Why ontologies are best left implicit (especially for credentials)

Ontology is the philosophical study of the nature of being, becoming, existence or reality as well as the basic categories of being and their relations. Traditionally listed as a part of the major branch of philosophy known as metaphysics, ontology often deals with questions concerning what entities exist or may be said to exist and how such entities may be grouped, related within a hierarchy, and subdivided according to similarities and differences. (Wikipedia)

I’d argue that the attempt to define what ‘exists’ within a given system is usually a conservative, essentialist move. It’s often concerned with retro-fitting new things into the current status quo, a kind of Kuhnian attempt to save what might be termed ‘normal science’.

Perhaps my favourite example of this kind of post-hoc ontology is from a reference Jorge Luis Borges makes to a fictional taxonomy in a book he calls Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge:

On those remote pages it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance.

This, of course, is meant to be humorous. Nevertheless, we’re in danger when a dominant group sees the current state of play as the ‘natural order of things’. It’s bad enough when this is latent, but even worse when essentialst worldviews are codified into laws — and by ‘law’ I’d include ‘code’.

The thing that disturbs me most is when people accept the artefacts that have been left for them as the given circumstances of nature… It’s this automatic acceptance of how things are that leads to a sense of helplessness about changing any of them. (Douglas Rushkoff)

This week, a survey was sent out to the Open Badges community on behalf of the Credential Transparency Initiative. This initiative is funded by the Lumina Foundation, an organisation that describes itself as an “independent, private foundation committed to increasing the proportion of Americans with degrees, certificates and other high-quality credentials to 60 percent by 2025.” The Lumina Foundation therefore has a vested interest in deciding what counts as a ‘high-quality credential’.

The problem is, of course, that what one well-funded, high-profile group decides after ‘consulting the community’ is likely to be adopted more widely. This is how de facto standards emerge. They may decide to play the numbers game and equate certain types of badges with degrees. Or, they may choose to go to the other end of the spectrum and ensure that badges do not equate with ‘high-quality’ credentials. Either way, it’s not really up to them to decide.

The survey featured this highly problematic question:

CTI survey

There are all kinds of assumptions baked into this question that need to be unpacked. For example, perhaps the biggest is that all of these have an ‘essence’ independent of one another, rather than in relation to each other. I see this as an attempt, either consciously or unconsciously, to turn the notion of a ‘badge’ into what Richard Rorty termed a ‘dead metaphor’:

Old metaphors are constantly dying off into literalness, and then serving as a platform and a foil for new metaphors. (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 16)

In my doctoral thesis (better consumed as this ebook), I used Rorty’s work along with that of William Empson to come up with a ‘continuum of ambiguity’:

Continuum of ambiguity

The idea behind this continuum is that almost every term we use to describe ‘reality’ is metaphorical in some way. Terms we use to refer to things (e.g. ‘badge’) contain both denotative and connotative aspects meaning that the person using the term cannot be absolutely certain that the person they are communicating with will understand what they mean in the same way.

Articulation of an idea

Image CC BY-ND Bryan Mathers

The more we try and create a one-to-one relationship between the utterance and the understanding of it, the more we are in danger of terms ‘falling off’ the continuum of ambiguity and becoming dead metaphors. They “lose vitality” and are “treated as counters within a social practice, employed correctly or incorrectly.” (Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth, 171). Such terms have the status of cliché.

The attempt to create a one-to-one relationship between a term as written or spoken, and the term as it is understood by an interlocutor or reader, is an understandable one. It would do away with the real, everyday problems we’re faced with when trying to understand the world from someone else’s point of view. As Rorty puts it, “the world does not provide us with any criterion to choose between alternative metaphors” (The Contingency of Language, 6). The problem is that if we have a single ontology, then we have a single worldview.

Returning to Open Badges, it would be difficult to do any interesting and useful work with the term if it becomes a dead metaphor. For example, I’m quite sure that there’s nothing many of those in Higher Education would like better than to demarcate what a badge ‘counts for’ and the situations in which it can be used. After all, organisations that have histories going back hundreds of years, and which are in the game of having a monopoly on ‘high-quality’ credentials need to protect their back. If they can create a dead metaphor-based ontology in which badges count as something much lower ‘quality’ (whatever that means) than the degrees they offer, then they can carry on as normal.

The fading conviction originating with Plato that language can adequately represent what there is in words opens the way for a pragmatic utilization of language as a means to address current needs through practical deliberations among thoughtful people. (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

At this point, I’m tempted to dive into differential ontology and the work of Derrida and Deleuze. Instead I’ll simply point out that the reductive attempt to define an essentialist ontology of credentials is doomed from the outset. What we need instead is to ensure that our use of terms such as ‘Open Badges’ are what I would call ‘productively ambiguous’ — that is to say, in the Pragmatist tradition, ‘good in the way of belief’.

