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.

The case for full spectrum “inclusive” credentials

Learning Agents’ Adaptable “Meta-Taxonomy” CC BY

TL;DR Preface
My company Learning Agents provides the credentialing taxonomy above as an onboarding tool for and Open Badge Factory clients, but it’s quite adaptable to other credentialing platforms. It goes well beyond micro-credentials to show that a rich and flexible recognition language can be developed using an inclusive spectrum of credentials that are transparently described and reliably issued. It’s a living document based on experience across sectors and it works for academic institutions, professional bodies, industry associations, individual companies, international NGOs, non profits and charities, etc. The taxonomy is licensed under Creative Commons, so it can be re-used remixed, etc. with attribution to Learning Agents. It’s inspired in part by a great post by Lesley Voigt back in 2020.
On, it’s supplemented with free credential templates containing content prompts that match the “critical information” expectations for each type of credential. These can be flexibly edited to individual organization needs.
For some clients, Learning Agents has gone further to develop full digital credential frameworks customized to organizational needs that provide a more complete foundation for demonstrable quality and portable recognition, while retaining flexibility and a sense of “fitness for purpose.”
In this post, I’m using the diagram as a soapbox to discuss the need for inclusive recognition across the spectrum of formality.

Quick note: this post explores inclusivity for diverse credentials, not diverse l/earners, which is also a very important topic I may take up in a later post.

Refrain: “We need ONE framework for micro-credentials”

There has been lots of conversation and text written about the need for frameworks for micro-credentials, that academic subset of digital credentials and Open Badges that seems to attract most of the attention in discussions about how to use digital credentials to authentically recognize lifelong and lifewide learning and achievement to benefit l/earners, workforces and communities.

Micro-credentials are an alluring concept, if a bit slippery to define for some. Funders love their promise (though they are increasingly seeking more evidence of their impact.) Employers like the idea (once they become aware of it), like to collaborate on them (if they have the time) and may start using them for recruitment or even for upskilling their incumbent workforce development… if they have time. (Change can be slow.)

Old hands like Tony Bates do legitimately question how much micro-credentials really differ from previous iterations in Continuing Education, Contract Training, “Market Driven Training”, modular programs, online verification of certifications, etc., but let that be for now. Let’s leave some space for micro-credentials to fulfill their promise.

But let’s also leave some space for other types of digital credentials that may be less formal, but no less valuable. Way back in 2016 (49 years in Internet time), I had this to say about learning and formality in this blog:

Professional learning is a conversation, an ever-evolving stream of emergent and examined practice. This is what it means to be a professional. (2016-05-29)

Matthew Farber, a blogger at Edutopia apparently stated it even more elegantly previously, according to A-Z of E-learning:

“Teaching is a design science and learning is a conversation”.

Building on this, I’ll say now that any form of meaningful development is about more than knowledge delivery and assessment, it’s about applying knowledge in your context to deepen your understanding and maybe improve your performance, sometimes alone, but often in the company of others.

Many proponents of micro-credentials don’t see it that way:

So, learning is a conversation… hiring is a conversation… career advancement is a conversation… you get the picture. This blog is a conversation… or should be. (Feedback welcome!)

Recognition as a conversation, at least more than a recruitment filter!

So it becomes less about how assessed micro-credentials, “Verifiable Credentials” and “Learning and Employment Records” will be able to get you past the filtering algorithm of an employer’s Applicant Tracking System in a huge stack of resumes (HR Open Standards is working on this as we speak…) and more about they can become grist for career conversations, examples you can use to help tell your story, differentiate yourself, build trust, be the holistic choice that people want to make at the time of need.

This can be:

  • evidence of achievements (assessed, self-claimed or whatever) that you can frame, support and share online;
  • commentary on your experience;
  • dialogue with others in your various communities;
  • endorsements from people you respect and who respect you;
  • values and goals you have set for your life and career.

