Joining Mozilla Open Badges Team

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I’m now a Mozillian, or more specifically a Mozilla Foundationian. I joined the Open Badges team this month. I haven’t given up on the idea of starting a consulting business, but I like the project, the team, and the organization enough to want to work with them in a more full way than what consulting offered. As part of the commitment to work in the open, I’ll be using my blog to talk more about the project, and my involvement with it. I’ll still write about the other stuff I love, but this will be the first time in recent memory that I include a significant amount of work stuff here. The fact that I want to do that is part of the appeal of the move for me.

Explain Badges

Badges, along with other loaded phrases like crowd-sourcing and gamification, doesn’t have a single easy to explain meaning, unless you take the absolute bare minimum explanation that a badge signifies something for someone. Lots of sites have badges, Khan Academy is a pretty easy way to demonstrate the idea, so are Steam achievements and Wikipedia barn stars. MIT is getting into the badging game (though they prefer to call them certificates) through their MITx initiative, and last week the MacArthur Foundation (with the support of Mozilla, HASTAC, the Gates Foundation, and others) announced the winners of the DML Badges for Lifelong Learning competition.

A sample of the winners of the DML competition show the breadth of ideas around the relatively simple of idea of digital badges:

  • NASA will use badges, and their enormous online assets, to encourage robotics and space education programs.
  • Young Adult Library Services Association will use badges to help librarians develop new skills to improve their work with teens.
  • Smithsonian Institution is building a museum education program to link visits to the museum with online learning to encourage lifelong learning.
  • The Department of Veterans Affairs is will use certified digital badges to represent work skills that soldiers develop while in-service, making it easier for them to find solid jobs in the private sector.

The list of ideas is enormous, and the companies and organizations participating in the space is amazing – Pixar, Disney, Microsoft, Intel, Design for America, Carnegie Mellon, PBS / Storycorps, 4-H, plus a bunch of organizations that are on the cutting edge of new models of technology fused education, like Mouse and Hive Network. Of the ~90 finalists in the contest, ~25 were funded. Having sat in on some of the judging sessions, I can say that the finalists were all good ideas and could be executed, and probably will be executed, regardless of whether or not they received funding from the contest. The space is tremendously busy, with lots of thinking about how to make a simple badge meaningful to a learner, and the people that can provide that learner with new opportunities.

But you’re not a teacher

Yeah, totally – I’m not a teacher, I’m a technologist with a love of learning and long history of supporting open source communities. All three of those things, technology, lifelong learning, and open are fulfilled with this project.


This was our booth at the DML Mozilla Science Fair, where we explained OpenBadges dozens of times.

Badges aren’t just simple pictures, the idea is to build a system that builds badges with meaning. Meaning in this case is a set of metadata that can be verified and attributed, both to a particular recipient (the learner) as well as the institution (the issuer). Both sides of that transaction should have control of their choices, a learner should be able to take their badges wherever they go, and the issuer should be able to issue whatever badges they see fit.

If a learner chooses to display their badges, on their blog, their Twitter stream, their Facebook, their online resume, they should be able to, regardless of the silo in which the badge was earned. If the badge is public, or shared with a specific party, the person viewing it should have the ability to verify that it was actually earned, that the issuer is who they say they are, and that they did give the learner this badge.

Over the course of the project, I’ll dive deeper into the bits and pieces that make all this possible, in the meantime – we’re building the majority of the infrastructure in Node.js with the Express framework, and developing it in the clear on Github, and planning the project in an open Pivotal Tracker.

Lifelong Learner

It’s a phrase that keeps coming up, it was the subheading of the DML competition, it’s in lots and lots of explanatory copy around badges. It’s a simple enough idea, which I thought didn’t need much explanation (because, really, it doesn’t). That said, this John Seely Brown keynote from the DML conference last week really blew me away. I’ve always thought of myself as a lifelong learner, but now I’m convinced I’m an entrepreneurial learner (his phrase). It’s a really great speech, and worth the hour and a half investment to watch it.

As it relates to badges, formal degrees and certifications only explain half of who a lifelong learner is, lighter-weight systems need to be acknowledged as valid learning experiences. Verifiable digital badges bridge that gap between informal and formal learning experiences, and make it easier for a non-formally educated person to prove their worth at a glance.


The (open, heh) view from the SF Mozilla Office, with Brian the OBI tech lead / super architect in the foreground.

It goes without saying that Mozilla is an open organization, they promote the openweb, promote open source software, and advocate for open learning, open journalism, and even have a pretty badass manifesto. Given the enormous number of companies involved in the badging ecosphere, (see above) who do you want to develop the plumbing that keeps all this together? A company that sees every eyeball as a dollar sign? Or a foundation built on the principals of open source? Badges won’t survive without the support of lots and lots of organizations, and there isn’t anything wrong with using them as a profitable pursuit. As a learner though, I want to ensure that I control my badges, any of which could represent hundreds of hours of effort.

I don’t want a single company to decide how I can represent myself, not even Mozilla, which is why every piece of the code that represents an OpenBadge is open source, the same goes for the backpack you store the badge in, the ways in which you can display them, and (eventually) where the backpacks are hosted. In the next few months, you’ll be able to self host every piece of the OpenBadges infrastructure, without ever talking to Mozilla.

In Conclusion

This badge thing is happening, it has enough momentum that it’s highly likely that your children will include a significant number of fancy online badges in their first job interview, that you might include some in your next job interview, or that you yourself might issue a badge for teaching your neighbor how to hand code an html page. Badges aren’t magic, and yes – they’re just like Boy Scout merit badges, except in the case of OpenBadges, we all have access to that fancy sewing machine that makes the pretty pictures for your sash.