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Recapping the IMS Global Summit on Digital Credentials and Badges

Recapping the IMS Global Summit on Digital Credentials and Badges

First, a little backstory for those newly on-ramped to the digital credential and badging work. IMS Global, a members-based standards consortium, announced in 2015 that it planned to partner with Mozilla Foundation “to accelerate adoption and interoperability of badges in the education and workforce sectors.”

This is good news for a couple reasons, not least of which is their commitment to bringing innovation to scale through standards and interoperability. Not to mention bringing people together who know things. 

On Tuesday, they hosted the IMS Summit on Digital Credentials and Badges at the Hard Rock Hotel in Orlando, Florida (why yes, their hotel room mirrors do list heights of famous musicians), and rolled out a solid program featuring some of the most sound exemplars in the emerging field of digital credentials.

I was there to give a keynote, and realized halfway through my presentation that it was the first time talking about digital credentials in which I didn’t have to explain what they were ;)

It was also a perfect opportunity to do something with the library of post-it note images I’ve gathered from badging summits and workshops for the past five years. I managed to work them into my slide presentation featuring the Promising Practices of Open Credentials: Five Years of Progress paper that came out in February, funded by the Mott Foundation, and produced in partnership with Mozilla Foundation. A big shout-out to An-Me Chung and Iris Bond Gill at Mozilla for laying the groundwork for the research and providing feedback throughout the process, plus comments from Tim Riches’ team at Digitalme, and the many case study organizations who were so generous with their time and expertise.

Next up was badging pioneer, Kyle Peck, Professor and Research Fellow in College of Education at Penn State University, who moderated the higher education panel: Issuing Organizations: Innovators Using Digital Credentials and Badges for Academic and Co-Curricular Credentials. Here’s the blurb for their panel:

Innovators are unbundling education with digital badges. Hear how learners can selectively improve their skills for credit and lifelong learning. Going beyond the use of badges for participation, innovators are getting serious about the role of digital badges in stackable micro-credentials that meet the market of learners where they are.  Innovative institutions will share their badge program essentials and provide advice on how you can follow their lead and learn from their experience.

This was a rock star line-up (no pun intended) representing higher education badging programs:

  • John Buzzard, Professional and Continuing Education Division, Oregon State University
  • Kim Moore, Director, Workforce, Professional and Community Education, Wichita State University
  • Timothy Newby, Professor Learning Design, Department of Curriculum & Instruction, Purdue University
  • Brenda Perea, Project Manager, Colorado Community College System

Their questions were particularly salient and even helpful from a design perspective:

  • How are badges treated at your university?
  • How are badges defined at your institution?
  • Where do your colleagues believe badges belong? Engineering? Liberal arts?
  • Are badges official documents?
  • Who is issuer?
  • What happens to the badges after they are issued?
  • Do they show up on transcripts?
  • Do you have an in-house portfolio system?
  • Where is the demand for badges coming from?
  • Are others asking for/demanding badges? Employers?
  • Are others providing input on badge content?
  • Are your badges faculty driven, employer driven, or…?
  • Who are the early adopters of badging at your University. Certain colleges or programs? Individuals?  
  • Are your badges tied to course credit, and if so, how?  
  • How are badges issued at your institution. In-house system? Credly, Pearson, etc?
  • How do you and your institution feel about the term “badges”
  • What innovative applications of badging have you seen at your university?
  •  How does your institution fund badges?
  • Who pays for the development and instructional costs?
  • Do badge students pay the same tuition as other students or do you have a special tuition rate?  
  • Has there been any discussion about “making all badges the same size/difficulty?”

The higher ed group was followed by a panel focused on employers: Recruiting and Developing Staff via Competencies and Digital Credentials, moderated by Jason Tyszko, Executive Director of Policy, Education and Workforce, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. Panelists included:

  • Tim Aldinger, Director of Workforce Development Services, Foundation for California Community Colleges
  • David Leaser, Senior Program Executive, Innovation and Growth Initiatives, IBM
  • Matthew Pittinsky, CEO, Parchment
  • Laurence Roth, Education Designer and Partner, Education Design Lab

A principal catalyst for momentum behind open badges is the potential for badges to empower learners in their work careers by providing clear and verifiable statements of what the learner knows and can do, expressed in language that addresses employers' needs.  Hear about efforts on the "demand side", and how major employers view competencies and digital credentials in their talent acquisition and development strategies.

Jason made a point in his closing comment about the need to focus more on employer needs in the design and development of digital credentialing, which was interesting when I looked back through my notes from the higher education panel. Most of the higher ed panelists emphasized how front and center employers’ needs were in designing their systems, especially for the revenue-generating programs.

My thoughts on this are based on a conversation with Robin Krieglstein, a behavioral design consultant at Live Neuron Labs, who thought that issuers and employers, from a design perspective, are easy audiences compared to the end user -- in this case the learner. I tend to agree. This is why human-centered design is so relevant in our work because it encourages us to consider the needs of multiple stakeholders during the design phase -- it gets us to focus on the sharing norms around credentials for learners, an area that has received the least amount of attention, something I notice in both the published research on digital credentialing, and what people include in their presentations at conferences. But that's a whole other blog post :)

Next up was a panel I moderated: Using Open Badges in K12 and Professional Development, featuring:

  • Tim Cook, Senior Manager, Product and Customer Success, LRNG by Collective Shift
  • Noah Geisel, Badge Consultant, Aurora Public Schools
  • Jay Heap, Director of Virtual Learning, Georgia Department of Education
  • Cate Tolnai, Academic Technology Specialist, Santa Clara County Office of Education

Our blurb:

As an emerging professional development strategy, micro-credentials enable educators to identify, recognize and share their best practices, so teachers can hone their skills and learn new ones.  Hear leading K12 schools, districts and extracurricular programs recognizing teacher and student achievements in exciting new ways.

