. In this world, everyone would have their own customized education, just like they have a customized avatar in a videogame.
I understand why this is appealing – and there are good arguments for why it’s necessary at this moment in history – but I also worry that we haven’t thought enough about what we’re losing by focusing so much on the individual. Online, it’s possible to exist in one’s own bubble of interests and never hear a murmur from other groups. As we move toward customizing all aspects of our lives, do we risk losing the cohesiveness of being part of a whole?
With a badges system, people will not only have their high school and perhaps college degrees, but also their own individualized portfolio of accomplishments. This fits in with the American obsession with the “I” rather than the “we.” Surely, it’s worth remembering that communities are defined by what people know and share in common.
Then there’s the death-of-the-expert factor. Much has been made of how anybody who posts online can be an expert. It’s a hot topic in journalism. The newspaper is no longer the gatekeeper of information, and the reporter is no longer the authority on a topic. It’s all about the “conversation” between author and users. I thought about this a lot when I was researching this topic. The badge system could be seen as a great blow against The Expert, since there will no longer be a monopoly of academic institutions deciding what warrants achievement and bestowing the honor. This is both deliciously freeing, and, frankly, terrifying. How do you maintain rigor in such an open system?
I don’t believe you can get people to experiment in the abstract, so this is a working system to try and see what we can do. We’re trying to create a better system for the digital age.
– Cathy Davidson, HASTAC
.And this takes us to the crux of the matter. When I was researching badges, I became so lost in the sea of information about it that I wanted to give up entirely. The great challenge for proponents of the Open Badges system will be finding that peaceful place that exists on a slim line somewhere between chaos and control.
Clearly, we need to address the problem with assessment and accreditation systems and find ways of validating digital skills and informal learning. A nationally shared open platform with the support of players like the MacArthur Foundation and the Department of Education is exciting, to say the least. But if what we create lacks rigor – or becomes flooded with commercial enterprises selling diplomas for a dime a dozen – it will be the worst of the internet brought to education, negating itself with its own abundance.
I called Mark Surman, executive director of Mozilla Foundation, with these thoughts.
“Well, obviously I’m on the side of the debate that believes the openness of the internet is a net benefit for people,” he said. “But it’s the right question. The Badges project is similar to the internet itself. What’s great is we have a bunch of open building blocks that are interconnected so you can try things fast and speed up innovation. In terms of risk, the dangers are the same, too. It’s a lower barrier to entry, and there’s always the chance that people don’t have a quality product or are trying to trick you. But humans have been dealing with that since the days of the bazaar marketplace, going back 2,000 years.”
To combat this, the Open Badges project has developed verification technology, just like an ecommerce site would.
“Yes, just as with commerce, someone could offer bogus badges,” Surman said. “But we can guard against that. With the technology we’ve developed, if it’s offered by Mozilla, it’s easy to verify. If it’s offered by Harvard, it’s easy to verify.”
As for the issue of expertise, Surman said he doesn’t buy what he called “the death-of-the-expert meme.” He prefers “the democratization of the expert.” Online commerce sites like eBay and Etsy “democratized” commerce, he said. And badges will democratize education.
“We see badges as way to connect people to expertise,” he said.
Cathy Davidson, who cofounded HASTAC, is well aware that the project is not a silver bullet for all that ails education, nor a replacement for current systems.
“The key word here is experiment,” Davidson said. “I don’t believe you can get people to experiment in the abstract, so this is a working system to try and see what we can do. We’re trying to create a better system for the digital age.”
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