Open Badges – Alex Healey & Philip Milnes-Smith

Alex (ALES Chair) and Philip (ALES Events Officer) discuss their findings in relation to Mozilla’s free ‘Open Badges’ scheme, which allows individuals to acquire digital badges recording their learning achievements.

Philip: One of the organisations I monitor for ARA ALES is the Learning and Work Institute (LWI). In preparing for the recent digital learning for schools event, I followed up on a LWI link to the RSA’s page on the role of “Open Badges” in accrediting learning outside the classroom and creating a portable, digital means of recording achievement.  My interest was on two levels. First, as heritage organisations were listed as being able to issue badges, could we increase the value to our users by offering micro-credentials? Secondly, might Open Badges have a role to play in the new apprenticeship route into the profession?

Open Badges concept from https://openbadges.org/

Competing ideas exist about what employers want from young people entering the workforce, either as school-leavers or graduates. Do they simply want to be able to identify genuine academic excellence, or to ensure that the future workforce has developed skills for employability equipping them with experience of, for example, teamwork, problem-solving, autonomous research and learning, or adapting plans to fit the needs of the client. One area in which these ‘soft skills’ are ‘hard’ is the interrelated difficulty of a third party recognising them when they happen and recording them in a way that can be accessed by future employers. This is one context in which Open Badges have the potential to play a role. From the perspective of a cultural heritage organisation thinking about offering them, the best fit is probably at the level of an individual or small group, rather than an outreach event for a class or year group.

There also appears to be an increasing trend towards people wanting to add to their formal education in affordable bite-sized chunks, and to see individual small steps of progress towards a longer-term goal.  As archivists, we are only too aware of the lack of diversity in our profession, partly owing to the expense of postgraduate programmes requiring relevant workplace experience, whether from volunteering or poorly remunerated employment, that implicitly presuppose some other means of support. 

Open Badges Peeled by Bryan Mathers, from https://openbadges.org/

Alex: When Philip made me aware of the existence of Open Badges I was really keen to discover whether any archives or other cultural institutions had made use of the technology, and how they had found the experience. A call to the GEM and ARCHIVES-NRA Listservs in June 2019 received very few responses, suggesting that there has been very little uptake in the UK Archives and Museums sector. Although a number of respondents got in touch because they were also keen to learn more about the system, and the opportunities they present, we only received information about one project which had practical experience of Open Badges.

The organisation (who wished to remain anonymous) implemented badging of education resources aimed at primary school children, as part of a partnership project with a University and digital media company. A survey of participating teachers following roll out found that they did not feel the benefits of participation justified the resources required – the registration process in particular was found to be resource intensive, and the tasks required to gain a badge were considered too complex. Steps were taken to encourage take up, including streamlining the registration process and making badges easier to obtain. However, due to circumstances beyond the heritage organisation’s control, the project was discontinued after one of the partners withdrew.

This example is only one potential area in which to use the badges and there is great opportunity for digital badges to be used to recognise the, often informal, learning which takes place within cultural heritage settings. Furthermore, the RSA’s Cities of Learning initiative, which uses Open Badges to recognise a range of informal learning taking place across specific cities, has been rolled out in Brighton and Portsmouth. We are interested to see how and whether local archives and cultural institutions get involved with this.

We’ve also passed on our findings to the ARA Board, to see whether they feel there’s opportunity for Open Badges to support the new apprenticeship standard, CPD programme, or revamped core training.

Philip: This post has reported what we have established so far and is intended as the opening of a conversation in the archive sector. Have you been involved in an Open Badge initiative in your workplace, with learners of any age? We’d love to hear about your experiences. Get in touch at ales@archives.org.uk, or leave your thoughts below!

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