The Reskilling Revolution: Taking control of skills with Open Badges

In a rapidly shifting job market, being able to formalize skills is a requirement for job seekers and employers going forward. Open Badges is a data specification that may be able to help do that.

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The future of work is one of today's most pressing issues, and the role technology plays in this is key. We are living in the era of what has been called Industry 4.0. AI, machine learning and big data-driven automation means more and more tasks carried out by people today are becoming redundant.

It is argued that this does not necessarily mean that jobs will become redundant, but rather that workers will be supported by automation, thus becoming more efficient. The truth however is nobody really knows at this point how this will all play out. Could technology also help deal with this crisis?

The Reskilling Revolution

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At the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, the future of work was one of the topics that took center stage. The WEF has issued a couple of related reports, postulating on alternative scenarios for the future of work and focusing on what it calls the reskilling revolution. The takeaway is we have the tools to reskill for the future, but where is the will to use them?

While it may be true that automation can enable people to focus on the parts of work that are creative and empathetic, letting them do what they do best and taking away the menial aspects, this is not something that's going to happen overnight. What is happening overnight is workers becoming redundant.

As has been pointed out by people whose job is to build the automation technology that threatens to displace workers, time flies and technology waits for nobody. This means that in order to redirect displaced workers towards new employment, reskilling is key. It needs to happen fast, and it has to be efficient.

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Reskilling will be needed for everyone in the future, but a requirement for this is to be able to document skills in the first place. Image: WEF

This is the part where technology may come to the rescue. Besides automating big parts of work, technology can also help us in the concerted effort required for the reskilling revolution.

According to the WEF:

"As the types of skills needed in the labour market change rapidly, individual workers will have to engage in life-long learning if they are to remain not just employable but are to achieve fulfilling and rewarding careers that allow them to maximize their employment opportunities.

For companies, reskilling and upskilling strategies will be critical if they are to find the talent they need and to contribute to socially responsible approaches to the future of work.

For policy-makers, reskilling and retraining the existing workforce are essential levers to fuel future economic growth, enhance societal resilience in the face of technological change and pave the way for future-ready education systems for the next generation of workers."

But how could this work? The WEF in its report does an analysis of what it calls Transition Pathways. This analysis shows how workers could transition to new jobs based on overlapping skills. The obvious first step towards this would be to document the ecology of skills, and map individual worker skills. It may sound simple, but we're not really there yet.

People got skills, Open Badges document them

If we ask whether the way skills are documented today is ideal, the answer would probably be no. While some skills are acquired through education, and can be traced back and documented in this way, this is not always the case. Many skills are acquired on the job, and can only be assessed by people and organizations engaged in work practices.

An employment record on the other hand does not necessarily tell the whole story regarding someone's skills. It's not always clear what all roles and positions entail in terms of functions and associated skills. In addition, both in traditional CVs and in the LinkedIns of the world, people assess their own skills, so they may be overselling or underselling them.

Still, the job market somehow works. Some ways of describing skills do exist, otherwise HR departments, recruiters, job seekers and employment-related agencies would never be able to operate. But the problems of standardizing skills in a format that can be readily understood and exchanged, tracing skill acquisition and evolution, and giving access and control to involved parties are not really solved yet.

Could Open Badges be the solution? Open Badges is an effort initiated by Mozilla and the MacArthur Foundation. The goal is to provide a simple but flexible format for documenting and showcasing skills. A badge corresponds to a skill a person has, as recognized by a third party.

Badges have visual representations, and they are typically issued by organizations and collected by individuals in personal achievement records, or "backpacks" in Open Badges terminology. But despite its visual manifestation, Open Badges at its core is a data specification.

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Open Badges, at its core, is a data specification. Image: Open Badges

There is a schema used to define concepts in the Open Badges domain, as well as their properties and relations to each other.

This schema is expressed using Linked Data technology, and the specification defines ways in which Open Badges can be visually interpreted. Technically, Open Badges are JSON-LD fragments embedded in images. Open Badges emphasizes the visual aspect, enabling individuals to showcase skills.

