Making Badges Easier

In the Mozilla Badges Google group, there is an ongoing conversation about the terminology around badges. This post incorporates some thoughts and ideas expressed in that thread.

At the outset, I want to emphasize that there are lot of details regarding the technical implementation that complicate what I am about to say. But, for the last couple years, when I have talked with people about badges, there has been consistent confusion about how badges work, and about how they differ from other means of measuring and demonstrating learning.

I also want to emphasize that badges done well can play a role in how demonstrating learning will evolve. As to those who advocate for badges as a means of injecting game theory into the learning process - well, that's a different conversation. I'm inherently skeptical of approaches that blur the line between motivating learners and infantilizing the learning process.

We don't need no stinkin' badges

For those completely unfamiliar with the Mozilla Open Badge Infrastructure (also known as the OBI), here are a few useful links:

Currently, the badge infrastructure has a few components to it: Issuers define badges that can be earned. Once someone earns a badge, it can be baked. The baked badge can then be stored in a backpack, if the person earning the badge makes the conscious decision to store it in a backpack. The owner of the backpack can define some visibility settings, if visibility settings are allowed by the web site that contains the backpack. Alongside backpacks and badge issuers, the OBI also defines display sites.

From and end user place, this is more complex than it needs to be. End users who want badges really care about two things: earning badges, and displaying badges. The notion of a backpack is an interesting metaphor, but while the metaphor makes sense from a technical place (backpacks hold badges) it clouds the issue of how badges work, and it introduces complexity that gets in the way of badges being used more broadly.

When both learners and organizations come to badges, one of the first questions they ask is how badges differ from credentials, diplomas, certificates, or the other tools currently used to mark when learning has occurred. This is the primary question that people new to badges need addressed. Currently, addressing that question requires a technical vocabulary lesson before the actual utility of badges can be addressed.

Eliminating the backpack (as both a technical requirement and a metaphor) would simplify things. Without the backpack, we have a system where badges are earned and badges are displayed. The logic of how badges are earned, stored, and displayed could be left where they belong: to the sites where badges are both earned and displayed.

Image Credit: Screencap from Blazing Saddles from Lady of the Cake.


The "backpack" is the element of the system that stores and displays them. Probably the most comprehensible metaphor in the package, I thought.

They'll be displayed on websites one way or another, either through direct upload of a baked PNG or displayed from what Mozilla is currently calling the backpack.

I think users can be shielded successfully from most of the technical details, but the backpack is the only one they'll have to learn.

How would you imagine this functioning without a backpack metaphor, I wonder? There probably are some great ideas emerging for how users can easily interface with the open badge infrastructure.

Backpacks and display sites have an enormous overlap. The usability issues arise because both backpacks and display sites display badges. Where the badge information is actually stored is (from an end user perspective) of secondary importance.

The logic of who can display what should be determined on a site by site basis, while leaving the learner in control of where their badges are displayed. The complexity of pushing badges to a backpack is a big usability issue (the terminology itself gets in the way for non-technical users - shy should I "push" something I just earned? wtf?).

Aside from an organization wanting to display who has earned what badges in their system (which could be handled by issuers) most other displays will be user-controlled - therefore, the logic of these external display sites should be left up to the site where badges are displayed.

If we make this contextual shift, we could actually retain the notion of a user-controlled space where badges are displayed without the concept of the backpack, as the visibility settings could be determined by the specific business logic of the individual display sites. The current notion of the "backpack" would be relegated to one of many types of displayer, and this would be a usability win for both earners and issuers.

I'm glad that the push-to-Mozilla's-backpack feature of the baking API is going to be removed eventually. It will let them introduce their backpack option as an addon to participating in badges rather than a prerequisite.

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