Open Badges - a social innovation

If you are interested in education, you probably heard about Open Badges - a digital and visual representation of a skill or a set of achievements. Open Badges are designed to help recognise various learning experiences by making visible different activities and/or skills mastered both in a formal and informal learning.

Our podcast guest, Chiara Carlino, project manager at Cineca - the biggest University consortium in Italy, and communication manager at Bestr - the Italian open badge platform, defines the open badge as “a micro-certificate issued by one institution to a recipient. The ‘micro’ stands for a small or incremental level of achievement instead of a 3-years degree, for instance.

How do Open Badges work?

The institution (school, organisation, company, etc) designs the open badge, describes and verifies them by different criteria. If the learner wants to earn the badge, s/he must fulfil those criteria established by the issuer. The criteria vary depending on the organisation. It might be to pass an exam, attend a course or complete several activities in order to get the open badge.

Each Open Badge is embedded with metadata and is associated with an image and information about the badge, its recipient name, the issuer, the issued date, the fulfilled criteria and other supporting evidence. It can be used to visualize the learning experiences, it can be published on social media profiles, job sites, etc.

There are no particular prerequisites for the issuer of a badge. Bestr is doing some checks in order to make sure there are no abuses, but usually, it is based on TRUST. Trust in the quality of the badge (criteria are expressed and evidence is attached) and trust in the organization that issues this badge. The badge goes along with the network and the reputation of the institution. A smaller company who issues badges can be endorsed by bigger companies.

From a technological innovation to a social innovation

Open badges are not a new idea. The first institution to design and issue badges was Mozilla, in 2012, but nevertheless, they are not a mainstream credential. There are not so many issuers and the traditional certifications are still dominant.

“This is not a technological innovation, but a social innovation,” told us, Chiara.

The adoption part is very hard and in order for institutions to issue badges, first of all, they need to understand the importance of an open badge and their benefits. It has to fit their current processes, business models, and culture.

Bestr is working closely with different organizations in Italy in order to meet their needs and help with the adoption process. For instance, for Italian universities, they build an integration between Bestr and student information systems (SIS) that most Italian universities are using. This enables the recognition of different learning activities. Extracurricular activities are packaged into badges by a third-party organization and they can be recognized and transferred into credits within the student information system, that in turn can impact the university diploma.

Micro-credentials vs university degrees

Open badges are not damaging or replacing the university diploma, instead, they enrich the context and can be integrated into a better assessment formula by highlighting additional activities and skills a student has.
The University Milan Bicocca issues open badges for traditional/formal degrees. Chiara explained what are the reasons behind:

  1. Transition to digital degrees, in order to be up to date and flexible with the fast-changing environment;
  2. Highlight the value of a degree in a shorter, more readable way with the most relevant information for the employer;
  3. Sum up all the international experiences the student had during her/his years in the university. There is a specific open badge for this, called “International Student”

In some cases, the micro-credentials are meant to highlight skills that are already in the university degrees. It helps the student to showcase the learning experiences and the employer to take a decision based on relevant data.
The University Milan Bicocca was as well the first university to sign the Bologna Open Recognition Declaration in 2016 committing to opening up the education and the recognition of competences. And happily, there are more organisations jumping on board now.

The future of Open Badges

During the next decade, the importance of Open Badges will continue to rise significantly due to their role of putting an end to the disparities in learning recognition. The learners can be in control of their own learning path, they can decide to open up to different forms of learning, formal or informal, because it doesn’t matter in the end, all of them lead to an open recognition.

However, at the ePIC conference in 2017, a number of challenges have been identified, standing in the way of achieving the goals of an Open Recognition Architecture. Here are the top 10 listed challenges:

  1. Open Recognition Networks
  2. Informal Recognition
  3. Open Endorsement
  4. Open Discovery
  5. Advanced Visualisation
  6. Social Capital Representation
  7. Open Pathways
  8. Semantic value
  9. Open Services
  10. Interoperability

Now, is the right time to work on solving these challenges, because the need of recognizing one’s skills and achievements is becoming an urgent issue along with developments in AI, and debates over UBI (Universal Basic Income). The need of visualizing and recognizing micro competencies gives the individual more value and perspectives in the fast-changing social and economic environments.

As mentioned in the Bologna Open Recognition declaration “The creation of an open space for the delivery and recognition of lifelong and life-wide learning is a key enabler for the promotion of social inclusion, employability, and mobility of the world’s citizens and the development of our planet.”

Want to learn more? 

Read "Learning Technologies" an overview of the digital badges and useful related resources.