"Badge" or "Credential" – What's in a Name?

A lot. Words are really important. As an advocate for Open Badges to the often unaware, I’ve learned the hard way that I need to be clear about who I’m talking to as I choose my words and the order that I say them. I’m very careful about how I use the word “badges”.

Guides_8488348265_dd2ab5bd0a_o_crop.jpgGirl Guides of Canada CC-BY

I’ll start by saying that the scope of my work up here in Canada goes well beyond K12 and After School programs – I’m also working to convince:

  • Adults (badge earners) that badges will help them advance their careers
  • Educators and trainers (badge issuers) that badges will enhance their brand of learning rather than damage it
  • Employers (badge consumers) that badges represent a better way to evaluate and map the capabilities that matter to them.

I find it helpful go beyond words and provide visuals like the matrix below, in an effort to avoid simplistic responses (follow the link below if some of it’s hard to read):

OpenBadgesforRPL_2015_v03_MATRIX02crop.pngCAPLA 2015 presentation – Don Presant (slide 22)

All Open Badges are Digital Badges but not vice-versa

Doug Belshaw has been working with City & Guilds and its stakeholders on this issue. His Venn diagram is very useful, as is the rest of his blog post from September 2015:
…but I agree with him that it’s a messy situation when diverse individuals and communities get involved. Context again. We can’t control how people use language, so we need to find persuasive levers that work in the different situations (messes?) we find ourselves in.

The “B word”: Help or Hindrance?

Words can have helpful, engaging associations or be perceived negatively as labels, “red flags” and triggers. And it varies by context. In most *adult* contexts, I’ve found that bringing Scout badges into early conversation triggers frowns from Early Majority tire-kickers and sneers from Late Majority scoffers. In terms of the technology adoption life cycle, “badge” can be an edgy, fun  metaphor for us as Innovators and early-Early Adopters, but we need to be flexible if we want to get inside the heads of the pragmatists across Moore’s Chasm.
So I’ve learned to avoid the word “Scouts” in elevator pitches when I’m describing Open Badges to adults for the first time. Badges is not the even first term out of my mouth. Much as Doug describes in his post above, I’ll say “digital credentials using the Mozilla Open Badge standard” or even “the Mozilla/IMS Global standard” if they’re HE nerds and I really want to avoid the word “badge” in the first few minutes.
Once people wrap their heads around the concept and start getting their feet wet, you can open up the discussion. But the early sequencing of concepts and labels is crucial when you’re trying to persuade busy people who are hearing about it for the first time.
Concerns about terminology are really holding some people back, especially up here in cautious Canada. A Director in one Canadian college is attempting to prevent his institution from doing *anything* until he decides (in dialogue with other concerned colleagues across the country) what he’s going to call them. Not what they are, or how they’ll connect to Graduate Learning Outcomes or industry sector standards: what they’re going to *call* them…before they even start to experiment.
However, over at Notre Dame University, this perception of the trivial nature of “badges”  and avoidance of the term “credential” is actually providing useful space for experimentation: it’s enabling G. Alex Ambrose to do some pretty cool early work integrating Open Badges with Co-Curricular Records and ePortfolios off the radar of formal oversight, as he explained in a presentation to the Badge Alliance in August 2015:

You’re saying digital badge rather than Open Badges – how significant is that? and how did people respond to badges vs micro-credentials?
  • the distinction between digital and open is not significant with administrators — it’s one step more philosophical than they grasp
  • some badges are only open to students on the campus
  • open adds another level of complexity
  • not fond of “micro-credential,” stay simple for stakeholders to work with

