March 13, 2017

Badges, Proof and Pathways

Category: Edtech
my badges illustration of person silhouette standing in middle of circles labeled self issued, issued, and verified

How do you prove what you know and can do these days? Sure, you can show someone your CV, résumé or LinkedIn profile, but what does that prove? Isn’t that just a bunch of claims you’ve got about the stuff you can do? Where’s the evidence? What can you point to in order to say: “This is me. This is who I am. This is my value to the world?”

Sometimes, it’s quick and easy to show that you’ve got the skills that are required. A quick on-the-spot check proves that you can build the wall, answer support questions, or stand in front of a crowd and hold people’s attention. What’s more difficult to check are things like whether you can bring a multi-stage project in on time and on budget, or how you deal with pressure. For these, we tend to rely on a combination of academic qualifications, training certificates, and recommendations from people we respect. If we’re honest, it’s all a bit of a mess.

Enter Open Badges. Devised and developed by the Mozilla Foundation, a nonprofit best known for the Firefox web browser, the Open Badges standard is based on a visual image with information “baked” into it. In the same way that a photo you take on your smartphone camera includes information about when it was taken, the focal length of the lens, and other details, so Open Badges have information baked in. It’s a bit like when you “tag” someone in a photo on Facebook. You’re adding metadata to an image.

The great thing about Open Badges is that they’re trusted digital credentials. The trust comes from the fact that, once “baked,” the metadata in the badge can’t be tampered with. So, much as when you make a cake, you can’t remove the ingredients after baking, so you can’t change the metadata in an Open Badge. Anyone can issue a badge for anything, from badges for turning up for something, all the way through to Ph.D.-level badges.

An interesting feature of badges is how they can gain in value depending on the additional information they can contain. So, for instance, there may be badges you decide to self-issue (or “claim”) based on evidence you can provide that meets the criteria. There may be badges issued to you for specific knowledge, skills, or behaviours you have demonstrated. Then, there may be badges that are verified by reputable institutions. Finally, badges may be “endorsed” by third parties, giving them additional status and rigour.

Badges are great by themselves, but a recent development in the ecosystem from one of the major players, has just added a new dimension. Concentric Sky, the company behind the open source Badgr platform, has created a new, complementary standard called Open Pathways. This allows organisations, individuals, and employers to scaffold learning in new ways based on a common standard. Multi-level badges and collaborative pathways allow learning to be captured and presented in intuitive ways, in a platform-independent way.

Let’s take the example below of teacher professional development. Blended learning is mixing digital and in-person instructional methodologies. Flipped learning is a type of blended learning where the traditional classwork/homework distinction is inverted by delivering content online, outside of the classroom. Class time is then spent on collaboration with peers and guidance/feedback from mentors.

Pathway Detail2 Badgr

As you can see from the screenshot, this short pathway comprises three badges:

  1. Blend and Flip Newbie
  2. Flipped Classroom Lesson Author
  3. Blended Classroom Lesson Author

It just happens that all of these badges are issued via Badgr, but they could be issued by any badge platform. Interestingly, the Open Pathways standard has the flexibility to require all badges, or just some badges to earn before the ‘parent’ badge is completed. These pathways can then be stacked almost ad-infinitum leading to nested “constellations” of badges. The opportunities are endless.

Open Badges are particularly useful for capturing and credentialing the kind of knowledge, skills, and behaviours that are usually left implicit. The example we’ve explored briefly here is around teaching techniques, but there are many other examples: onboarding staff at a for-profit company, for charities to recognise regular volunteers, or perhaps to prove membership of a nonprofit board.

Badges work like the web, meaning that they can be displayed anywhere online. Whether you choose to show them alongside your more traditional credentials and job history on LinkedIn, on your own website, or via social networks like Facebook and Twitter, Open Badges bring validity, verification, and evidence to the party. The animation below shows how easy it is to verify a badge.

This is an exciting time in the Open Badges ecosystem: platforms are relatively mature, new features and innovations are coming out thick and fast, and badges are an increasingly valuable currency to employers. The easiest way to get started is to sign up for an account at, setup your organisation as an “issuer,” and then get started creating and issuing badges!

Banner illustration credit: Bryan Mathers