The Disruption Higher Ed Doesn’t See Coming (and how it could respond, even lead, but probably won’t)

No, not MOOCs. Badges.

CC Attribution Noncommercial Some rights reserved by Magalie L'Abbé Ok, now that you’ve stopped laughing (I admit, even I have a hard time not dismissively thinking of the sleeves of my Cub Scout shirt when I hear the term) let me explain why badges, as they mature beyond where they are currently, have the potential to disrupt formal education in a way that none of the technology innovations we’ve seen in the last couple of decades have.

Over those two decades, essentially the duration of my working life so far, every time I have tried to explain the magnitude of the disruptions (and the amount of potentials) that the network presents to formal education institutions (especially post secondary ones) the trump card interlocuters ALWAYS bring out to minimize the potential threat is “Accreditation.” Regardless of how many people are learning with each other, for free, in communities online, or the skyrocketing costs of formal ed, or how poorly the 4 year residential model serves an increasingly unconventional student body, or how the educational practices in many higher ed classrooms have barely moved out of the 19th Century, when met with the prospect that the value of a University degree is under threat and that their “market” will get as disrupted as the newspaper business, or travel agencies, etc., the response is simply “yeah, but we’re the only one who can issue degrees that people trust.” But I believe badges hold the potential to disrupt this.

Again, I’ll give you a second to stop laughing. And I can’t fault you for laughing; even if you can get over the name, the idea that “badges” can compete head to head with “degrees” seems laughable, if badges are seen simply as their equivalent, just smaller, issued to acknowledge informal learning by small groups who could never compete with the brand recognition of the likes of Harvard or, closer to home, UBC, and, importantly, lacking the backing of governments and other trusted “bodies.” Maybe even more laughable for lacking recognition by the people degree/badge holders are trying to convince (mostly employers, but others too).

But I contend that’s because, so far, badges haven’t tackled THE important problem, at scale, in a way that models how the net works – who do we trust and why?

What is Accreditation Anyways?

Before looking at how a different execution of badges could seriously disrupt higher ed, it seems important to get clear on what accreditation is in the first place. The explanation below, from Wikipedia, offers a decent starting point:

“Higher education accreditation is a type of quality assurance process under which services and operations of post-secondary educational institutions or programs are evaluated by an external body to determine if applicable standards are met. If standards are met, accredited status is granted by the agency.

In most countries in the world, the function of educational accreditation for higher education is conducted by a government organization, such as a ministry of education.” from

While it may work slightly different in the US and other jurisdictions, the general model seems to hold true – some body, whether governmental, NGO (and for profit? god I hope not) establishes criteria and processes which a department or program must fulfill, and then vouchsafes their credentials as credible based on this. It’s about how we currently establish trust in the credibility, quality (and ultimately value) of the education that someone (be it the public or, sadly, increasingly the individual student) has paid for. Ideally, this would be individualized – when trying to evaluate a specific individual’s capacities, we wouldn’t look at a proxy for that (which is what a credential is) but instead be able to examine all the examples, to look at the ways in which their capacity was developed and judge for ourselves whether it meets the specific needs we have. But that doesn’t scale, at all, so we invented proxies, first at an institutional level, and as these grew in number, at a jurisdictional and even international level.

But it seems to work. Well, kind of. Mostly. In jurisdictions where accreditation is spread out across a large number of bodies, it can be hard to keep track of them all (cf. This, as well as the sheer number, globally, of accrediting bodies, can let imposters creep in and makes verification difficult. And even with rigour and government backing, there remains the real issue of inter-jurisdictional recognition; just ask our cab-driving Doctor from Pakistan about this. Add to this the fact that, while the accreditation process is by design rigorous and difficult to pass, that also means, by design, it doesn’t expand quickly or accomodate smaller units of learning well; just ask someone who’s tried to start a new program, which seems more relevant if we acknowledge the pace of the growth of knowledge is unlikely to slow down.

How could badges disrupt this?

So my take on why badges have seemed underwhelming to date is that they’ve appeared to focus on the signalling mechanism (a way for person A to signal they’ve learned X from organization B, which is in essence what a diploma or degree generally does) without addressing the underlying trust/credibility issue (WHO has issued that certificate and why should they be trusted – e.g. why is a badge from UVic worth more than one from Bob’s Online Badge Emporium.) It had to unfold this way – the obvious place to start is with the basic mechanisms for issuing and displaying a badge. But that does not need to be the sum total of what badges are, and according to Mozilla Roadmap documents on their Open Badge Infrastructure, won’t be.

