September 17, 2015

Taking Another Look at the Digital Credentials Landscape

Category: Edtech
Digital Credentials landscape diagram 5 exploring different terminology by Doug Belshaw

Recently, I’ve been having some interesting conversations about the digital credentials landscape. On the surface, it’s a bit messy. There are arguments over whether the term “Open Badges should be used over the more generic “digital badges”; startups are talking about“‘micro-credentials”; and in my own work consulting with City & Guilds (an awarding body in the UK), we’ve been talking about “professional digital credentials.”

In this post, I want to spend a little time teasing out the differences between the various terms and explaining why I think the diagram at the top of the post might help make sense of the current landscape.

Some background

Back when I was a teenager, I can remember being unduly excited when I read about Bluetooth, a new standard for being able to pair and push information between devices. It would be another 10 years before the technology became mainstream. Today, I don’t even think twice about the magic that enables me to stream music to a Bluetooth speaker or get vibrating notifications sent wirelessly from my phone to my smartband.

My point is that technological innovations take time to become embedded. I’ve quoted Clay Shirky to death in my blog posts for DMLcentral over the years, especially his observation that “communications tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring.” I think the same is true for Open Badges: we can start doing some interesting work with the infrastructure once the buzz starts to die down.

In a recent Future Thinkers podcast, Vinay Gupta explained how it’s the blockchain technology that underpins Bitcoin that’s interesting, not the cryptocurrency itself. I explored some of this in a previous article when I was peering deep into the future of educational credentialing. Vinay is working on Ethereum, a blockchain-based system that provides the ‘crypto-fuel’ required to create trusted, verified, distributed systems that would work on inter-planetary scales.

Similarly, Open Badges is a similar “foundation layer” to credentialing. That’s why, whenever I see that the word “badge” is a blocker for some people (perhaps because it has strong connotations outside of my control) I talk about “Professional Digital Credentials aligned with the Open Badges standard.”

The Landscape

I don’t want to get too stuck in the weeds in this post, so I’ll only mention a few examples. There are more terms used than the ones in the diagram at the top of this post, and the landscape is actually wider and deeper than I’m presenting here. Think of it as a convenient shorthand and a jumping-off point for further exploration.


First off, we have credentials. Normal, offline, everyday proof of identity, knowledge, or skills. Examples of these would be a certificate proving you’ve got the knowledge to pass an exam, a passport proving you are who you say you are, or a driver’s licence showing that you’ve got the skills to safely drive a car.


When we take these credentials online, we sometime prepend “e-” to them. So, we might have e-certificates or an e-passport. However, because digital is different, this is actually comparing apples with oranges.

We ensure that offline, high-stakes credentials are difficult to copy — perhaps by using special paper or adding holograms. Despite this, they’re portable: we can easily transport them from one place to another. Online, however, this is more difficult. We tend to put digital credentials in silos and wrap a lot of DRM (Digital Rights Management) around it. Unfortunately, this is analogue thinking applied to a digital world.


The innovation that the Open Badges standard provides is that we can issue credentials that work like the web. Instead of trust being based on technological security within one particular platform, it becomes a function of the network. Just as we (sometimes unconsciously) triangulate information from a range of sources to make a judgement about someone we’re meeting for the first time, we can do likewise in a much more intentional way with Open Badges.

Digital badges and certificates are fundamentally different to Open Badges. The former are literally just images or visual representations of credentials. The latter are metadata-infused, rich pictures with detail about the learner, the issuer, and what was accomplished. Each badge is unique to the individual with their details hard-coded inside. Moreover, because they’re built on a standards-based and interoperable system, they can be displayed anywhere on the web.


Some commentators, especially when referring to startups and tech companies, use the term “micro credentials.” A good example of this would be LinkedIn’s endorsements feature. Using this feature of the social network, anyone can “endorse” any of their connections for a particular skill.

The important thing to realise here is that there is no image requirement for micro credentials. Continuing with the LinkedIn example, my face might show up next to the particular endorsement I’ve made of you for “educational technology,” but this is a UX decision rather than something intrinsic to the credential. “Micro credentials” can be an unproductively ambiguous term.

What the term perhaps is useful to signify is that there are important things to credential that are on a more granular level than traditional credentials. Instead of using college degrees and other qualifications as proxies for something else — e.g. persistence, ability in certain areas, collaboration skills — we can credential those skills, behaviours, and habits of mind directly.

As I’ve mentioned above, in the work I’m currently doing with City & Guilds we’ve decided to use the term “Professional Digital Credentials.” While this may not be useful in every context, given our focus on Apprenticeships and other professional-focused, vocational schemes, it seems to resonate.

Going back to Vinay Gupta and Ethereum, just as there will be many applications using crypto-fuel, so there are already millions of individuals who have been issued badges aligned with the Open Badges standard. We can use a term like “Professional Digital Credentials” to allow us some additional flexibility. For example, the term does not tie us to small, granular credentials, but allows us to issue badges for everything from turning up to an event to a post-graduate level qualification. Additionally, an employer may decide that early badges on an Apprenticeship pathway may contain no metadata and serve literally as stepping stones to a much more worthwhile (and shareable) Open Badge.


In the early days of talking about Open Badges, I feel that we conflated several important points: the ability to issue micro credentials, bypassing traditional gatekeepers to learning, and the Open Badges standard itself. What I’ve tried to do in this post is, to some degree, begin to tease these apart. The important innovation is the interoperability and standards-based approach.

No matter what we call the things actually issued, whether or not commercial companies come along and create registered trademarks, the crucial thing is that we defend, uphold, sustain, and innovate on the Open Badges standard. This will build trust networks, allow for innovation in the digital credentialing landscape, and allow individuals to paint a much more holistic picture of themselves in both their personal and professional lives.

If you’re interested in Open Badges, or digital credentials more broadly, Bryan Mathers and I have been working with the community on an Open Badges 101 course. You’re very welcome to join us, earn your first badge, and help us build it!