Others actively reach out for the term “micro-credential”, even though, as people like Serge Ravet complain, it’s a fragmentary, incomplete term – why not also meso- or even macro-credential? I happen to think that’s precisely why it’s deliberately micro: “It’s not a full credential, it’s just a sub-credential.” This verbal ploy puts your initiative comfortably on the edge of the academic/professional radar, indicating some rigour but not endangering the institution’s core credentialing mojo.
So, digital badges can recognize co-curricular achievements at Notre Dame University or Continuing Education programs at Madison Area Technical College.
And micro-credentials can recognize CPD for educators at Digital Promise…or provide modular induction pathways for entry-level candidates into professional bodies.
This last idea comes from Knapp International, a consulting company for credentialing bodies. Their report from a 2014 virtual Town Hall is an interesting read overall, but I found this page particularly helpful:

Microcredentials≠Digital Badges
We also clarified that although digital badges could be used to represent micro-credentials, the two concepts are not interchangeable. Digital badges are a means of representing accomplishments and these accomplishments could include certifications, micro-credentials, academic degrees or achievements not formally recognized as “credentials.” And micro-credentials could be represented by a paper certificate, digital badge, or both.
Yikes, academic degrees! Don’t tell the Academic Senate at your local institution…but doesn’t this speak to Serge Ravet’s issue of levels of granularity and weight?

It’s ironic: so much of this angst about terminology is centred on the proprietary concerns of academic institutions and their frequent bias in favour of “quality” over utility, which was part of what Open Badges were invented to circumvent. Yet, at least in North America it’s the academic institutions, particularly colleges and universities, who are dominating the dialogue about badging beyond K12 and after school. (Why is that? But I digress.)

Formative and Summative Recognition for Youth and Adults

We’re currently working on badge systems with LEARN Quebec, and that work is part of the inspiration for this post. LEARN provides services not only for students but also for teachers, related staff and communities in minority Anglophone communities. They’re learning how to present the opportunity of Open Badges to these different audiences. Basically, it’s boiling down to saying “badges” to youth and “micro-credentials” to adults.
The diagram below needs more work (suggestions welcome), but I’m starting to adapt my model from above to situate digital badges, open badges and micro-credentials among other forms of recognition:
As I look at this and think back to some of the excellent #BadgeChatK12 chats hosted by Noah Geisel and his colleagues, I’m starting to think about how a learner would migrate from the formative to the summative, from youth to adult…and how the terminology would track that.
Do all early digital badges need to be Open Badges? Well not all, but if youth are earning them in several places across a community, it’s good to be able to collect them in one place. On the other hand, how many of these early badges will they want to be showing employers or Admissions staff later on vs. dumping them into a digital shoebox?
Are there natural break points where badges become “micro-credentials”? Should you be able to trade up some of your badges for micro-credentials? For at-risk populations, youth or adult, what are some techniques to move smoothly from early engagement and progress tracking to trustable “employment-ready” recognition?
Questions like these will be important for ecosystem initiatives, such as in the Cities of LRNG and in Colorado (see previous post). It will also be increasingly important for LEARN Quebec. I also see this in the future for Aboriginal Education. This an increasingly big deal here in Canada, now that we have a new government that’s calling for a fresh approach for this fast-growing segment of our population. I may visit the topic in more detail in a future post.

CONCLUSION: Open Badge Advocacy = Log-Driving

I think the historical Ottawa River footage that introduces this famous McGarrigle song says it all: it’s gnarly, so be nimble: anticipate, adjust, and learn from your mistakes!
OK, so this second post was still a bit long…working on it!

6 thoughts on “"Badge" or "Credential" – What's in a Name?

  1. Great post, Alastair – and thanks for including my work. As you say, it depends on audience. Even though it’s a mouthful, I find myself using ‘digital professional credentials aligned with the Open Badges specification’ more and more…

  2. Pingback: Open Badges: A Gimmick or a Great Idea? | Oliver David Wood

  3. Hi Don! You’ve raised some very apt issues here, thanks. I think it’s inevitable that terminology is a proxy for mind-set. It was clear from the outset that Open Badges as such were well suited for informality.
    Large businesses tend to have their own assessment systems. Small businesses have very little time. The challenge is tough – we need a system that is better, in terms of simplicity, effectiveness, ease of use and credibility. Let’s continue to juggle with the ideas we have…

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