Back(pack) to the Future - Creating Digital Credentials with Soul

Back(pack) to the Future - Creating Digital Credentials with Soul

Digital credentials should be culturally significant and professionally recognized, like Open Badges. They create opportunity as a signal and antennae.

Originally published with Simone Ravaioli on Mirror.

The Birth of Badges

Whether Girl Scouts, participation ribbons, or letter jackets, we are always collecting badges - proof of our accomplishments. These badges are fun, visual reminders and signals, showing the world who we are. They are also antennae, attracting members of our tribe to us. If you want to date the football star, look for the letter jacket!

It is no different than brands. The brands we rep, the teams we support, the style we wear identifies our tribe as Seth Godin would say.

It should come as no surprise that learning could be verified, showcased, and shared the same way. We already do it with our college alma mater and our high school sport team - why not for the pottery class you took, the conference you attended, or your team building exercise ‘99 (tangential reference here).

Open Badges were created for just this.

This technical standard was developed some 10 years ago to document and showcase experience. As the whitepaper notes, it was an “ecosystem to support skill development and lifelong learning for real results such as jobs and advancement.”

Verified, Showcased and Shared Learning

Open Badges combine strong signaling properties (image) with machine readability (metadata), enabling quick recognition and sharing of trust, transparency, quality, and reputation:

The Open Badges standard recognizes that a credential has to be something worth showcasing. No one wears a report card on a jacket, but if it’s a cool letter from their school recognizing their athletic achievements, they do.

Open Badges were created just like Girl Scout badges or a the letter on a school jacket. They are fun, colorful, representative of the accomplishment. They are a clear signal that you belong to a specific community.

This skeuomorphic design also created the greatest resistance.

“Serious” work couldn’t be represented in such a fun way according to academia and credential gatekeepers. There was major pushback on Open Badges as a tool for formal recognition. It just wasn’t “professional” enough.

Despite the pushback on design, there was no argument that Open Badges were an easy way to share an experience. On LinkedIn, via email, and directly in a learner’s virtual backpack, experiences were gathered like badges on a Girl Scout sash.

It was easy to create and share the badges. Soon, there was ground up momentum. While policymakers were resisting adoption of badges, companies and employees started using them in a big way. In just 10 years, over 40 million badges have been earned by learners.

Backpack to the Future

Web3 heralded a new era for digital credentials.

Verified Learning Today

Numerous organizations and protocols are working to speed the development and adoption of digital credentials and the digital wallets where those credentials will live. These organizations include W3C, IMS Global, ed 3.0, IEEE, and more.

These are the “serious” people, creating the technical specifications needed to verify identity and learning outcomes. With this foundation, verifiable credentials, or VCs, along with decentralized identifiers, or DIDs, emerged as a new decentralized method to validate educational outcomes and skills.

Showcased and Shared Learning Today

Meanwhile, builders are going to build.

Armed with decentralized technology, a new generation of grassroots efforts is helping learners showcase and share their experience.

  • NFTs paved the way, showing a demand for digital art that can also represent utility and experience.
  • POAPs were launched as an easy way to create NFTs based on experience.

NFTs and POAPs add expressiveness to our digital identities. This adds virality and excitement to these efforts, leading to over 15,000 NFTs being sold per week! This culturally-relevant nuance “immutably” validates the model introduced by Open Badges 10 years ago.

With this excitement, more builders are showing up. Conservatively, at least 30 companies have entered the credential and on-chain reputation space following the path forged by standards like Open Badges. This momentum makes this a key inflection point in the future direction and development of digital credentials.

Backpack to the Beginning

These efforts hold tremendous promise for digital credentials, but it’s not clear that we’ve learned the lesson of the past 10 years.

  • Verified learning is essential, but it won’t be adopted without cultural significance.
  • Learning that can be showcased and shared is fun, but without proper recognition it doesn’t create opportunity.

The goal of digital credentials specifically, and education generally, is human flourishing. All of the current credentialing efforts are merely navel gazing if they do not create opportunities for learners.

We need to look to Open Badges as a guide to what digital credentials should be: culturally significant and professionally recognized.

Cultural Significance

An idea or object that people want to share has cultural significance.

This is not always “high culture” - the latest TikTok challenge or reality TV gif might have cultural significance even if it is thought of as entertainment instead of culture.

That’s the power of culture: it’s not mandated. We do not get to individually pick what has significance and what doesn’t. Instead, we all decide collectively through our actions. By caring and sharing, we are building the cultural significance of an idea or object. In this way, something going viral or becoming a meme is one way to build cultural significance.

The concept of cultural significance matters for education and digital credentials in particular.

The promise of ed3 is the ability to decentralize education. Anyone, anywhere could access knowledge, earn accreditation, and unlock new opportunities without the need for a central educational authority.

If we are going to enable decentralized education, however, the power rests with people. Learners and employers will choose what has significance to them.

