Stuck in the mud: Certification between symbolic profiling and real recognition

Updated blog in connection with the session at Open Belgium 2020.

Badges seem to be offering a solution to common problems

In recent years we are noticing a resurgence of interest in various concepts for alternative (digital) credentials. They seem to offer solutions to several common challenges for education and society at the moment – here are a first five from me:

Challenge: A more inclusive higher education.

Key question: How can we be more inclusive in higher education, by better recognising the prior attainment of skills and competencies of learners who wish to enter higher education as adult learners?

Challenge: Better recognition of people’s skills and competences and subsequent reduction of the so-called skills gaps between learners’ competencies and labour market needs.

Key question: How can we more accurately document the skills, competencies and experiences of persons, to improve transfer and matching on the labour market?

Challenge: Lifelong learning or the 60-year curriculum.

Key question: How can we ensure that learning is encouraged throughout the lifespan and a person’s skills profile can be used as a basis to recommend new learning and career pathways?

Challenge: Multiple periods of learning at different educational providers.

Key question: How can we find a way to collect learning achievements in a cumulative and systemic way, aggregating them into skills and competence clusters in a person’s profile, irrespective of where they were acquired?

Challenge: Increasing numbers of tertiary education graduates with very similar-looking certificates.

Key question: How can we differentiate between graduates, who have studied the same courses at university or college?

The time is ripe for new solutions. Indeed, statements from industry and experts like this are common: “What is decisive is the proven competence and not the way, place and time of the acquired competence.” This would all suggest that concepts for alternative credentials, especially the well-established standards of open badges, would be quickly realised in education.

But to those who have been observing the field for some time, it seems that we are still not reaching the mainstream – a necessary precondition for really solving the above-mentioned challenges. There are even efforts to scrape information from CVs through AI techniques to judge the skills demands required of jobs and to match these will appropriate candidates (although we know this to be a very fuzzy type of document). And one common area of work at the moment is to use blockchain for a more secure storage of university diplomas (although we know that diplomas will have to change in substance). This is strange, since neither of these contribute to solving the challenges ahead for sustainable developments in our digital age.

During the Open Belgium session, I asked the participants to rank the 5 challenges mentioned above by importance. The result showed that most people gave the objective “better recognition of people’s skills and competences” their highest rating, followed by the idea of the “60 year curriculum”. The ranking, therefore, sets the focus on the recognition of people and then what comes of this for education. This is not the way we normally think of education, especially because “recognition” is often conflated with obtaining “credentials”, i.e. a document at the end of an education process.

Result of live audience poll, 6.3.2020, Open Belgium.

Why are we not making progress here?

Richard E. West and Tadd Farmer (West 2018) argue that this is explained by the struggle for open badges to be recognised outside of their native badging ecosystem. Sure, they say, it is important to have local ecosystems of badge developers, earners, issues and end users in a specific context with a specific purpose. But contributing to a more generic credential system requires organizations outside the native badging ecosystem to recognize and accept the badge performance and assessment and this recognition is difficult to achieve were standards, requirements, and objectives of credential frameworks do not align. This suggests then that progress for badges will be achieved if two objectives are met:

  • A closer commonality between badging and general credential ecosystems can be found
  • This commonality can be better communicated, leading to more third-party trust in the system

At Open Belgium we also discussed what could be done. I have clustered the responses into 3 loose categories: communication, value and technical details. I note them here without further commentary. They can be used for further discussions.


  • Information campaigns
  • Communicate their value to recipients
  • Sensitizing
  • Speaking about “badges” (the medium) and more about “recognition” (the message)
  • Change the terminology. Badges are for children. Certification is for adults.
  • Highlight clear benefits for badges users (job providers most of all)
  • Showing the benefits
  • Prominent supporters
  • Get some famous people to use them


  • Change the mindset of people, organisations, authorities
  • Involve more decision makers and jobs providers
  • Decouple them from the open recognition process (on a policy level) – badges should be a tangible result of the recognition process
  • Create services that show the connection between recognition of all learning and the civic value of skills and experience to show your abilities (related to upskill, reskill and hiring for example).
  • Recognising the value of informal recognition, not just formal recognition
  • Make Open Badges “actionable”, i.e. do something with them, like “open a door”

Technical issues

  • Standards
  • Define standards to make available tools interoperable
  • Provide easy to use tools/software
  • Get rid of the “backpack” altogether, no need for a specific platform to make badges visible and actionable
  • Not blockchain
  • Less visual badges (then people don’t see them a gamification)

I’d like to thank all participants who took part in the discussion and look forward to the next ones. And: if you have any ideas of the famous people, who could help us, let me know! (Only half-joking.)

See my presentation here.

For more on this topic, see also:

Buchem, I., Orr, D., & Brunn, C. (2019). Making competences visible with Open Badges. Retrieved from

ICDE. (2019). The Present and Future of Alternative Digital Credentials. Retrieved from

Ravet, S. (2020): Competency Badges: the tail wagging the dog?

West, R. E. (2018). Foundations of Learning and Instructional Design Technology. EdTech Books.

One comment

  1. […] But the role of digitalisation within this network of interconnections can be to strengthen and deepen links or even to make them more feasible that in the normal educational setting. For instance, digitalisation can be used to enable more personal contact between learners and their teachers, but also to leverage more intense interactions between learners in the form of peer learning, which is supported by teachers instead of being led by them. Both teachers and students will need some support in fully utilising this – but help is out there. Equally important, however, is that the curriculum and learning content should be adjusted to enable this interactivity to happen and the assessment methods should recognise these types of learning activity (e.g. also through open badges). […]


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