Open Badges started as a modest experiment: build open source badge issuing software for ourselves and others. As momentum around this experiment has grown, it feels like the opportunity is bigger: we could build openness and user empowerment into how learning — and professional identity — work all across the web. With Open Badges 1.0 out there in the world, now is the right time to ask: where next for Mozilla and badges?
When Mozilla and MacArthur Foundation first started work on Open Badges about 18 months ago, the plan was to build a badge interchange standard (like SMTP for skills) and a collection of open source software for issuing and sharing badges (Badge Backpack, Open Badger, etc.). We’ve built all these things. And we’ve put up a reference implementation that Mozilla and others are using. This was really the limit of our original plan: build some basic open tech for badges and put it out there in the world.
The thing is: there has been way more excitement and pick up of badges than we expected. Even though Open Badges only launched officially in March, there are already over 800 unique providers who have issued almost 100,000 badges. We are also starting to see the development of city-wide systems where learners can pick up hundreds of different badges from across dozens of learning orgs and combine them all into a single profile. Chicago is the first city to do this (June 1), but Philadelphia and San Francisco are not far behind. And, this is just the tip of the iceberg: orgs like the Clinton Global Initiative and the National Science Foundation are focusing on badges in a way that is likely to drive even more educators to pick up the Open Badges standard, making their badges interoperable with others.
Of course, the fact that educators and policy makers are interested in badges doesn’t represent a victory in itself. It just shows momentum and buzz. The real opportunity — and the real impact — comes when learners and employers get excited about badges. Mozilla never planned to build offerings for these audiences. Increasingly, it feels like we should.
In the Internet era, people learn things online and out of school all the time. Whether you want to make a web page, knit a sweater or get better at calculus, the internet makes it easy to learn on your own or with a group of friends outside of a school setting. However, there is no good way to get credentials or recognition for this kind of learning. And, even if there was, there is no trusted, verifiable way to plug that recognition into Facebook, About.me and other places that make up your online identity. People have no good way to show ‘what they know’ online.
Similarly, employers are increasingly turning to the internet to find talent. They use sites like LinkedIn that let you search online resumes. Or, increasingly, to sites like Gild and TalentBin that use data mining to find potential hires. The problem: these services do not offer granular or variable skills profiles. And, with some of them, there are significant issues around privacy: people are being offered up as potential hires without even knowing that these sites are collecting data about them.
Mozilla could offer a distributed, open source and privacy-friendly solution to problems like these. We could help learners show their skills in all their online profiles and also help employers search for talent reliably. However, to do so, we’d have to build a Firefox-quality offering for learners and employers on top of Open Badges. While this hasn’t been our focus up til now, I’m thinking more and more that this is something we should consider.
In some ways, there is a parallel to Gecko and Firefox. Gecko provides the underlying platform for shaping standards around our vision of the web. But we need a popular consumer offering like Firefox if we want this vision to actually become relevant in the market. Right now, with Open Badges, we’re mostly just playing at the underlying standards layer. If we really want to shape how learning and professional identity work on the web, we probably need to build our own offerings directly for the people who most want and need badges.
Now is the time to be looking at where the opportunity is in this space. Momentum and demand is amongst educators is growing. More and more start ups are appearing in the badges, portfolio and skills spaces. And likelihood that badges will be important for learners and employers is growing. We need to be asking ourselves: how can Mozilla — and its values — shape this space?
With this in mind, Erin Knight is leading an effort over the next few months to look at different badges product options. She’ll be providing updates on her blog. And I’ll be summarizing here as well. If you have ideas on where Mozilla should go on all of this, we’d love to have you involved as we think this through. Comments here on this post are a good place to start.