Nate Otto //

3 Trust Principles for Building Open Badges Software

An illustration of three overlapping circles overlaid with a hexagon.

Open Badges are a technology that promise to serve as portable digital credentials. Each badge symbolizes particular achievements a badge issuer recognizes about a recipient. The goal is that as a "shared language for data about achievements," Open Badges and the accomplishments they represent can be understood by employers, colleges and other consumers of credentials.

It is badge consumers who are the arbiters of which badges are valuable. in 2015, software that uses Open Badges needs to focus more on helping badge consumers decide which badges make trustworthy claims.

As a developer working with Open Badges, I see a need for badge software to fill this value gap by ensuring that badge consumers can understand what information is being presented in a badge and how it applies to their context. An employer may see that an job applicant has earned a badge for experience with the Python programming language, but there is currently little way for this type of badge consumer to quickly understand how applicable that experience is to the job description she's hiring for or to see whether the badge is trusted by others in her network. Without making the badge understandable from within consumers' context, badges have no "currency."

Various coins and currency from around the world.


Currency, as a quality of money, corresponds to whether an artifact is generally accepted. Among credentials in the US, we could say bachelor's degrees have currency; they are often listed as a top-line requirement for a wide range of positions, and are estimated to become even more important. A Georgetown University study last year predicted that the bachelor's degree would become a requirement for at least 63% of job openings by 2018.

In the Open Badges community, "currency" has long been a goal. The title of the ongoing MOOC for Open Badges on Blackboard's Coursesites platform is "Badges: New Currency for Professional Credentials," and among the working groups of the Badge Alliance, building understanding of badges among employers and other credential consumers has been a key focus.

In the fall, I participated in a roundtable webinar on badges hosted by the collaborative site Working Examples, where we referred to currency as the "holy grail" sought after by badge program designers. I followed up for a more targeted discussion with Krystal Meisel, who worked last summer with the city of Los Angeles on their City of Learning program. We distilled several factors that form both the barriers to how badges could gain currency and the opportunity points that our community, and specifically the developers at CSky, can build software around.

As I wrote for the DPD Project, issuers often try to convey the value they think badges will carry to their potential earner population, only to be met with incredulity or unease. Students are rightly skeptical of educators' or techies' claims that a particular credential will open up unspecified but valuable opportunities, and potential badge consumers are unwilling to promise valuable opportunities to earners of unfamiliar badges before seeing what real-world earners of those badges can do. It's a catch-22 that undermines alternative credentials' ability to gain currency.

UK research organization Jisc summarized the challenge based on an interview with the Badge Alliance's Carla Casilli: "It's clear that for badges to have currency, people need to be confident in their value." Casilli elaborated on her own blog that badge currency arises from trust networks, and if they are to gain currency, badges "must not only engender trust, but actively work to build it." She sketched out some features and practices of open badges systems that together build trust.

A diagram showing relatives sizes of factors that determine trust.

Currency Comes from Trust

A consumer's ability to trust the claims made by a badge start with verification of its recipient and authentication of its validity. Over time, consumers can consider the reliability of a particular issuer for recognizing earners of a certain quality and can take into account the accreditation or endorsement of external organizations. These factors all add up to trust in the badge as a credible claim about the earner. But Casilli hints at the ephemerality of trust in a credential saying that "Trust is a delicate alchemical reaction based on complex and varying degrees of components, environment, perceptions, etc."

The goal of open badges supporters isn't to create an ecosystem of credentials that are trusted tenuously and ephemerally; it has long been argued that open badges have the potential to serve as currency. To build currency with badges, consumers need to know when they can trust a badge's claims, and potential earners need to know whether the badges they have a chance to earn will be trusted by the employers, colleges, or partners to whom they hope to present them.

#3 Trust Principles for Building Badge Software

Open Badges have the potential to unlock value for their earners, in terms of new jobs, collaborations, and opportunities. Here are three tips for software developers looking to turn this potential into cold hard currency.

1. Recognize that consumers and earners may be unfamiliar with Open Badges

Badge issuing programs may provide valuable experiences and have rock-solid assessments, but if the consumers of their badges don't know how to access the information in badges' metadata, there is no way for them to decide whether the program is trustworthy. Software for earners needs to help them show their badges in a wide variety of circumstances, often to consumers who may never have seen an Open Badge before. This places a lot of responsibility on badge recipients not only to explain their own accomplishments, but also to explain in high-pressure job application processes what Open Badges themselves are and how to interpret them.

This barrier to developing trust in the badges can be alleviated by embedding information about the features of Open Badges where badges are displayed. Make it clear that an issuer recognized an earner for a specific accomplishment, and plainly display the links to criteria, evidence, and the Issuer. A badge earners' accomplishments are relevant in many different contexts and conversations, and badge displays should be tailored to the needs of those contexts. For example, a resume is the expected format for discussing credentials in the hiring process. Developers who wish to target job applications as a medium of badge sharing may seek to let earners easily embed badges into their resumes.

2. Consumers must know why they can trust an Open Badge is valid

Issuers, earners, and consumers of Open Badges all have an interest in knowing that a badge presented by its recipient is valid. And when earners show off their badges to consumers who may never have seen badges before, they need to put the ability to perform validation at those consumers' fingertips. Software developers who write applications representing earners' interests need to make it easy for earners to put their badges and auditable proof of those badges' validity in front of consumers. Closely linking software that allows earners to share their accomplishments with software that allows consumers to validate them helps reduce the friction and increase trust.

Make it clear what types of validation an application performs on the badges it displays. A valid badge is one truly issued by the issuer to the recipient that the consumer expects, when that badge assertion has not expired or been revoked.

3. Leverage cooperation to make trust networks visible

The Badge Alliance is in the process of finalizing a specification for "endorsement" of Open Badges and Issuers. Just like the badges given to earners, endorsement badges are shareable declarations of trust. One of the most important questions to answer about whether a badge should be trusted is who else trusts it, and the endorsement specification will make it possible to begin answering this question., a project by Concentric Sky, will utilize public endorsement data as it emerges to serve as a repository for information about the community's trust in various badges and issuers.

The Open Badges community is cooperative and proactive in defining methods of cooperation. Where it is a heavy lift for one developer or company to build currency for badges, cooperating with a community to establish trust and can distribute the load. With our own proposal to the DML Trust Competition, we introduce a plan for building software that embodies these three principles, and we are happy to see that other initiatives like Badge Europe's "Open Badge Passport" and the Open Badge Exchange project out of Dartmouth College are also focused on questions around badge currency through looking at building trust.

The Open Badges community will make great progress in 2015 building better software for issuing badges and for earners to manage and organize them. But for those badges to have currency, badge consumers need to have software that represents their interests and helps them decide which badges to trust.