Let’s Make More Backpacks

School is starting, which makes me think about school supplies. We use some school supplies as metaphors in the Open Badges world, the Mozilla Backpack is the place you can store your Open Badges. The current backpack stores open badges, organizes them and displays them. It’s really more of a portfolio than a backpack, a collection of achievements instead of something you need while you’re learning day-to-day.

The core functionality of what makes an open badges backpack valid supports the broken metaphor. A backpack (in the open badges sense) is a place to store badges. It validates the badges. It displays them. Maybe it organizes them, but that’s not a requirement. It’s just a filesystem with stuff in it.

So, should we change the name? Should we ditch the backpack metaphor and start calling it a ‘badge storage system’ (gag) or something? No, we shouldn’t, we should let the metaphor guide the development of what an open badges backpack is.

Backpack as Personal Expression

Ask my six year old about his school backpack. He’ll tell you all about it. It’s big, but not too big. It has Marvel super heroes on it. It has a special flap that let’s you choose between two different sets of super heroes, so he can change it up day-to-day. It has a single pocket, nothing fancy to get in the way of the essential nature of what a six year old needs, a place to put his lunch and a small amount of homework.

Ask me about my backpack, it’s biggish, but has these straps that make it small. It’s full of pockets that are easy to get to, some of which have a soft lining for electronic devices. It has a stiff back so that protects my laptop. It’s flat black and emphasizes utility and comfort. My last bag was a courier style bag with snazzy materials. It had a big single pocket that was easy to get to, and the design would impress people who were impressed by that sort of thing. I like both of these bags, but they’re very different and I use them for different reasons.

See what I’m getting at here? Real backpacks serve different purposes. They’re indicative of who we are and express ourselves in different ways. My bag won’t work for my son, his bag won’t work for me. Sometimes I use my utilitarian bag, sometimes I use my fancy bag.

Real backpacks as open badges backpacks lesson one – one size doesn’t fit all, open badges backpacks should be as various as real backpacks. Sometimes you need more than one backpack for different situations.

Backpacks with Constraints

Some schools have requirements about what their kids can use as a backpack. The most common is that they are clear, so teachers and staff can see inside them at any time. It’s not the greatest thing for student privacy or personalization, but as a constraint – it exists.

Lesson 2 – institutions will put constraints on the open badges backpack that won’t apply to all users. We need to accommodate them.

You’re lost without your backpack

Did you ever forget your backpack at home? Or your laptop bag? Your stomach  flip-flops, it’s borderline terrifying. In a learning situation, you’re lost without your backpack.

That isn’t the case with the current Mozilla Open Badges Backpack. The backpack is an after thought in a learning experience. It’s the place you push the results of your learning, not the place you’re actively planning your learning. It’s the equivalent of forgetting your report card at home. Who cares?

Which leads to lesson 3 – let’s make our open badges backpacks more useful, part of your day, essential to the way you learn. The badge backpack isn’t a trophy case, it shouldn’t just be a portfolio, it absolutely isn’t a report card. The backpack is where you go to track your progress, reflect on what you’ve learned, discover new paths you can take to get where you want to go. It’s your learning GPS, something essential to your learning.

What’s Mozilla Doing About It?

Yeah, so – backpacks can be cooler. What’s Mozilla doing about it? Three things:

Many Backpacks

There’s only one real open badges backpack today. If you press the button “push this badge to your open badges backpack” on any issuer’s site, it really means “push this to your Mozilla Open Badges Backpack located at http://backpack.openbadges.org” That’s what the world of badging needed to get started. It needed a single backpack, to prove the concept and bootstrap issuing.

Now that we have a healthy issuer ecosystem, it’s time to bootstrap a healthy backpack ecosystem. We’re working on extensions to the Open Badges Infrastructure that will allow a user to choose their backpack and push their badges there. There isn’t any burden on the issuer, they’ll still integrate a single button served by Mozilla, but the button will be 17% more magical. Once a user can push their badges wherever they want, they’ll want choices.

This feature has been on our roadmap for a while under the unintentionally obfuscated title “Federation.” It makes sense to us, but it’s hard to explain to the community. We’re working on better language (and could use your opinion, get involved in the mailing list) regardless of the name, the result of the feature is clear, learners get to choose their backpacks.

