BadgeChain began as an investigation into blockchain in the context of Open Badges, a new digital credential designed to acknowledge learning and achievements that happen anytime, anywhere, and anyhow. Open Badges embed metadata describing an accomplishment into an image (or badge), this construct results in easily consumable data and ultimately a truly portable credential. Badges can be microcredentials but also any type of credential including degrees and certifications.
Open Badges are hosted on web servers, and the verification method is reliant on the issuers storing the data for as long as the earners need it. But web servers can go down and the data stored could be modified without any historical reference. Two inherent qualities of blockchain technologies address this: permanence (at least for as long as there are nodes in the chain) and immutability (once a transaction is on the chain, it can’t be changed).
This week we caught up with two initiatives that embrace the ethos of Open Badges and seek to improve upon data verifiability using blockchain technologies: Blockcerts and OpenBlockchain.
Blockcerts is “an open standard for building apps that issue and verify blockchain-based official records” including academic credentials and professional licenses with data aligning to the Open Badges specification. Blockcert’s open source libraries, tools, and mobile apps were initially developed by MIT’s Media Lab and Learning Machine and they are encouraging community involvement through their community forum and GitHub repo.
A recent example of Blockcerts in action is MIT’s Digital Diploma which makes it possible for students to share their verifiable and tamper-proof diploma digitally. Some other examples coming out of Learning Machine include the Federation of State Medical Boards which is using Blockcerts to verify medical qualifications, and the Republic of Malta aimed at workforce training credentials.
OpenBlockchain is an initiative of the Knowledge Media Institute (KMI) at The Open University in the UK. KMI’s experiments are primarily aimed at higher education institutions in the UK, but they are also working on projects concerning workforce training, peer-to-peer interactions, and the funding of education through blockchain. They are taking a unique approach to Open Badges by experimenting with ways to store and issue them using ethereum. Ethereum, originally built based on the Bitcoin blockchain, is also decentralized, meaning that distribution is amongst many nodes, but instead of just storing transactions, the nodes also host and run small apps (called DApps) which rely on logic and data stored in smart contracts.
One of OpenBlockchain’s first experiments converted Open Badges earned on the OpenLearn platform into smart contracts that display the information about the credential on blockchain. The evidence and feedback provided in each achievement are also stored on blockchain. They envision a UK-wide blockchain where all students’ credentials are stored so as to facilitate credit transfer and allow potential employers to view student work. Currently, the KMI team is working on a Moodle plugin that will issue Moodle Badges to smart contracts. A video demonstrating this as well as other informational videos about their work may be found here: https://blockchain.open.ac.uk/#demos.
As detailed in the annual report for 2015–2016, BadgeChain has undergone a series of changes in the first year of the organization. As we enter into our second year we, the core members of BadgeChain, see opportunities within the field, as well as in our own work that we would like to pursue. As part of this pursuit, we are restructuring in an attempt to open ourselves up, while still remaining true to our value system.
Our values include the following:
We are committed to working in the open.
We are ecosystem focused.
We are learning as we go.
We are building the future of open badges.
In this restructuring, we are looking to develop a series of vertical, open teams that allow the collective to maintain our value system, while at the same time providing communication and transparency pipelines across the organization. This post will identify why we believe this opening up of our work is needed at this period of time. This post will then detail the structure and schedule of these proposed vertical teams within BadgeChain. Finally, we will discuss specific opportunities for you to join us as members of BadgeChain.
Why we believe this is important
We believe the field of badges is at a critical juncture in which aspects of openness and community are needed now more than ever before. As individuals from the fields of education, policy, and technology, we have each served as learner and mentor in the open badges movement. This work has brought us to the development of BadgeChain. It also has specific import for the future of open badges and distributed, alternative credentialing.
While there has been a focus on issuing badges over the past six years, the time has come to shift towards the connectivity, usage, and consumption of earned badges. With this in mind, we have focused our efforts and research on what will grow and support the badges ecosystem in a way that will address these objectives and allow for innovation in the space.
We believe that badges may provide opportunities to make education and lifelong learning more equitable and personalized while also being critically based on trust and community. We also recognize that badges siloed in systems do not have the same power and opportunity as those in connected systems. As such, we are looking to move our organization to a more open structure through the use of vertical teams to allow more voices and viewpoints to be a part of BadgeChain.
