Are PSE Faculty actually QUALIFIED to teach?

Or are they just competent?

ANSWER: probably not qualified as teachers, but possibly competent to teach, i.e. to do more than provide knowledge dumps from their domains of expertise, depending on their attitudes toward teaching and their experiences with professional education and lifewide learning.

Apologies for the clickbait title, but I hope to use this post to make some points about qualifications, knowledge, competency and performance, with a few swipes at micro-credentials as the self-elected gold standard for competency.

Yes, post-secondary faculty can be relied on to have a Masters degree or better, but that’s typically in their subject domain, right? Not many have degrees in education, although some do. If they do, I’d argue that those degrees aren’t typically designed as professional preparation, like you see for student teachers at the K12 level.

And in terms of advancing academic careers, we do often hear that research achievements are valued more than demonstrated teaching skills, don’t we?

In the Canadian college system there IS more attention paid to pedagogy (many colleges even use the word “andragogy”), partly because colleges often recruit from industry and must quickly bring them up to speed. I still have my RRC Poly Train the Trainer binder from 2000 for example, where I first learned about the DACUM process. But my learning outcomes were not “rigorously assessed”, so who knows what damage I did…

Most students across PSE are still taught by faculty who are not officially qualified to, well… teach. Compare this to K12, where the provincial College of Teachers has very specific requirements for certification, including workplace performance.

So why do we respect post-secondary education? You do hear stories about fossilized professors, overflowing lecture halls and obsolete curriculum, but by and large (at least here in Canada), most PSE does not suck. Why is that?

I’m suggesting three reasons here, and I’d be happy to hear other people’s ideas on them:

  • Professional practices : within departments and faculties and in the broader professional community with colleagues across institutions (i.e. self respect, mentoring, and support from superiors and peers)
  • Institutional practices: internal QA, professional programs, direct ID support for faculty from internal T&L centres, encouraging excellence generally and protecting the brand, locally and virtually)
  • External accreditation: the big stick – you don’t want to lose your accreditation, especially as a professional “school”.
    (But bear in mind that an accreditation process can be little more than a multi-annual bureaucratic “tick box” chore, with your more embarrassing fossils and departmental processes safely locked away from view. And rest assured, few in industry actually comprehend what your accreditation really means. They’re more concerned about high level perceptions of your brand and personal experience with your graduates.)

So, how do post-secondary faculty learn how to teach, and to teach better? Here’s another list:

  • White collar apprenticeship: Coming up through the ranks as students, Teaching Assistants, etc. This can include mentoring, but also flying by the seat of your pants (social learning, experiential learning…)
  • Induction and onboarding training courses, such as my Train the Trainer course at Red River Poly (nonformal learning)
  • Professional education, perhaps offered out of the institution’s Teaching and Learning Centre, or from third parties such as eCampusOntario (also nonformal learning)
  • Community of practice: interacting with colleagues inside and outside the institution, online and IRL
  • Personal learning: Experience, reflection, reading, writing, etc.

So, no credits, no qualifications. Some of this learning is structured, maybe including micro-credential courses and program certificates (like eCampusOntario’s Ontario Extend), but that’s pretty recent… a lot of the learning is just social and experiential. Lifewide. In the wild. Hanging out. In the flow of work.

Isn’t it ironic, amid all the pious talk about skills and the need for rigour and quality assurance in skills development systems and micro-credential programs, that we have so few rigorous programs in place to ensure the skills of post-secondary educators, who are developing so many of those micro-credentials? Is academic freedom that powerful, that all we can have is encouragement for the “scholarship of teaching and learning” and “centres of excellence” and professional education, avoiding the word “development”, as being too directive?

Let me be clear: I’m not saying there should be mandatory professional development programs for PSE educators. What I am saying is what my mother used to say: “What’s sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander.” What works for engaged PSE educators should be applicable to others.

Why can’t we come up with better ways to recognize learning where it happens… for PSE faculty and everybody else? Why is a training course the first and often ONLY thing that educators can think of when it comes to skills development?

Cue a stop-motion version of my 70:20:10 video homage to Monty Python (click to expand):

70:20:10 image showing the mismatch with formal training as a solution

And why is the focus always on individual skills, instead of team performance or organisational effectiveness? What if you do actually learn that new skill but you’re blocked from applying in back in the workplace due to obsolete business processes and a crappy workplace culture? Organisations have to learn and change too, not just individuals.

I love this matrix below that 70:20:10 guru Charles Jennings recently pointed me to. He helped develop advise on it for the Australian Public Service Academy. It’s based on research that shows that learning is most effective when closest to its application: “learning in the flow of work”(*) is the ideal, and so are multiple opportunities to apply that new learning in your context in order to change your ongoing behaviours. That’s why this graphic maps learning experiences in terms of frequency and distance from work.

(*SIDENOTE: Beverley Oliver called this “Learning Integrated Work” when I interviewed her about the 2021 UNESCO report on micro-credentials, deep-linked here. So it is possible to contemplate this stuff from inside PSE. I miss her voice in this community.)

Charles would shift a few things in what they produced here, and so would I, but do you see where they’ve put micro-credentials? (arrow is mine). Looks like Pluto way out there…
(click to expand the graphic – makes Pluto seem a little bigger…)

Source: Australian Public Service Academy

Heh, poor Pluto. I might not have been quite so cruel; I am Canadian, and we’re usually more subtle with our cruelty. There ARE some great examples of authentically applied learning in micro-credentials, but not THAT many. (See that? A open face Canadian feedback sandwich.)

