Answering your questions about Open Badges

I spend about half my time working for Mozilla working on a new, open learning standard for Web Literacy. The other half of the time I’m evangelising Open Badges in the UK and Europe. Unsurprisingly, with the latter a lot of the same questions come up time and time again. These are legitimate concerns and curiosities that people have, so I thought it would be a good idea to have a URL I could point them towards. 🙂

Chewing (animated GIF)

Are Open Badges ‘transferable’?

It depends what you mean. Open Badges are issued with a learner’s individual identifier ‘baked’ into it. So if you try and take my badge and put it in your backpack, it’s not going to work. It’ll be rejected.

If, on the other hand, you talking about the ‘portability’ of badges then, absolutely, that’s exactly what we’re aiming for. Multiple badge backpacks, a completely open and decentralised system, and learner sovereignty. The learner earns badges from issuers and then chooses where to host and display them.

Why is Mozilla interested in creating a system for credentialing learning?

We’re a non-profit that believes in the Web. We believe that it’s a fantastic platform for innovation – but only if it’s open, democratic and built upon standards. Because learning today happens anywhere, including on the Web, we want a credentialing system that can bypass the ‘gatekeepers’ to learning. We want better ways to credential experiences, knowledge, interest and skills.

Oh boy! (animated GIF)

Are all Open Badges public?

They can be. By default when they’re issued, Open Badges are private and can only be seen by an earner who has accepted the badge and placed it in their badge backpack. Once added to a collection (named by the learner) they can optionally be made public and displayed across the Web.

What’s the difference between a ‘digital’ badge and an ‘Open’ badge?

It’s very simple, but with fairly profound consequences. An Open Badge is a digital image that has metadata ‘baked’ into it. So in the same way that you bake ingredients together to make a cake, so you bake a badge. And again, just as you can’t then remove an ingredient from the baked cake so you can’t change an Open Badge once it’s been ‘baked’.

Does Mozilla ‘police’ Open Badges?

Nope (animated GIF)

We’re looking after the ‘plumbing’ of the Open Badges Infrastructure (OBI). Our focus is upon the technical standards underpinning the whole ecosystem, not the pedagogical or social validity of badges. Some Open Badges will be frivolous and playful. Others will be rigorous and pedagogically sound. All of them will be technically valid badges. The value of a badge comes through a mixture of the reputation of the issuer and the rigour of the criteria for obtaining the badge.

What happens if I invest time in Open Badges and then Mozilla pull the plug?

We’re a non-profit who work (radically) in the open alongside the community. The OBI is a Mozilla product, but it’s more of a model where we’re the lead developers and advocates than having something than can be ‘pulled’. We’re committed to OBI for the long-haul, but even if we were all on several planes that crashed the Open Source community could still develop the infrastructure.

O RLY (animated GIF)

How can Mozilla maintain the quality of Open Badges?

‘Quality’ is an interesting word. Another variation of this question is How can Mozilla guarantee equivalency between badges? The short answer is, of course, that we can’t. That’s because we’re the ones developing the technical standard, but not those that are developing all of the badges within the ecosystem.

The OBI is a platform for innovation. We’ve already seen many high-quality badges that have been produced by lots of different organisations. But, of course, there will be poor badges. The value of the badge doesn’t come through how difficult it is to issue them, but upon the rigour of what you have to do to get them, and the evidence they point to. That’s within the metadata in the badge itself.

Badge anatomy
CC BY Kyle Bowen

One of the newer metadata fields that’s available within the OBI is a field that allows you to enter the URL of which standard you’re aligning to. So whether it’s a badge that aligns with the Common Core or the Web Literacy standard, there’s something you can point to as a common reference point. The ‘endorsement’ functionality that we’re working upon could then allow organisations to endorse certain badges as being good/valid representations of that standard.

What’s the quickest way of getting started issuing Open Badges?

There’s broadly three ways to start issuing badges. The first is to use a third-party badge issuing platform such as badg.usforallbadges or This is the easiest, but the URLs in the metadata of the badge point towards that third-party platform over which you have no control.

The second way to issue badges is to use a plugin for a popular Content Management System or learning platform such as WordPress, Drupal or Moodle. Doing this means that you don’t have to do any coding but the URLs in the Open Badges point back to your domain.

The third way is the most complex and involves being (or hiring) a developer and using Mozilla’s onboarding documentation to build your own badge issuing platform or plugin. Apparently it’s not that hard, but I haven’t tried it.

What happens when there’s millions of Open Badges in the ecosystem and everyone has thousands of them?