At root, what we’re dealing with is a question of “who should we trust and why?” As luck would have it, we already have a number of models of how to address this in the digital world that come from the field of Cryptography. Specifically, when it comes to public key encryption, there are two competing models that I believe align well with the current model of accreditation and the emerging model of badges: the centralized trust model of a pubic key infrastructure and the decentralized “web of trust” model.

source centralized trust model (think “Certificate Authorities” [CAs] like Verisign or Thwate) is akin to the current accreditation model, where only a single (or very few) body is entrusted to issue accreditation/certificates and acts as the maintainer and adjudicator of standards. Like the current accreditation model the centralized trust model is at first blush attractive because it consolidates this complex function in a few entities, but it also suffers a number of problems: if a CA is compromised, the security for everyone in the system for which the CA is attesting is similarly lost. Also, like centralized accreditation, it converges knowledge (or ‘validation’) and power into very concentrated hands; we depend on the (increasingly questionable) representative nature of our democracy to ensure that what accreditors accredit is “in the public good” just like we rely on these few Certificate Authorities to verify and enforce throughout their entire chain (it’s not quite as simple as that in both cases, but hopefully a good enough approximation.)

Contrast this with the “web of trust” model, often exemplified by encryption systems like PGP, which is what badges *could* become. In this model, a “decentralized fault-tolerant web of confidence for all public keys” emerges, over time, as each persons’ keys are “digitally signed by other users who, by that act, endorse the association of that public key with the person or entity listed in the certificate.” ( In layman’s terms, like any network effect, if there are only two of you with keys signing each others’ key, while it is still of _some_ value, the value of the system overall increases as more nodes join and a large, robust network emerges over time.

Interlude (in which the author confesses he hadn’t done his homework and, frankly, can at times be a bit of a presumptuous dick)

I have a confession to make: up until recently, I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to badges either. I understood they potentially offered some alternative to existing credentialing models and tried to come to their defense when various colleagues of mine dismissed them out of hand, but I couldn’t see how they could overcome the hurdle of validation/recognition. It wasn’t until I was lying on my couch a few weeks back, alternatively reading wikipedia and napping, that this idea that if badges existed within an ecosystem of issuers, learners and “recognizers” (people to whom you are trying to prove you know something) all of whom could attest to the effectiveness of the learning represented by the badge by “signing” it, that this can scale, in a Peer to Peer way that models how the actual infrastructure of the internet works. Because I hadn’t actually been involved or paying close attention to the actual developments by the Mozilla Badge team (and others, presumably) I had the (absurd? presumptuous? egotistical?) thought “why has no one else talked about this?”

Which of course they have. The folks working on this are very smart. And (luckily for me) I thought to ask on twitter before finishing this piece (and thus coming off even more arrogant than usual) whether anyone was working on a “distributed trust model for badges.” @prawsthorne was the first to offer some helpful links, pointing me to the Mozilla Roadmap documents on their Open Badge Infrastructure, the Badges Infrastructure Tech Docs (cf section on ‘Badge Endorsement’), the Mozilla Open Badges Dev Group and a post on the Super Awesome Badge Summer (cf section “Endorsement, public key infrastructure, federated backpacks”).

All of which were good starting points and indicators that the issue was definitely on the Mozilla Badges team’s radar. But it wasn’t until I started digging in further and also received a few more messages, both from Peter and from leaders of the badge initiative, Carla Cassili and Erin Knight, that I struck gold and read how clearly the vision they have for a distributed validation/trust network aligned with my own couch-bound daydreaming. Instead of trying to replicate any further the arguments, I just urge anyone who is interested in understanding the potential to go read the following two pieces:

So why won’t this turn out exactly how PGP vs Central Authorities Have?

If you know the history of public key encryption, you’ll know that while both the centralized Public Key Infrastructure model of Certificate Authorities and the distributed web-of-trust model of PGP still exist, PGP adoption by individual users has been spotty at best, plagued by very real “ease of use” issues (along with a general lack of understanding of the issue), while PKI, for all its flaws, supports pretty much all of the commercial transaction encryption on the net today (read: online shopping etc over https). Given that, why should a validation and endorsement mechanism for badges be any different?