I’m becoming more and more excited about the convergence of 70:20:10 learning and performance with open recognition, similar to how Serge Ravet is currently cross-mapping Wenger’s community of practice concepts with open recognition – you can actually see Communities of Practice explicitly displayed above. So we’re really discussing different aspects of the same elephant in the room. I connected with Charles Jennings this week after the 2023 Institute for Performance and Learning(*) conference in Toronto, and I’m now working my way through the 2016 book he co-authored with Jos Arets and Vivian Hiejnen, entitled “702010: towards 100% performance”. Here’s a quick framing quote:

… (70:20:10) enables L&D professionals to connect more quickly and effectively to what really matters: learning and performance at the speed of business. It isn’t just about providing formal learning solutions. With 70:20:10 as a reference model, more and more L&D professionals are co-creating with the business. This movement makes L&D more relevant to organisations.

702010: towards 100% performance

(*SIDENOTE: It’s interesting to me that I encountered Charles and 70:20:10 at a conference for Canada’s workplace L&D professionals, which DOES have a certification program but which also recognizes the shortcomings of formal training and education, as exemplified in their 2015 rebranding from the Canadian Society for Training and Development to the Institute for Performance and Learning, to better foster solutions “that engage, enable and inspire adults to perform at their best and make the organizations where they work more successful, innovative and productive.”)

For my part, I want to help counter what Dominic Orr called out on LinkedIn after the recent ICDE Global conference in Costa Rica:

We notice that many are beginning to use the term microcredentials as an abbreviation for short learning programmes, and see this as a stark reduction of the original aims of using new forms of credentialisation to open up and innovate in the learning space.

Dominic Orr
(LinkedIN – bolding mine)

Recently, I’ve been sharing a “populated” version of the inclusive spectrum of recognition, I earlier shared at CAUCE, as below, with badge ideas to get people’s creative juices flowing:

Badges across a spectrum of formality

I’ve also tried mapping some of these to Serge’s Plane of Recognition in the current version of CanCred’s Badge Canvas:

badges mapped to the Plane of Recognition

And I want to share an awesome badge on assessment that I earned from some exemplary educators connected with the Commonwealth of Learning:

Reflector – Digital Assessment
Commonwealth of Learning

I wouldn’t call this a micro-credential badge, although my badge application was lightly assessed. More important, it’s a learning capsule, containing the content and my reflections on the content, which I can refer back to, at any time. And I have, particularly the session with James Skidmore, for its wide-ranging scope and really useful references. Portable learning, that I can use at time of need.

In the near future, I hope to collaborate with Charles and Serge Ravet on a discussion paper to encourage educators, L&D professionals AND LEARNERS to get beyond knee jerk responses to skills development and to stop leaving so much valuable recognition of skills and performance on the lifewide learning table.

Yes, it’s easier for funders and educators to generate automated courses on electric cars and AI ethics and then count the number of beans completions as an output. But it’s not very agile and ultimately doesn’t speak to levels 3, 4 and 5 in the Kirkpatrick/Phillips model below, does it?

Levels of return on training
Instructional Design Australia

Doesn’t it make more sense to encourage and track learning at what Charles Jennings calls the “coal face”? Messier, yes. Harder to assess and track, yes. But that’s where the value gets mined.

In future posts, I hope to talk more about sustainable ways to mine that value.

REVIEW: BCcampus Micro-credential Toolkit for B.C.

I’m looking forward to the September 19 launch of this Toolkit. This personal review is my way of making sense of it… and getting a word in edgewise before the event!
Download the toolkit for free from opentextbc.ca/bcmicrocredential

Image adapted for this blog

This is a big sprawling review to match a big sprawling document, so a quick summary:

TL;DR

Huge kudos to Annie Prud’homme-Généreux, who poured herself into this cornucopia of a resource that’s a vast improvement on its inspiration, the eCampusOntario Micro-credential Toolkit. More of a maker warehouse than a simple toolbox.

That said, putting on my badge nerd specs, it’s not all perfect from my perspective, which is to be expected from a first edition, especially one whose ambition grew so far beyond its initial scope (400+ pages, more or less, depending on format), delivered by one author who had to deal with so many inputs and competing interests. The focus of her single vision, combined with her deep knowledge of ConEd and her gift for curiosity are some of the reasons why I like this gold mine of specific tools and prompts so much better than the often generic groupthink of the Ontario offering.

My humble summary review: 70% awesome, 20% so-so, 10% questionable or wrong

Caveats and full disclosure

I was a volunteer member of what became known as the Competency Working Group that helped guide this BCcampus-led project, providing advice, feedback and several resources from Canadian and international practice, within and beyond PSE. As part of my contribution, I reviewed a section of the report (although it was only the Introduction; that’s part of why I’m reviewing the whole document here!) I also previously volunteered for the eCampusOntario Micro-credential toolkit.

As a professional in the space of badges and micro-credentials since 2011, I wear three hats:

  • Open Recognition advocate, working on multiple fronts to open up the recognition of lifelong and lifewide learning, often, but not necessarily, with Open Badges. See my Open Recognition Ambassador badge. “Them’s me colours”, as Brendan Behan was wont to say.
  • Consultant and advisor on digital credentialing systems using Open Badges, in Canada and abroad. Typically on Open Badge Factory or CanCred platforms, but also occasionally on other platforms or just working on frameworks, focusing on recognition concepts rather than specific technology solutions.
  • Service provider via the CanCred.ca platform, a specific digital credentialing solution built on Open Badge Factory technology that obviously I think is a pretty good way to share lifewide narratives of emergent identity, learning and achievement.

My remarks in this post are offered wearing the first two hats, using the lens of Open Badges as a way to open up the recognition of lifelong and lifewide learning. And my bias is that I think micro-credentials, at the formal end of the recognition spectrum, often take up too much oxygen in discussions about lifelong learning, performance development and the evolution of effective practices in the world of work and other communities. My brother in open recognition, Serge Ravet, has declared more than once that micro-credentials have colonized Open Badges. I have to say I often see them as the cuckoo in the badge nest, diverting recognition sustenance from other deserving chicks. It doesn’t have to be that way – there’s room for different types of recognition, as I’ve previously mentioned in the past in this blog:

Latest version, from a CanCred demo deck. Also used for consulting by Learning Agents. CC BY

(As a service provider, it’s more often: “Micro-credentials? Sure! You want blockchain with that?”)

