The name of the thing probably doesn’t matter

England and America are two countries separated by the same language. (George Bernard Shaw)

My family first got a television with a remote control when I was about the same age as my now nine-year old son. Like many British families, the remote control was called anything other than it’s proper name: the ‘doofer’, the ‘thing’, the ‘widget’. It didn’t matter because, 100% of the time, the person being asked to pass the remote control (or do something with it) knew what was being referred to.

One big thing I’ve noticed over the last few years is that American English and British English differs greatly around precision. Americans seem have a word for everything. I’m not an etymologist, but I should imagine that the reason British English lacks precision in some cases is because it’s had so many foreign influences. We tend to import words from other languages – in particular French (e.g. cliché) or German (e.g. schadenfreude) and, like our legal system, we base things off precedent. American English, on the other hand, was explicitly defined by Noah Webster.

As I noted in my thesis, follow-up ebook, and even the only (unpublished) academic paper I’ve ever written, ambiguity can be a good thing. It can be productive. It can lead to useful outcomes and provide breathing space for ideas to morph and evolve. Ambiguity can help avoid the situation where terms become (what Richard Rorty called) ‘dead metaphors’.

I was reminded of the difference between American English and British English this week in a post written, ironically enough, by a Frenchman, Serge Ravet. He took issue with something I’ve written about recently – namely Open Badges and credentialing. Serge’s point rests on the difference between ‘credentialing’ and ‘recognition’:

I used to say credentialing is ancillary to recognition. Credentialing is a servant to recognition and it should stay in that subordinate position. Problems arise when the servant becomes the master — think of Dirk Bogard in Joseph Losey’s The Servant. I am afraid that it is the situation we are fostering when equating Open Badges to credentials.

I’m not going to rehash the arguments I’ve already made, but instead I want to make another point, identical to title of this post, i.e. the name of the thing probably doesn’t matter. You don’t need to know the name of all the parts in the engine to fix the engine. We don’t need to be able to reel off the names of every different form of government to spot a tyranny. Or, to quote the Bard:

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;

I don’t particularly care how you define digital literacies so long as what you do with that definition is worthwhile. The same goes for Open Badges: so long as you’re using the interoperable metadata standard, you’re free to call what your’e doing anything you like.

As for what badges stand for, whether they’re ‘credentials’ or ‘recognition’ or whatever, let’s have a philosophical discussion! I’ve got a degree in Philosophy, bring it on. I love this stuff. But let’s not pretend what we’re doing is anything that’s likely to make any practical difference anytime soon. There’s a difference between an ontological position that says, “this thing is X, not Y” and “this thing can be whatever you want it to be!”

For the avoidance of doubt, I’m in the latter camp. Do what you want. Use Open Badges in tired, conventional, boring ways. Alternatively, use badges in pedagogically exciting ways that liberate young people from the shackles placed upon them. Respect your context. Or don’t. Just use the metadata standard. That’s the revolutionary thing.

Give people choice. See what happens.


One thought on “The name of the thing probably doesn’t matter”

  1. The discussion I try to have is not “definition against definition” nor “word agains word” pretending than mine is better than yours — that would be a waste of time. What I’m trying to do is connect words and definitions (whatever they are) with reality looking for possible patterns, inconsistencies and fallacies.

    You write “I don’t particularly care how you define digital literacies so long as what you do with that definition is worthwhile.” I am afraid that this statement simply moves the goal posts further as you would then need to explain what is “worthwhile” — notwithstanding that the “worth” might change according to the position of the subject, in particular in the relationship individual/community/institutions. The use of Open Badges as ‘rewards’ might be worthwhile in a world ruled by extrinsic motivation by institutions looking for conformance — I’m afraid that there are always more of them by the day…

    According to Stephen Downes, “‘meaning’ is a property of language and logic, connoting referential and representational properties of physical symbol systems.” It is difficult to have an intelligible conversation when participants using the same word refer to different realities without making it explicit first — unless the objective is to reach a comic effect or obfuscate the reality. The point of the discussion is not that we are using the same definition for two different words, but that the word ‘credentials’ is connoted to different “referential and representational properties” depending on who the speaker is. For example, the original graphic art used to present Open Badges was implicitly oriented towards ‘formal recognition’ (or ‘formal credentials’) and I am still waiting for graphic art produced by the Badge Alliance that would represent ‘informal recognition.’

    When analysing the reality of what most Open Badge practitioners do with “credentials” it is connected to ‘institutions’ or ‘authorities’ that have the ‘power’ of recognising learning (formal or informal). The empowered entity is the institution, not the learner. The Open Badge Infrastructure gives the power to act to institutions (create and deliver badges — ‘spray’), not to the learners (collect and display badges — ‘pray’). The Open Badge Infrastructure is ‘institution-centred’: earners have to carry a backpack while issuers don’t as they are treated as some kind of superior authority that do not need a backpack to prove their credentials.

    As I wrote in another response, eventually the reality of the Open Badge scene speaks for itself, and if we had to honestly infer a definition of “credentialing” based on current Open Badge practice (and technology!) we would have to write:
    Open Badges: an institution-centric credentialing technology designed to support formal recognition of learning (formal and informal).

    You write: “But let’s not pretend what we’re doing is anything that’s likely to make any practical difference anytime soon.”

    I sincerely hope that you are wrong. The next Open Badge specification, 2.0, should provide the beginning of a cure to the hereditary disease of formal credentialing inherited by the current Open Badge Infrastructure. This will be partly the result of a conversation started more than two years ago in relation to the ‘asymmetry’ of the Open Badge Infrastructure.

    Additional efforts are performed by the Open Badge Passport team and the @BadgeChain initiative. We should have interesting results to show by the end of this year. Maybe the lesson learned will be that there is no room for “informal recognition of informal learning” (or ‘informal credentials’). I hope not.

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