OER13: reflections on Doug Belshaw’s keynote address

I should probably start with a disclaimer: I am a strong supporter of open practices, but I am not an activist. My reflections on Doug’s entertaining keynote should therefore be interpreted in that light.

Doug’s keynote at OER13 began with a discussion on types of ambiguity and trajectories. It’s not entirely clear why the audience would be keen to be exposed to this discussion, but it appears that the bottom line was that it is not possible to define “open” in a way that satisfies everybody and that OER belongs in the “creative ambiguity” area.

The focus then shifted to Open Badges (OB), including the rationale behind the Mozilla Foundation’s support of OB. We were taken through the ‘anatomy of a badge’. Not surprisingly, metadata was referred to several times. A badge, Doug argued, constitutes evidence, trusted credentials, somehow captured explicitly in the metadata associated with the badge. Badges, he said, prove things outside of your community: they are a form of recognition and a way of representing yourself and your facets. There’s more to one’s transcript than silo-based qualifications. Badges are explicit by nature and provide a means of ‘jailbreaking formal education systems’. They encourage learner sovereignty and allow non-traditional pathways, Doug argued.

The next part of the keynote focused on web literacy standards. The Mozilla Foundation aims to create a web-literate planet, a generation of ‘web makers’. For this purpose, Doug and others have been working towards a web literacy learning standard, built with the community: an open learning standard for web literacy. People should be able to ‘earn badges around the web’. The OB approach, in the presenter’s view, should be seen as a platform for innovation.

The concluding part of the presentation was about ‘changing the world for the better’. OER and associated OEP are on the cusp of shifting from creative to productive ambiguity. The ‘Learning Registry’ could be a platform for innovation.

I confess that I left the session with as many doubts about OB as I went in with, but perhaps with more concerns. Some of the audience’s questions at the end illustrated similar concerns, and elicited some worrying statements, such as ‘you can award a badge for anything’ and ‘awarding an OB for trying’. In this context, the usual questions about these approaches became evident once more: would you hire someone whose “evidence of achievement” is presented to you in the form of open badges? Does packing a badge with metadata mean that everyone can see (and rely on) what and who is behind it? Does a badge give evidence of any form of achievement or, more importantly, competence?

An example was given of a group of people who apparently ‘provide trusted credentials for the small things they do’. Really?

Explicitness, trust, openness, opportunity, innovation and value are key works associated with OB. Those words can be compared and contrasted with other terms, such as too easy to get, mean very little, prove nothing, unreliable, a distant second best, don’t change much. Although there was a lot of passion, no persuasive argument was made (assuming there is one) to address such queries and concerns with evidence or authority. Who underwrites that trust and those credentials? “The community” is not a valid response, I’m afraid.

In sum, I was far from convinced. Doug referred to his own PhD research several times during the presentation. Indeed he used it a lot in his discussion of theories of ambiguity. Would he be where he is today solely on the back of his open badges? Probably not.

Alejandro Armellini
4 April 2013

7 thoughts on “OER13: reflections on Doug Belshaw’s keynote address

  1. Doug Belshaw (@dajbelshaw)

    Hi Alejandro, thanks for the post. 🙂

    Apologies if the ambiguity section of my presentation didn’t seem to fit with the rest. I was trying to frame things in a way that would weave together OER and Open Badges.

    In terms of ‘whether I would be where I am today solely using badges’ that betrays a certain mindset – one of either/or. What we’re interested in with badges, at least in the first instance, is to *augment* the learner’s formal transcript so that they can present a more holistic picture of themselves.

    Happy to discuss this further!

    1. alejandroarmellini Post author

      Thank you for your quick reply, Doug. I take the point you make about augmentation for those already in formal education. However, the queries remain: would a set of open badges really ‘augment a learner’s formal transcript’? Not sure. As assessed by whom? Again: “the community” is not a good answer, as anyone apparently awards a badge to anyone else, for anything! (not my words). My impression during your presentation was that OB were meant also (or perhaps primarily) for people without a formal transcript, or with a very weak one. The risk is therefore that they may remain without a transcript or indeed keep a weak one, with or without those open badges. Happy to learn more about these things, of course.
      Best wishes,

      1. Doug Belshaw (@dajbelshaw)

        The idea here is give learners the option of bypassing traditional gatekeepers to learning. It seems that you’re expressing incredulity at anyone being able to award a badge to anyone for anything?

        The value of a metadata-infused credential like an Open Badge comes through both the reputation of the issuer but also (importantly) through the rigour of the criteria URL. In other words, not just that someone important issued a credential, but what the person had to *do* to get it.

        You’re very welcome to join the Open Badge discussion list: https://groups.google.com/forum/#!forum/openbadges (a friendly bunch!)

  2. alejandroarmellini Post author

    Hi again, Doug
    Yes, I am questioning the credibility of these badges. The evidence I have seen so far is very weak. Very. Furthermore, on a practical note, I am very sceptical of ‘anyone awarding a badge to anyone else for anything’, even for trying. I would also be sceptical, if not suspicious, of employers taking these badges as evidence of any achievement – let alone competence. Checking rigour, credibility, real value and credentials does not make someone a ‘gatekeeper to learning’. The opposite is true, I would argue.
    Best wishes,

    1. Doug Belshaw (@dajbelshaw)

      Hi Alejandro,

      I’d suggest, with all due respect, that you’re conflating *infrastructure* with how it may (or may not be used). Badges add metadata to the equation providing an evidence-based trail that employers can follow. As badges can be used to credential pretty much anything – including this comment thread or a PhD, their value is a product of design rather than a function of the infrastructure per se.

      Lest we forget, universities have been abolished for fraudulently awarding degrees and (as I mentioned in the presentation) my own Great Uncle built his entire career on a university credential no-one checked.


      Again, the value of the credential can come through the reputation of the awarding body, but (happily) through the rigour of the credential itself. I’m not sure that’s something we’ve got now, actually. 🙂

  3. Robert Farrow (@philosopher1978)

    I was at Doug’s keynote and I was also quite unclear on how ambiguity was supposed to be playing a role in his argument. It seemed to break down into something like the following:

    1. We can’t be quite sure where this all leads but we should explore it anyway
    2. Badges might mean different things to different people but that’s OK
    3. ‘Ambiguity’ can be useful because it opens up a kind of hermeneutic space which can be productive or stimulating

    If this is all it comes down to then I’m not sure we needed to spend as long on it as we did! But more importantly I wonder whether ambiguity is really the right term for this anyway. It’s more like a kind of anti-essentialism about the meaning of badges which might be better described as a kind of indeterminacy (in the sense that Dennett uses that term).

    The critical thing is whether or not one is convinced by the case for the structural ambiguity of badges is really just concealing a lack of specificity that would be welcome… that seems to be Alejandro’s worry, at least! Perhaps badges need to be multivalent – capable of being different things to different people but without being vague.

    1. Doug Belshaw (@dajbelshaw)

      Thanks for the comment, Robert. 🙂

      “The critical thing is whether or not one is convinced by the case for the structural ambiguity of badges is really just concealing a lack of specificity that would be welcome… that seems to be Alejandro’s worry, at least! ”

      I’m not sure it *is* the critical thing, actually. One of the reasons I introduced ambiguity was as a lens to show how people think through metaphors. In the big scheme of things it matters very little whether you or I are ‘convinced’, are ‘skeptical’, etc. What matters is the affordances of the system and providing new and alternative ways of credentialing learning!


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