A lot of the points I make here about micro-credentials will remind my friends in the international open recognition community of heated discussions about how many angels can fit on the end of a pin. And I wouldn’t blame them, but here I am in Canada, where micro-credentials have taken hold as micro-diplomas, whereas in the US for example, “digital badges” is a more inclusive term and registrars in AACRAO are able to think in terms of “alternative credentials” and can even suggest effective practices for them (the AACRAO document is cited by Annie in this toolbox.)

So why did I bother to volunteer for this initiative? Why so detailed in this review? I like to think it’s a little more than enlightened self-interest, but helping build a Creative Commons resource that I can later harvest and adapt across sectors is pretty appealing. I don’t have to keep things as formal in my adaptations! Annie has delivered a harvestable resource in spades with this Toolkit, and it should only get better over time. Plus, I learned lots lots in the process and am relearning more now, as I review it in detail.

It’s also me trying to live up to this kind acknowledgement:

Don went above and beyond to share his wealth of expertise on micro-credentials. He rapidly responded to requests for information, shared documents and figures, and answered questions. We are particularly grateful to Don for his eagerness to share his extensive micro-credential knowledge.

Acknowledgements: Competency working group

Eagerness is an interesting word (“Does he ever shut up?”) and likely some will welcome my further contributions in this post like those of a skunk at a garden party, but I feel obligated to make them, as I work to “open up” recognition across sectors north of the border, trying to remain true to Mozilla’s original vision in 2011, before the Counter Reformation of micro-credentials in 2014. Open Badges were not invented to become Lego micro-diplomas, but to provide more flexible, inclusive alternatives to formal types of recognition and I can’t stop reminding people of that.

So, for those who are more focused on micro-credentials alone, take all this with a grain of salt. Or just pass on by.

70:20:10 as an organizing principle

[REMOVED: reference to Sturgeon’s Law, following the writer’s adage, “Murder your darlings.”]

I thought it might be useful to organize my remarks in a proportional 70:20:10 pattern, connected in a way to my previously published views on the often misplaced focus of micro-credentials on training courses:

70:20:10 – a useful organizing principle CC BY

70%: Awesome! Some highlights..

  • Sheer scope and detail. I plan on dipping back into this sprawling document on a regular basis, citing specific sections for people that I’m helping.
  • Survey of practice, frameworks, toolkits, current status, etc. This is where the Introduction actually starts to get interesting – I learned a lot, and contributed some.
  • ADDIE as an organizing principle for the lifecycle section, even though there are other ways to approach the life cycle (e.g. AGILE which Annie does provide..again, such a gift.)
    I have point improvement suggestions, such as thinking beyond training courses, and explicitly linking out to other sections for detail (e.g. Critical Information Summary in 9. Recognition of Learning), but overall this is great!
  • Practitioner War Stories, summarized into Top Tips. Not so much the pontificating “I anticipate that..”, which is a bit like pre-teens speculating about what sex is like, more along the lines of “I thought it was this, but it turned out to be that.” and “Here’s what we learned along the way..” and “these were unexpected benefits of our journey.” By B.C. practitioners – invaluable.
  • Marketing and Launch section – just read it.. great prompts, tools, etc.
  • Campus Collaborations, especially the parts that go into detail about CE..
  • Collaboration with Employers, Indigenous and Community Partners. It’s great that it goes beyond employers to include community partners and including Indigenous partners was an explicit part of the Toolkit’s mandate. I’m hoping this section can grow over time, as it feels a bit brief. I plan to dig further into the Pulling Together Indigenization Guides for an Indigenization track I’m working with Susan Forseille and others to develop for the ePIC 2023 conference in Vienna this December.
    [POST SCRIPT: At the Sep 19 launch, it was announced that there would be a new distinct chapter on Indigenous community engagement added to the Toolkit, to be researched by an Indigenous consultant – RFP coming in Q4 2023. Good stuff!]

    Starting early is definitely an effective practice, and I thought the discussion of MoUs vs. GSAs was useful, bearing in mind that these agreements can take time to develop, adding friction to Proofs of Concept and Pilots. Why not scope the territory a bit first, and let experience lead policy?

    Another caveat probably comes with the fact that this document is intended for a PSE audience: it’s all about PSIs driving the bus and leading the initiatives, there is little or nothing on how to be a non-lead partner, and how to recognize and articulate micro-credentials created outside the sector, perhaps by big private sector providers like IBM, but also by professional and industry associations, for example, or even an “OPX”. Other models are out there, as Brown’s recent improvement on my 2020 table developed for eCampusOntario shows:
8 micro-credential business models
8 micro-credential business models (Brown et al, 2023)
  • Financial matters, especially the Market Research part, leveraging Annie’s deep ConEd background. This section should be invaluable for 20-something newbies getting their feet wet, though it needs to be built out a bit more, including what to do when the public funding runs out and in parsing ConEd from Contract Training; see Brown again above (based on Presant, ahem).

    It’s good to mention Vicinity Jobs as a Canadian LMI story, though I need to say that EMSI is NOT Lightcast’s database created using Canadian data. Lightcast is the result of a merger of EMSI and Burning Glass, a competitor to Vicinity Jobs in Canada, which does provide data sliced for us (and the UK and other jurisdictions like the UK, as used by Navigatr micro-credentials). One benefit of Vicinity Jobs is that you can drill down via deep links to see terms for Job Requirements used in the context of individual job ads. On the topic of researching occupations, I’ll say that’s one of the knocks against the NOC – roles, not occupations can be a more useful organizing molecule, because roles can can stack into but also span across jobs and occupations and speak directly to the performance (not skills) objectives of employers.
  • The Quality Assurance section is also useful, doing a better job than the Ontario’s recent “Ontario Micro-Credential” paper from PEQAB in looking beyond its borders across Canada and the US, for example, though it could it could be better mapped to the notion of the Critical Information Summary, described elsewhere as “micro-credenital manifest”, linked to recent work at TRU.

