I recently attended Nesta’s FutureFest event in London. It was a heady mix of everything related to what’s next: from food to technology to economics to politics. What really caught my attention, however, was the way in which one particular innovation seemed to have captured the imagination of people across various sectors. That technology is the blockchain.
Bear with me. Some of this will have to be slightly technical in order to get across the point I want to make about credentialing. First, I’ll explain in broad brushstrokes how the blockchain is currently used to underpin Bitcoin, the ‘cryptocurrency’ you’ve no doubt heard something about. After that, I’ll investigate ways in which it could be used with web-native systems such as Open Badges to profoundly transform the way we think about trusted credentials.
When people talk about “the blockchain,” they’re almost always referring to the technology underpinning Bitcoin. The blockchain is literally a chain of blocks of code serving as a “public ledger” to record transactions within a distributed database. Everyone involved in Bitcoin transactions has a complete copy of the blockchain. This is important as it prevents double spending without the need for central oversight.
At the moment, most things being placed into the blockchain are hashes (i.e. obfuscated representations) of currency transactions. In other words, you can prove that something took place at that point in time. Those not involved in the “transaction” would not be able to see what actually took place — unless you provided them with the key.
Anything that can be “hashed” can be placed into the blockchain. Many suggestions have been made for the kinds of information that could be placed into it. In essence, anything that usually requires central oversight could, in theory, be replaced by using the blockchain. Examples include extremely sensitive information such as voting patterns, HR records, and, even, nuclear launch codes.
Blockchain and Badges
One of the potential stumbling blocks when it comes to the Open Badges Infrastructure (OBI) can be verification. How do I make absolutely sure that the person with this badge is the same person who created the evidence claiming it? I’ve told the story many times of my great-uncle who based his entire career on the “fact” that he attended Oxford University. He claimed his degree certificate was destroyed in a fire when, in fact, he’d simply doctored an old photo of the year he would have been at the university.
If we used the blockchain for Open Badges, then we could prove beyond reasonable doubt that the person receiving badge Y is the same person who created evidence X. This would use a “proof of work” system. At the moment, the situation is still better than paper-based certificates but, such an approach would allow Open Badges to be used in extremely high-stakes situations. The blockchain would prove a connection between the evidence and the badge. More details could be unlocked if the earner chooses to share his or her key.
Going a Step Further
Blockchain technology underpins Bitcoin and is the original and best-known example. However, there’s no reason why there can’t be multiple blockchains that aren’t so tied to cryptocurrencies. One soon-to-launch example of this is Ethereum which describes itself as “a platform for decentralized applications.”
Ethereum allows for a situation in the not-so-distant future where smart contracts will allowentirely autonomous corporations to exist. Those who have seen the Terminator series of films may have concerns about the potential for Skynet in all of this. The reality, while exciting, is likely to be much more prosaic (and much less dystopian) than those works of science fiction suggest. With terms of service instantiated in code, such organisations will work on behalf of us to perform tasks that cause problems when subject to human error. These could include automatic issuing and verifying services around trusted credentials.
While we wouldn’t want to entirely remove the “human” element around credentialing, a hybrid OBI and blockchain approach could add value to our current system. Machines and software are extremely good at fact-checking, whereas humans are good at meaning. We need both.
If my evidence to earn a badge (or whatever we end up calling such credentials) is part of the blockchain, then I have data upon which to draw that is distributed, public, and objective. Compare that with our current ad-hoc system of certificates languishing in drawers that struggle to be represented online. Verification moves beyond questions such as “does this look legitimate?”to verified, trusted credentials.
It’s worth saying that all of this talk of using the blockchain with the OBI is highly speculative. There have been some initial conversations and a group at Dartmouth College is investigating possibilities as the Open Badge Exchange. If you have an interest, now is the perfect time to start thinking about these things and getting involved!
If you’ve come across the BadgeChain site, or our Medium pub and you’re intrigued, you most likely already know what Digital Badges are all about. If you don’t…This post is intended to provide an overview of information about digital badges.
Please keep in mind that this is merely a primer on digital badges, open badges, etc. If you want to really understand…get involved in the Open Badges 101 course.
Unlike traditional scout badges or other credentials such as school grades or transcripts, digital badges can contain specific claims regarding what the earner learned or did and detailed evidence supporting those claims.
Badges contain detailed claims about learning, links to evidence of learning, and they’re shareable over the web.
Please review the video overview that details elements of a badge.
What is an open badge?
Open badges are digital badges are designed to be collected by individual learners in their digital backpack and displayed across different contexts and environments. A digital backpack is an online space where learners can collect and display their badges online. An open badge is a digital image or digital badge that has metadata ‘baked’ into it.
As Doug Belshawindicates, once the metadata has been baked into the image to create the open badge, it cannot be removed from the resultant “cake.” Open badges have the potential to form living portfolios for recognizing personal competencies and achievements while communicating these between education and work.
What is metadata?
A digital badge is really a graphic with a ton of “metadata” behind it. Metadata is data about data, or more specifically, data that contains an underlying definition or description.
The real power in the badge is in the metadata associated with it. The metadata is a series of links and data that indicates what the badge is for, what criteria were used to award the badge, and any standards associated with the badge. Image and metadata work together to form a graphical representation of some collection of knowledge, skills, dispositions, or competencies that have been determined by the issuers.
How do you earn a badge?
To earn a badge, in most instances you need to “pledge” for a badge as a pathway to a goal, or to identify an accomplishment. In this, there needs to be some formal announcement from a student that they are working toward earning a badge, or that they believe they have conducted work that would earn them a badge.
After they have completed the requirements for the badge, a review process is typically conducted to see if they earned the badge. This review might consist of a self-review, a peer-review, or an assessment by experts. All of this information is made openly available by the badge issuer, and is sometimes included in the metadata for the badge.
One of the benefits of open digital badges is that you can often access and review the work, reflections, and feedback from the review given to individuals that have already earned the badge you’re pledging for. In this process, you are able to see the knowledge, skills, and dispositions the badge issuer is looking to recognize.
In some instances, digital badges are awarded as a form of “stealth badge”, or an award given for criteria unknown to the earner. These stealth badges are often viewed as a surprise by the earner.
Please review the following video to learn more about badging ecosystems, and the possible value of badges.
How do you issue a badge?
Anyone can issue open digital badges, either by running a badge creation application on their own web server or signing up with an issuing platform. Before considering the technical requirements, it is important to design badge systems to fit your goals as you design a badging program.
As you start building your badge, and possibly a full badge ecosystem, you might start with this template which was developed by digitalME to use as develop the individual badges.
As indicated earlier, badges are awarded as a way to use a layer of technology and a layer of social media to document learning by an individual. To ensure that you don’t confuse learners, and eventual earners of your badges, you’ll need a certain level of “granularity” before beginning to award them to students. In plain speak, it needs to be crystal clear as to what the badges mean, and how people can earn them.
To learn more about assumptions as you create and issue badges, please review the following video from Doug Belshaw.
We need to indicate that digital badges may be open, or they may exist in closed ecosystems. An example of this is a school or organization that wants to ensure the privacy of their users, and as a result does not openly share online the badges, metadata, and the users in the badge ecosystem.
In an open badging ecosystem, Nate Otto indicates that:
Open badges are visual symbols of accomplishment that include detailed metadata describing that accomplishment and featuring automated verification of their authenticity.
There are many other factors associated with developing and awarding digital badges, or a full badge ecosystem. Hopefully this primer helps you start to wrap your head around digital and open badges. Please reach out, or comment on this post for more support.