Up to this point we’ve explored blockchain and blockchain technologies, and have identified an approach that proposes to:
Store badges and evidence as long as earners desire without concerns of it being deleted or inaccessible on web servers
Make data tamper-proof
Improve earner control of their data and evidence
Allow for verifiable identity
Improve the capability for assessments, endorsements, and related data to be built into badges
This proposed system includes using decentralized web technologies and some aspects of blockchain with APIs that anyone in the ecosystem should be able to use including existing issuers and issuing platforms. Applications like the backpack should also be able to use this system. Its intention is to connect earned badges and make them more verifiable, accessible and usable while being easy to use so that the participants in the ecosystem can focus on their important work and not worry about the technology behind it. We’re striving to do all of this while we make the intersection of blockchain, decentralized technologies, and digital badges approachable for the average person.
To make all of this happen, we need you.
Organizational tiers in BadgeChain
There are three distinct tiers of groups within BadgeChain (i.e., BadgeChain Core, BadgeChain Link, BadgeChain Working Groups). This section will define each group and identify ways in which each tier intersects. We go into quite a bit of granular detail below, but our goal is to focus on transparency and open organization as our organization moves forward.
The Core team will serve as the governing and organizational board of BadgeChain the organization. The Core team is tasked with making decisions about the focus and intent of work of the organization while remaining true to the central values and ethic of BadgeChain. The BadgeChain Core team will meet weekly in private to discuss the work and focus of the organization.
This second tier of membership in the organization is identified as the BadgeChain Link (BC Link). The BC Link serves as the connecting body and associated meetings that form the vertical open teams in BadgeChain. The BC Link is formed by members of the BC Core team as well as representatives of each of the BC Working Groups.
The purpose of these meetings is to discuss work and initiatives from across BadgeChain. Each month these meetings will also focus on the work of one of the Working Groups. The primary purpose of the BC Link meetings is to provide an internal and external communication and transparency pipeline for BadgeChain.
Membership in BC Link is categorized by attendance at monthly meetings that are held openly online. You can join this group by attending our open meetings online or follow the discussions. We’ll have more information coming soon.
BadgeChain Working Groups
The third class of membership is comprised of a series of semi-autonomous BadgeChain Working Groups (BC WG) that meet, research, discuss, and work on topics within a specific focus. BC WG may focus on a variety of topics that help inform the goals and values of the organization (e.g., education & advocacy, research & development, community outreach).
BC WG are created by the BC Core as advised by the BC Link. Each BC WG identifies a group leader that facilitates the meetings, and oversees the work of the group. These groups may develop their own schedule and structure necessary to conduct the work of the group. BC WG meetings may be held publicly or privately, as determined the individual groups, and as advised by the BC Core Group. Individual working groups are encouraged to make regularly make their discussions, decisions, and announcements openly online in the form of discussion and blog posts.
Once a month, a representative of the group is to attend the BC Link meeting to share pertinent news and work from the group. The representative then brings pertinent news back to the Working Group to advise future work.
Membership in the various BC WG is categorized by attendance at monthly meetings that are organized by the individual groups. You can join this group by attending our open meetings online or follow the discussions. BC WG are open to the public and anyone is able to join. The individual BC WG will start making announcements online soon.
Be a part of BadgeChain community
We are aiming to build this with and for the community and seek your support and encouragement. We are seeking all members of the community to learn and build this with us: those interested or curious about the technology, educators, researchers, all of you. Our efforts are currently volunteer-based and focused on the development of communities and technologies as they relate to our mission. We are also actively seeking and in current conversations about funding to support the sustainability of our goals and values.
To stay connected, please follow the blog, the BadgeChain Google Group, or the BadgeChain twitter account (@badgechain). With you, we’ll continue our mission of exploring through research, advocacy and development how Open Badges (and related initiatives) can be advanced by blockchain and decentralized technologies.
We look forward to open dialogue and continued transparency in the open badges ecosystem. We also believe that more voices, diversity, and community are needed as we examine badges in the open. We look forward to collaborating and learning with you.
Around the same time, a group of original open badges team members and experienced badge enthusiasts and contributors began meeting to discuss the future of open badges as a learning recognition tool. We called this group, BadgeChain. Our members include the founders of badges and experts in the ecosystem, policy, and technology. Three things united us as we began to investigate opportunities. First, we noted that there were concerns about the increasing amount of fragmentation in the field. Second, we recognized the need for a new decentralized and efficient transport mechanism for open badges. Third, we were interested in the possibilities of the blockchain, and related technologies as a possible vehicle for this work.
This interview with Vinay Gupta on the Future Thinkers podcast and his discussions about Ethereum as a platform for a decentralized web inspired our thinking. From this starting point, we collected and shared every possible link discussing blockchain, bitcoin, ethereum, and related technologies. You can review many of these links here.
