From an early age, I was interested in hacking the education system. Whenever I received an assignment, my first instinct was to do something more interesting, more political, more fun. In high school, I was assigned one of Shakespeare's plays to memorize. The exercise seemed ridiculous so I presented my teacher with a counter-proposal and while the rest of the class spent a month grappling with iambic pentameter, I wrote my first play.
Experiences like these taught me that learning happens best when it's a journey of discovery. Whether you're trying to improve your grasp of a language or your skill at a sport, the key is finding your own pathways to the knowledge. School is, of course, one path, but learning happens in all aspects of life and it happens all the time.
This view of education isn't revolutionary, but today's technology is. The web gives us limitless pathways to self-driven knowledge, not simply by providing vast amounts of information, but also by seamlessly connecting us with other people who can help us learn. The social nature of the web allows a great deal of meaningful education to happen outside the classroom. Our challenge is how to recognize it.
Mozilla never set out to disrupt the education system. When we began teaching people how the Internet works, we realized that the open, accessible, do-it-yourself nature of the web fuels learning. But, this posed a huge question: How can other people recognize the value of what we learn online? Outside of formal education systems, no credentials existed to reward knowledge gathered from the web, or gathered in the community and shared on the web.
So, after conversations with the MacArthur Foundation and the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory (HASTAC), we started work on Open Badges, a new online standard to recognize and verify learning. Right now, the entire system of diplomas and degrees is broken. The idea that there is one set of people in society who can confirm what we know, who can give us credentials, is desperately outdated. The reality is we're learning and applying that knowledge in all kinds of different places. We developed Open Badges to collect credentials about what we know in all the different aspects of our lives – work, school, recreation – and bring them together to paint an accurate picture of ourselves.
That was two years ago. Today, Mozilla's Open Badges are used by diverse organizations around the world. Earlier this year, the City of Chicago used badges as the foundation for a citywide summer of learning. By next summer, 14 major American cities including New York, L.A. and Dallas will integrate open digital badges into their learning programs. Corporations like Disney and Intel and government agencies like NASA and the Smithsonian Institute, are exploring how badges can be used to recognize specific skills. Educational institutions like the Scottish Qualification Authority and the U.S. Department of Education are blending badges into their current systems of credentialing.
While this represents a huge success for Mozilla, I'm reasonably sure an alternative credentialing system would have emerged without our efforts. That's a good thing; it means that knowledge is a core part of our digital identities. We started Open Badges because we want an online credentialing system that works just like the web – one that is open-source, which means anyone can contribute ideas or code; accessible, so badges can be earned and displayed by anyone, anywhere in the world, and free.
The world of learning that our kids inhabit has already changed. The traditional idea of acquiring an education in high school and university that is then applied to a job has been usurped by the web and its many pathways to knowledge. When we ask what education is for, it's time we acknowledge this change and put more effort into recognizing and verifying the fluid learning that occurs both inside and outside of classrooms.
Mark Surman is director of the Mozilla Foundation. This article is part of a series produced by Ashoka Canada's Learning Networks initiative to showcase innovative solutions in education.