EdTech Factotum #5: The Indie EdTech Backpack Edition

5 min read

June 9, 2017

Here are 3 articles that I found interesting this week.


#domains17 – MBFWL

Grant Potter, June 8, 2017 For many in my network, the week kicked off at the University of Oklahoma at the inaugural Domains conference, subtitled Indie EdTech and Other Curiosities.

Thanks to Virtual Connecting, I managed to participate in a couple of the VConnecting sessions which helped keep the FOMO to a manageable level.

UNBC's Grant Potter attended the gathering and provides a wrap-up of hilights, including audio from Martha Burtis (brilliantly titled) keynote "Neither Locked-In nor Locked-out". Grant also caught some great informal moments, like the performance of The Moodle Fighters (side project of the Dead MOOCmen and Blackboard-Sabbath). There are more than a few links to follow up on in Grant's roundup.

See also Domains 2017 #notaconference from @cogdog Alan Levine


Indie, Open, Free: The Fraught Ideologies of Ed-Tech

Kris Shaffer, Hybrid Pedagogy, June 6, 2017 While a celebration of indie EdTech was underway in Oklahoma, Kris Shafer offered up a thoughtful critique on the perils of using the term indie to describe open, free-as-in-freedom educational technologies.

Much like the term open, Shaffer argues that the term "indie" when used in education is a term that is "fraught" with contradictions, ambiguities, privilege, and ideological baggage, and that educators need to "interrogate the contradictions" of the term before adopting new practices, especially practices that we require our students to take on. He also notes that indie, like open, should be a means to an end.

Socially conscious computing and liberal education are the ends. Like open, indie serves a goal, and as a term, it brings a lot of baggage. Just as openwashing threatens the value of openness (especially if openness is an end, rather than a means), indiewashing threatens to undercut the value that indie ed-tech can provide.

Shaffer argues that, when critically left unexamined, "indie" values the individual over the collective and, in the face of systematic challenges in our society, collective, not individual, responses are needed to solve complex problems.

I do like the term indie. Or, maybe I should say I do like what the term indie means to me which I had not really explored until I read Shaffer's critique (thank you). Looking at how I think about that term in relation to my work in education technology, I find that indie is closely tied to the concept of autonomy. However, I only want to be indie until I find other like minded indies. At that point, my desire to work collectively kicks in and I am happy to give up some of my indie autonomy to become part of a larger collective. To me, indie is often a place I start, but seldom the place I want to end up at.


Some thoughts on the future of the Open Badges backpack

Doug Belshaw, June 6, 2017 I seem to drift in and out of the topic of micro-credentials and badging. Lately, I am drifting back in, noting the work that the Colorado Community College System has been doing around badging their faculty development offerings.

The one piece of badging that has always struck me as somewhat problematic is the lack of backpacks in the wild. In this post, Doug does a nice job of recaping some of the history of backpacks, and why backpacks are an important component of the wider badges infrastructure.

In essence, the backpack is where users store and display their earned badges independent of the space that awarded the badge to them. Backpacks can be distributed and hosted by discrete organizations with the idea that each backpack could communicate with other backpacks as a federated network. I wrote a bit about the backpack infrastructure in a blog post back in 2014 (this was pre-IMS Global picking up badges, and was written about a decision that Mozilla had made to discontinue their identity management system Persona). 

For the longest time, however, Mozilla hosted one of the only major backpack implementations, meaning that Mozilla was the defacto repository of the vast majority of digital badges being issued. As Doug notes, the Mozilla backpack, "…was seen as somewhat of a ‘stopgap’ measure" until other backpacks could be set up by others in the community.

While some backpacks were established elsewhere, the idea of federated backpacks never seemed to catch on, for reasons Doug talks about in his blog post.

This federation, in practice, was more easily said than done. Three things caused it to be problematic. First the inevitable politics. There’s no need to go into details here, but the spinning out of the Badge Alliance from Mozilla was doomed to failure. As a result, the focus on federating the backpack (and on creating BadgeKit to make badge issuing easier) went by the wayside.

Second, there were technical issues beyond my understanding with federating the backpack. Apparently it’s a very hard thing to do. Third, the need for federation is just something that’s quite difficult to explain to people. We’re so used to centralised services. I used to try and do so by talking about the way email works. These days, my example might be Mastodon.

It is good and important historical context from someone who knows the history of badges, and provides some perspective on this recent blog post from Jason McGonigle of DigitalMe on the future of backpacks. DigitalMe is the current steward of the backpack.

As Michael Feldstein noted this week, there seems to be a renewed interest in digital badges. If that is the case, then the time is right to have a conversation about the important role of backpacks. Frankly, I think the importance of the backpack to the open badge ecosystem was invisible to many who explored open badges in the first wave of interest. Hopefully it won't get lost again.


Unless otherwise noted, all content CC-BY Clint Lalonde.

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