Open Badges: Recognising Informal Learning
While the recognition of formal learning rests on the extensive paraphernalia of grades, exams, diplomas and certificates, are those instruments fit for the recognition, validation and accreditation (RVA) of informal learning? Does the recognition of informal learning mean formal recognition of informal learning, or is there a space for developing something akin to the informal recognition of informal learning? What policies, strategies, practices, supporting infrastructures and technologies could make informal recognition possible and valuable? How to best combine the formal and informal recognition of learning to support lifelong learning?
The nascent of Open Badges
In 2011, to address the challenges associated to the recognition of informal learning, Mozilla and the MacArthur Foundation launched the Open Badges project. The objective was to provide a simple object, a digital badge, that could be used by anybody to claim the recognition of learning achievements and get accredited for it. Beyond learning achievements, Open Badges can be used to recognise many different things like affiliations, attendance and contribution to an event, acquisition of competencies and more.
One of the great beauties of an Open Badge is its simplicity: it is a picture into which are embedded a set of (meta)data, in particular:
- who the recipient of that badge is
- who the issuer of that badge is
- what the criteria for earning that badge are
- what the supporting evidence matching the criteria is
- who the endorsers of the badge are—endorsement is a means to increase one’s reputation
The combination of those metadata constitutes a verifiable claim, i.e. something that can be claimed by the recipient of a badge and its authenticity/integrity verified by all those viewing that badge:
It is not possible to modify the original content of a badge (but it is possible to add more to it, like endorsements or supplementary evidence).
A badge belongs to the recipient and cannot be transferred (or stollen!) to (by) someone else—changing the recipient of a badge would violate its integrity and the badge would be declared invalid upon verification.
Conversely, it is not possible to pretend having earned a badge from a certain issuer if the real issuer has not issued that badge — to do so, the counterfeiter would have to know a secret (private key) only known to the issuer.
The structure of an Open Badge and the way it is issued and verified is described in an open standard designed and regularly improved by the community of Open Badge practitioners — the 2.0 version was published early 2017.
Another way to understand Open badges is to think of them as trust statements: I (the issuer) trust you (the recipient) to do this (the criteria) as you provided sufficient evidence. Open Badges can be interpreted as the elementary links of trust networks—local and global. This trust relationship is particularly important to consider when designing systems supporting the informal recognition of informal learning.
As Open Badges are picture files, they are easy to create, store, share and display. Once delivered, Open Badges are 100% under the control of their recipients who can choose what to do with them. Services like the Open Badge Passport help badge recipients to organise them into meaningful portfolios, collect endorsements and access a range of services.
The contribution of Open Badges to rethinking learning recognition
When addressing the issue of recognition of informal learning, what is generally explored is the formal recognition of informal learning: under which conditions official authorities recognise informal learning, so it could be further recognised by other stakeholders like potential employers or clients (for the self-employed). Yet, informal recognition of informal learning exists, for example when a technician is promoted engineer by an employer, but this recognition tends to remain local. Open Badges are changing that by providing the opportunity to make local recognition global.
The contribution of Open Badges to the recognition of learning is the provision of a unified instrument supporting:
The recognition of formal (accreditation) as well as informal learning—using Open Badges in formal learning settings can contribute to increasing its acceptance for informal learning.
Learners taking control over the recognition processes—using Open Badges to grow their identity and social reputation.
Depending on who is at the initiative of the recognition process we can distinguish two main types of badges:
Claims: the process is controlled by the recipient who is seeking recognition by peers, members of the community or authorities, e.g. a person creates her own badge describing a personal achievement and asks others to endorse it or someone to issue the badge on her behalf.
Credentials: the process is controlled by the issuing authority and is delivered upon satisfaction of the criteria. Although badges can be used for macro-credentials, like diplomas, this kind of badges is often used to deliver finer grained credentials called micro-credentials.
While today Open Badges are mainly used as micro-credentials delivered by authorities (schools, universities), there is a huge untapped potentials in using badges to support learner-controlled recognition processes as an alternative and/or support to formal recognition, validation and accreditation. This could be particularly valuable in countries with poor or inexistent formal systems of recognition.
Open Badges for Open Recognition
As visual symbols, Open Badges are accessible to people within a wide range of literacy levels. Using badges as the milestones of a curriculum or a learning programme is a means to convey their meaning to all prospective learners. As visual symbols are used for all kinds of programmes, from basic literacy to rocket scientist, there would be no stigma attached with Open Badges as something “just for people with low literacy levels.” Moreover, those who have earned a badge would be able to share their achievements with the members of their community, independently of their respective literacy levels.
So we have the following virtuous circle:
- Open Badges makes the learning provision visible to people with low literacy levels.
- Open Badges makes the learning achievements of people with low literacy levels visible to all.
As learners with low literacy levels can share their achievements within their community, it is an incentive for other members of the community to share their own achievements.
Moreover, Open Badges open the “space of recognition” far beyond formal recognition. While competency Badges have the advantage of providing a finer level of granularity to the recognition process, the recognition process itself remains in the conformance quadrant (formal/traditional): badges tell what the person was able to do in the past, information from which one can infer possible future performance. In the other quadrant, empowerment (non-forma/non-traditional), we have self-issued badges and peer-endorsed badges so someone could for example making a statement by claiming the Doctor Badge to then go to the Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières to offer their services in their current capacity, get the badge endorsed by their peers and colleagues in these communities then go to the university using that badge in the application form to demonstrate her commitment and personal values.
The four quadrants of recognition
The "Plan of Recognition"
I will explore in a further post the many options for using Open Badges to do something new and not just replace current credentials by similar ones: digitalised traditional credentials. Badges should be designed as launchpads into the future, not just as testimonies of previous achievements. This is an invitation to expand the actual processes of recognition of prior learning to the recognition of planned futures.
Open Badges, thanks to their technical simplicity and international standardisation, provide a very low threshold access to universal recognition of learning. Their simplicity is also an asset to manage the complexity of recognition systems, whether formal and informal. The main challenge with Open Badges is not technical but the mindset of those using them: Open Badges are to recognition of learning what Lego™ blocks are to engineering: they can be used to imagine new designs or copy existing ones. The choice is ours.