The challenge, then, for schools, government, organizations, and protocols is imbuing credentials with culture. We cannot regulate specific platforms or protocols in a decentralized world. The best we can do is build the standard and support implementations that are culturally exciting.

As Evin McMullen notes, Verifiable Credentials (or Open Badges or POAPs) might be concert tickets today but PhDs tomorrow.

Simply put: web3 credentials are culture.

Whether it’s through art, memes, gifs, design, or otherwise, educators need to make credentials stick. Currently, verifiable credentials don’t have a deep culture. The challenge is how do we add culture to the VC and DID space?

The answer might be right in front of us in the form of Open Badges.

The Decentralized Growth of Open Badges

The story of online education is one of grassroots adoption. The private sector created new institutions - think University of Phoenix - to meet the demand. Many of these institutions had problems with low graduation rates while saddling students with massive student loans. However, they pointed to an obvious demand. It was not until higher education saw this market opportunity that they finally adopted online education at scale.

The same pattern is emerging with digital credentials. Registrars and institutions have long said no to Open Badges. Maybe it did not feel serious enough. Maybe it was too much work.

Despite their hesitation, badges have been adopted in a big way. IBM was a groundbreaker, using Open Badges to recognize internal skill development. Non-traditional educators used badges to incentivize and recognize their learners.

Now micro-credentials are an emerging trend in higher education, reshaping formal educational policies. Badges that are “reppable” (a source of pride) and shareable are the natural next step for institutions. They provide marketing (institutional branding) as learners share their badges and increase awareness of the programs. They also increase opportunities for graduates by showcasing a student’s work (evidence) and signaling reputation through endorsements and increased trust.

Open Recognition - From Signals to Antennae

Institutions are beginning to use badges for credentials. The final step is to use digital credentials to connect people.

Clay Shirky notes that communication tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring. After a decade of development, Open Badges may be entering the boring phase, with exciting new ways to leverage the technology.

Digital credentials, such as Open Badges, can act as both a signal and antennae. An Open Badge from a CPR course validates that I have this life-saving knowledge. That is an important signal that might qualify me for a job or enable me to keep my nursing license.

I might also want to show a digital credential for attending an event or just to show my support for an organization like ETH Denver. For ETH Denver, I minted a Bufficorn NFT (below) as a way to financially support the organization and signal that I am interested in Web3 and want to be on the cutting edge.

Credentials are most often thought of as signals. However, they can also act as antenna, finding and attracting people and opportunities that will fit my interests and abilities. In this way, digital credentials act as a network creator, facilitating new connections. With a culturally significant digital credential, I don’t have to go to a job board and look for new careers. Instead, the projects, job opportunities, and friendships come to me.

Open Badges are not just collectors of skills. They are connectors of people.

This is one tenet of Open Recognition.

With interoperable credentials, we can start to match, recommend, and find people who have the same interests and skills profile.

Trust in this system is distributed - we earn trust within our niche community.

Instead of privacy by design, Open Recognition creates “intimacy by design” as coined by Serge Ravet. Your niche community connects with you and understands your skills and interests.

Digital credentials can be more than the muscle powering recruitment. They should be the soul breathing life into communities and social interactions.

The Long Tail of Credentials

A common criticism of easy-to-create badges, such as Open Badges and POAPs, is “carpet-badging” - issues too many badges for too many things. As more and more badges are created, they become meaningless. It is reminiscent of the complaint that “kids today” get a participation ribbon for everything..

However, this explosion of badges is a benefit, not a bug. There is a Long Tail of Credentials, a variation of Chris Andersson’s Long Tail . The Long Tail, also know as the Pareto Principle, argues that 80% of the demand is for 20% of the supply. In the real world, this means that 80% of the sales in a bookstore are for 20% of all the books. Same thing in a record store, hardware store, etc. Due to this demand, a smart bookstore only carries 20% of the books - the stuff people buy!

What the Internet does is eliminates shelf space. Now, Amazon can carry every book available, including The Travel Hacking Guide to Norway, even though just my mom the author’s mom and a few friends will buy it.

The same effect is at play with credentials. Sure, 80% of credentials are meaningless for the vast majority of the population. That’s not a problem. A few specific people will recognize the credential. They will create niche, specific opportunities for the credential holder. Thus, the badge is a signal and an antenna, connecting and strengthening a tribe. Even though there are millions of badges out there, having the right badge for the right audience makes it valuable.

Badges as the Soul of a Community

The future of digital credentials is being built as we speak, with the WC3 publishing the new version of the Verifiable Credentials just this week and Open Badges 3.0 aligning with VC in the next few weeks.

What is needed now is to move from standards to cultural significance.

Open Badges shows the path to marry professional recognition with cultural relevance. The future of Open Badges is verifiable, but equally important, their past, present, and future is one of “reppable” and shareable credentials.

Digital credentials are culture. Only when people truly care about them will they be fully used as both a signal and antennae to create opportunity and enable human flourishing.