Open Badges and Micro-Credentials Technical Roadmap (Header Image: Nevada Lane, @NevadaSF. This post adapted from a technical session recap, 30 January 2015 in Redwood City, CA)
Last week, representing Concentric Sky and the Oregon Badge Alliance, I was an invited participant at the Educator & Workforce Micro-Credentials Summit, put on by Digital Promise with the support of the MacArthur Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation. Thanks to Digital Promise and MacArthur for extending an invitation and bringing the Oregon Badge Alliance's perspective to Redwood City. Concentric Sky is working to define a new endorsement extension to the Open Badges specification in order to elevate the best badges and issuers within their communities of earners and consumers.
I was specifically requested to participate in a session on "The Credentials Roadmap: the Technical Side of Micro-Credentials." In this portion of the summit, we addressed questions around micro-credentials from a technical perspective, but the questions we considered were echoed in every other session I attended, and in many of the informal conversations in small groups and around tables the rest of the day.
We talked about interoperability, about adopting a multi-stakeholder perspective, and about the importance of a long-term view. But there was one question that rightfully occupied most of our time in talking about the technical roadmap, and it was the most frequent topic of the entire summit.
The big question that will be before us for years is how the value of microcredentials will be determined. (I started talking about this last week, by beginning to investigate the concept of "currency.") David Blake from Degreed pointed out that when we talk about interoperability today, we are talking on the level of technical compatibility, not on the level of value. While the technical validation of badges and the adoption of the common data specification is absolutely necessary to interoperability, these components alone do not ensure that micro-credentials issued by one organization can be easily valued within a different organization's context.
The Open Badges specification creates a distributed infrastructure with a low barrier to entry for new issuers, because there are no central gatekeepers whose authorization must be gained in order to participate. With the thousands of issuers that already exist and the potential millions that may join them in coming years, it is a major challenge to compare different micro-credentials. While issuers, earners, and consumers all have a role in determining how badges are valued, "currency" is measured from the value system, context or place within a network of trust occupied by a consumer. The question a consumer might ask is "how does this credential fit into standards I respect, and why should I trust that it lives up to the promise of that alignment?" How can we guide that consumer to an answer without requiring hours or days of effort researching each new credential and its issuing organization? Erin Knight, described this issue as the "most pressing" question in her 2012 paper on badge validation, calling the technical validation measures provided by the Open Badges specification a "baseline," from which to start addressing the more important questions about value.
This isn't a problem exclusive to digital or micro-credentials, though it may be a more present problem in our minds because of the diversity of micro-credentials that an open standard allows. Many people are familiar with treating even college degrees as a sort of "black box." Today, college degrees are well respected as the gold standard of educational credentials, but are impossible for employers to translate into specific skills, understanding or mindsets conferred to their earners. These existing credentials rely on large institutional gatekeepers, and the network of trust they create excludes a diversity of voices and organizations whose learning programs and credentials present value that has not been created within the traditional system.
Within the Open Badges specification community, we often consider badges as visible declarations of trust, and we are working on an endorsement specification to allow recognizers and 3rd parties to add their voices about which micro-credentials speak to their own value systems or those of consumers who trust them. Endorsements aim to help guide earners toward credentials of value and help consumers expand their scope of possible credentials they can recognize, so they can turn those credentials into opportunities granted to earners.
It will be a heavy lift, and there's no easy path to being able to understand large swaths of the open micro-credentials landscape. But endorsements present an opportunity to define new networks of trust, open to broad participation that can begin to show consumers which badges are trustworthy.
There is the chance that in the face of this hard problem we will recreate existing value systems reliant on large established gatekeepers, because we are unable to translate the value provided by new players into our local contexts. But there is also a chance to build up an emergent ecosystem of understanding micro-credentials issued by a diverse range of providers, layering trust relationships and endorsements. With open technology and cooperative services like BadgeRank.org, we may build up visible records of our trust relationships, and then we might see where many of the micro-credentials created by diverse issuers are situated, each from our own perspectives within a network of trust.
I am taking the lead for Concentric Sky on defining endorsement as an OBI 1.1 extension.