Imagine you’re in an interview and somebody says “Tell me about yourself,” or “Can you give an example of when…,” or “Where do you want to be in three years?” Might be nice to have some some of these stories to draw from, no? Having them in credential form can help you remember them and contextualize them with supporting evidence and endorsements from others.

Because formal credentials alone are not enough. As a recent Inside Higher Ed article has it:

Reskilling. Upskilling. Certificates. Certifications. Badges. Licenses. Microcredentials. Alternative credentials. Digital credentials.
So many terms. So little agreement on what they mean, least of all in higher ed.
“Employers say, ‘It’s great that this individual has these skills, but we’ll ask our own questions to verify the learner’s knowledge,’” Kyle Albert, assistant research professor at the George Washington University Institute of Public Policy, said. “It’s a trust-but-verify situation.

(I like “trust-but-verify”, reminding me that micro-credentials may be anchored to a blockchain to verify ownership and integrity, but their claims about the credential holder may still be be poorly expressed, not backed by assessment evidence and/or not sufficient for full evaluation of the candidate. Many are quite good of course, but the blockchain doesn’t tell you that.)

And there’s still far too much focus on micro-credentials for remedial training for hire whether it’s transition to work or mid-career transition (re-skilling). What happens after you get hired? Will your employer train you and recognize you for that? Will you engage in professional learning communities and industry associations and be recognized for that? What about freelancers and entrepreneurs? Will you recognize yourself and seek validation for that? Will you recognize colleagues and others in your communities?

Lifewide beyond work, what about your local community and the difference you can make closer to home? What about your local region, your country or even global issues such as climate change? There was a great OBF Academy session recently, on badging phenomenon-based learning for climate change.

What about culture? Who are you as a person? It’s about more than matching training-based micro-credentials to job requirements, even assuming that trainers can develop the exact set of micro-credentials that a particular employer has taken the time to specify. I have an old friend with a great business as a consultant chef for restaurants. In social media he shares deep knowledge about menu development and culinary techniques, which helps him get work (along with referrals from happy clients), but he also shares his passion for music – as a player, a teacher and an eclectic listener, which strangely also helps him get work as a restaurant consultant. It’s a way of connecting to the whole person.

People want to work with people, not just collections of skills. Regardless of the skills you can reliably claim, I don’t want to work with you if you’re a sociopath or a do-nothing. (I may need to write that l/earner inclusivity post sooner than later.. 8-> )

Full disclosure: my chef musician friend doesn’t need badges to build his career or social capital further, which has been established over decades. He does like badges (at least he tells me he does) and he might feel differently about using them if he were were starting out today. (By the way, on the “development as conversation” track, he created a multi-level progressive chef development chart as a workforce trainer that works very well as a conversational tool for collaborative assessment…)

As a “mature” professional, I also get a lot of my work from referrals and other channels, but I believe in “drinking my own champagne”, so I continue to use badges and my badge portfolio in my email sig file and RFP proposals to support my claims:

Some Open Badges I’ve earned:

Open Badge: Open Recognition Ambassador Open Badge: Bologna Open Recognition Declaration signatory Open Badge: RPL Systems / Policies 2017 Ontario Open Badges Forum - Igniter
Badge portfolio:
Badge portfolio

The two in the middle are static, but I’m particularly proud of these two living badges at either end:

  • The Open Recognition Ambassador badge contains the declarations I made when I was invited to earn it using a badge application form. It also contains evidence and endorsements that I continue to add, keeping the conversation going and the badge alive…
  • Learning Agents worked with eCampusOntario to develop the first Ontario Open Badges Forum in 2017 (now renamed as the Micro-credential Forum). As a speaker, I earned the Igniter badge, but I like to think I was also a firestarter for digital credentials in Ontario by co-producing the first two forums, and the “after the fact” endorsement in the 2017 badge from David Porter (then CEO) helps make my case.