Or, if you like your takeaways more pithy: Keep Badges Weird!

8 thoughts on “Why ontologies are best left implicit (especially for credentials)”

  1. Really interesting post, thanks! It seems to me it might have different implications for different people. For those such as yourself who are involved in badges at a high (broad?) level I can really see your point and that keeping things implicit or ambiguous and resisting the urge to turn useful examples into paradigms that stifle emergent and innovative future applications. A standard such as Open Badges needs to be careful what and how much it standardised lest it limit those who use it. However, for an organisation looking to get involved in using this platform I wonder whether they need to have the ontology conversation at their level and decide what the badges represent to them. This doesn’t have to trickle up to limiting the whole ecosystem (as in your example of traditional Universities limiting them then carrying on as usual). I must concede though that the power of some organisations does make this hard to guard against.

    Lots to think on, as I said, thanks!

    1. Hi Oliver, yes you’re right. In fact, I’ve been involved in some work with Awarding Organisations (e.g. this post) where things definitely do need to be bounded. However, at an ecosystem level, we need to ensure things don’t become synonymous with just low-stakes or high-stakes testing. Badges should be for anything and everything!

  2. Thanks Doug — some day I hope that I will already have read most of the linked articles in your posts. In the meantime I appreciate the growing richness of the conversation. What seems most hopeful about open badges is their potential to broaden the pool of those offering validations of various kinds while empowering the learners to construct and validate personally effective and meaningful learning pathways. Your work along with Serge Revet, Timothy Cook, Carla Casilli, and many others keeps pushing to keep the playing field as inclusive as possible. I’m distressed by a sense that so much of the open badge development effort seems directed at bringing the tool inside the traditional houses of educational power. I would love to see open badges help push and affirm a more democratized learning environment but we have to be able to demonstrate the concrete value of such a system.

  3. I think it is never useful to relate a credential to being ‘higher’ or ‘lower’. I do, however, feel that the underlying challenge for badges concerns the ‘value’. I think this element has not been thought out enough; assuming -as has been done before- that it’s ‘an emergent property of the ecosystem’ in my view is a catch-22. Badges need to be valued to be adopted large-scale, if they are adopted they might be valued. Although I agree that organisations might “demarcate what a badge ‘counts for’ and the situations in which it can be used.” I would say this is quite a reasonable expectation in my view. The TCO of badges is not zero; resources are limited, certainly in the current times, so imo need a balance between unique weirdness AND exposing their value.

  4. I’m new to the conversation about badges and ed-tech in general. I appreciate your insights on credentials and I agree that badges run the risk of becoming too essentialist (thereby losing a key dimension of their meaning, which you’ve identified as ambiguity).

    At the same time, I wonder why badges are that necessary when the best way to evaluate learning is to look at what it produces. Grades and, I believe, badges are supposed to do this. But instead of taking a course in philosophy, doing the work, and having someone else (in, at times, a very biased way) guarantee to the public that I have done the work, why don’t I just post the paper I’ve written. Obviously, not everyone will read it but even a quick look over a paper will tell me more about a learner than either a badge or a line on a transcript. We could even develop a system of peer-to-peer review and rating so that papers have a social badge of sorts (an accumulated rating and series of reviews) in addition to the public display of the work completed. Whether it’s original research or meta-analysis in the sciences or papers and reviews in the humanities, this seems to bypass many of the problems inherent in grades and credentials while making academic study and credit a more social, transparent, and accurately demonstrative process.

  5. Not sure where to start here, Doug!

    OK, maybe we can start with the recognition that if we accept your premises, your arguments are persuasive. IFF (sic) we approach ontology as “a conservative, essentialist move … concerned with retro-fitting new things into the current status quo” then, I would agree, let’s keep a healthy distance. And I agree on the awkward discomfort aroused by the survey question you have highlighted.

    What if that question had been phrased much more openly? We could start with something like
    “Do you see any important, persistent, significant distinctions between different kinds of badges or other credentials?” and follow up with “If so, please describe the different categories that you see, and, to the extent that you can, what criteria you would apply to determine which category a particular badge or credential is in.” Of course, that won’t give you a neat “quick fix” as we can agree the actual question appears to want. But if we then went back to the people answering that question, we could follow through to asking them what they use (or envisage using) badges/credentials for, and try then to understand how their categorisation serves their purposes.

