What Are Open Badges?

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Introducing Open Badges

properties of Open Badges

Open Badges is an online standard to recognize and verify learning. The standard was invented and incubated by the Mozilla Foundation, a global non-profit best known for the Firefox web browser, with funding from the MacArthur Foundation. It is now stewarded by 1EdTech (formerly known as IMS Global Learning Consortium). Open Badges are information-rich, containing built-in data that links back to the issuer, criteria and verifying evidence.

The Badge Alliance was an interim non-profit during the period Mozilla handed over control of Open Badges to 1EdTech. Their website captured the crucial difference between digital badges and Open Badges:

A digital badge is an online representation of a skill you’ve earned. Open Badges take that concept one step further, and allows you to verify your skills, interests and achievements through credible organizations and attaches that information to the badge image file, hard-coding the metadata for future access and review. Because the system is based on an open standard, earners can combine multiple badges from different issuers to tell the complete story of their achievements — both online and off. Badges can be displayed wherever earners want them on the web, and share them for employment, education or lifelong learning.


Metadata is something we use every day, whether it’s tagging someone in a photo on a social network or using the Dewey decimal system in the library. Here’s a straightforward definition from Niso (2004):

Metadata is structured information that describes, explains, locates, or otherwise makes it easier to retrieve, use, or manage an information resource. Metadata is often called data about data or information about information. [2]

Digital badges

Society has used physical badges for years to display various achievements — whether it’s for sporting achievement or via an organisation such as the Scouting movement. Digital badges are as old as the web, showing status within online communities. Anyone who’s used an online forum has seen this in action through the various privileges unlocked through the number of posts members make (or upvotes they receive).

Digital badges are often synonymous with gamification. Companies such as Foursquare encouraged users to map locations in various cities by ‘checking in’ and rating everything from restaurants to parks. Users unlocked digital badges which allowed them to compete against friends and others who were in a similar location. More recently, Treehouse has implemented a digital badging system to scaffold user progress. Khan Academy does something similar with their Knowledge Map.

While digital badges can be an extremely effective way to ‘gamify’ user experience, they lack transferability. Users wanting to display their Treehouse, Khan Academy, and Foursquare badges together in one place would have to copy and paste the images. Given that anyone could do this, without an audit trail, there is an issue around trust and verifiability.

Open Badges

Open Badges and Meta Data

As indicated in the quote taken from the Badge Alliance website above, Open Badges take digital badges one step further. They are more suitable to be used as credentials as they have information about the learning experience baked in. Open Badges can be validated by anyone wanting to check up on an individual’s claim to knowledge or skills.

Unlike digital badges, users can take their Open Badges can display them anywhere across the web. Open Badges are portable credentials. This works in a similar way to videos from YouTube being embedded on blogs, wikis, and other websites. Collections of badges — which may feature some from two or more different organisations — can be displayed in a way that makes sense to the user.

There are several important differences between digital badges and Open Badges:

  • Open Badges are not controlled by any one organisation. The technology that underpins the whole system (the Open Badges Infrastructure, or OBI) is a free, open-source and run for the world wide community.
  • Open Badges are evidence-based. The information about who, why, and for what the badge was issued is hard-coded into it as metadata.
  • Open Badges are stackable. Badges from one organisation’s system can build upon ones from another system. This creates a rich ecosystem that individuals can use to build the story of their skills, knowledge, and experience.
  • Open Badges are transferable. Badges earned in one environment can be shared in another. Although Mozilla’s badge backpack is often used as the default place to send badges, they can be stored anywhere — including on your own computer, if you prefer.
  • Open Badges put the user in control. Badges are private until they are published by the user. They provide an easy way to show a portfolio of skills without third parties having to wade through a mountain of data.
How Open Badges are issued and displayed
How Open Badges are issued and displayed

The OBI allows any organisation to build upon a secure yet open foundation. Potential badge issuers can be assured that the credentials they issue will be displayable anywhere on the web. Badge earners gain the advantage of being able to collect and curate their knowledge, skills, and experience from across the web in one place. And badge ‘consumers’can trust that the badges shown to them can be verified and trusted.

What are the differences between Open Badges, digital badges, and micro-credentials?

There are many adjacent terms and technologies used in the badges and credentials space. The image below by Don Present, based on an original by Doug Belshaw, gives a good overview of the landscape. Not all badges are credentials, and not all credentials are badges. Crucially, badges which align with the Open Badges standard contain metadata and have all of the advantages listed in the previous section.

Venn-style diagram showing overlap between badges and credentials

An important concept when thinking about and discussing Open Badges is the concept of Recognition. Much discussion within the badges landscape, especially in the Keep Badges Weird community, surrounds the concept of Open Recognition, defined as "the awareness and appreciation of talents, skills and aspirations in ways that go beyond credentialing". The idea is that frameworks may be emergent and/or implicity, as we strive to recognise the rights of individuals, communities, and territories to apply their own labels and definitions.

Going further