A digital badge is a visual symbol of accomplishment. They can be awarded for any definable achievement and earned in many learning environments, games, or the workplace. An Open Badge is a specialized type of digital badge that contains verifiable metadata about achievements according to a common data format, the Open Badges specification.
Badges are organized in badge systems and learning pathways. Each badge "defines a relationship with an image and metadata. A badge can be used to show how an authority recognizes an earner's achievement, for example, but the important thing is that it describes the relationship between these entities such that the audience can discern its value. That value is often understood in terms of the competencies and other objectives that the badge represents." -Nate Otto, Director of Open Badges at Concentric Sky and Director of Technology at the Badge Alliance.
Badges can be awarded for achievements of all kinds, such as:
- interest and engagement
- knowledge or dispositions
- formal certification (degrees, certificates)
- proficiency, competency or skill
Digital badges can be awarded for many purposes including informal and formal learning, inside educational institutions and businesses, as well as outside. These badges can aggregate and shed light on the interests, capabilities and accomplishments of learners. Badges can serve as the stepping stones on a learning pathway.
A learning pathway is the chosen route individuals complete as they progress through a range of specific courses, academic programs, and learning experiences. It is a roadmap describing the landscape of a field, program or specialization. Pathways are made of steps that represent requirements, competencies, or other "real-world" experiences and take the form of a hierarchy of nested steps. Badgr allows issuers to define the learning pathways through their areas of expertise and connects steps to the badges that represent each one. Badges from multiple issuers or nested child steps can be set as milestone requirements for a step, and a badge may be configured as a "milestone badge" to be awarded automatically when an earner meets those requirements.
Learning pathways serve as the scaffolding and trajectory to understand progression and experience. Badgr allows communities to organize their badge programs to fit into shared pathways to better connect experiences across multiple learning contexts.
Pathway steps can be organized around digital badge systems that are already implemented or can assist with the design of new systems by providing structure. Badges and pathways are defined by a community's understanding of what people have accomplished to get there. For example, communities can build a common understanding of the training a mechanic, teacher, or doctor might need to be successful in their occupation(s), even as individuals might gather their own sets of experience from different opportunities.
“A really robust badging system should be able to provide such a ‘just-in-time’ scaffolding to guide [the student] along [their] emergent learning trajectory.”
-Barry Joseph, Associate Director for Digital Learning Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History,
Learning Pathways Rollercoaster. Digital Image. EdAlive.com n.d. Web 8 Sept 2016 <http://www.edalive.com/softwareclub/zoowhiz-parent-information/>
Different Types of Pathways
Pathways are a means for people to explore their way through different badging experiences to find new opportunities or realize new futures. The destination of two travelers is not necessarily born from the same pathway. In the diagram above, although the blue "Maths" pathway endpoint (proficiency) is similar no matter the route, the red path delineates similar outcomes, while on the yellow path, the outcomes diverge. Personal interests, accomplishments, family, friends, and various life activities all shape who we are, the interactions we have, and how we learn. Those are the customizing features that make us who we are as individuals and influence the paths we follow or choose. Just as your high school classmates, a cohort of medical students, or a soccer club may intersect on a path, each person customizes their own destination and means of arriving there.
Prescriptive pathways seek to declare one homogenized, standard or recommended badge earning path. Typically these approaches rely on a form, structure, and a recommended path laid by institutions, governments, private companies or other formalized education plan. Most likely, this badge pathway will be linear—a straight line from one learning experience to another.
Descriptive pathways seek to acknowledge the ways people consciously and willfully choose to earn badges. A descriptive pathway is a more natural approach for a badge recipient since s/he’s defining his/her own path. When there’s no prescribed pathway, people find the way that makes sense to them, choose to follow other people’s paths, or strike out in very different directions.
Until recently, most pathways have focused on prescriptive, institutional or corporate learning objectives/achievements, ignoring the successful learning that happens in unstructured environments such as book clubs, volunteer activities and other extracurricular interests. Badges are a means to recognize those opportunities and incorporate their benefits into creating an accurate digital portrayal of accomplishments.
