Working towards my Open Badges Awareness Badge
This is a slightly different blogpost from the others I've put up so far, primarily because I'm doing it as part of a free, online course (Open Badges 101: #OB101; Brian Mather, Doug Belshaw and Erika Pogorelc) that I'm doing on open badges. Early on in the short course I have been asked to work towards my own first open badge by writing 250+ words on the following:
An easy way to think of open badges is to remember my time as a guide or a scout. As a girl guide I worked towards a number of badges which my mother then painstakingly sewed onto the sleeve of my guide uniform. Each badge had a series of tasks that I had to do to achieve it, and I was examined by a local person who knew a considerable amount more about the tasks than I did. (I also remember going for the 'toymaking' badge but not taking it terribly seriously. The kind but serious ticking off I got from this local expert has remained with me for life!)
Open badges are very similar, except that they are digital and supported by a digital infrastructure. The course makes a distinction between Open Badges and Digital Badges, which, if I have understood correctly, is similar to the distinction between the guide badge itself, the fabric circle sewn onto my sleeve (digital badges) and the structure lying behind the badge (the tasks I have to do to accomplish it - open badges). So Open Badges have an 'anatomy'. Each badge has a name, a description (often of what 'earning' it has entailed or requires), a set of criteria, an issuer, evidence, information about the date it was issued, about the standards that support it, and a set of tags. This anatomy is 'baked' into the digital representation of the badge so that if and when an earner decides to make it public (his or her choice, hence the claim that Open Badges put the user in control) the 'consumer', who may be a prospective employer, or a network of specialists, or a community group, is able to verify what it represents in part because of this baked in anatomy, in part because they can follow an audit trail and actually see the evidence. This blogpost will be part of that evidence for the Open Badges Awareness badge that I am now working towards.
Open Badges have a considerable range of uses. They are similar in concept, of course, to the certificates, diplomas and degrees which we gain and award in higher education. That piece of paper which I have in a posh frame and hung on my office wall is a type of analogue badge! But typically, they are useful for much smaller chunks of learning and perhaps also for evidencing some of the softer skills that higher education finds difficult to measure. Right now I am doing some work with the Association of Muslim Chaplains.in Education (AMCed). AMCed is designing, producing and will eventually deliver online modules that those interested in working as a chaplain in a university context will be able to sign up for. Rather than seek validation from a university partner, we are exploring using Open Badges. There is a real advantage in pursuing this path. Open Badges are 'stackable', which means that they can be combined with other badges - in this instance, perhaps, with work individuals have done in chaplaincy situations in prisons or hospitals rather than HE, or in different faith contexts - to create a much more extensive portfolio of evidence than a conventional CertHE or MA might do. I can see a real advantage in their ability to validate a person's unique learning and experience, that knowledge, those skills, that someone has built up potentially over decades, to make him or her who they are. In making these often hidden capacities more visible, then so they will be able to shine in a much more nuanced fashion and, hopefully, where needed, attract employers and employment. A key difference between Open Badges and Digital Badges is that Open Badges are transferable. This means that they can be gained in one context and recognised in, and by, another. This reminds me of the principles lying behind credit accumulation and transfer. A typical module of study in HE requires a student to meet the learning criteria and have that formally recognised by the course team. That module is worth a certain number of credits, usually representing a notional number of hours of study. If the student then wants to transfer the credits gained to another context - either a different course or perhaps a different institution - the awarding institution will provide the equivalent of an Open Badge's 'anatomy': formal information about the module that the new course or institution can understand and evaluate. What Open Badges don't appear to do that credit accumulation and transfer does, is 'measure' the 'worth' of the badge in terms of time taken to complete it or link it to a particular level of study. Does that matter? In certain circumstances it might, but those situations are more likely to be be where the gaining of knowledge and skills, especially in a skills-based, vocational context, is considered to be integrally linked to an amount of time. Time is measurable, so linking time and its measurement to academic achievement is a way of ensuring standards and quality. It also lies at the heart of traditional HE. It doesn't lie at the heart of an Open Badge.