    (Aside: Is no-one else in Ontario planning on commenting on the PEQAB paper besides ContactNorth?)
  • The Collaborate with Learners section is also good, though it could use more about autonomous learning and recognition beyond micro-credentials as training courses (a regular part of my “opening up recognition” rant..)
  • Design considerations – all good: ADDIE vs SAM, DACUM, ABC. etc. I’ll be back here for more..

> 20: Less awesome

  • First part of the Introduction. The opening is pretty boring, especially for a document of this size – I’m not sure why a somebody who’s far enough along the engagement path to consult a toolkit needs to be further convinced. Maybe move some of this stuff to an ammunition section you can use to convince internal or external stakeholders? But then, as I said above, it gets more interesting in the survey of practice, etc.
  • Definitions should be built into a full Glossary of terms and concepts, IMO, clearly described for B.C. usage, with citations and variations as needed. Let’s get into the difference between a certificate and a certification, a competency and a level of competence, stacking versus laddering (is it really just stacking for credit?), volume of learning vs scope of competency, and.. digital badge vs. Open Badge vs. micro-credential – Annie does get into the latter, but I think we need something more citeable.
  • Institutional governance. I think there needs to be a better discussion of the competing approaches, which play out differently at different PSIs: waterfall, “policy-first” approach first vs. action research, “pilot first”. Some of this is implicit in the war stories, but more could be made of this. I lean to the latter, but there can be reasons for the former, and even a middle ground.

Educational pathways… partly because I remain unconvinced that academic stacking of micro-credentials into macro-credentials like diplomas and degrees is worth the friction and baggage that it generates. One of my blog posts on the topic is linked in the toolkit, but the point is not made that the articulation of micro-credentials into macro-credentials is a far different kettle of fish from the articulation of programs into larger programs and diplomas.

That said, the notion of on-ramps (micro-credentials as “baited credits” for advanced standing, and UFV’s useful modularization of a multimedia certificate into “try one” pieces) seems a promising tack, and the idea of extracting recognition of skills (especially vertical skills) from larger programs is also good, as suggested by Penn State years ago (see below).

A menu of badging options
Adapted from Penn State

And, by the way, the concept of employer relevant stacking is unaddressed: what if they don’t care about your stacks? What would make stacks valuable for them? Not academic credit, based on research we conducted in B.C. last year… probably something more to do with workplace roles. See the diagram below from my post Stacking micro-credentials: the joy, the horror, which includes my addition of “Industry recognition clusters”:

The new credential ecology
Adapted from Brown, M., Nic Giolla Mhichíl, M., Beirne, E., & Mac Lochlainn, C. (2021). The Global Micro-Credential Landscape: Charting a New Credential Ecology for Lifelong Learning.
  • Recognition of Learning. The PLAR section is great – I particularly like the NAIT model, but I think the more comprehensive concept of Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) needs to be applied as an organizing principle in this section – Susan Forseille (or someone else at BCPLAN) could do this in their sleep: PLAR, credit transfer, Credit Bank, etc.

    It would be worth adding more here about Deakin and other Australian institutions (and RTOs), particularly Deakin’s “Recognition of Professional Practices” which are lean, authentic evidence-based ways to recognize transferable practice at different levels (mapped to the AQF), coupled with a top-ups of domain-specific knowledge.

    There should also be more about what what the Credential as You Go (CAYG) multi-state initiative in the US calls “external learning“, uncoupled from academic programs: not just prior, but current and future: WIL, autonomous learning journeys, etc.
    In this document “Recognition” seems to be about the digital credential or Credit Articulation and Transfer (CAT) or even Micro-credential Recognition, Articulation and Transfer (McRAT – my coinage, not sure it will stick…)

Open Badges. It’s great that this dominant credentialing technology standard features explicitly, unlike in other Canadian documents, but in my view this should have been done much earlier in the document, as was the case in the AACRAO paper, which is riddled with references to Open Badges. If the term can be used openly by US registrars, maybe we should be more open about its use up here.

In addition, there are several questionable statements made about Open Badges and no discussion of how the standard is evolving (Open Badges v3.0). I suggest someone with a strong technical background vet this section in the context of the published versions of the standard.

Critical Information Summary. It’s good to see this, but I think it needs to be introduced earlier, maybe in the Quality Assurance section.

Micro-credential Typology. This section feels short and a bit vague about different kinds and sizes of micro-credentials that might be certificates or certifications, and can be delivered and assessed in different ways.

Wearing my ” opening up recognition” hat, I might point people to the IDB Taxonomy slide and Learning Agents’ Meta Framework slide from my CAUCE 2023 presentation in May for examples of typologies.

Links provided throughout the document are great, awesome in fact, but they are scattered all over the place – the document could use a curated summary References section, or even a database, similar to DCU’s Micro-credential Observatory (perhaps a BC/CA annex to that Observatory? I understand they’re looking for ways to make that effort more sustainable..) Link rot will be an issue..

External learning: beyond training courses. There should be more about Work Integrated Learning and Learning Integrated Work, as envisioned by Beverley Oliver :

I would like to see learning integrated work, industry coming up with its own micro-credentials, where education provides advice and expertise so that actually industry is educating its own – that’s one of the really exciting possibilities.

from a video Interview pre-recorded by learning Agents for a regional micro-credential event in Hamilton, Ontario in 2021

Not to mention Communities of Practice and Self-Directed Learning: not self-paced, automated Rise courses, but truly autonomous self-navigated learning journeys relevant to learners and employers alike, that can be authentically recognized.

And while we’re at it, why not join Inter-American Development Bank and others in leveraging badges for learning organizations?

> 10: Not awesome

Micro-credentials as a monoculture. There are other types of digital badges besides micro-credentials, non-formal and informal – many of them can be quite useful and even more authentic than their more “rigorous” counterparts. I’m not sure how Annie feels about this topic, but I doubt she had much choice in the matter – micro-credentials was her remit.