Pathway Structure Varies
Pathway complexities vary depending on the career goals, personal interests, and experiences of the individual. Some pathways may be short while others may be lifelong. Pathways structure takes on many forms and badging for these pathways may be simple, linear, or complexly interconnected. Those active in the Open Badges space, have organized their thinking into competing pathway taxonomies. For example in 2014, the Open Badges Discovery project identified four possible structures for pathways (linear, freeform, tiered, and clustered).
Carla's Casilli led badge system design research and provided another set of defined learning pathways with an alternate set of four structures:
- Simple - badges are only related because they come from the same Issuer (e.g. a university)
- Linearly connected - one badge leads to another (e.g. beginner, intermediate, advanced)
- Complexly interconnected or non-linearly connected - badges cross categories and don’t follow a linear pathway (e.g. attendance award, pharmaceutical training)
- Complex cross-system linking - badges are connected to badges from other Issuer’s systems (e.g. university CS degree, Microsoft programming certification, Cisco data security credential)
While both of these schools of thought on pathway structure may be a useful lens into how to think about organizing badge systems, it is important to note the field is evolving and rapidly being defined as new issuers, earners and recipients enter the arena.
Theoretically, pathway structure concepts are well accepted, however operationalizing them into an applied application can be a challenge. Badgr's implementation of pathway structure is based on a hierarchical organized set of steps. Completion of each micro-step can be thought of as the pieces that form a pathway to the parent objective(s).
The Badgr pathway structure is not overly complex making it accessible to many use cases, while providing enough structure to offer a common way to think about badge system design, including defining achievement of an individual or organization's learning goals. The graphic below depicts the pathways Badgr employs to support badge earners. In it, you can see the nested structure of steps, modeling real-world relationships between concepts that people understand as categories or containers full of smaller component ideas. Looking at Pathway B, you can see three levels of steps, where some have a badge associated and others have only child pathway steps. A badge may be shared between multiple pathways published by the same issuer.
Image created by Concentric Sky, 2016
Pathway Design Considerations
When integrating a badge system, it is important to think about your badges as a whole. How will you implement them? What kind of badges are you awarding? How often will you award badges? Are badge earners allowed to test out of specific steps, demonstrate relevant competencies, or bring in badges earned from other issuers? Rather than plodding through the creation of each badge, one-by-one, how might you organize them in a meaningful way for the recipient and consumer? For pathway design, identification of purpose, structure and achievement are critical no matter if you are starting from scratch or badge mapping an existing system.
- Guide decisions. Are you recognizing competencies or tracking progress thru curriculum? Is the pathway meant to be completed in full or to show specialization across a range of options?
- Use community definitions. What are the values you want to recognize that are already accepted in your community?
- Movement. How do you expect people to move through the pathway, leveling up or getting from point A to point B?
- Customizable or prescribed. Is the learner allowed to pick and choose specializations or do they follow a path of prescribed objectives?
- Acceptance of external badges. Does the pathway recognize and/or incorporate badges earned from other or more than one issuer(s)?
- Assessment. What are the assessment practices to required to implement recognition of badges for steps in the pathway?
- Collection. Does the collection of badges clearly demonstrate the objectives of the pathway and is it understood by the community?
Mapping Existing Systems vs. New Learning Systems
One of the biggest considerations when designing pathways is the distinction between (a) integrating badges into an existing curriculum and (b) creating a badge system and a curriculum at the same time.
"When badges are being added to a pre-existing curriculum, the curriculum may constrain the way learning is recognized. For example, if an existing curriculum is not aligned to standards, it is very difficult to align a badge to standards. Alternatively, when the curriculum is being developed alongside badges, the options for both may seem limitless and overwhelming. A pre-existing curriculum can importantly help to structure design decisions. There are specific advantages for either approach."
If the thought of designing badges and learning pathways seems overwhelming, there are resources and experts that can help. Concentric Sky has been an advocate of badging and a leader in the field for providing open source solutions to new-world problems. Badgr is a fully open-source platform for awarding badges. It can be integrated with many other platforms (e.g. LMS, CRM) or developed as a custom stand-alone app. We have been involved in setting badge standards and are part of the thought-leadership in the emerging concept of learning pathways mapping and standards. We can support your efforts every step of the way from creating of your badge and learning pathway system to simply providing some gentle nudges to steer you in the right direction.
Badge System Design Template, by Carla Casilli