Badges and Blockcerts

In education and workforce development, it’s important to understand the differences between digital credential formats and how to combine them for greatest impact.

Education and training providers have long been wrestling with the legacy of the credit hour and how to adapt credentialing to a modern world that values skills more than time spent in the classroom. This is in part why the industry has seen an explosion of traditional and alternative providers that are experimenting with new credential formats appropriate for the information age. One of the questions we most frequently encounter at Learning Machine from these providers is: What are the differences between different credentials formats? The implicit question behind that one is: When should I use different types of digital credentials, and why?

To answer these questions, Learning Machine Research is currently preparing a “Digital Credentials Comparison Report” with the Federation of State Medical Boards which outlines the technical differences between credential formats and their pragmatic implications. Findings from this Report will be presented by the FSMB and Learning Machine at the IMS Global Learning Consortium quarterly summit on February 6, 2019. (Note: When the Report is published, a link will be provided here.)

In the meantime, this blog post presents a quick summary of the differences between two of the most popular new digital credentials formats: Open Badges and Blockcerts. This should help leaders at credentialing institutions make informed decisions about when and why to use each type of digital credential.

Open Badges

2011 saw the birth of Open Badges, which digitally and visually convey the achievement of a specific skill. Similar to the Scouts movement, which uses a small fabric symbol to represent specific achievements, digital badges were designed to convey a singular achievement through a digital image and a hosted set of data. Initially spearheaded by the Mozilla Foundation, the Open Badges standard is now maintained by the IMS Global Learning Consortium, ensuring interoperability between platforms.

The atomization of achievement enabled by digital badges is intended to open up new and novel pathways toward larger educational or professional goals. Carving up learning and achievement into “bite-size” elements facilitates the pursuit of education beyond traditional 2- and 4-year programs and toward a paradigm of lifelong learning from multiple education and training providers. In this way, badges are perfect for low-stakes credentials, or “micro-credentials.” While insufficient for situations which require high-stakes validation (such as, for example, verifying a passport at a border), micro-credentials can effectively reward milestones of personal achievement and be combined with other achievements to eventually become important elements of a high-stakes credential.

In many ways, digital micro-credentials have been an early signal indicating the desire on the part of education providers and employers to digitize all types of credentials. However, the security limitations of digital badges have limited the range of appropriate use cases. For instance, because badge data and badge display are hosted separately, the display could easily be tampered with. This means a badge with false data would still verify. Further, because recipients do not cryptographically sign their badges, they can’t really prove ownership of them. Despite these limitations, however, the security level provided by Open Badges is appropriate for their intended use cases: micro-credentials documenting small steps along the road of greater achievement.

Blockcerts

In response to the desire for high-stakes credentials in a digital format, the development of Blockcerts began in 2015 as part of a project by the MIT Media Lab. The intent was to leverage the power of the blockchain as a global notary for the verification of digital records. Formally launched in 2016, all of the reference libraries were published under an MIT open source license, making the code free to use by anyone wanting to build their own applications for issuing, receiving, and verifying Blockcerts. Most significantly, the open standard includes an open source Universal Verifier that will verify any Blockcert issued by any institution, anywhere in the world. Anyone can use the Blockcerts Universal Verifier at blockcerts.org or spin up their own Universal Verifier from the open-source code available there.

Rather than using a simple image format, like badges, Blockcerts were designed as software (JSON files) that could embody any type of official record and generate any type of display. These records are cryptographically signed by both issuer and recipient and registered on a blockchain for later verification. In summary, Blockcerts are fundamentally different from badges by offering the following innovations:

  • Tamper evidence
  • Issuer and recipient ownership
  • Flexible form factor
  • Online and offline sharing with verification
  • Independent verification

A common use case for Blockcerts is a university diploma or transcript. Let’s say Jane has recently graduated from college and receives an official copy of her academic record in a digital format that contains her keys. She can then choose to present her record to anyone—like a potential employer—who can independently verify the issuer of the diploma, the time of issuance, and its status (valid, expired, or revoked). That employer could even verify that the diploma was issued to Jane, and not to someone else. Never before have digital records been this secure or convenient to use.

Further, Jane’s academic record could reference any number of other records, like badges, that she may have earned along the way. Once records become software, all kinds of operations become possible.

The end result of blockchain-secured records is a reduction in overhead related to verification, a streamlined transfer of information, improved ability for learners to share their data, and an easier movement between education providers, states, and countries — all of which contribute to a dramatic reduction of fraud and greater convenience for everyone involved.

Note that Blockcerts fundamentally differs from a National Student Clearinghouse model of credential transfer because it doesn’t rely on a centralized authority to store, send, and verify the credentials on anyone’s behalf. Instead, the student or worker becomes their own “lifelong registrar,” able to store, access, and verify any Blockcert issued to them by any provider anywhere in the world. Institutions or individuals looking to verify Blockcerts don’t need any special software; they don’t need to be part of a “credentials consortium” or join any special network or pay any fees. This is the breakthrough of decentralized credentials enabled by secure, recipient-owned digital records using the global open standard.

Spectrum of Security

Official records are issued in various ways, each suited for a different purpose. For instance, sometimes paper is appropriate for situations where security needs are low and usage happens within a rapid time frame, like a ticket to enter an event venue. On the other end of the spectrum is Blockcerts, the highest level of security for the most important records people wish to use and keep for a lifetime.

Learning Machine is excited to lead the way in helping organizations become issuers of Blockcerts with an easy-to-use product interface. To make the Learning Machine Issuing System even more useful as a credentialing platform, we are releasing a new set of features this January (2019) to enable the issuance of IMS-compliant Open Badges. By allowing education and training providers to issue both standards-compliant Blockcerts and Open Badges in one place, we are helping them consolidate the systems they use for credentialing and creating major credentialing efficiencies for recipients, who can now receive and store all their records in the same way.

Looking Forward

Beyond the Learning Machine Issuing System, we’re also excited to continue our work with international standards bodies. In addition to co-chairing the W3C Credentials Community Group and being part of the IMS Executive Board for digital credentials, we have also joined the steering committee of the Decentralized Identity Foundation (DIF), where we continue to collaborate with industry leaders to create data standards that ensure the interoperability of digital records between vendors.

Everyone sees the power of trustworthy digital records, particularly when they protect privacy and promote convenience for everyone involved. It’s up to us, however, to determine whether those digital records will be accessible and verifiable independent of a particular vendor’s infrastructure. That is the power of using open standards like Blockcerts.

If you would like to discuss how Open Badges and Blockcerts can enhance your institution’s credentialing operation, please reach out to us.

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