But Open Badges is not just pretty pictures. As it is based on JSON-LD, Open Badges snippets can not only be stored, but also embedded for example in web pages. Imagine having your online CV, in which your skills are not only listed in a standard format that links to sources that verify them, but are also discoverable as snippets through search engines.

JSON-LD and its connection with schema.org make this possible. This is part of the Linked Data vision for the transition from a web of documents to a web of data. Google and other search engines already use schema.org and JSON-LD markup to enhance search results, so the above scenario is entirely realistic.

Work Nirvana with Open Badges?

So why are we not quite there yet? ZDNet discussed with Jeff Bohrer, a technical program manager with IMS Global Learning Consortium. Initially Open Badges were under the auspices of the Badge Alliance, which has now ceased to exist/function after the management of Open Badges transitioned to IMS last year.

When asked about the uptake of Open Badges as indicated through a relatively short list, Bohrer responded that the adoption of Open Badges by K-12 schools and districts, higher education institutions, professional development organizations, and other groups is progressing more rapidly than any single list or repository can accurately track.

Bohrer notes that IMS Global is currently exploring opportunities to measure the adoption and pervasiveness of digital credentials wherever learning happens. He adds that many companies utilize Open Badges as part of internal training and development initiatives or external certification programs, pointing to IBM, Microsoft, Kony, and EY as examples of corporations that have implemented credentialing programs using Open Badges:

"Some reasons for the growth in adoption are the increasing importance of a learner's ability to demonstrate the acquisition of knowledge and mastery of skills, and the value placed on upskilling as individuals and organizations try to meet the demands of the 21st-century workplace. Open Badges are an excellent way to communicate and show evidence of learning and verify that a learner's achievements are meaningful and can be trusted.

Skills obtained through any learning experience can be documented through verifiable Open Badges. Learning experiences can occur in many ways -- formal education, workplace training, projects, self-directed or informal learning and more. The IMS Global community believes that learners have a high degree of agency in the learning process, including curating evidence for their learning. Portable Open Badges offer wonderful opportunities to foster this."

Could Open Badges support a scenario in which it is used to let people take control of their online CVs? Could expansion and alignment with others such as schema.org (which is partially there already), and a request/response mechanism be used to generate CV entries directly from employees and clients attesting to ones skills?

"Yes, if we want the most user-friendly, cost-effective, and overall powerful ecosystem for digital credentials," says Bohrer, "We must leverage the emerging best practices around shared vocabularies and linked data. One exciting example of this is that Open Badges can be directly linked to frameworks for competencies, educational standards, and registries.

Another exciting opportunity is that job-seekers may be more discoverable by employers through the linked nature of Open Badges and digital credentials such as Extended Transcripts (a new IMS standard).

This type of interoperable environment lowers the bar for adoption by technology suppliers and immediately situates a product that conforms to these standards square in the middle of the overall ecosystem. Customers of technology products ought to expect and demand compliance with these and other open standards."

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The Open Badges ecosystem. Image: Open Badges

And what about expressing intangible professional qualities, such as leadership or responsibility? Bohrer says the technical design of Open Badges strongly supports these use cases. Features like evidence, endorsement, and verification allow others -- like potential employers -- to trust the claims made by the badge holders.

Going forward, Bohrer points towards Open Badges 2.0. He says it is being adopted right now by technology suppliers, so we will begin to see features emerge in badge platforms that better support accessibility, multiple languages, badge versions, and more options to identify badge recipients and issuing organizations.

Other upcoming work, he notes, will focus on blockchain-based verification of badges, learning pathways, and the personal achievement record (aka "backpack") for storing and sharing digital credentials.

In January 2017, IMS Global Learning Consortium, the leading edtech standards organization, was selected by the Badge Alliance Steering Committee to lead the development and market adoption of the Open Badges standard and continue to foster community engagement. IMS and its members are actively involved with related organizations supporting efforts to align with schema.org, Credential Engine, and the W3C.

Note: The initial version of this article stated that Jeff Bohrer was a spokesperson for the Badge Alliance. The article has been updated to reflect the fact that this is not the case.

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