In the previous post, we looked at the relationship between trust, Open Badges and blockchains. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, one could say: Open Badges and blockchains are two technologies separated by a common idea [trust].
To explore how Open Badges and blockchains could merge into a new technical object, my reasoning will pass through several stages. We will start with a BadgeChain that does not make any reference to the blockchain technology, then, step by step, we will describe the mutation of this initial object through the incorporation of new genes into its DNA — hoping that we will not have created a chimera!
BadgeChain take one: everything is a badge
To create something that looks like a BadgeChain, we need to link badges together; there are multiple ways this can be achieved:
Indirectly: badges are “connected” through each individual issuer and earner. The issuer is a kind of “connector” between all the badges issued (and their earners), the earner is a kind of “connector” between all the badges received (and their issuers). Badges can also be connected through the alignment metadata, a list of objects describing educational standards — a property of the version 1.5 of the standard that has not been widely exploited.
Directly: badges are literally linked to other badges. For example, an endorsement badge could use the address of the badge being endorsed as the identification for the earner of that badge.
As a chain invokes the image of a direct connection between its constituents, we will focus our attention on creating an environment where everything is a badge. There is a legitimate reason to use badges for everything: once we understand that a badge is a relationship (between an issuer and an earner), saying everything is a badge is not different from saying everything is relationships. Making everything a badge should make it as easy to play with them as it would be with Lego™ blocks.
NB: while I often use the Lego™ metaphor to describe the simplicity of Open Badges and how it makes it possible for educators to practice bricolage, if I am honest, in the depiction of the state of the badges as a Lego blocks, I should write:
it is not possible to plug them together: square tubes do not match round studs (there are also oblong studs on half of the top and half the bottom is flat with no hollow parts)
if you insist on building something with them, do not sneeze, or you’ll have to restart from scratch!
when you discover that there is not much you can do with them, you read the manual and understand why there was a bag, a kind of backpack: it’s to carry them with you wherever you go to show your collection, to a[n] (probably uninterested or condescending) audience…
The next Open Badge standard should bring us closer to the conditions for Lego™ block-like badges, with matching tubes and studs. This should open the Open Badge ecosystem for some serious and rich play to take place (*).
In a world where everything is a badge, we could use badges for many different purposes: creating personal identifiers, linking to evidence, setting criteria for issuing or receiving a badge, etc. Some of these options are described in the table below.
In the picture above, the arrows elicit the links between the components of a badge. The green and purple badges are identifiers with the green badge being self-issued (self-referential). The Issuer of the yellow badge at the centre is the purple badge so the content of the Issuer metadata of the yellow badge contains the address of the purple badge. The Evidence metadata links to a blue badge that was issued by the issuer identified by the purple badge — it could be an observation of the learner’s performance, and the Evidence of the blue badge could be a video of the observation and the Criteria the narrative of the observation by the issuer.
There are probably better ways to connect badges together, but what we want at this point is not to decide on what is the best possible way to connect badges together but to explore the properties of chaining badges together: what are the properties of chained badges that badges placed in a bag do not have?
The properties of chained badges
Chained badges change the topography of the Open Badge landscape where issuers are currently at the summit of their Open Badge dominions. Chained badges are a means to put an end to the strong asymmetry between issuers and earners implemented in the original version of the Open Badge Infrastructure — surreptitiously underpinned by the formal education credentialing model.
By connecting badges together, we are creating interwoven threads of data, so starting from one person’s identifier in the network we are able to follow multiple paths that connect this person to all the other participants in the network, their relationships, knowledge and the artefacts produced. Chained badges create one global distributed database from where one can pull different threads, creating multiple narratives, from different points of view: individual, community, organisational, city and region.
Moreover, when looking at the picture above, we are looking at something that might speak to the ePortfolio practitioner. By connecting together pieces of information we are creating meaning and assembling the elements of a new artefact: a portfolio. Most of us are familiar with the action verbs associated with ePortfolios: collect, select, connect, reflect — BTW, those verbs do not describe a “sequence” as the collection could be the result of a reflection and conversely! Open Badges are a means to simultaneously collect and connect, while creating meaning providing the fuel for further reflection (and action!).
Until now, the understanding of the link between ePortfolios and badges is dominated by ePortfolios as a place to display Open Badges and the use of ePortfolios to earn a badge — this is particularly clear when practitioners oppose ePortfolios and Open Badges or see them as “complementary.”. In this perspective, the link between ePortfolios and Open Badges is mainly functional, not organic; they are treated as two different objects.
bee-badges for hive-portfolios
My proposal is that Open Badges and ePortfolios are not “complementary” loosely connected objects , but Open Badges are the substratum from which ePortfolios can grow organically, like a beehive out of the activity of the bees — bee-badges for hive-portfolios!