Mozilla Backpack 2.0

After a fair amount of soul-searching, we’ve decided to refactor the existing Mozilla Open Badges Backpack. We’ll do the work alongside support of the current 1.0 backpack. We’re not planning any significant features in the 2.0 backpack, it’s mostly a feature for feature replacement of the existing backpack. We’ll rework the UX, make branding changes to get the backpack in line with the current branding of Open Badges, but will mostly mirror the existing 1.0 backpack.

Why do it? There’s a significant amount of boiler plate functionality that makes up an open badges compliant backpack (which in itself is a moving target, we haven’t actually declared the requirements of a backpack yet, we will, so keep your ears peeled). If we want to encourage a diversity of backpacks, we’d like to offer a solid starting point. A collection of code that allows for easy extension of the backpack concept. If you have an itch to scratch backpack-wise, you can do it in a few days, or hours, you won’t have to recreate yet another storage system for assertions, or validation against the spec. Fork our code and focus on what you should, providing an awesome experience for your users.


Finally, Jess, Andrew and Emily are leading the charge towards a new vision of an open badges backpack. They’re working on backpack 3.0, or backpack 3000, or Badgeopolis. A backpack prototype that’s as important to you as that backpack with the flippy cover so you can show whatever super hero you want to. It will be a concept car like experience that will help guide future backpack crafters and seed the world of post it-just-stores-badges backpack thinking.

Exciting, yeah?

We hope so. Open Badges is taking off. We’ve proven to issuers that they can use open badges to guide their learning communities. Let’s get the same level of innovation applied to tools for the learners. Let’s make open badges backpacks as diverse and personalized as real world backpacks. Why settle for badge storage? You’re way cooler than that.

  • Fred Mindlin

    Love the thinking that’s going into this process. Taking off from your analogy to real-world correspondents for our online terminologies in your current argument, this is the key sentence in the entire post for me: “The backpack is where you go to track your progress, reflect on what you’ve learned, discover new paths you can take to get where you want to go. It’s your learning GPS, something essential to your learning.”

    I would NEVER think of my real backpack (actually what I use is a rolling briefcase, since my back is not strong enough to carry what I feel I need) as any of these things–progress tracker? No, it just gets fuller and fuller until it’s a little too embarrassing and i decide I have to empty it and re-pack…

    A place to reflect on what I’ve learned? Hardly my image of a comfortable place for reflection….

    Where I go to discover new paths that can take me where I want to go? Yes, on those once-every-three-or-four-months occasions where I empty and repack my briefcase, I often find a note or a copy of an article or [even sometimes] a whole book that I stashed there for “future reference” and never got back to until the cleanup, and it sparks a memory or connection which leads me into a new direction or re-routes a direction I thought i was taking. But i would hardly call these every-few-months adventures the most important route I have for making new discoveries, and certainly it’s not a metaphor that would bring such exploration to mind.

    So what would be a more evocative real-world analogy to the “collection of learning markers that are organized and thought-provoking” which you want the Backpack 2.0 or 3.0 to reference? Portfolio is the most obvious, and I’m not quite sure why it’s not even being considered by the Mozilla team, but I’d guess that the word has so much baggage and such varied referents that even its cousin ePortfolio is not on anyone’s radar. So I’d like to throw out an invented word: “Portfoliage,” denoting this new species of virtual “Learning Leaves” [or leavings] — the badges — arranged in a tree- or shrub-like connected network of the Learners’ design. The actual structure, decoration, linkages, and referents that make up the Portfoliage could be as varied and interesting as the world of botanical classification, and there might even be helpful images for the appropriate categories and characteristics to use that can be found in botany. Or, using the world of zoology as the source for our images, the “backpack equivalent” could be the creation of a personal “Savatar,” the evolving savant being built up as a new body for the learner around the various avatars she’s using in her virtual learning journey….

    Thanks for a stimulating post!

  • Emily Goligoski

    Thanks for this Chris. What excites me about the idea of a federation of backpacks is the possibility for badge earners to have access to a myriad number of options that meet their needs for badge collection and sharing. Maybe the best one for them will continue to be the Mozilla Backpack, but maybe not. The key word in this post is “choice.”

    We’re excited to solicit community members’ feedback on this and other infrastructure improvements (before, during and after MozFest). Share your thoughts!

  • http://dougbelshaw.com/ Doug Belshaw

    Commented on the Open Badges Google Group as requested, but will copy-and-paste here with a couple of minor alterations as well.


