The Combined Possibilities Part
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”
Starting from open
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.
Issuer + Earner + Consumer consideration: security + evidence
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.