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As I research and develop digital badges, I’m thoughtful about aspects of value, credibility, and “sincerity” of design in the badging infrastructure. Put simply, I believe that people will make judgments about the believability, credibility, and relevance of the digital badges based on elements of the metadata, the images used, and where the badge is hosted. This is also very intriguing as recent work in blockchain, digital badges, and the work on Ethereum has provoked a lot of ideas.

In this post, I’ll discuss some of my thinking about cognitive authority and digital badges. Within this context I’ll try to tease out the possibilities that exist as we consider the blockchain and the possibility of oracles.

What is cognitive authority?

My thinking about credibility, value, critical evaluation, and online information is informed by work conducted in my dissertation. In this work, I focused on critical evaluation of online information and how I could scaffold this type of healthy skepticism in adolescents. In the literature review of the critical evaluation research I was struck by this idea of “cognitive authority” and I think it plays a role in how individuals view badging systems.

As individuals evaluate and judge information they make decisions about the quality and cognitive authority apparent in the information they’re viewing. The reason I’m saying “apparent” is that in online information sources this veneer of authenticity and sincerity is sometimes murky. Quality is defined as “a user criterion, which has to do with excellence or in some cases truthfulness in labeling.” This definition of quality postulates that systems of information, and information itself has specific intrinsic values that are tangible and can be seen (Taylor, 1986), however not all elements of this valuation can be overtly seen.

Cognitive authority is the premise that individuals either construct knowledge based on first-hand experiences or from what they have learned from second-hand form others. Cognitive authority can be viewed as a determination made by individuals based on their thoughts about how “proper” the information is that they are learning, or beliefs about the author of the information.

What does this mean for open badge initiatives?

In online spaces this means that individuals consider elements of multimodal information (images, video, audio, and text), markers of credibility and relevance, other websites or information found online. Earners also need to integrate prior knowledge about the author or institution to determine “value” and “authority” in what they’re reading, using, or learning. In the world of digital badges I believe these considerations of value and cognitive authority are hugely important.

There is still a certain amount of reticence, skepticism, and confusion involved as individuals consider and cognitively “grasp” digital badging systems. Participants (those that earn the badge, and reviewers of these credentials) will evaluate the value of the badge based on the metadata, the image for the badge (how professional/appropriate it is), where the badge is hosted, and what other badges are hosted there.

To me this adds another layer to the complexity associated with launching and hosting an open badge initiative. Put simply, as developers of open badging systems we need to consider how we contextualize our badges.

What does the URL, the website design, and the other badges hosted on the site “say” about the badge you’re pledging for? What is the difference between a badge that I host on my WordPress blog, my university website, or a third-party site like Credly? What value judgments do people pledging or reviewing these credential assign when my badge is on the same website as the “You Mad Bro?” badge? As we develop our own badges we need to consider not only badge design and metadata…but also selection, development, and support of badge infrastructure and communities.

The learning ledger and the oracle

In a previous post, I discussed my thinking about blockchain technologies and a possible ledger of learning. In this interaction, we’re looking at a series of transactions and badges or credentials that identify learning over time. We’d be able to document learning and growth in a variety of traditional and non-traditional settings. A learner could take a MOOC, and ultimately drop out, but this experience would be given a notch on the learning ledger. Obviously, completing the MOOC would carve out a bigger notch, but lurking would still resonate as a learning experience.

Within blockchain technologies, Ethereum specifically, is the opportunity to build in oracles. The concept of an oracle is still being unpacked, but it seems as if the oracle would act as a “more knowledgable other” the learning equation. This oracle might be software related, a group of individuals, or a human being. If built into the model of a learning ledger, you could not only attach standards and exemplars to learning process and product, you could also include oracles (e.g., experts, mentors) in a specific area.

The most granular explanation of this relationship comes from this post about the launch of Ethereum. The post discusses the “three pillars” of their crypto-law system: Identity, Assets, and Data. In the post, Gav Would identifies the potentials that exist as these pillars intersect. In the intersection between Identity and Data, we see more information about the possibility of the oracle.

Oracles: Reversing the relationship, we can allow an identity to vouch for data. One means of getting reliable information concerning external phenomena is to decide to take a particular identity as ones authority and accept data coming from it. While it is far from the ideal, it is relatively cheap and easy to implement so will likely become the de facto standard.

In this model you could informally submit work, badges, or entire sequence of learning/expertise to an oracle for a signature/release/approval. This would open up opportunities for informal learning among individuals in a digital form of the Cognitive Apprenticeship model in Education. Learners could choose to study with an expert (oracle) online, from anywhere in the world. The only question is how do you get to the oracle level? 🙂

Wrapping up

As we continue to unpack possibilities in the intersection between blockchain technologies and online credentialing, there will many possibilities that present themselves. I’m intrigued by the notion of the oracle and seeing how this might open opportunities for digital credentials, online identity, and non-traditional learning.

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Originally published at W. Ian O’Byrne.