An upside-down way to stack open badges

In the previous post, I suggested a way that learners may be able to reputably self-issue badges. I wrote it in response to the Open Recognition Alliance’s MIRVA project (Make Informal Learning Visible and Actionable). Here’s a link to a webinar in which Serge Ravet describes his goals for the MIRVA project:

In this post, I would like to amend my original idea to replace “interest” badges with competency nodes on a pathway. You see, although I didn’t originally frame it as an idea about badge pathways, I’ve since realized that’s exactly what it is. But first, a recap.


The idea went like this:

Step 1: A learner identifies a competency that she is interested in developing, or that she believes she already possesses.

Step 2: The learner acquires an “interest” badge, which simply represents her interest in the competency, or her claim about already possessing the competency. There’s no criteria or evidence required to acquire this badge. This interest badge is akin to a meta-badge (but as you’ll soon see, I now suggest using a competency node instead).

Step 3: The learner begins to earn badges that support the claim of the interest badge. Each supporting badge is a child of the parent interest badge. These child badges contain evidence, perhaps from artifacts she’s created or events she’s attended, that support the claim of the parent interest badge.

Step 4: The learner’s supporting badges are endorsed by others.

In most badge pathway schemes, learners must earn all the child badges before earning the parent/meta-badge. Hence, badges and meta-badges continually stack up as the learner progresses along the path toward mastery, or certification, or whatever. This “upward stackability” seems to be the norm when it comes to badge pathway progression.

In the idea I described, it’s reversed: a learner earns the child badges only after acquiring the interest badge (which acted similar to a meta-badge). Hence, I called it downward stackability.

Enter Pathways: A competency node instead of an interest badge

I was all set to publish a second blog post, alternative to this post, that delved into more details about how Open Badges 2.0 + a badge pathway standard might support downward stackability. Then I read Tim Cook’s 2015 blog post, “The Quantum Mechanics of Learning,” ( and was obliged to start over. In his post, he suggested that nodes in pathways could represent more than just badges. Nodes could also represent competencies or resources. I was instantly intrigued (and only a little annoyed) because I saw how his idea could work much better for what I was proposing. Instead of issuing themselves “interest badges,” learners could insert competencies into a pathway and then begin issuing, or acquiring, badges in support of those competencies. Downward stackability is still facilitated, and the learner is still very much in control of the development of his or her own pathway. But it has the likely added benefits of greater standardization and probably a more streamlined and intuitive user experience.

One more possible benefit of using competencies: adding a competency node to a pathway may not require any extensions to the Open Badges 2.0 standard, whereas interest badges may have required an extension to articulate criteria for issuance of supporting child badges. Of course, competency nodes on a pathway would also need to articulate criteria for issuance of supporting child badges. But as luck would have it, the new IMS Global CASE standard (Competency and Academic Standards Exchange) seems to provide support for just that sort of use case, at least as I understand it (but I’m still reading up on CASE, so please correct me if I’m wrong).

Why should pathways support something like downward stackability?

Why bother with something like downward stackability? Carla Cassili, in her 2014 “Paraquel” blog post (, wrote what I think is as good an argument as any: “Badge pathways can be and most likely will be entirely emergent. This, friends, is from whence all their magic derives. Badge pathways provide people with opportunities to make decisions based in personal agency, to define steps that may seem more like hops, and to think about ways to do things that aren’t sequential or even seemingly rational.”

And yet, when I look around at the sorts of badge pathways that are emerging, they all appear rather linear and “top-down.” There is still the need to pre-define the curricular scope of the set of child badges required to earn a meta-badge. It is still the job of a designer to define the learning path, and the job of learners who want the credential to follow that path. And don’t get me wrong, that’s not entirely a bad thing. I imagine the vast majority of badging use cases that consumers want would require that sort of top-down design.



But I don’t see how that kind of linear or tiered design facilitates individuals making their own informal learning visible and actionable. I also don’t see how that type of design could be flexible enough to truly map the learning and interests within an organization as effectively as the more emergent system.

I think we want both types of pathway, linear and clustered, at the same time. After all, even if a clustered pathway can capture an individual’s informal recognition, that recognition probably won’t be especially visible or actionable if it exists in a bubble. Learners and communities will likely want ways to connect that informal learning to more traditional learning, because doing so will make their informal learning more visible and more actionable.

I believe the value an idea like downward stackability is in letting learners define and actively generate evidence of their own competencies. The more evidence a learner is able to offer in support of his or her competencies, and the more that evidence is endorsed by others, the more compelling the learner’s competency claim becomes. And I see no reason something like downward stackability couldn’t exist side-by-side with regular ‘ol upward stackability.

So the next question is: could we have a hybrid?

As I said, IMS Global’s CASE standard (Competency and Academic Standards Exchange) looks promising for enabling the description/articulation of criteria needed to define what ought to count as evidence that learners have acquired or demonstrated some modicum of competency. As for badge pathways standards, Concentric Sky/Badgr says that it has submitted a proposal to IMS Global for a badge pathways standard called Open Pathways. Supposedly it will make use of not only the Open Badges standard, but also of the IMS CASE standard and the IMS Extended Transcripts standard. You can watch Concentric Sky CEO Wayne Skipper describe the proposed standard in this YouTube video ( Concentric Sky is obviously interested in enabling the alignment of pathways to standards. Maybe they have something in mind that is similar to what I’ve described. I certainly hope so.