Some of the takeaways that struck me from this panel are that (taking notes while moderating is not as easy as I thought it would be!):

  • There is a real tension between local and global standardization processes
  • Choice is critical for buy-in from teachers and learners
  • We do seem to ask more of badges than we do of other forms of credentials
  • Let the public (in this case the badge viewer) differentiate

Panelists commented on the fact that there are multiple types of value when it comes to digital credentials. We can design for these values when we use tenets of human-centered or user-centered design -- this flushes out the value of badges to stakeholders, including teachers, employers, and learners.

Plus, it’s always good to ask: Who might one day be looking at this credential?

Panelists shared some good lessons learned:

  • Stick to user-centered design tenets
  • Not every experience should be an achievement
  • It can be hard to get people on board
  • Do things in a way that is inviting and not overwhelming

I also liked Tim’s characterization of badges, that they are not only containers for evidence, artifacts, feedback, and opportunities (e.g. jobs or internships), but as learning archives. That ties nicely back into the value of badges.

Similar to the workforce panel, this group also made reference to digital credentials as a source for heat mapping, a way to source talent within an environment, in this case among teachers who have certain skill sets within a school environment. 

(I noticed that this article surfaced on Twitter shortly after: Can Micro-credentials Create More Meaningful Professional Development For Teachers? and thought it was interesting in light of our conversations during the summit.)

Mark Leuba, Vice President, Product Management for IMS Global Learning Consortium, moderated the open badge platform suppliers panel: Using Open Standards to Connect Educators, Learners and Employers, which featured:

  • Acclaim - Peter Janzow, Senior Director Business and Market Development, Open Badges Lead at Pearson VUE
  • Concentric Sky - Wayne Skipper, Chief Executive Officer
  • Credly - John Walber, Chief Operating Officer
  • Learning Machine - Chris Jagers, Chief Executive Officer
  • Portfolium - Adam Markowitz, Chief Executive Officer

Hear from a group of digital credential market leaders what they see as the future of the open badges ecosystem and what their products will do to support connecting educators, learners and employers through standard verifiable digital credentials.  

They tackled the following questions:

1. What do you see as the big possibilities that are made available through digital credentials and badges?
2. What are the barriers to connecting learners and employers that we can do something about?
3. What are you doing through your products to connect learners and employers ?
4. What do institutions and issuing organizations need to do to continue to expand digital credentials adoption? 
5. Do you see resistance among institutions to partnering with employers for fear of losing control of their curriculum?
6. Where do you see opportunities to expand the reach of digital credentials?  
7.  How can IMS Global, now as the shepherd of the Open Badges standard, accelerate the success of the ecosystem?

Those who follow digital badging are probably more familiar with the work that Credly, Concentric Sky, and Acclaim have done to advance badging. For me, the work that Learning Machine and Portfolium are doing was new, and I was glad to learn more about what they're developing in this space, and how they are designing their platforms to be compatible with digital badges.

Chris Jagers followed the panel with an excellent presentation explaining how BlockCerts, based on blockchain technology, and digital badges can dovetail, clearing up a misconception I had about how the blockchain actually works and endearing me to the potential to solve issues around verification. For example, while it is an immutable ledger that preserves a specific transaction (like a certificate or badge), learners can choose whether to share that instance as it has been recorded in a ledger. I want to do justice to his talk by writing a lengthier post, so will summarize with these points that Chris made in reference to badges and the blockchain:

Blockchain-based records embody these principles:

  • User controlled
  • Independent verification
  • Data driven
  • Open community

Chris asked a rhetorical question: Is this solving for identity? His answer: No. Blockcerts (the credentialing version of blockchain) is a claims- based approach to identity. (You can learn more at 

And last but definitely not least, Rob Abel, CEO, IMS Global shared his takeaways of the day and asked Connie Yowell of LRNG/Collective Shift (formerly of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation) and Mark Surman of Mozilla Foundation to give closing comments during the last session of the day. As always, they articulated the opportunities and challenges, not to mention the trade-offs in building something as complex as a distributed digital credentialing systems based on interoperable standards. I wish I could insert a recording of their conversation and the questions that followed. Both Connie and Mark are visionaries in this space and it’s hard to recap what they say so masterfully.

My big takeaway from the day is that, over the last five years, powerful advocates with solid exemplars have emerged and are leading the way. The long sought after proof of evidence that people have been asking for these past five years is here, and what was once captured as "to-do" items in post-it notes is now solidly grounded in practice. 

A second and equally important takeaway is noticing how thoughtfully and intentionally IMS Global is blending the open badges community into its interoperability and standards work going forward. Following Tuesday's presentations and panels were two days featuring an open badges community session (that was open to the public) and an open badges working group. I am not familiar with how IMS Global has worked on standards in the past, but this seems to be a slightly different approach than what has transpired in their other interoperability and standards work. It takes into account the knowledge bank distributed across a highly active and dedicated open badges community, and taps the sheer workload that already exists. I can't wait to look back on this transition period five years from now to see where this partnership takes digital credentialing. 



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