As Erin outlines in the paper linked to above (page 4), there are plenty of good reasons for us to resist implementing a centralized trust model that replicates existing centralized accreditation models, easier though that may be. But even if we chose not to, what will keep a distributed model from failing/help it succeed? Well, a few things, I think:

  • we need to learn the lessons from PGP and focus on implementations of the model that make it as easy as possible for endorsers to validate badges or badge issuers. This seems obvious, but one of the pieces I think we often miss out is implementing things in a way that our motivations for the user to do what we hope they’ll do are in line with THEIR motivations/what is actually valueable to them. If endorsing a badge requires too many additional steps on top of using/recognizing a badge, it is less likely to occur at scale.
  • not wavering from a vision of true peer to peer system that allows endorsement at the lowest individual level, and yet allowing endorsements to aggregate so that existing proxy groups (like universities and their accreditors) can transition from a monolithic proxy model to this more distributed process but still keep some of the advantages of the existing trust networks they already have, while still opening up the field to individual upstarts (cf as an example of how this works in the PGP world.)

Even with all of this and a flawless execution, there is nothing to guarantee widespread adoption or that this will become the disruptive force it has the potential to become. Incumbents do not give up their advantages willingly and it is naive to think they will. But…

…implemented in a robust, open way that really does allow a badge to represent learning at various scales (micro-lessons to full programs) and to be attested to, *bi-directionally*, by all the parties involved (learners, issuers, endorsers, “recognizers”) at scales ranging from the individual to the national, an open badge infrastructure opens the field to upstarts who really could disrupt the existing system. Especially upstarts that already “own” users. Think Google. Think Facebook. Think Apple. Right now the accounts you have with them don’t actually have that much to do with your “real” life. But they want them to (why do you think they are so anxious for you to connect your phone number and credit cards with these accounts?) I’m nt hoping for such a future (nor do I think Mozilla is – cf their work on Persona, an “identity system for the web”), but instead of resting on the sanctity of our existing accreditation models, we need to get our heads in the game and realize the size and scale of the stakes we are playing for.

How could existing institutions respond to this?

used under CC BY-NC 2.0 licenseWell, it seems like the current response is “not at all.” And fair enough; everyone is so taxed to cope with the current set of challenges and disruptions that to even contemplate a response to a *hypothetical* disruption that may not even happen seems unfeasible at best. But if you take a step back for a second and look at this in the light of other things we say we’re trying to accomplish in our institutions, be they transforming how and what we teach to transforming our business models, this potential disruption, which I believe speaks to the core of what universities do AS A BUSINESS, may actually offer the opportunity to rethink and re-engineer this in a way that is not only beneficial to learners, instructors and institutions but can help institutions adapt to the internet instead of trying to ignore it or have it conform to models that, while long lasting, were only ever temporary approximations.

And where do you start? Well, you already have a unit that is quite possibly ripe to experiment with this. It’s usually called “Continuing Studies.”

This is why I dispair when I hear CIOs refer to authentication and authorization systems as “just plumbing.” Yeah, I get that it’s just plumbing – IF YOU THINK YOU LIVE IN A WORLD SEPARATE FROM THE INTERNET AS A WHOLE. I’m not suggesting they can singlehandedly solve this issue and this transformation on their own, but as some of the largest “civil society” players that exist, they have the potential to lead on an issue that WILL get decided. Given that the current contenders in the arena of trust & identity are either large commercial entities or central governments who only seem to understand models that place them at the centre validating everyone, if you understand that every time we proxy these relations, every time we “represent” them, we recreate the conditions of our own disempowerment, even if it seems less feasible, do you really want to work for the alternative? </technoutopianrant>

Alright, you can go back to laughing now.

28 thoughts on “The Disruption Higher Ed Doesn’t See Coming (and how it could respond, even lead, but probably won’t)”

  1. Continuing Studies (or Cont. Ed. in UCalgary-speak) is a natural starting point, as you mention. Or, even something like a co-curricular record that integrates formal and informal educational experiences. Both are natural entry points for MOOCishness, too…

  2. I’m not laughing, I’m nodding. I have also found myself defending the concept of badges against blase or hostile rejection, and have started to suspect that if i scrape underneath the polarised reaction there is something important there. You’ve swayed me. I will do my homework and give this a closer look. Thank you!

  3. Doesn’t the ‘web of trust’ rely on existing social institutions to guarantee itself? e.g. The family, schools, clubs, associations and, yes, universities. While you idealise about p2p networks, don’t forget that the bureaucratic ideal has much worth arguing for and continues to underwrite every aspect of our lives.