    The key ontological art, in my view, is then to see if one can create some kind of classificatory system in which all our survey responders can locate their own particular concerns. Sure, with such a wide field as badges, we won’t get something small and neat. Every faction could well complain that the overall ontology was too complex for them to understand. That’s the way it is, with so many rich concepts. In order to do ontology in an open way, serving many needs, one has to take a deep breath and prepare oneself for a kind of complexity that individuals rarely tackle. Much more often we are content to live within our own conceptual shell.

    I’m sure you would agree with me that the approach to ontology hinted at here above is not “conservative” or “essentialist”, but open, pragmatic, flexible and living. I recognise that there is a limit to what can be done, if people are using terms and concepts like “badges” in different ways and for different purposes. But attempting the ontology (in the way I point to) is, in my mind, highly useful in any case. If we find that there really is no simple enough way of crafting a multi-purpose ontology, we could easily decide that it is time to make some distinctions; to propose some sub-terms, perhaps.

    We’ve done this, I think with some success, a decade or more ago, with the term “portfolio”. There was a comparable lack of agreement about the essence of a portfolio. It was, and still is, clear that different people use portfolios in quite different ways, for different purposes. And we’ve seen many people move on from the simple term “portfolio”, towards something more nuanced, suitable for their more specific purposes, and within their communities of practice.

    So, my request: please don’t throw out the ontological baby with the bathwater. Saying that ontologies should be left implicit doesn’t really solve anything at all. That’s really not the point of ontology as a positive art. There is a positive art to ontology, and I practice it, in my own way.

  6. Hi Doug;
    First, sorry if this sounds overly opinionated; I’m just working out my thoughts through the writing process and assessment philosophy is a hobby of mine.
    (1)My primary instinct is use ontology as a clarifying element like this from Noy and Mcguiness on Info Systems:
    “An ontology defines a common vocabulary for researchers who need to share information in a domain.. . .(but) There is no one correct way to model a domain— there are always viable alternatives. The best solution almost always depends on the application that you have in mind”.
    (2)I’m wondering if your discomfort with this approach to badges is more with how the domain is being modeled and with the ontology of students?
    Consider Jordon Shaper’s recent Medium interview where Kathy Hirsh-Pasek says:
    “. . . reading depends on having strong language skills. And language skills, getting that rich vocabulary in the first place, depends on social skills — that back and forth conversation that we call — singing a conversational duet. So, when you look carefully at even something as basic as reading — you come to realize that these standard academic skills (Content) rest on a foundation of Collaboration and Communication or what some have called soft skills.”
    Their talking about skills, but I believe their ontology of a student’s being is also profoundly different. It’s common to talk of 21st Century skills but what they really mean is a 21st Century student ontology.
    (3)My hope is that we’ll develop better ontologies of students and assessments that reflect those ontologies. From a previous blog post of mine:
    “More than anything else, assessment, at its core, is the process of estimating a latent trait and making it visible. It is the first step in the analytic process of drawing connections, but we can’t connect the dots until they are visible to us. . .. This 3 fold understanding of educational assessment includes developing an ontology where assessment practices recognize a full account of the being and becoming of students. It does not restrict our view to what is easily measured, but essentially meaningless in the bigger picture or final analysis. Secondly, it is responsible in that assessment is linked to an expectation for engagement that goes beyond behavioral description to fully recognize the full complexity of that student engagement as a dialogic and networked individual. And finally, it does not use data in a mechanistic fashion, but uses construct measurement to make their joint responsibilities and ontologies visible to teachers and students in everyday educational practice.”
    One might also say that the business of badges is in making visible the potential responsibilities and committments between students and employers.
    (4)Finally, the biggest difficulty with the way most badges are conceived is the implied dualism between knowing and doing. In example, consider the difference between a computer science student at a community college (CC) and one at Stanford (S). Yes, the cc student has a standardized curriculum (read saber-toothed in the terms of your thesis) while the S student is on the cutting edge, but even more important is the likelihood the the S professor is regularly involved in Silone Valley work and regularly conveys this know-how into the curriculum, an aspect that is not in the standardized version. The S student has also likely had discussion in Stanford’s venture capital networks furthering their know-how in their knowledge. I really think an empirical examination of Stanford’s practices supports a pragmatic breaking of the know-how / know-what distinction. These are some of the empirical reasons why a S degree is worth more than a cc degree, but it also points to how a cc education might be redesigned to be more valuable with a closer relationship to post-graduate practice.
    Leaving ontologies implicit feeds into the problem that the ontologies and domain models are just weak.

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