To quote myself from an earlier post:

What about less formal types of recognition, that might be just as useful and valuable, if not more so than an assessed course credential? The various webinars and MOOCs that didn’t require a summative assessment – useless? Not really. Even better, that employer testimonial, or that evidence package you assembled to support your self-claimed badge, or those endorsements you got from your co-workers? Or the Guru badge you were crowned with in your community of practice? Maybe that award you won in the hackfest at the makerspace? Or the heartfelt “Thank you” badge from the community association that actually tells the story of how you made a difference last summer? These are all different types of recognition, calling for different types of badges with different requirements to make them fit for their respective purposes. The authentic power of badged recognition often comes out of the specific context: the story that the badge can tell about you as an individual that other people might want to know and work with.

  • Micro-credentials as training certificates. As mentioned above many times, there’s way too much about micro-credentials and training courses, even a conflation of course and credential. As Tony Bates said, if that’s all they are, why all the fuss? Again, it’s the current zeitgeist in Canada.
  • Micro-credentials as Lego for macro-diplomas. See my remarks above.
  • Misquotations and missing citations – UPDATED
    I’m very pleased to say that the concerns I outlined in this section were fully addressed by a very responsive BCcampus within 24 hours of publishing this post.

In conclusion…

Niggling issues aside and despite my never-ending rants about opening up recognition, this is a big beautiful sprawl of a resource, with a broad integrated vision, great sources, usefully encapsulated captures of practice, recipes, tools, etc., etc. A “broth of a book”, as the Irish might say. It’s a first edition, needs a second one soon and there will be an ongoing need for care and feeding, but oh, so well worth it.. assuming that micro-credentials are your thing… 8->

As a final note, it would be great if it were easier to flag typos, inaccuracies and new suggestions in the context of the document. I find the current system for input not very usable.. it would be great to do something with Hypothes.is or similar.

Skills are NOT bricks in a wall

(From a pre-conference webinar for Badge Summit in July 2023. See full deck with Notes, part of my badge portfolio, or recorded video below.)

The title for this post was inspired by a recent story on CBC Radio’s As It Happens about using brainwaves to record and reproduce music with the help of AI, specifically the well-known hook in the famous Pink Floyd song.

As usual, I’m arguing here for opening up the recognition of lifelong and lifewide learning with Open Badges, which can do SO much more than certify the delivery of ConEd courses as micro-credential certificates.

“Skill first!” – what could go wrong?

Skills-first approaches to development and recognition sound great, but skills frameworks, stacked credentials and software matching programs are best seen as logical abstractions of a complex reality rather than a comprehensive way to describe all the factors in play.

Let’s face it, we live in a VUCA world: Volatile. Uncertain. Complex. Ambiguous:


This is a world that steadfastly resists the compartmentalization of skills and knowledge into neat little bricks that can stack into tidy modular structures. We all have to navigate this world the best way we can, following our passions and interests and building our mojo, reacting to experience and balancing fuzzy options against each other, rather than following yellow brick roads to pre-determined futures.

T-shaped skills are still only two-dimensional. CC BY Learning Agents

Focusing on “skills first” frameworks and stackable credentials can fragment, isolate, distort and confuse instead of making things more clear. Holistic approaches can bring skills together in activities, tasks and achievements, creating authentic narratives that can make lots more sense to learners and employers. Why not “human first”? We need to keep learners at the centre and think of them more as intriguing mixtures of lived experience, engageable support and future potential than as stacked containers of delivered skills. Let’s try to do no harm…

The 2022 Digital Credentials Consortium paper, Credentials to Employment: The Last Mile warned us that mileage will vary in that last mile toward the future promise of micro-credentials for employment from the current reality. Most employers still aren’t aware of micro-credentials, much less on board, and that’s especially true for smaller (SME) employers, who make up the bulk of the economy. I hear this also from industry associations here in Canada. Old selection methods still dominate, especially for busy SMEs: job ads, resumes, interviews, referrals. Sharing micro-credentials to LinkedIn is still a platform hack. Digital wallets are still more about buying coffee at Starbucks than sharing credentials. In general, there’s a lack of demand and interoperable tools for using micro-credentials in talent and employment pipelines: lots more push from educators and ed tech technologists than pull from employers. It’s more like a skills tech duststorm than a working skills ecosystem – we are at a difficult point in the Gartner Hype Cycle, straining to reach the plateau of productivity.

And did we really think that Micro-credential A was all about being a sure ticket to Job B? Is it really that instrumental? Aren’t mico-credentials just another signal?

CC BY Learning Agents

Most micro-credentials are based on Open Badges. They represent a very formal fork of the original comprehensive vision, which was to recognize learning and achievement that could happen anywhere and make it visible and portable, with some verifiability. Yes, that can include formal and non-formal courses, but you can’t take a course about everything. Far too many micro-credentials are based on courses. Courses are the “hammer solution” to nail the skills problem – especially automated e-learning courses that can pump out micro-credentials like Reichsmarks in the Weimar Republic. The 70:20:10 model is a useful way of making the general point:

CC BY Learning Agents

Sometimes you have to learn from someone else, sometimes you work and learn in a group or a community, sometimes you have to fake it until you make it, maybe with a little help from YouTube.

In post-secondary, there’s a push toward applied hands-on experiential learning, via different types of simulation or more authentically as Work Integrated Learning or Work Based Learning (what Beverley Oliver, an early thought leader in the MC space, dubbed Learning Integrated Work). Still not very much authentic recognition of the unstructured learning that takes place in those contexts, but that’s for another blog post.

Let’s face it, a lot of learning takes place with others, in organizations and communities. Much of my thinking in the area has evolved based on the work of Etienne Wenger (now Wenger-Trayner) and his pioneering research on communities of practice related to workplace skills. And I’m grateful to Serge Ravet for bringing my attention back to him.