    The ‘web of trust’ is in unrealised ideal, just as liberal bureaucracy has shown itself to be too, but if that bureaucracy erodes even further, there will be no basis upon which to build a p2p web of trust. The university as an ideal is already here and it is yours and mine.

    1. Joss, I appreciate what you are saying; I don’t actually wish for the demise of universities, just for a levelled playing field. But this is the problem – it seems that because of the tendencies of incumbents not to willingly give up their advantages ( and also the so-called “innovator’s dilemma”), the only way these innovations play out are as all or nothing disruptions by outside upstarts ( who tend to be driven by profit.) I naively write pieces like this in the hopes of spurring existing institutions to adapt to this innovation in a way that will preserve many of their desireable qualities, if not their exact form. Simply hoping it won’t happen does not seem like a viable strategy though.

  4. I’m not laughing. If anything I feel a small bit of vindication that I’m not alone in the wilderness. I will continue to harp on the power of extrinsic motivation as well, but it’s meaningless in this context without a richer ecosystem.

    But, like you, I doubt it will happen in higher ed “proper.”

  5. Hi Scott,

    Thanks for this post. I think at Mozilla we’re building something that, as you say, could really disrupt formal education. One of the first things we’re doing with badges is building out a Web Literacy standard for badgeable learning activities.

    More on that here:

  6. Awesome post… so great to read how others are also seeing the vision! And how you have so well teased out the endorsement and validity issue. Thank-you! I agree with all you have written… really glad you were laying about on the couch and daydreaming. One of the greatest human activities ever!

  7. Amazing post–really laying out all out there. It is refreshing to know that some higher ed institutions like Purdue University are exploring badge learning through their Passport project. Take a look at

    I keep hearing the echo of Khan Academy in my mind–university is an “experience.” Will folks continue to pay for the experience, and quite frankly, will we be able to afford the experience into the future? So will there be two tracks? One for those who can afford and want to bother with the experience and a track for anytime, anywhere learning that is affordable? It’s going to get very interesting, that’s for sure!

    1. Someone pointed me to the Purdue example yesterday, which was great to see.

      The sad part in all of this is that it is all of the non-vocational aspects of post-secondary education (especially the Humanities) that are likely to get hit the hardest by this, as they have already with the steady decline in public funding and move to focus on “hard sciences” and techno-capital driven curriculum. While I do doubt that many schools will be able to reconfigure themselves to compete head to head with profit driven entities targeting skills, training and education linked directly to job prospects, some will, and there’s a more obvious market logic and business model that will lead them there. But for all of those aspects that we value about post-secondary education, this seems like it will only hasten their demise. It doesn’t have to be so; not because we figure out how to better monetize humanities-based education, but because we start to reclaim our culture and tell a new story about how we become culturally literate. But that is a rant for another post.

  8. Hey, Scott!

    I also couch-dream about how the way the open badge plumbing works. The possibilities are there; it’s up to developers to make a great user experience, so that issuers, earners, and “recognizers” know what they’re looking at easily. That will be a big challenge, as you say. It also depends on a few actors in each category (issuers/earners/recognizers) to have the bravery to use badges and insist on their validity in comparison to others touting traditional paper-based records of achievement.

    Among all higher and continuing education institutions, I think community colleges and libraries are well poised to take advantage of badges, and they may have more flexibility to try out integrating them into programs and continuing ed.

    There is a first-mover’s advantage in using badges, from an earner’s perspective. If you can explain the concept well, teaching a “recognizer” looking at your portfolio about badges shows bravery, creativity and savvy.

    1. Good examples, Nate, of people who could take advantage of badges, thanks. I can’t help thinking that because they speak to the heart of the business of education, by engaging with them institutions actually have an opportunity to re-examine entrenched business processes (term-based intake, course duration, program length) that end up being the things that derail really valid pedagogical changes instructors and others have tried to implement. Though the whole premise of “The Innovator’s Dilemma” suggests that this kind of change (which I don’t think is just incremental, but maybe I’m wrong) isn’t typically well handled by incumbents.