By providing a space where everything is a badge, we have also resolved the issue of interoperability: we render obsolete standards like IMS ePortfolio (hardly used) and LEAP2A (slightly more used) that are based on a fragmented vision of information systems, in particular the storage of data, something that is now challenged with the increased adoption of distributed ledgers (blockchains).
(*) Nate Otto commented on this point: “the Learning Pathways data vocabulary allows a data format that enables this. See https://usecanvas.com/ottonomy/learning-pathway-models-api/47JdBeSCqzKJ1v3H8Oswlo — which shows some “report style” syntaxes using this proposed vocabulary. The context is not build yet, but it is a data model that allows us to build nested hierarchies of the legos, and then to each lego, you may specify a relationship to suggested badges, earned Badge Assertions, etc.”
This post is the third in a series of five blog posts designed to explore, inform, and encourage public discussions about the possibilities, opportunities, and challenges arising at the intersection of Open Badges and blockchain technology.
Part 1: “The Open Badges Part”
Part 2: “The Blockchain Part”
Over the last five years, we have dedicated ourselves to working in the open as founding members of the open badges revolution. We continue to share our insights publicly in this blog post, exploring the possibilities of combining badges and blockchain, two innovative, new technologies. As always, we aim to keep the language simple and straightforward. (If you’re brand new to open badges, you can find the original open badges white paper here.)
A vital open badges ecosystem
In our first post, we dived into the definition and history of open badges, providing information regarding the technology that underpins them. In our second post, we focused on defining blockchain, hinted at its adoption rate, and referenced its increasing power in the software implementation world. Here we’ll explore some of the ways that blockchain can serve the needs of the open badges ecosystem. That means investigating issues and impasses that currently beleaguer open badges and their related ecosystem development. Areas we’ll cover include hosting, identity, verification, and privacy; however, we acknowledge that there are additional issues that impact further open badges ecosystem development, including evidence and endorsement.
Here it’s important to state that all of our comments addressing concerns and roadblocks are noted with this caveat: the open badges ecosystem is vital and growing in dynamic ways and has been for years. We assert that its continued surging growth is a direct response to the intrinsic hypothesis embedded in the open badges initiative — that many forms of learning were/are going unrecognized and under-appreciated. In this important aspect, the open badges effort, regardless of its current issues, is succeeding wildly in its aim of representing learning in new and beneficial ways.
In the following sections, we’ll link existing open badges development with blockchain possibilities, some of which are conceptual concerns and some of which are affordances offered by a new technology.
Currently the open badges ecosystem is composed of at least three essential audiences: earners (people who earn recognition through badges), issuers (organizations and individuals who provide recognition through badges) and consumers (individuals and organizations that make use of / evaluate badges for their own purposes). These different constituencies have different drivers, desires, and requirements. The open badges ecosystem has been structured to acknowledge, accommodate, and nurture each of these audiences. Think of them as a three legged stool: remove one of the legs and the proposed ecosystem structure topples over. Each of these audiences plays important and reinforcing roles at different times. In this post (3.1) and the follow-on sister post (3.2), we’ll explore how a BadgeChain implementation could affect their influence, address their difficulties, and encourage continued development.
Issuer consideration: lifetime hosting
In the existing software construct, open badges contain three files: the assertion, the badge class, and the issuer object. The last acts as the metadata reference to the issuer. Once issued, badges become an artifact that must be hosted permanently. Right now, most badges typically reside on the originating badge issuers’ servers and, somewhat like transcripts, they must remain hosted during the life of the badge, which may be as long as a lifespan or as long as the earner or consumer requires them.
Badges with signed assertions require issuers to host private keys for the life of the badge. Baked into these arrangements are implicit issues of trust intertwined with explicit financial, physical, and social capital costs. While this aspect of participation is not entirely insurmountable, it does complicate long term viability. For some issuers or wannabe issuers, this requirement directly infringes on their ability to fully engage in the open badges ecosystem.
With the blockchain construct, responsibility for information accuracy shifts away from the (hosting) issuer as the primary reference point to the information itself. So how does this work? The hosting requirement is distributed to all nodes on the blockchain. All badge metadata information is embedded within the blockchain and permanently hosted by all nodes participating in the blockchain. Consequently, there is no requirement for issuers to host badges because that information is hosted on the blockchain itself.
As long as the chain (or ledger) exists, information about any badge on the ledger will be available, regardless of whether or not the badge issuer goes out of business, stops issuing badges, or disappears altogether. Obviously, issuers are essential to the open badges ecosystem; however, with blockchain, their hosting responsibilities and to a certain degree, their requirement for information maintenance, end upon badge issuance.