    Great post, Chris! :-)

    Someone (maybe you) once explained federation as being like email. I send an email from my Mozilla Foundation address to your GMail address and it’s bounced between servers on the way there. They know what to do with the message because it’s a federated system.

    People get email. If we channel that kind of language and use homely metaphors, I think people will get federation fairly quickly. At least they seemed to today when I presented to a room full of ‘non-technical’ people about the OBI.

    Also, having a specific example that’s recognisably different from the Mozilla reference badge backpack would be handy. Perhaps we should encourage a specific organization (DIY.org?) to do that?

  • arasbm

    This Badeopolis sounds very cool. I liked the original backpack but I felt that planning and discuvery was missing from it. I’m going to checkout the project.

  • lacroix666

    hm….my moz backpack is my infinite backpack at the moment, i can store everything there. The Pockets in my backpack are my collections, i can name them as i wish and organize them….i wish i could make collections of collections i name myself….that would be great….but i can only carry one backpack, you now 😉

  • Richard Wyles

    We’ve very keen for Mahara – an open source e-portfolio system – to support being a versatile backpack

  • mozzadrella

    As folks have been collecting Badges, I’ve also noticed an instinct to create a narrative–personally, I’ve used the “Folder” feature in Open Badges in that direction.

    There are a host of metaphors that might be appropriate here: a Passport, stickers on your laptop, the ability to create your own lists vis-a-vis Foursquare, subway maps. I think distributed backpack interfaces could gain a lot from looking at metaphors of travel and learning.

    Look forward to seeing what you all come up with, and happy to give feedback on any and all of it. Hope you’re well, Chris!

  • http://www.lonelylion.com Chris McAvoy

    Hey! Yes – agreed. I like the idea of metaphors pushing the product a bit. Also, PS – federated backpacks would mean P2PU could be a backpack, where you’d let a P2PU course collect badges from other sources, as well as badges you issue.

  • mozzadrella

    Oh man–if P2PU becomes a backpack, you know the metaphor is going to be tattoos. #edupunk4eva

  • http://www.lonelylion.com Chris McAvoy

    Consider this “liked” or “+1″d or whatever. Disqus needs a button for this. DISQUS NEEDS A BUTTON FOR THIS.

  • mozzadrella
  • http://jasontbennett.com/ Jason Bennett

    Good stuff. I’m currently learning all I can about badges and backpacks, and this really helps.
    I must admit that I’m not too excited by the prospect of multiple backpacks per se. Why? The added confusion across the board in terms of explaining the process to learners and issuers alike. The more options that exist (and the more channels necessary to explain the options), the higher the degree o confusion.
    As an example – the mere process of learning (what I have learned thus far) about badges and backpacks has led me down a road of opening multiple websites, multiple forums, Wikis, Community Groups, Google groups, etc. etc. This is of course how ‘learning things on the web’ works – however, I have learned some very technical things (I’m a web developer and an instructional designer by trade) – things that are in theory much less complicated than ‘earning badges’, ‘issuing badges’ and ‘transferring badges’ to a digital backpack – simply because I was able to find a good online resource that had all of the information I wanted to learn located within a single website. My experiences with learning badges / backpacks has been much more perilous – simply because of the multitude of resources, located in different places. I’ve created a sheet with links to all of the different resources (including this LonelyLion Blog), and I must say the list is very long. I feel at times that I learn more by ‘stumbling across’ something that should have been more easily found within another source.
    How does this relate to multiple backpacks (aka Federation) per se? I think of my Mozilla backpack as a centralized hub wherein I *HOPE* that people/organizations who issue badges will allow me to ‘push to’. I want ONE centralized place where my badges can be gathered (from P2PU, Credly, etc.). This is important to me because I can then easily use WordPress / Drupal plug-ins that tie into the Mozilla Backpack to display these within my ePortfolio Blog. One plug-in that can be configured to connect to one backpack (my Mozilla Backpack) is much easier that trying to figure out how to gather multiple badges from multiple backpacks and integrate them separately into an ePortfolio of some sort, be it a blog or something else.
    Maybe I’m missing something??
    There is already confusion surrounding how multiple badges earned by a single person with multiple email addresses can be more easily be gathered, organized, and shared. Maybe these types of issues should be addressed first?
    That being said, keep up the fantasic work!!

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