For Wenger, learning, especially lifewide learning is inherently social. This social theory of learning as making practical sense of uncertainty is very powerful lens for open recognition:

  • Meaning is about making sense of experience, both individual and collective
  • Practice is about shared approaches to knowledge and organizing work
  • Community is about social constructs for participation
  • Identity is about how learning changes who we are and what we become in communities

Skills frameworks are a way to map what’s known and as my colleague Serge Ravet would say, “the map is not the territory.”

Open Badges are flexible containers for recognition

They can recognize so many things, limited more by your imagination than by actual constraints… here are a few examples:

  • Formal, non-formal or informal learning
  • Skills, capabilities and/or knowledge
  • Verified assessment, completion, participation, engagement or appreciation
  • Professional status or less a formal identity in a community
  • Claims made by accredited authorities, non-formal organizations, peers or learners themselves
  • Values, ethics, interests, passions and goals
  • Beyond individuals: group skills and achievements, learning organizations and growing communities of practice

Members of the international Open Recognition community of practice are exploring these models for opening up recognition, piloting use cases and scaling out initiatives that leverage value from a more inclusive perspective of human achievement and potential. We shared several of these models at this year’s Badge Summit in Boulder and plan to share even more at ePIC 2023 in Vienna Dec 6-8. ePIC is our annual touchstone – the flagship conference for the Open Recognition Alliance.

Digital course certificates are SUCH a small part of the big picture… let’s leave room for them, but let’s also leave some oxygen for more comprehensive ways to recognize human achievement.

So, instead of thinking badges = micro-credentials = pre-fab building blocks for aggregated-transcripts-as-skilled-people in a technocratic (many would say dystopian) vision of a master global skills framework…

What if we looked again at the original Mozilla vision of Open Badges as flexible containers for verifiable narratives of skills and achievement that can help their holders connect to new opportunities in their lives and careers?

Linked Data, multi-dimensional knowledge graphs and fluid ontologies developed by Artificial Intelligence will provide increasing avenues for connection…

Developed for ITCILO, a UN organization CC BY Learning Agents

… but let’s make sure they’re worth connecting – their recipients need to connect to them first, so they can really “own” them to tell their own story in their own way, not just via bots and automated applicant tracking systems. Let’s keep humanity in the loop.

Credential stacking hint: programs aren’t courses

Thanks to Noah Geisel for sharing a version of this RAND/UMichigan report the other week:


Stackable Credential Pipelines and Equity for Low-Income Individuals – Evidence from Colorado and Ohio (2023)

It’s helped me understand a little better why so many academics keep talking about stacking badges into undergraduate degrees, which I’ve always thought was a very problematic use case for badges, given all the complexities of articulation, transfer and program mapping, even across departments within an institution, much less across institutions.

I usually encourage people to think about how to showcase, enhance, extend and refresh diplomas and degrees with additional learning that can be stacked for credit and/or industry recognition, or “embedded learning” extracted from longer academic programs (e.g. science or technology skills that will “pop out” in a résumé). I’ve always felt that stacking for industry recognition or even for post-grad certificates would be easier than for undergraduate degrees.

But the title of the report caught my eye, along with this quote:

Earnings gaps shrunk when low-income individuals earned certificates (shorter-term occupational credentials) and then went on to earn degrees.

Who wouldn’t want that? Could I have been wrong (gasp!) in advising people away from stacking credit-based badges into degrees?

But then I read further, and learned more: the history of stackable credentials provides a coeval context for why Open Badges have been so often framed as stackable micro-credentials when that’s just one thing they could do, i.e. act as a digital containers for certificates of various types and sizes – note the dates:

“States and institutions across the United States are pursuing initiatives that support the design of stackable credentials, defined by the U.S. Department of Labor as a “sequence of credentials that can be accumulated over time to build up an individual’s qualifications and help that individual move along a career pathway to further education and different responsibilities, and potentially higher-paying jobs” (Employment and Training Administration, 2010, p. 6).

“Stackable credentials have been growing in popularity since the mid-2000s and are an important focus of many state and institutional initiatives to strengthen applied programs in fields such as health care, IT, and advanced manufacturing. These programs aim to open more pathways into and through postsecondary education for historically underserved populations, including low-income individuals.”

So, educators in the US in the mid-2000s, before Open Badges were invented, were already speculating and experimenting with better ways to help low-income learners advance their education incrementally, by moving from technical college certificates into community college diplomas and maybe even into undergraduate degrees. That’s laudable.

Then along come Open Badges in 2011.. how convenient for stackable certificates! And then, well, blockchain of course, because every single component of that stacked credential now HAS to be authenticated, right?

But how limiting for Open Badges, as all the reusable recognition oxygen gets sucked from the landscape of recognition:

… and gets pumped into “modular diplomas”, with all the gnarly baggage of credit articulation, transfer and program recognition, now at a micro level like mismatched Lego bricks across programs and institutions, along with new vocabulary such as “horizontal” and “vertical” and “lattice” to further complicate and confuse. Speaking of which: is a digital badge not good enough to be a micro-credential, or just not big enough? Asking for a friend…

I submit to you that there’s a big difference between stacking a 6-month program certificate into a 1-year certificate into a 2-year diploma into a 4-year degree… (which is what RAND and UMichigan are mostly tracking in their report – very little mention of badges) and trying to do all that with credential units that can go down to a 1-hour micro-credential in Australia, for example. It’s a lot easier to stack credits or 30 or 60 at a time than 1 or 3 or 6 at a time.

I actually support badge stacking, but smaller stacks and clusters, and well beyond academic programs: industry-facing “employment ready” stacks, for example, that can combine knowledge, application, reflection and field experience.
Here’s one from Excellence in Manufacturing, for example:

Excellence in Manufacturing Consortium

I’d love to see a follow-up to this RAND report, one that interviews not just academic leaders, but also students about why they made their stacking choices (or not) and also asks employers how they rate the importance of stacked credit to their skills needs. Industry research interviews I was involved in with employers in 2021/2022 indicates that employers and industry bodies are far more conscious of the brand and reputation of educators as a signal of quality than they they are in complex discussions of credit and accreditation, and they’re understandably less concerned about macro-credentials than are institutions.

