March 31, 2014

Why I Still Believe in Badges

Category: Edtech
picture of stop sign with graffiti saying don't stop
“Badges are plots by for-profit institutions to disrupt state-funded higher education. It’s all about money and trying to turn a public good into a privatized for-profit revenue stream. You need to get your critical theory books out and read Marx.”
— Anonymous philosophy professor
I have sympathy for those who see certain developments in technology as being fueled by dark, hidden forces aiming at nothing less than to overturn life as we know it. We certainly need to be cognisant of those seeking to enclose public good for private profit, and never more so than when it comes to education.
We’re in a situation in 2014, six years from one of the worst financial crises the world has ever seen, where the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. This is nothing new: throughout history, conservative forces have sought to use an almost eschatological rhetoric in order to assume power. Once elected, they roll back the state, cutting funding for public services in the name of ‘efficiency’ and ‘austerity.’ Meanwhile, tax breaks and other indulgences are bestowed upon the rich and powerful. 
In the world of education, and particularly in the world of educational technology, big business has managed to manufacture a ‘crisis’ that it would argue can primarily be solved by purchasing the kinds of solutions they can provide. This is what happens when the state retreats and things are left to the market. When all you’ve got is the Hammer of Shareholder Value, then everything looks like the Nail of Potential Profit.
But, not all technologies are created equal. Contrary to popular opinion, technologies are not ‘neutral.’ How could they be, when they’re created by a group of people making decisions based on their own experiences, worldviews and biases? That’s why it’s important to always look ‘under the hood’ of the technologies being peddled to you as an individual, as an organisation, or as a society. It’s also the reason why I believe strongly in the Open Source movement — not just from an economic point of view, but also from sociological and political standpoints.
I joined Mozilla in 2012 to (and I think that this is the right word) evangelise Open Badges. I’d already been doing so in my spare time as an educator with seven years’ experience in the classroom as a teacher, and a couple of years working on a national level in higher education. I did so because I believe some of the problems I saw within the education system can be solved, to a great degree, by rethinking credentialing practices. 
We don’t often talk about it, but credentialing is a huge deal. In effect, it’s society’s way of gatekeeping everything from occupations and professions to identity and benefits. This has traditionally been the role of governments, universities and other public bodies — and it’s the reason why private companies want a piece of it. Huge power can be wielded if you control (i.e. ‘sell’) access to jobs and status.
Open Badges strikes directly into the heart of this narrative. What I’ve found interesting is the way in which conversations around badges serve as a lightning rod for people’s assumptions, hopes and fears. Those ideas and opinions that usually lay unchallenged and latent are brought to the fore when re-thinking what is possible with credentialing. That’s why I often refer to conversations about Open Badges being a ‘trojan horse’ for wider conversations about things like the identity of the organisation/institution and learning design.
The great thing about Open Badges, of course, is that they’re Open Source. That’s true on both a technical and a cultural level. Anybody is free to look at, contribute to, or remix the code that makes up the Open Badges Infrastructure (OBI). But, more than that, the conversations and culture around it can be shaped by anyone. It’s very egalitarian in that sense. No matter whether you are an individual or a huge multinational organisation, we can all play on a level playing field when it comes to issuing, sharing and displaying badges.
Nevertheless, there will be those who attempt to enclose Open Badges, those intent on comodifying them for their own ends, those who try to profit from them. Traditionally, the bastion against such predatory behaviour upon public goods has been governments and other agencies working on a national level. With badges, however, there is a need to protect them on a global level. Promoting and protecting them in one locality is not enough. That’s why, although the technical work around Open Badges is remaining with Mozilla, a new non-profit Badge Alliance has been set up to promote and protect Open Badges. 
While badges could, potentially, be used for nefarious purposes, it’s my belief that the open, distributed architecture of the code and community means that we can seek to improve our education both inside and outside the walls of institutions. This is not about ‘disrupting’ education for the sake of it or for private profit. This is about providing another way of doing things to promote human flourishing.
I’m excited this year to start work with colleagues on Webmaker badges. These will be Open Badges that prove to yourself, to peers, and to potential employers that you have mentoring and teaching abilities, as well as skills in web literacy. The great thing is that these badges can sit alongside badges from other parts of your life in ways that you, the learner, control. And, I think, more than anything else, that is one of two key questions to ask of any new technology: who’s in control? The other one is equally important: who profits? If the answer is ‘all of us,’ then I would suggest, that’s the horse to back.
So yes, let’s absolutely get back to our critical theory books as the anonymous philosophy professor suggests. As a graduate of the discipline, I’ll leave you with an apt quotation:
“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”
— Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach,” 1845

Banner image credit: Alyson Hurt