I don’t think anyone would call these badges micro-credentials, but they do help me tell my story. I think of them as conversational nuggets that I can use or that other people can use to learn about me as a person. Interviews don’t always have to happen in real time…

So, I suggest that when people start speaking earnestly about “quality” and “rigour” in micro-credentials your response should be some combination of “Why?”, “For whom?” and “For what context?”. And maybe: “Is a micro-credential enough?”

Because I think an authentic story can be much more relevant and useful in context than a 100% score in an APA-approved psychometric quiz.

Where’s that champagne?

Building a regional skills network

What if…

What if Open Badges* were more than digital course stickers or doggie biscuits for the gamification of learning?

What if they were..

  • portable credentials?
  • mobile learning records that could travel with the learner?
  • modular, remixable portfolios of skills and achievement?

What if they recognized learning outside the classroom:

  • extra-curricular activities?
  • community service?
  • individual achievements?
  • workplace experience?

What if they were authentic signals of soft skills?
What if (gasp!) they were owned by the learner and could help them build their own  human capital and carry it forward? What if Open Badges could help learners and workers build trust and connections across work and learning silos and in new life situations? What if they helped all kinds of people make transitions from secondary to post-secondary education, from education to employment, through career arcs,  between careers or even between countries for immigrants and refugees?
What if they were recognized digital tender in regional skills economies?
Well: Open Badges are; Open Badges can; Open Badges do.
But, as William Gibson famously said:

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.


What if it could happen in Canada?

Regional skills networks are already emerging elsewhere: Open Badge Academy in the UK, Cities of LRNG in the US, Bestr in Italy, the exciting Humanitarian Passport and elsewhere.
Not so much in Canada. It’s pretty scattered here: typically institution-based (though some independent trainers are using them, Hive Toronto did something, others are making noises), often just an experiment in course gamification at the instructor level, with or without a research agenda.
There’s little or no evidence of portability beyond the institution other than maybe encouragement to post badges on LinkedIn  – which is OK, assuming there’s an audience for the badges produced (are they “resume worthy”?) Almost all the efforts I’ve seen in this country have not actively engaged the key “badge consumer”: employers, who could use serious badges as evidence in a talent pipeline, a hiring process or an internal talent search for projects or future leadership.
Make no mistake: the whole point of *OPEN* Badges is to support careers: academic, vocational, professional.  Open Badges are designed to be transferable beyond their original context: they’re portable evidence, support for new goals: they should help you get into higher education, the workplace or a new career.

Yes, they can and do have formative value, but if all you’re doing is setting up a system of course stickers, please don’t bother making them open – you’re just confusing people. Please just make “closed” digital badges that stay inside your learning silo, like Khan Academy does.

Starting the journey

Making Open Badges portable across sectors is more work, but it leads to better chances for sustainable success: to think through what skills  employers might want (ask them!), what criteria and evidence might demonstrate those skills and how to package these in a workflow that makes sense for all concerned. And not just default to a big proprietary silo, where “free” means paid for with our own data… the Internet is a network, not a pipe. Let’s use it like one.
How can we build skills networks here in Canada? How can we build on what we already do? How can we learn from what’s already working elsewhere and adapt it here?
We’re starting the process in BC, on Canada’s West Coast next month with  a free cross-sectoral design lab to develop alternative credentials for careers in the province: the BC Open Badges Forum.
We’ll be applying practices from similar networks and events, such as:

For example, we’re reaching out as much as we can across sectors in BC:

  • Education (Higher Ed, Vocational and K12)
  • Government
  • Community  (After School, Adult Employability, Immigrants and Refugees)
  • Business and Industry

We’re offering a crash course in Open Badges and how they build careers in other networks. We’re inviting local and external speakers (“Instigators”) to ignite ideas that can be brainstormed in collaborative breakout groups, using design tools that have been tested in action at other venues.
It’s the first step in our journey: bring the players together, present the opportunity and see what happens. It’s picking up momentum (we should have over 100 people from different sectors) and it promises to be a learning experience for all concerned – me included!

Don Presant – recognize and share learning in a digital world
Littoraly, learning across the margins