Badges, as trumpeted by Mozilla in January 2011, were destined to change the world. They were to empower anyone with the ability to acknowledge the accomplishments of another. Maybe, someday, they would even replace college degrees. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation applauded and supported this vision. MITx put its muscle behind it too and launched a project to implement it (see openstudy.com). All of these predictions are well-documented in a memorable article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. That was January 2012.
In March 2013, 27 months after Mozilla’s initial announcement, Mozilla finally released the OpenBadges 1.0 platform. The reception of badges by higher education has, to date, been lukewarm at best and it is reasonable to predict that the presence of this new standard is not going to change much. Widespread badge adoption (issuance, display and consumption) will be inhibited – some might even say, doomed – by four fundamental flaws.
1. The Name/Meaning mismatch
Take a well-established word and infuse new meaning into it. It sounds easy, but It’s one of the toughest marketing jobs in the world. And, if you think a super broad definition will help it stick to just about anything and broaden its rapid acceptance, you’d be dead wrong. And that’s just what Mozilla did.
Before Mozilla undertook to infuse new meaning into “badges”, that word already described many things. For many, “badges” instantly conjures up an image of a myriad little cloth circles sewn proudly on a sash draped across the torso of a wholesome looking boy/girl scout. A Badge is also the neck-weight you get at conferences, giving you access to the venue and lunch. The FBI agent (police officer, etc.) in the TV drama-du-jour shows you his/her Badge when they want to “ask you a few questions”. There’s the “badge of honor”, that might refer to a scar earned in battle and exposed with pride. And Badges have long been used in gaming as the reward for surviving multiple challenges.
Mozilla wants to add one more definition: “badges” are to represent any and all of our life’s achievements – the big ones, the small ones, the playful ones and the serious ones. It’s a one-name-fits-all strategy that is doomed from the outset.
Erin Knight, the Senior Learning Director at Mozilla and currently spearheading the learning and badge work, is on record as saying “someday… badges could replace college degrees”. Really? Somehow the thing that I get from my drinking buddy for being really funny is bears an identical name as the thing that represents college level knowledge? The simple result of using the same term for a myriad, non-cohesive set of use cases is to infuse “badges” with the poison of its demise…the definition is so broad that it is meaningless.
For comparison, let’s look at college/university degrees. These icons are the currency of educational achievement today. Each has a very specific meaning (usually denoted by monikers such as B.A., MBA, PhD, etc.) and doesn’t even require a visual representation…just add a single line of text on your resume. The meaning behind this degree is created and reinforced because the issuer of a degree is held to the standards of an accrediting agency (and to a certain extent, the federal government). The achievement is verifiable. They are rooted in the rigorous academic standards of the degree-granting institution and its faculty. Not everyone has one and, as a result, degrees have scarcity value (only ~5,000 institutions grant them, and ~30% of adults have one). The recipient of a degree has to work hard to get one of these. In the case of undergraduate degrees there are only two (i.e. the opposite of infinite) possible flavors: the B.A. and the B.S. As a result, the broader public (employers included) has a reasonable understanding of what meaning a degree conveys.
Badges are the antithesis of the degree. They can be issued by anyone, with or without the authority to issue a badge. While they are occasionally associated with having achieved standards that are commonly understood or accepted, there is no requirement that badges be issued only when standards are met. There is no constraint on the number or variety of badges. I could issue you a badge for something. Just let me know what badge you’d like and I’ll issue one. The lack of consistency and meaning means that badges will confuse and perplex the consuming public and, as a result, badges that represent real adult learning will be lost in the chaos. Seldom has a new definition or a new thing been widely adopted when, on its face, it is hard to understand its meaning or usefulness. “Badges” will not be immune to this pattern.
2. The look
True to the spirit of the open Web, the OpenBadge framework enables people to create/design their own badges. That’s magnanimous and good-spirited…if it’s creativity you intend to unleash. Anyone can create a badge with any color, style, iconography, photography, calligraphy you want! A creative person’s dream!
Of course, the OpenBadges standards do suggest some visual constraints: badges should be square, less than 256kb and at least 90 pixels X 90 pixels. Sadly, this is a classic engineering fau pas. We have perfect clarity for the technical aspects. It’s a thing of beauty from the system point of view. But there is no such clarity or perfection as it relates to the consumable consistency of badges. There are no consistent affordances that make it visually convenient or easy to consume a badge when you see one.
Without an organized and recognized visual taxonomy for badges, every reader of a badge (i.e. the person who is trying to understand the meaning of the visual icon) has to stop and peer into the badge to decipher what it is. Imagine reading someone’s LinkedIn profile with 50 badges. In order to take away any meaning from the 50 icons, the reader will need to visually stop and focus 50 different times and each time interpret 5 to 20 visual clues…and that’s before you click on a badge to understand what it really means.