  9. Your aside about scouts resonates, but not so much in relation to the eagerness, as the faith. Accreditation is faith-based. My 300 meters badge meant things because I had faith in the “thing” (no idea who decided, i was small) that said 300 metres swimming matters. Equally as I approach a possible doctorate I have faith in the idea that third parties will ascribe the same value to my doctorate as I, and my institution do.
    Accreditation is a currency; not very different from the faith we ascribe to banks is the faith we have in our educational institutions. It is part of the fabric of things. The discourse of change would do well to take into account the quiet resilence of the faithful, who will not easily change their allegiance. What are “badges”, in their universe?

    1. Hey Nick, not entirely sure how to understand your comment. Is it an argument that the value of a university degree will not dissipate anytime soon because the “faithful” won’t easily change their allegiances? Am I understanding that correctly?

      Part of me can’t argue with that – the general conservative nature of people to put faith in institutions and other familiar things, even long after they are beyond repair, seems generally true. I’m also aware that encumbents (which include existing degree holders) also likely won’t give up their advantages easily or willingly. From the perspective of “the faithful” it probably doesn’t seem much is broken anyways, so why change.

      With that said, is that an argument not to work on badges? More specifically a model of badges that redistributes the control of the printing of currency and, with it, the backing of that currency? For me it’s not, but it’s also likely not the last windmill I’ll tilt at.

  10. Great post Scott – thanks for writing this! I just found it now via Twitter.

    Your definition of accreditation interests me a lot, especially when you say:

    “Ideally, this would be individualized – when trying to evaluate a specific individual’s capacities, we wouldn’t look at a proxy for that (which is what a credential is) but instead be able to examine all the examples, to look at the ways in which their capacity was developed and judge for ourselves whether it meets the specific needs we have. But that doesn’t scale, at all, so we invented proxies, first at an institutional level, and as these grew in number, at a jurisdictional and even international level.”

    I completely agree that in an ideal world it would be individualized and I think that this can in fact scale if done in certain ways! I co-founded Accredible in an attempt to solve this problem. Ideally, accreditation should allow us to see with a much higher resolution than just a name, grade and institution what a student has learned and is capable of. For example is a particular Computer Science student a really great programmer, or mathematician, or both? How strong a grasp do they have of, e.g. Artificial Intelligence? I think that by letting ‘reviewers’ see proof of learning and knowledge on the certificate/diploma itself, such as the work they did for the course, you can provide a much better picture of where students excelled and where their strengths lie. If you then boil all this down into a summary score, partly through community peer-review and partly algorithmically, we think you can get something pretty scalable that gives a much clearer (and fairer) idea of a student. This of course is great for showing the learning & knowledge students got from MOOCs. I’d love to hear your thoughts applying transparency to accreditation like this.

    I really enjoyed this post, thanks for sharing!

  11. Interesting!

    We’ve had a few students recently request transfer credit for courses they completed online (not with an accredited institution – for that matter, not with a college).

    Maybe badges will be the next big thing when it comes to transfer credit? – completing remedial coursework?

  12. The best place for this to start, and where most disruptions start, is at the bottom end of the market. A badge is just what any kid needs to get their first job, whether it be delivering newspapers or working in a supermarket. Once they have mastered that they can work on their next badge and move upwards.

    Having grown up with this method of accreditation, they could keep utilising it throughout their vocation and development to get the training that they and prove to those they need to prove to that they have the ability to do something.

    Every learning institution should be very worried.

  13. Why must badges compete with degrees? They are not mutually exclusive.

    A degree could be represented by a badge, as might each of the individual subjects that comprise it.

    The prestige of a badge issued for a degree will remain just as high as its corresponding piece of paper, because it represents the same achievement.

    1. “Why must badges compete with degrees? They are not mutually exclusive.” Well, we already have degrees and all the systems that surround them. Presumably the intention of badges is to offer something in addition or different than what is already offered. I do not think they are “mutually exclusive” – clearly, you can have degrees and you can have badges which signal achievements of other kinds, so not mutually exclusive at all.

      The point of this post, though, was to argue that were badges to incorporate a technical and scalable mechanism to indicate “value” based on the ability to be signed by both issuers and consumers (and this is still a big “if”), this is something that has the potential to be very disruptive. Because all of a sudden you have a mechanism that can signal similar things to what a degree signals, does not require the same kind of monolithic issuer and accreditation mechanisms (as it is distributed and aggregateable in a way and at a speed that degrees and credits have a hard time functioning at.)

      But we’ll see – a few months later I am increasingly skeptical that badges will take on this role, not because they technically couldn’t, but I’m not seeing the political will to do so.

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