9 thoughts on “An upside-down way to stack open badges

  1. Thanks for this post Justin. I’m encouraged by your vision, and I think the technical design is nearly in-place for most if not all of your proposed ideas. One area of growth that is needed will be new and more robust features that support endorsement. I’m optimistic that this will indeed emerge, with leadership coming from the group of technology providers who have recently achieved IMS certification for Open Badges 2.0.

  2. Justin, great post and great thinking about a workflow for constructing a pathway. There has been a lot of thinking over the last 5 years about what “stacking” badges really means, and this has now crystallized around the Learning Pathways concept.

    Here’s an updated demo of where my team at Concentric Sky is going with Badgr Pathways: — And there will be another offering in this series tomorrow at the IMS Global Digital Credentials Summit in Scottsdale, AZ. I don’t think there will be a video of that one, but we’ll bring that content online soon. We’re only about one month away from the first official launch of Badgr Pathways.

    At a standards level, the key innovation we’d like to collaborate with others around is that the competencies (or other learning objectives) are the structural components of the pathway. Each has relationships with specific badges in terms of what it takes to complete them or those that may be awarded automatically based on completion.

    As I describe in the youtube above, the initial launch use cases for pathways are about letting educators and learners track progress through a pathway shared by members of a group participating in a learning program. However, I’d love to focus on this second workflow that is learner-led as a really important second major arm of the functionality. My prototypical case for this goes like this:

    1. An employer posts a pathway describing the competencies they believe are necessary for a job position. This pathway is a job competencies profile pathway. Maybe they include some badges that they know about, but they surely don’t know about all badges in the world that might recognize development in these competencies.

    2. A learner or potential employee sees this pathway as something they might want to work toward or demonstrate existing competencies toward. They copy the pathway into their own workspace and start customizing it to match their experience. They could add additional competency nodes, add new children or sub-competencies to what’s listed, or remove sections they’re not interested in pursuing. Then they should be able to attach badges they have earned or search for badges they might want to earn to the pathway competencies wherever they fit best. Many of their experiences and competencies won’t be based on learning experiences that already issue Open Badges, so self-awarding badges with links to rich evidence sounds like a great workflow to describe what learners have done to gain competency toward their goals. It might make sense to self-award a badge aligned to one of the competencies you’ve been working toward on the pathway and then to seek Endorsements from your collaborators on the work you’ve done in that area.

    3. The learner may use the pathway to track learning, plan future learning, and share a story of their experience over time. We think that the pathway structure organized into competencies give potential shared context for this story that would make better sense to employers than just a flat list of badges (especially to an employer or community that may have defined the initial pathway the learner cloned theirs from).

    I’m not sure in this model if the interest badge is necessary if we have learners creating the learning objective in terms of a pathway element competency that they’ve added to their pathway. That is an action that itself represents interest, but maybe the interest badge is still an independently valuable thing. What do you think?

    We’re still working out the above scenario and considering how to prioritize it in our Badgr Pathways software development, so we’d love to hear what you think. Your post showed you’re really closely aligned to how we’ve been thinking about pathways the last couple years.

    Nate Otto
    Director, Open Badges, Concentric Sky

    • Nate, thank you for the kind comments and also the link to the video!

      My first thought is that I love the idea of customizable pathways! I’m also looking forward to hearing more about job competency profile pathways. The idea of a competency profile, to me at least, feels like an idea whose time is coming.

      Fostering competency pathway narratives, as opposed giving consumers a flat list of badges, is wonderful. I imagine that will be important as learners earn more badges, or if badges should ever become more granular.

      You wrote “It might make sense to self-award a badge aligned to one of the competencies you’ve been working toward on the pathway and then to seek Endorsements from your collaborators on the work you’ve done in that area.” I think you’re exactly right! And for the sake of fun, may I riff off your use case?

      We might imagine an employer identifying competency pathways and then an employee, maybe as part of a performance review, supplying rich evidence from his or her work. Then the employer, or the employee, issues a badge (or badges) as evidence of progress along that path, and those badges get endorsed. I certainly wouldn’t mind getting badges as part of a performance review rather than a form that gets filed away!

      I agree that the interest badge probably isn’t necessary -just so long as the competency/learning objective is a visible signal of the learner’s interests and intentions.

  3. +1 to better performance reviews!
    “We might imagine an employer identifying competency pathways and then an employee, maybe as part of a performance review, supplying rich evidence from his or her work. Then the employer, or the employee, issues a badge (or badges) as evidence of progress along that path, and those badges get endorsed. I certainly wouldn’t mind getting badges as part of a performance review rather than a form that gets filed away!”

  4. A couple of months ago, I needed to get my CV/Resume up to scratch, and determined to throw off the shackles of what structure a CV/Resume should take, I decided to illustrate it. To cut a long story short, I ended up created a number of visual elements relating to main learnings of my journey so far, and I realised that what I was looking at was a descriptive pathway of self issued badges. The next step would be to seek endorsement of those badges by known people in order to add weight to them…

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