Well, first of all that will be awesome! The great thing about Open Badges is that the learner is always in control. That means you can choose which badges to display for what purpose. So, if you want to show all of your gamer and photography badges on Facebook and your professional badges on your online portfolio, you can.

Cat surrounded by puppies (animated GIF)

The other thing to remember is that an Open Badge does not stand alone, but is part of a wider ecosystem of value. One of the best ways of imagining this is through badge-based learning pathways. In the same way that you collect cheeses/pies in Trivial Pursuit, so badges can work together to unlock a larger, meta-level badge. Once you’ve unlocked your competency-level badge, it would point back to the five skill-level badges of which it’s comprised.

How can we trust an Open Badge? How do I know someone hasn’t just bought one?

Both very good questions. A combination of the Criteria URL and the Evidence URL should help with this, I think. The (compulsory) Criteria URL states what the earner had to do in order to be issued the badge, and the (optional, but to my mind very important) Evidence URL points to work done in order to get the badge. This is anything that can be displayed on the Web – images, text, videos, etc.

Do people buy qualifications now? Of course they do. Will people attempt to (and sometimes be successful in purchasing) Open Badges? Almost definitely. But the difference between traditional qualifications and credentials, and Open Badges is that the latter leave a breadcrumb trail of evidence. My Great Uncle built his entire adult life on a the claim that he attended Oxford University. After his death we found this to be false. That wouldn’t really have been possible in a badge-based system. He would have been found out very quickly!

Investigator (animated GIF)

Why are Open Badges any more than stickers? Aren’t they just extrinsic motivators?

As stated above, the value of an Open Badge comes through the metadata contained. Learning design is the hard part of creating an ecosystem of badges; it’s the 90% of the iceberg you don’t see. So, of course Open Badges can be used to extrinsically motivate. But, like all credentialing systems, if designed well then they can also promote intrinsic motivation.*

*My rejection of intrinsic/extrinsic motivation as a binary will have to wait for another blog post…

How can issuers ensure their badges are taken as seriously as possible by institutions/employers?

An Open Badge is a metadata-infused credential. Whether badges are taken seriously depends on how trustworthy, relevant and useful they are to others. That’s a function of the reputation of the badge issuer but also on the rigour of the Criteria URL. What did the individual have to do to get the badge? Was that worth doing? Is there an Evidence URL pointing to what that individual actually did?

It’s a fact of life that people like (and trust) good-looking things so it’s worth spending some time on the visual design of the badge. But that’s the tip of the iceberg: it’s the learning design, the partnerships and the thinking through how individuals can ‘level up’ that’s important. DigitalMe have a great CC-licensed badge canvas resource to help you think through some of these things.

Finally, it’s worth having a useful way to display badges to institutions and employers. Purdue University, for example, have an iPad app that students can use to show their badges at interview. Badges can also be displayed on pretty much any kind of website, including e-portfolios and wikis.

Why would I want an Open Badge instead of a degree?

This is the $64,000 question, but one that misses the point in the short term. Often when a new technology comes along we think in terms of either/or. In practice, however, it’s more and/and/and. How can we use Open Badges to credential those things that we think are important but we don’t currently have a way of capturing? How can we make credentialing more granular? How can we make learning more personalised through badge-based ‘playlists’ or ‘pathways’? These are the questions which interest us a lot more than ‘Can X replace Y?’

Mind blow (animated GIF)

Have you got any more questions? Ask away below! (or on Twitter / Facebook / Google+) If I get enough I’ll probably do another one of these in a few weeks’ time. 🙂

Header image CC BY Bilal Kamoon

An Anarcho-Syndicalist critique of Web browsers

It’s good to have outliers in your Twitter stream and other social networks. The following conversation between @leashless and @mmaaikeu really made me think today, especially about literacies for the Web being predicated upon viewing it through a browser with built-in affordances, etc.

If the Storify embed doesn’t appear below, the full conversation (including tangents) can be found in my Flickr photostream or on the Internet Archive.

[View the story “Anarcho-syndicalist critique of browsers” on Storify]

I welcome the pushback to the work I’m doing that’s implicit in the conversation above. It’s always good to keep stuff like this in mind!

Doug in Web Literacy lab coat at MozFest

Two online gatherings you should be part of (today/tomorrow)

Earlier this week I led an #etmooc session on Digital Literacies. The slides for that are here and the video, audio, chat and etherpad archive can be found here. I’m involved in another couple of online gathering-type things in the new literacies arena this week that may also be of interest.

1. Twitter chat for #etmooc

I’m following up the above Digital Literacies #etmooc session with a Twitter chat at 10am PST / 3pm EST / 8pm GMT tomorrow night (Wednesday 20th February 2013). You don’t really need to do anything apart from follow the #etmooc hashtag and tweet accordingly.