Earner + Consumer consideration: zombie badges
If by some chance a badge is cut loose from its hosting location, whether accidentally or intentionally, it becomes a potential liability to both the earner and the open badges ecosystem. Why? Because without the vital hosting reference links that confirm it, the badge can no longer be validated or verified. Consequently, the badge becomes orphaned and, for the most part, useless to potential consumers. In colloquial terms, this is a zombie badge: dead in most respects despite any original implied or actual value.
With blockchain, the zombie badge concern can be not only mitigated but dispensed with altogether. Blockchain is built upon a ledger concept, and because the ledger acts as an ongoing reference point, badges cannot become zombified. Why? Because issuer verification is written into the ledger when the badge is written into the ledger: verification becomes an artifact of the issued badge.
The open badges specification references external urls that may or may not be hosted on the issuers’ servers. These urls include the criteria, the part of the metadata that describes earning, and the evidence, the part of the metadata that indicates work requirements. Currently, both criteria and evidence each have their own url. While the 2.0 specification work is exploring alternatives to existing structural elements of the badge metadata, like embedding criteria content directly in the badge and allowing evidence to refer to an array of urls with identifiers, even these alterations leave holes in verifiability and validation.
Because badge evidence can be a file or website accessible via a url which we understand to be unreliable. Evidence plays a critical role as it accomplishes two things: it clearly indicates a badge’s learning/earning requirements, and it provides proof to consumers of completion. Evidence that a consumer will evaluate on their own terms. With the blockchain, it is possible to store evidence files, whether or not they are videos, content, audio. etc. Storj.io & bitproof.io are two such examples of services that will encrypt and store files.
A further possibility involves combining the ledger capability of blockchain with the distributed web, two peer-to-peer systems. Projects like IPFS (Interplanetary File System) host files and web pages on a distributed system. It’s conceivable that viewers (most likely consumers or proposed consumers) of the files could also host them. Regarding open badges, this idea could be extended to include audiences acting as hosts for evidence files. Now it’s a bit futuristic, but using this scenario, it’s possible that this include baked badges as well: a slightly deeper exploration can be found here.
Issuer + Earner + Consumer consideration: data
The data from open badges is currently inaccessible unless issuers volunteer it or badge collection platforms like the Mozilla Backpack provide it. Even today, it’s difficult to ascertain which badges have been claimed or which badges have been viewed / consumed. And yet, inquiries about open badges issuing, distribution, and use are among the most common requests heard today. How many organizations are issuing badges? Who are they? What badges are they issuing? How many are they issuing? Are issued badges being claimed by earners? How many earned badges are being viewed and consumed? Who is consuming them? Are patterns emerging?
No issuer wants their badges to sit idly on their servers, unclaimed or even unacknowledged, but the current open badges infrastructure allows for that unintended possibility. While some issuing platforms provide ways for earners to share their badges publicly, not every issuer does. Additionally, some platforms have created an interface that links to the Mozilla open badges backpack, a reference implementation of a badge repository, sharing, and display site, but it’s not a requirement of the Open Badges Specification. And even though many badge earners opt to push their badges to a badge collection platforms like the Mozilla backpack, all of that content is still only a subset of all badges issued.
Once again, the value of a ledger that records all transactions reveals itself. Not only is the ledger hosted in a distributed manner, but transactions, once they are added to blocks, become public. This is a dramatic improvement in badge data transparency. Generally speaking, it is possible for issuers, badge classes and assertions to be publicly accessible on blockchain. The public nature of blockchain makes data much more accessible and referenceable than previously has been possible — even in a complicated example of multiple chains containing multiple badges and other credentials.
Data-derived answers to the considerations noted above will reveal the true nature of open badges: as powerful, information-rich tools. By providing a window into what makes a badge, or series of badges, useful and valuable, many types of connections can be generated, e.g., issuers to other issuers, earners to opportunities, and consumers to issuers and earners. This information can help to create a virtuous circle that benefits the entire open badges ecosystem.
Of course, as with all personal digital data, privacy issues must be considered closely. Interestingly, blockchain implementations of open badges may differ from how the majority of blockchain transactions currently work. These considerations and challenges are precisely the areas that BadgeChain is exploring.
A word about BadgeChain + funding
BadgeChain is an open source think tank focused on the intersection of open badges and the blockchain for the public good. While we currently are investigating blockchain affordances with regards to learning recognition (i.e., not developing specific tools), we have ideas! Lots of ideas. And we are searching for funding opportunities to continue this exploration and possibly build/expand upon tools both existing and new. If you are intrigued by this work and have ideas of your own pertaining to development activities, please contact us. We are available for discussions regarding general consulting as well as specific projects.