Open Badges also differ from Digital Badges in that they don't belong to and therefore are not controlled by any one organisation, at least in concept and underpinning technology. I assume they must be 'controlled', to an extent, by an organisation or institution in terms of their content and anatomy. Every Open Badge is issued by a body of some sort. (I wonder: can an Open Badge be issued by an individual? I don't see why not.) This means that, unlike credit transfer systems and Digital Badges, which operate primarily in the interests of the awarding/issuing organisation, Open Badges are collaborative in spirit and in operation.
Lastly, and importantly, Open Badges can be displayed anywhere across the web. Hence I plan to embed this, my first one, on this blogpost, but as and when I gain more I may create a page specially for them. In just the same way as I copied the embedding code in order to display the Open Badge Awareness 'ad' (has it got a technical term? It's not the badge - yet!) at the top of this blogpost, so I can do the same with the actual badge. Unlike my girl guide badge which was (a) physically individual and singular; and therefore (b) only visible in one place, on the sleeve of my guide uniform, Open Badges can be embedded in any digital place, and the same one in multiple places simultaneously. I guess an analogy would be that of printing off my degree certificate multiple times and displaying them in my office, my home, and perhaps elsewhere (would I really want to do that?!) but that's as far as the analogy goes as my degree certificate has characteristics specifically intended to prevent reproduction, at least reproduction intended to be as identical as possible as the original. Every Open Badge (as distinct from Digital Badges), in contrast, can be portrayed and known to be an 'original' even though there might be a number of versions of it publicly visible.
I still have questions about how quality is assured and standards maintained. As far as I can ascertain there is no equivalent of the external examiner in an Open Badges system! That's presumably why it's important to have an evidence trail, so that anyone can look up and scrutinise exactly what standard of work the badge-earner has done. It doesn't seem easy to think of levels of work in the same way that conventional awards do, although the Open Badges 101 course indicates that it is possible to develop a whole series of badges that have an inbuilt progression. Nonetheless, it seems difficult to think in terms of badges being of level 4, or level 7, or higher, or lower. Perhaps that's their real attraction though - an individual's badge might involve them working at all those levels combined. In which case, Open Badges have a real advantage in being much more representative of real life.
If, as reported, third party endorsement is coming to the standard soon, then this may contribute to the set of tools that Open Badges use to ensure quality. Perhaps there is also a case to argue, in an era when higher education is focusing increasingly on independent and autonomous learning. that Open Badges can also contribute to helping individuals assess the quality of their work. Maybe Open Badges could even include a self-evaluation as part of the project done by learners when submitting their application for a badge.
How might Open Badges contribute to flexible learning?
This is intriguing. The first, most obvious way, is in the genuine personalisation of the learning that takes place. Open Badges are highly individual. They don't require going through a formal and often cumbersome and time consuming process of credit recognition and transfer, although they may themselves form part of a portfolio of evidence that supports an application for credit transfer. It is the similarities between Open Badges and credit accumulation and transfer that intrigue me, and I've begun to sense more acutely how some of the inbuilt difficulties with the UK CATs system are rooted in the inbuilt competitive spirit that exists between institutions. It is not necessarily in their interests to award or transfer either in or out, credit from elsewhere.
Perhaps the biggest contribution of Open Badges to the flexible learning agenda is the fact that they can genuinely not only represent student choice, but facilitate it. Learners really do decide how they learn, what they learn, where they learn and when they learn.
Dr Alison Le Cornu is a freelance Consultant in Academic Practice working in higher education. She specialises in flexible learning which she understands as empowering learners by giving them the ability to choose how, what, where and when they study. This is very dependent on institutional systems and structures having the capacity to facilitate this. She works with institutions at all levels to help them bring about the institutional/student partnership that this requires.