I like to say that:

Open Badges > Micro-credentials > Digital Certificates

In other words, Open Badges can recognize and enable lots of things, which is both a blessing and a curse for the flexible credentialing standard. Focusing on credit-based micro-credentials stacking into academic macro-credentials like diplomas and degrees can be a big distraction from other important value that micro-credentials can provide, such as contextual authenticity, industry relevance and demonstration of competency.

… not to mention the social recognition value and community connection that can come from less formal types of badges that are not assessed for credit…

Open Recognition Ambassador

Open Recognition Alliance

Ontario Open Badges Forum 2017 – Igniter

eCampusOntario

Reflector – Digital Assessment

Commonwealth of Learning

Recipes for recognizing diverse badges and micro-credentials

This blog post picks up my earlier exploration of Full Spectrum “Inclusive” Credentials. In this post, I’m going to explore how you can structure different types of badges for different recognition purposes and demonstrate the fitness of a badge for its purpose by including what I like to call a “badge content manifest”, otherwise known as a Critical Information Summary. Or more simply, a list of Requirements for the badge.

Before starting, I’ll say that this leverages some really interesting work I’ve been doing recently, helping develop a taxonomy and framework for the Inter-American Development Bank’s CredencialesBID initiative, who started badging in 2018 and have racked up a ton of experience in a relatively short time. I see them as innovators in the space. But also other clients before and since, both big and small. The result has been the development of generic “meta framework” that we provide to clients, along with badge content templates, whose scaffolded prompts match the requirements of the different badges in the taxonomy. This framework and taxonomy are flexible and adjustable (and evolving), but are also robust and coherent and most importantly, are based on experience and emergent practice, NOT pre-conceived policy. The more formal badge structures can be adapted for PLAR/RPL evaluation for credit, but the primary purpose is to clearly communicate the claims that badges are making and how those claims are supported – for ANY audience.

The taxonomy was developed for clients building badge systems on CanCred.ca and Open Badge Factory platforms, leveraging affordances like badge sharing, but the principles are actually pretty universal. I recently mapped a version of the framework for a UN agency currently using a competing platform.

Mapping a badge taxonomy

First, let’s review the top layer of the key diagram I shared 2 posts ago:

Spectrum of recognition

NB1: A Demonstration badge can be an evidence package or a live demo. It may manifest as an assessed micro-credential, or it may support self-claimed skills and achievements, or maybe a combination of the two, hence the dotted line, splitting it down the middle.

NB2: I made one revision from the previous version of this: digital badge has become “non-formal badge” because, in my opinion, micro-credentials are really just “formal badges”. I do understand the verbal shorthand of micro-credentials vs. digital badges up here in Canada, but I think it’s a bit binary and can lead to confusion,as this post may start to demonstrate.

Notice the examples provided underneath the different types of badges, such as “course with outcomes assessed” for the Assessment Certificate, a very popular type of micro-credential. Then there is the Completion badge, also very popular, but not really a micro-credential, if there’s no summative assessment. Unlike an Assessment badge, that you should be able to “fail” (otherwise it’s not really summative), you could probably bang away at the knowledge check questions in the Completion badge until you got them. If you evaluated specific examples of these different types of badges in the wild, you would expect to see some indication of the difference in the content of the badge, right? Well, not always, as the current leading candidate for the “Badge Hall of Shame” demonstrated in my last blog post.

Critical Information Summary: an evaluation tool

Enter the badge manifest, or “Critical Information Summary”, essentially a checklist of content elements that badge viewers should expect to see, so they can properly evaluate the badge. A “recipe for recognition”, if you will. The first I heard this term was in Oliver (2019), and the concept has since been adopted by frameworks such as Australia’s National Microcredentials Framework (“Critical information requirements and minimum standards”) and EU’s Recommendation on a European approach to micro-credentials for lifelong learning and employability (“European standard elements”). McGreal and Olcott (2022) have also developed a useful list, based on secondary research (Micro-credentials reference framework for university leaders). It’s worth mentioning eCampusOntario’s Micro-credential Principles and Framework (2020) as an early formative influence here in Canada, but it’s a bit more high level – somewhere between a framework and a checklist.

Problem is, these are all for micro-credentials. Can you say monoculture? What about less formal types of recognition, that might be just as useful and valuable, if not more so than an assessed course credential? The various webinars and MOOCs that didn’t require a summative assessment – useless? Not really. Even better, that employer testimonial, or that evidence package you assembled to support your self-claimed badge, or those endorsements you got from your co-workers? Or the Guru badge you were crowned with in your community of practice? Maybe that award you won in the hackfest at the makerspace? Or the heartfelt “Thank you” badge from the community association that actually tells the story of how you made a difference last summer? These are all different types of recognition, calling for different types of badges with different requirements to make them fit for their respective purposes. The authentic power of badged recognition often comes out of the specific context: the story that the badge can tell about you as an individual that other people might want to know and work with.

Building a content menu for a comprehensive taxonomy

The Open Badge standard itself, with its mandatory and optional fields, makes a great starting point for differentiating badges. Fields such as Description, Evidence, Alignment and Endorsement can meaningfully describe what’s being recognized, if you take care in completing them.

But the most important field for many (including me) is Criteria, what I like to call the beating heart of the badge – what does it take to earn this badge? Problem is, Criteria is a blank canvas, because Open Badges are flexible. Blessing and curse – it has led to some pretty poorly written criteria (did I mention the Badge Hall of Shame?)

Guidance for Criteria

To help manage quality AND fitness for purpose, we have developed custom Criteria content models for the different types of badges. Here is a generic version of a Critical Information Summary menu that I helped develop for the Inter-American Development Bank’s CredencialesBID initiative. The Criteria field breaks out into a series of options, recommendations and mandatory requirements:

(NB: I removed some really interesting community of practice badges to reduce complexity, but I also included a Demonstration badge, the newest element in my evolving taxonomy, not part of the CredencialesBID taxonomy.)