Human memory depends on repetition to record visual images in long-term memory and associate a meaning with that image. Infinite visual flexibility and creativity means that our minds will be assaulted with every imaginable variation of a badge, few of which will use visible elements in a consistently repeated manner. As a result, few badges will ever attain instant recognition and our minds will resort to “my-eyes-glaze-over” (MEGO) mode…was that badge I just saw a peer-granted funny guy badge or was it a badge for achieving the top score on the physics exam? Who cares…I’m not going to put forth the effort to find out…
If we really want to have some widely adopted, iconic digital representation of learning, we need to pluck the iconic currency we are going to use out of a category overwhelmed by whimsy, meaningless peer-to-peer kudos and amateur art.
3. The technical
While the technical specs for the badge itself are simple and straightforward, the portability, storage, issuance and legitimacy of the badge is anything but simple. No rocket science was created in the development of the OpenBadges platform, but the numerous parts needed to effect it (not to mention the number of organizations that have to play “nice”) put a heavy burden on any potential issuers or “displayer” of badges.
Let’s compare the technical implementation of OpenBadges with the basic process of writing a letter of recommendation – a simple precursor of “badges”. To write a digital letter of recommendation, you need Microsoft Word and/or an email client to compose a (meaningful) letter. You focus your efforts on the content of the letter, then send it off to the intended reader via email when your done.
The process to create a digital badge, however, requires you to have a deep understanding of technical jargon to make this work. Building a badge is a technical constructions project in and of itself. You could, of course, use a vendor like Credly.com which simplifies the process, but problems arise downstream when you want to put the badge to work on a profile. Note also that you are now spending as much time designing the badge as you are giving the badge meaning (i.e. writing the recommendation). It’s the equivalent of having to design new letterhead for each letter of recommendation you write.
Another big difference with badges is that, unlike the digital recommendation letter, it is not very portable. Mozilla created the concept of a virtual backpack so that you could collect your badges in one place. It sounds great, but It is in this “usage” of badges that the technical solutions are in their infancy. To use a virtual backpack, the consumer receiving a badge has to create (yet another) online account, authorize several applications to talk to each other and even manage a labyrinth of settings. And this effort just gets the badge into your backpack. You haven’t yet moved it to your electronic profile. To do that, you might have to add code snippets or urls to your profiles on various platforms (each one different, of course). Terms/acronyms you might need to know include png, json, html, assertion server, metadata, iframe, url, header, etc. Does this sound ready for mass adoption to you? Last time I checked, except for the geeks in Silicon Valley, Austin and NYC, few will wade through this fragmented mine field to issue legitimate badges. More than likely, they will pause to think: tell me again why I need this headache? why do I need this badge? Nothing slows broad adoption like a little geek speak.
4. No “dent” (in the universe)
Let’s take a step back. Forget the name. Forget the size and color. Forget the tech specs. What’s the problem we are trying to solve here?
Degrees have had a long run as the most respected “currency” of knowledge. Earned by students. Issued by colleges and universities. Accepted by employers. Serious challenges to higher education – out-of-touch tuition pricing, student debt, state budgets and employer demands for 21st century competencies – have us asking: who needs a degree?
Badges are masquerading as an alternative system that will solve these substantive challenges.
Unfortunately, the introduction of “badges” will not solve systemic challenges in higher ed, but instead is simply a new currency. Last time I checked currencies, only work if they conform to rules and standards that are broadly accepted. Currencies have instant visual recognition to facilitate their use. It is extremely difficult to counterfeit currencies and its easy to place a value on the currency. Badges have none of these attributes and won’t be solving student debt or tuition pricing anytime soon.
For certain, there is an opportunity (and a need) to recognize adult learning endeavors other than the four, five or six year slog to earn a baccalaureate degree. And, for sure, not every job requires a “degree”. Certainly, we could all (individuals, employers and learning institutions) benefit from having a well-established currency which would denote a a more divers spectrum of academic accomplishments. An unbounded, meaningless system of “Badges”, however, is not the answer.
Lest I be misinterpreted…
It seems clear that “badges” do not yet, and may never, disrupt the “degree”. This is not to say that degrees should have an exclusive lock on the symbolic representation of learning in our culture. The point is only that the term “badges” has a really, long-steep hill to climb if they are to ever be accepted as the symbols of substantive learning. Simply said, Mozilla set the meaningful recognition of adult learning two steps backwards by choosing the “badge” moniker, setting no visual or substantive standards for the meaning imparted to badges and by over-complicating the badging system.