2. Web Literacy standard online gathering

A couple of weeks ago we had a great kick-off online gathering for Mozilla’s upcoming work around a new, open learning standard for Web Literacy. There were many who couldn’t attend so we’re running the session again this Thursday (21st February 2013) at  9am PST / 12pm EST / 5pm GMT.

Further details are at The recording of the previous session, along with some of my thoughts around the subject can be found here.

I’d love to see your name pop up at either or both of these events. Do take part if you can! 🙂

Image CC BY paul_clarke


On ‘rigour’ in definitions of digital and web literacy.

Update: For the latest information on the Web Literacy standard work, head to

TL;DR version: If we define rigour as something that’s ‘unchanging’ and ‘objective’ then it’s almost impossible to be ‘rigorous’ about digital and web literacy. Instead, I propose that instead of being rigorous that we’re relevant, even if that’s at the expense of some objectivity.

Here’s an interesting one. I occasionally get corralled into Twitter conversations as someone who knows about something or other. Today, it was Miles Berry after being asked why the new draft National Curriculum should include ‘digital literacy’. The assumption by his interlocutor (Bruce Nightingale) was that in order for a subject to be included in a programme of study it should be ‘rigorously defined’ with a ‘body of knowledge’ behind it.

When I asked whether rigour means ‘has a definition everyone agrees on’ Bruce pointed me towards this blog post by Jenny Mackness on ‘academic rigour’. The conversation quickly became too nuanced to do justice in 140-character bursts, hence this follow-up blog post. I hope Bruce has time to reply.

In Jenny’s post she talks about finding definitions of ‘academic rigour’ unsatisfactory. I’d suggest that’s because it’s a kind of Zeugma, an ambiguous term. But let’s just focus upon ‘rigour’. The Oxford English Dictionary (probably the best place to resort when faced with knotty problems of definition) gives the etymology of ‘rigour’ as:

Etymology:  < Anglo-Norman and Middle French rigour, Middle French rigeur, rigueur (French rigueur ) inflexible severity, severity, harshness (12th cent. in Old French), strict application (of laws) (13th cent.), feeling of tingling or prickling (a1365 in medical context), (in plural) repressive measures (15th cent.), cruelty (15th cent.), harshness that is difficult to bear (end of the 15th cent., of cold, etc.), exactitude, precision (1580) and its etymon classical Latin rigor unbending quality, stiffness, rigidity, numbness, numbness of the body in fever, unyielding hardness, frozen condition, quality of being stiffly erect, tautness, inflexibility, sternness, severity, uncouthness < rig?re to be stiff (see rigent adj.) + -or -or suffix. Compare Old Occitan rigor (1461), Catalan rigor (14th cent.), Spanish rigor (13th cent.), Portuguese rigor (14th cent.), Italian rigore (a1320).

I can’t help but think when I see words like ‘harshness’, ‘cruelty’, ‘exactitude’, ‘precision’, ‘rigidity’ and ‘inflexibility’ that we’re using the wrong word here. Applying such stringent measures to an ambiguous term like ‘digital literacy’ is problematic as ‘digital’ pertains to many different referents. To talk of rigour (as defined above), then, is verging on the ridiculous.

But does a lack of rigour around a subject, topic or idea make it less valuable? I’d suggest not. Instead, I’d suggest it’s the terminology we’re using that’s problematic. Let’s take another example: the idea of academic ‘impact’. What, exactly, does that mean? You may well be able to draw up a framework or points for this or that, rewarding academics for performing certain activities and publishing in various places. But what about obvious areas of ‘impact’ that lie outside of that rigid framework? Rigour does not mean relevancy. Sometimes the problem is with the tools you are using rather than the thing you are trying to describe. It’s OK for things to be nebulous and slightly intangible.

Having spent several years of my adult life delving into the murky world of new literacies I’d suggest that (for example) helping young people learn how to use digital devices, how to think computationally, and how to stay safe online are extremely relevant things to be doing. Can we boil these activities down to things to be learned once for all time? Of course not. It’s hard enough when you’ve got a single referent (e.g. the Web)

So, in conclusion, I’ll see your definition of ‘rigour’ and raise you a ‘relevance’. Not everything that is valuable can be measured objectively. Nor should it be.

Image CC BY-NC-SA Josh Clark

#BelshawBlackOps12 has started – see you in 2013!

I’m composing this sitting cross-legged with my back to the wall in a hotel room in Porto. There’s an occasional gentle breeze that drifts through the open window that slightly chills the back of my neck. I expected Portugal to be warmer for some reason.