The Open Badge fields and the Critical Information Summary menu for Criteria form the basis of the content templates for each badge, each with its own text scaffolding. These templates can be packaged as text Requirements documents for offline preparation or as badge “blanks” that can be copied into client badge environments to guide creation and can be further adapted to fit local needs.

Since they introduced their badge Requirements documents, CredencialesBID has reported a significant reduction in costly revisions and a much smoother badge production process from the enhanced clarity. So it’s worth doing!

In later posts, I’ll provide a bit more detail about the text scaffolding and I’ll also revisit the design of badge images – not just as branding opportunities, but as signposts for the meaning of your badges – making learning, skills and achievements more visible.

The case for making badge metadata better

“Say what you mean – mean what you say”

<rant>

Recently I saw one of the worst examples of a micro-credential badge in Canada that I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen lots of micro-credentials – not all bad mind you, despite my own reservations about micro-credentials as a credentialing monoculture.

When I responded to the invitation from someone on LinkedIn to “View my verified credential“, here’s what I found. In the LinkedIn post, I saw:

  • Impressive logos: the prominent PSE institution’s logo, the institution’s business school logo, even the prominent client’s logo
    (A bit noisy, but OK..)
  • A badge title that linked leadership to emotional intelligence.
    (Promising…)
  • A big label saying something equivalent to “Fundamentals”.
    (So nothing too onerous, but there’s lots of room for different types of learning.)

Viewing the hosted credential on the badge platform, I found:

  • An Open Badge that was indeed verifiable
    Open Badges is the technology standard behind most micro-credentials
  • A couple of visual labels saying “Learning” and “Fundamentals”, with no links or any other context
  • Three short “skills” terms
    Originally harvested from job ads, two of these were defined automatically from Wikipedia (unattributed), one was undefined. They’re linked to Labour Market Information (US-based by default, but customizable). These are usually provided as prompts for badge creators to pump up the value of their badges by linking them to “real jobs”. Practically speaking they’re usually more useful for technical skills than soft skills like leadership and EQ, largely because of that definition problem, but also the difficulty of assessing soft skills equitably.
  • Description: (what does this badge say about its holder): Something pasted from the course description about “designed to help [WRONG ClientCompanyName] managers “gain insight” into..(how they relate to EQ as leaders).”
    Wrong. Company. Name. Has anyone else noticed this yet?
  • Criteria (i.e. what does it take to earn this badge): the “beating heart” of the badge:
    “Completed [RIGHT ClientCompanyName]:[CourseName]”
    One sentence? That’s all? What were the topics? The learning activities? Was it 1 hour or 3 days? What were the outcomes? Were those outcomes assessed? What evidence of application? What does all this add up to?

Just imagine, as I did:

  • From the front, a chestful of impressive medals, like you might see on a North Korean general
  • From the rear, a partially open clinical gown, like you might see walking behind a patient in a hospital corridor (no link provided!)

Now try and get that image out of your mind. So far, I haven’t succeeded.

This is a good example of why it’s important to think beyond pretty looking badges with fancy logos, superficial titles and undefined skills terms and really take on board the key message that “there’s data inside” these things:

From openbadges.org, stewarded by 1Edtech

What if people (say, employers) actually look inside your badge to evaluate your skills and learning data? What are they going to think? Dan Hickey, an early thought leader in the open badges space, liked to say that employers and other “consumers” of badges would “drill, drill, drill” the first time seeing a provider’s badge, then just “drill” the next time, to confirm their first experience, then for further badges maybe not drill at all, after familiarity and trust have been established.

But how much trust do you think has been built by the badge I described above? More to the point: how much damage has been done to the brands of the organizations involved?

Maybe this was a good course, great even, but how would we know? The poor quality of the credential is definitely not a good sign. A badge is a chance to tell an authentic story about learning and achievement. This was not much more than an empty headline.

This is NOT about badging platforms – they all do 80-90% what each other do, and mostly compete in other ways. This really comes down to the organizations involved. The issuer organization didn’t care enough to do more than copy and paste from an old badge without checking their work. The client organization didn’t care enough to complain. The person who shared the credential probably doesn’t really care – she’s likely close to retirement and no longer so concerned about career advancement. But a younger, hungrier colleague looking to become a leader would care. Would they proudly share this badge?

This is also NOT about micro-credentials versus digital badges. I bet the issuer would claim that this is a micro-credential, despite the lack of information about assessment. It’s just not a good micro-credential. (I’d probably call it a Participation or Completion badge, but that’s for a later post.)

This is really about managing expectations and building trust in your credentials using:

  • A transparent framework that declares your values, states your purpose and describes how you will achieve and maintain your purpose
  • A clear taxonomy of the different types of credentials that your framework covers
    (HINT: more than micro-credentials vs “digital badges”)
  • Solid information requirements for each type of credential in your taxonomy, whether it be formal, non-formal or informal, that are fit for purpose. Not all badges are micro-credentials, but the ones that ARE should meet expectations for that type
  • Delivering on the above in a demonstrable way
  • Improving on the above over time

You don’t need to wait for the final definition of micro-credentials to come down from Olympus before you start to take a more structured approach to your own credentialing efforts. Heck, Canada still doesn’t have a national qualifications framework.

And you don’t have to have it ALL figured out before you start. It’s OK to have something that’s at least better and more responsive than what was there before, even if it’s not yet perfect. It’s OK to learn, change and grow, just like our lifelong learners do, because we are all lifelong learners and change is constant. But let’s be clear about what we’re trying to do and how we’re doing it.

In a later post, I’ll go into more detail about frameworks, taxonomies and “Critical Information Summaries“, based on some recent research consultations and implementations I’ve been working on, but I’ll save that for a later post. This one is long enough!

</rant>