The Future of Open Badges is Verifiable

‘hexadaisy layout’ by Darla available at http://www.flickr.com/photos/pedrosz/2040577615 under a Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license

When Open Badges was kicking off ten years ago (see the original white paper), it was conceived to be a recognition infrastructure for skills attained and achievements accomplished anywhere at any time. Badges could assert skills learned informally, formally, really in any aspect of and through life. It was hoped that recruiters, employers, and others could evaluate the badges to find people who had skills that aligned with the opportunities being offered. It was envisioned they could work like other types of credentials such as degrees and certifications, “but with room for much more granular or diverse skill representation” and available opportunities to capture these skills.

The infrastructure for this type of recognition system was a format called a digital badge. More than just a digital sticker, the badges would be filled with metadata properties describing the skills and achievements. Then the badges could convey the metadata both as human readable and machine readable content. By having a standard to describe the metadata and how it would be verified, Open Badges became usable in many technologies and contexts. For the most part, this resulted in badges being shared online on issuing platforms and social media — more as a tool for human understanding than one that took full advantage of the potential for machine readability.

Since then, the ethos of Open Badges, recognizing skills anywhere and anytime, has strengthened. Growth has accelerated, especially in the past few years. IMS Global and Credential Engine’s Badge Count 2020 Report indicated that there’d been an 80% increase in issued badges since 2018. Its use has expanded into more formal institutional contexts, the metadata have evolved, and initiatives have risen around it including the Open Recognition Alliance, Badge Summit, and the Open Skills Network.

Over the years, internet technologies have evolved too and a credential verification model at the W3C called Verifiable Credentials has gained traction. This verification model can be used for any type of credential including passports, drivers licenses, and educational credentials like Open Badges. In fact, members of the Open Badges community helped to write the very first use cases for Verifiable Credentials back in 2018. This was because we knew then that if Open Badges data were to be trusted by apps, they not only needed to be readable by machines, they needed to be verifiable.

The Verifiable Credential model can provide security and privacy enhancements not yet available to Open Badges. This model gives learners persistent access to their badges increasing the longevity and resilience of credentials that were intended to promote and support lifelong learning. A more secure and universally supported verification model such as Verifiable Credentials enables Open Badges to become the personal skills currency it was originally envisioned to be.

Concentric Sky (Badgr) has offered a proposal for a new version of Open Badges that explains what is needed to make it work within the Verifiable Credentials model. The use cases in the proposal provide scenarios where Open Badges are earned and then how they are exchanged. In one use case, a medical professional is able to start her new job sooner because her CME’s can be quickly verified:

Verifying Continuing Ed: Denise was offered a new job at a hospital as a physician assistant. Before starting, her continuing education training and license to practice needed to be verified. The last time she switched hospitals, the verification process took three weeks. This time, she was able to provide her badges to prove her training and license. Within minutes her credentials were verified and she was issued a new digital staff credential

In another use case, a career change is facilitated by using verifiable Open Badges to map skills to jobs:

Mapping Skills: Sid is shifting careers after many years working in construction. In his digital wallet he had several skill badges describing his mastery of several skills in construction but also in teamwork, communication, and organizational skills. Sid also had badges from some courses he’d taken in science and math over the last few years. After he uploaded the skill and course badges from his wallet to a career planning site, he was offered several opportunities to apply for work in software sales and cybersecurity.

Here’s an example of how an Open Badge as a Verifiable Credential (Open Badges 3.0) exchange could work:

  1. A learner connects to a badge issuing platform with their digital wallet app on their phone or laptop.
  2. Once authenticated, the issuer provides the badge to the learner who puts it in their wallet. The badge data contains cryptographic proof that identifies the issuer and the learner.
  3. A job employment app asks for proof that the applicant has experience with a requirement needed for that role.
  4. The learner presents the job employment app with the badge using the digital wallet app. The job employment app can then verify
    a. that the learner providing the badge is the recipient of that badge
    b. that the issuer is the identity that issued the badge, and
    c. that the badge data has not changed since it was issued.
  5. The verifier responds that the badge is authentic.

In comparison, here’s an Open Badges 2.0 flow:

  1. A learner or an organization provides an issuer app with the learner’s email address
  2. The Issuer generates badge data that includes the email address as the recipient identity and sends the earner the badge (typically as a link to a web page)
  3. The earner can share the link on social media, or perhaps with a potential employer or a job application app.
  4. The badge is verified by either
    a. a human looking at the web page where the badge is hosted or
    b. the application attempts to retrieve the badge data from a url hosted by the issuer.

The Open Badges 2.0 example depends on the issuer hosting the data and relies on an email address for the learner. The Open Badges 3.0 example is self-contained and doesn’t require the issuer to continue to retain a web hosting provider in order for the credential to remain valid. Instead it uses cryptographic proof to authenticate the badge, the issuer, as well as the learner who earned it. With either example, the learner has a way to proudly share their achievement online but the Open Badges 3.0 method doesn’t rely on that online presence for verification. In fact, the original issuer may no longer exist, but the achievements can still be verified.

On Monday July 19, we’ll be reviewing the Open Badges 3.0 proposal and anyone is invited to join us to learn more. Here’s the meeting info:

Monday, July 19, 2021
Time: 8am PDT / 11am EDT / 4pm BST, 5pm CEST
Jitsi Web Conference: https://meet.w3c-ccg.org/education
US phone: tel:+1.602.932.2243;3

On Thursday, July 22, Concentric Sky will be presenting this proposal to the IMS Global Open Badges working group to seek the members’ go-ahead to move forward on the work to make Open Badges 3.0 a reality. Public comments may be submitted here.

Director, Digital Credentials Research & Innovation at Concentric Sky & Badgr. Equitable Technology Activist. Competitive Axe Thrower. She/her/hers.