Yes, Recognition Technologies Should Be Part of the Open Education Conversation


Why I care about recognition technologies, including open badges

When I first heard of open digital badges I was working as a reference librarian at a public library. The idea appealed to me immediately as a way to document informal learning. I knew that valuable learning happened at the library, but I also knew that library learning didn’t count for my patrons in the same way that college learning counted for students. By “didn’t count,” I mean that library learning in itself didn’t create opportunity for patrons in the same way that college learning in itself created opportunity for students—or at least for students who finished college with a degree. It wasn’t because the library learning wasn’t as good (sorry higher ed snobs, but I will fight you on this). It wasn’t necessarily because the library learning lacked assessment, because sometimes there was meaningful assessment. No, in my opinion the big difference was that college students paid tuition and so their learning was worthy of being counted. Library patrons learned for free and in ways that were intrinsically valuable to them… yet their learning went unrecognized, remained invisible to others, and so did not count.

As most folks who’ve worked at a public library can tell you, libraries are institutions that tend to serve the under-served. Many of the people on a first name basis with librarians are folks for whom a “foot-in-the-door” kind of opportunity could be a life changer, yet opportunities for them are frustratingly few and far between. In badges I saw a possible way for patrons to document their learning and perhaps create their own small but significant foot-in-the-door opportunities.

I have since gone from being a librarian to an instructional designer to an eLearning Director in higher ed. I remain deeply concerned with what separates learning that counts from learning that doesn’t count.

Open Digital Badges afford more than one paradigm of use

Digital badges are called “open” digital badges if they conform to the Open Badges technical standard, originally developed at Mozilla and now maintained by IMS Global. Open digital badges, for those who don’t know, were originally developed as a way to document and recognize informal learning. Of course, just because a technology is based on an open technical standard that doesn’t mean it will be used in a way that’s consistent with an ethos of openness. The point I wish to argue is not that open badge technologies are inherently “open.” It’s that open badges can be used to support the goals of open education in really valuable ways that, for one reason or another, seem to have been overlooked by much of the open ed community. Whether open badges support openness depend on the sorts of claims about earners they’re used to make, but also and crucially, on who is making those claims.

So how are open digital badges used? Let’s contrast two schools of thought: micro-credentials and open recognition.


Micro-credentials, as some have pointed out, go by many names and as a concept are somewhat haphazardly defined. Nonetheless, the things we call micro-credentials seem to share some common traits. For starters, most micro-credentials appear to be issued using open badge technologies. Micro-credentials are smaller in scope and take less time to complete than traditional credentials, e.g. degrees or certificates. Micro-credentials are stackable, meaning that they are both valuable by themselves and they may contribute to larger degrees. They are often associated with competency-based curricula. Finally, micro-crentials often rely on existing academic processes for quality assurance (SUNY, ND). My impression is that most micro-credential offerings follow the model of “expert-designed curriculum + score on a summative assessment = micro-credential,” which seems like a fairly traditional and academic way of approaching learning.

What sorts of claims do micro-credentials make about learners? To the extent that micro-credentials are tied to existing academic processes and conventional curricula, albeit chunked and miniaturized curricula, we might expect them to make claims that are similar to the sorts of claims that traditional certificates and degrees make about learners. And what sorts of claims are those? There are the explicit claims, e.g., that the earner successfully completed assessments or the required number of credit hours in an expert designed course of study, or that the earner achieved a certain cumulative GPA. Then there are the implicit claims, e.g., that the earner is someone who finishes things or is the sort of person who would earn a degree from [insert brand here] institution.

Serge Ravet, President of Reconnaître (Open Recognition Alliance, France), created what he calls the “Plane of Recognition,” which compares forms of recognition along the dimensions of traditional to non-traditional and formal to non-formal. I encourage you to read his post about the plane, and why he characterizes tradition & formal recognition as being about conformance and non-traditional & non-formal as being about empowerment.

Plane of recognition
Image by Serge Ravet

To be clear, I’m a proponent of both higher education and micro-credentials. Now more than ever we need institutions that explicitly aim at the public good. At the same time, higher ed deserves much of the criticism it catches, and I’m concerned that systemic issues in higher ed, for instance, its role as gatekeeper/excluder, is likely to “trickle down” to micro-credentials. Further, learning in higher ed—even the most open and learner-driven examples—is still fundamentally owned and overseen by an institutional authority rather than the learner. And honestly, I would have no problem with that were it not for the near monopoly higher ed has historically had on learning that “counts.”

Open Recognition

What is open recognition and who uses it to make what sorts of claims? While there is no formal definition of open recognition, I’ll do my best to convey the idea. Open recognition is the idea that learners are capable of being more than mere seekers of recognition—that all learners are capable recognizers in their own right. Further, it is the idea that we (as educators? Citizens? Humans?) should seek to empower individuals and communities to make their recognition of others more visible and actionable, and in so doing hopefully challenge existing hegemonic systems of recognition (which are systems of both recognition and exclusion) and thereby contribute to the emergence of a more open and equitable society.

The claim that open recognition makes about learners seems to me analogous to a claim that open pedagogy makes about learners. That is, in the same way that open pedagogy re-imagines learners not as mere consumers of knowledge but as capable knowledge creators who deserved to be co-authors of their own learning, so too open recognition re-imagines learners as capable recognizers of skills, achievements, and qualities in others and in themselves, and as such, learners deserve to be co-authors of recognition.

So the answer to “Who does open recognition” is anyone who has a stake in being recognized and recognizing others for their skills and achievements. Communities and individuals alike can use recognition technologies, e.g., open digital badges, to make informal recognition of others more visible and actionable, or even to make claims about themselves more social and verifiable.

What open recognition is, and what it could mean to learners and society, is a topic that deserves much more discussion. For now, this post is already way too long. If you are interested in open recognition I encourage you to check out the Open Recognition Alliance, read and sign the Bologna Open Recognition Declaration, and join the conversation online at next week’s ePIC Conference on Open Recognition!


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