One thing that was immediately apparent to us as BadgeChain was the difficulty of understanding and explaining the complexities inherent in these new spaces. Our goal was to try to understand the logic behind these decentralized technologies, and consider possibilities for not only badging, but also opportunities in education and beyond. Our consideration included badges but extended beyond simply placing badges on the blockchain. This was, and still continues to be, a search to identify ways to leverage these technologies to make badges and other personal data verifiable by improving upon its permanence.
After months of private weekly meetings, we made our intentions public under the name BadgeChain. We launched a website and agreed to start blogging as a collective on our Medium publication. Over the coming months we continued to meet in private as we researched, discussed, and debated possibilities in this space.
We started a series of community calls and podcast interviews to work as a “thinkubator” with the community. One of the reasons for this was we identified the need to educate the field about these technologies and their possible role in education. The Core BadgeChain team also needed an opportunity to share our thinking openly online and receive critique from others.
This past June, a position statement we submitted to W3C Blockchains and the Web, was accepted and allowed us to participate in a two day workshop with leaders in the web and blockchain technologies. The aim of the workshop was to propose how W3C could lead standards development on web interactions with blockchain and also how aspects of blockchain may improve how the web works. Not only was this workshop enlightening it also validated much of the thinking and research we’d been pursuing over the year. Also, it connected us with companies and organizations pursuing similar data needs as the Open Badges ecosystem.
Throughout this exploratory phase, the BadgeChain team has been intrigued by the possibility of embracing blockchain and related technologies to build something new. Our mission statement identified a focus on using research, advocacy, and development to explore how decentralized technologies can advance learning recognition and digital credentialing. Our investigations revealed that blockchain, instead of being a monolithic technology, is instead an aspect of decentralized technologies with much more potential than is realized in BitCoin and financial tech. Blockchain as a technology, itself, provides a mechanism to decentralize data and transactions so that no single entity owns our data. Not only is it not inherently evil (as described in this post), blockchain and decentralized technologies can give us more control over our personal data than we have now.
The first year of BadgeChain has been a growing and learning process. Our approach and mission have been under constant internal review/revision. Our focus on use of “the blockchain” has also changed. With this, our examination of various technologies, and the terms used to identify these technologies have also changed. As we have engaged in this work, the larger field investigating blockchain and related technologies has evolved as well. We continue to focus on the philosophies and potential that excited us as we began this journey. We remain convinced that the investigation and development of decentralized web and ledger technologies holds distinct promise.
Over the summer of 2016 we’ve been busy behind the scenes advancing BadgeChain. While we grappled with evolving technology and considered the future of learning recognition and badges, we chose to “press pause” on most of our public-facing posts, community calls, and podcasts. During this quiet time we continued to present and discuss our work at various meetings and conferences. The most important work that we’ve conducted is a review and audit of the processes that will make BadgeChain a successful initiative over the next year.
Perhaps one of the most important outcomes was our decision to recommit to working in a more open way, and to involving the community more deeply in the BadgeChain work. We’ve come to terms with the idea that there is too much work for our small group of devoted volunteers to accomplish. We, the members of the Core BadgeChain group, want to provide opportunities to integrate the learning recognition community into the decisions and work of the collective. Additionally, we believe the open badges community would benefit from increased openness and community participation. We’ll have more details about these thoughts in the coming week.
Over the past year, we’ve encountered many misconceptions about what these products and platforms are and what they could be. During all of our discussions about the impact of blockchain and decentralized web technologies on education, we believe that there is a need to develop products. So we’re excited to announce that we’re experimenting with developing in this space. The challenge is that we’re discussing and problematizing vaporware. It’s time to start building and breaking things online…and then dive into the questions of trust, credibility, and immutability related to these tools.
As we close our first year working on BadgeChain, we’ve learned a great deal and believe that there’s a lot left to do. We’re excited to take this next step, and look forward to having more people join us.
This project is organized and facilitated by the BadgeChain team. The purpose of this work is to foster open discussion about the issues and trends in blockchain and related technologies. Furthermore, it is our hope to engage in discussion while focusing on the facts presented in the text.
We’re using an open source tool (Hypothes.is) to collaboratively research and discuss some of the influential literature in the field. This post should provide you guidance as you read, highlight, annotate, and respond in the text.
Blockchain misconceptions and the future of education
To foster a thoughtful discussion about the theoretical perspectives involved in these new technologies, we’re facilitating a collaborative reading and annotation activity known as BadgeChain Reads.