The cacophony of seagulls behind outside fades into the background as the sound of church bells fills the air. An earlier glance out of the window showed people getting ready for the day. They take for granted the magnificent, tall buildings with tiled facades; it’s no wonder the centre of Porto is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I’m going to spend the entire month of December being a lot more analogue. I’m really looking forward to spending that time increasing my mindfulness. I’ll still be performing my normal work functions for Mozilla, but will tend towards paper to get things done. Meanwhile, I’ll not be using technology for personal communications.

This means:

  •  I’m not looking at or responding to personal emails
  •  I won’t be active on social networks like Twitter or Google+
  •  No new blog posts or weekly newsletters in December

I intend to spend time with my family and read books that have been recommended to me. This digital hiatus is something I’ve done for the past couple of years and would highly recommend to anyone. At a time when I’m feeling slightly weary and cynical about the world it’s a period of rejuvenation that allows me to start the New Year with a bang.

See you in 2013! 🙂

Image CC BY NASA Goddard Photo and Video

[INCOMING] #BelshawBlackOps12

For the past couple of years I’ve undertaken Belshaw Black Ops. It’s the name Paul Lewis gave to my personal digital hiatus lasting for the month of December. I live in such a fast-paced online world for the other eleven months of the year that I need some time to take it all in!

You can read about what I got up to last year here.

This post is a heads-up to say that during December I won’t be:

I’d hoped not to be travelling either, but my job at the Mozilla Foundation evangelising Open Badges necessitates me going to a few places. Unless you’re also in those locations, the only way of getting hold of me is via my work email. Ask me for it ASAP if you need it!

Just to confirm that I’ll still be around on Twitter and Google+ for the next couple of weeks as well as blogging and writing my newsletter. But after then, leave me alone for a bit, OK?

I need to recharge. 🙂

Image CC BY-NC tantek

Open Badges, Clay Shirky, and the tipping point.

The great thing about thinkers such as Clay Shirky is that they can put into pithy, concise quotations things that remain latent in our collective thinking. You know, things like:

We’ve reached an age where this stuff is technologically boring enough to be socially interesting.

I first used that quote in a post four years ago when I called for technology to be so commonplace and ubiquitous that it’s not considered a thing distinct from human interaction. Technology should be woven into the fabric of our identities not something set apart, alien and ‘other’.

Four years ago social networks weren’t woven into society the way they are now. Nowadays, of course, hashtags accompany the opening credits to television shows so that they can be discussed in a ‘channel’ on Twitter, it’s entirely normal to whip your mobile device when standing in a queue (instead of talking about the weather to a stranger), and you’d be shocked if brands didn’t encourage you to follow them on Facebook.

One way to explain this is through Clay Shirky’s lens: these things are now socially boring enough to be socially interesting. You can assume that almost the man or woman on the street knows what Facebook, Twitter and mobile devices are for without having to explain them first. That means we can talk about the next layer up- i.e. what we do with those tools.

Open Badges are still quite technologically interesting. There’s several aspects of them that the average person wouldn’t understand without having it explained. For example:

  • What metadata is
  • How an Open Badges consists of ‘baking’ metadata into an image
  • That anyone can host a badge backpack because it’s Open Source software
  • What is means that the various badge backpacks will be ‘federated’

Now, we could go about a mass education program and (relatively speaking) spend a lot of money helping people to learn about these things. But that’s not how things reach a tipping point. The way people become proficient with tools like social networks or Open Badges is because they scratch an itch (solve a problem) or because there’s a ‘hook’ interesting enough for them to be dragged, Alice in Wonderland-like into a deep rabbit-hole where they can find out more.

So in a UK context, Stephen Fry’s 2009 video interview where he explained his love of Twitter in layman’s terms meant that many people were provided a hook. In fact, this is how advertising and celebrity endorsement works: “I like Person X, and Person X likes Thing Y, so therefore I should find out more about Thing Y.” With Facebook, it was an itch to be scratched: when you’re excluded from a conversation because you’re not using a particular social network, then there’s a powerful incentive to join the tribe. Especially as the nominal cost of entry is ‘free’ and the difficulty level is ‘super easy’.

What we need with Open Badges, and which we’ll certainly have by early 2013, are compelling examples of how they can be used in education and other contexts. At the same time we’re working on ways to make ‘onboarding’ easier for issuers, displayers and endorsers. We’re also working on the UX and UI for badge earners. In other words, we’re ready for badges to be huge next year.

Watch this space. 🙂

Image CC BY Joi