Blockchain and Digital Badges

Building on the paper by Halavais (2012), I’ve been reading around the subjects of blockchain and badges, as prompted by this week’s activities.

It’s taken some wrestling to get my head around the concept of blockchain. Although I’m well aware of Bitcoin, the underpinning technology has been explained to me in the past and it’s made little sense. But having read the recommended readings such as this, and this, I feel I’m getting to grips with it. As far as I can tell, it provides a permanent, incremental record of data, which as a result helps establishes a sense of ‘trust’. Naturally then, it’s been linked to the concept of badges within education, as this could have an obvious benefit in establishing and ratifying any credential, and removing any ambiguity about authenticity.

However, having been exposed to the concept of open badges previously (as mentioned here), I still have some fundamental questions around this that I cannot seem to resolve. They key one being, if anyone can create and issue a badge, how can a sense of ‘value’ by attributed to this? Halavais (2012) argues that for a badge “to carry social currency they must represent a significant sacrifice”. As such, how do we define a common understanding of ‘sacrifice’ and attribute to this in a consistent way? It could be a unit of time, for example, 30 hours of ‘learning’ – but what does hour mean in this way? WHat the hell does learning mean in this context? I think without a common measure, it becomes impossible to compare. What’s better, a table or cheese?

To gauge a sense of sacrifice, you may have to resort to type, and align it to traditional methods of verification. For example, upon viewing a badge you may make a judgement on the issuing authority (e.g. a university) and the level of qualification (e.g. Masters). If this is the case, what’s the purpose of an ‘open’ badge?

A badge is intended as a quick visual reference (initially) that is symbolic of something – if this is not easily understand by quick review, it fails to be a badge, it’s just an image. A joke isn’t funny if you have to explain it – it just becomes a statement. A joke is also only found funny by an audience receptive to this, and aware of the context that forms the joke. If an open badge can literally be from any sphere, the context may only be apparent through luck, not by design.

I also think when many things are ‘open’, that this often results in an overwhelming increase of instances of the thing that is open.This can mean it’s harder to actually wade through the ocean of information. Youtube, for example, has provided an open platform for anyone to display their creations, say for example music creations. But while a good musician can come from anywhere, it does not mean anyone can be a good musician, and the wealth of music on here can simply make an unpolished diamond ever harder to unearth.

It’s interesting to explore this in terms of my own professional history. I spent many years working within the TEFL training industry (Teaching English as a Foreign Language). This is notorious for being a tad ‘wild west’ – there’s no overarching accrediting body for TEFL, meaning that in essence anyone can set up a TEFL training school and start issuing certificates. This is driven by the fact that some/many schools overseas are simply happy to hire based on native-English speaking abilities, rather than any teaching competency. This is changing over time as the market matures and there is a realisation that nativeness does not equal good teacher, but is still very much the case in many areas around the world. I bring this up as this has definite links, in that there’s no authority within this sphere. It’s as almost as anyone can issue a badge – an open badge you could say. The same questions persist – you can validate that they have achieved that badge, but what does the badge mean? Sure, there’s metadata that can give you a further insight, but does this metadata provide any real qualitative information?

Back to blockchain, and more specifically the development of Blockcerts. Blockcerts are blockchain-based credentials. Belshaw makes an interesting comment that, in his view “blockchain-based credentials are good… in high stakes situations”, and that he’d “be happy for my doctoral certificate, for example, to be on the blockchain.”

Aligning this to the social classes discussed by Halavais (2012), we can assign the stewardship approach, or governance class towards the blockcerts initative, and the commercial class, or stewardship approach to the ‘weird and wonderful’, as he puts it.

I think the irony here, is openness and blockchain actually strengthening the governing approach, as ultimately this has the traditional authority to issue credentials, and still relies on this to provide any weight.

The only way around this (in my opinion) is to focus on the end goal. It’s not about the credential, it’s about how they perform in the classroom – ultimately how competent they are the profession. Obviously, this is also open to its own judgements, bias, and hidden agendas.

Widen this further, and it links to the Edublocks concept outlined in Audrey Watters’ guide to blockchain in education. In essence, Edublocks link employment (and more tangibly pay) to educational history. This seems to be the natural progression, but even for me, as someone who is probably overly pragmatic about things, this rings some loud alarm bells. The key one being that by tying everything back to employability, what happened to the simple pleasure of wanting to learn about something, simply for the curiosity and intrigue to know more? Perhaps there are links here to the neo-liberalistic influence (Biesta 2012) permeating across education, it certainly seems to be another example of this.

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