Badge types: different strokes for different folks

This is a long, nerdy analysis of badge types, but it does have some quickly scannable colourful graphics and it does highlight new entries like 1EdTech’s TrustEd Microcredential and ASTM’s recently published standard for Competency-based Workplace Learning Programs.

It picks up on a previous post, where I shared the Learning Agents Adaptable Badge Taxonomy for community feedback. In this post, I update that taxonomy and compare it to other frameworks out there.

About badges…

To avoid confusion with this post, it’s important to lay out some basic concepts about badges, such as:

A badge is NOT an award that is either too small or not “good enough” to be a micro-credential

… despite what others might tell you.

Digital badges are flexible digital credentials that can represent a wide variety of use cases. Their scope is limited mainly by the imagination. Digital badges span the full spectrum of recognition from formal through nonformal to informal, including professional licences and certifications, diplomas and other macro-credentials, for-credit micro-credentials, non-formal workplace training badges and many, many, many other use cases for recognition of learning and achievement that can be lifelong and lifewide.

Digital badges = containers for claims

As with shipping containers, you need to pay attention to the manifest, check the contents and pick up on other clues, like the idenitity of the originator: does it contain something unique and useful, or is it “same old, same old” or is it just recycled plastic trash? Note that the claims don’t need to be formal or high stakes, but they should be clear, relevant to the context and well supported.

When people say “digital badges” they usually mean portable digital credentials that are created and issued using the Open Badges standard, i.e. not gamification stickers, like Khan Academy’s or proprietary website-specific badges like those from LinkedIn Learning or LinkedIn Skills that serve their business model and skills graph needs rather than supporting a recognition ecosystem (stop ranting, Don).

It’s also really important to say this:

micro-credential ≠ course

A micro-credential can certainly be a course certificate, and that’s an all too dominant use case, but it’s important to remember that there are many ways to learn and develop and many ways to recognize learning and development that go way beyond training courses. And badges can handle them all, given the right mindset. So, for our purposes in this post:

micro-credential = (non)formal badge awarded after summative assessment

.. ie micro-credentials inhabit the formal end of the recognition spectrum. Summative means partly that it should be possible to fail. They can be for “formal” for credit or “nonformal” non-credit, but possibly high stakes (e.g. for career). I’m leaving out for the moment notions of quality, qualified issuer, industry relevance, etc., to avoid turning this blog post into a sequel to War and Peace.

Ultimately, done right, badges are more than stickers or certificates – they can tell authentic stories of learning, achievement and aspirational learning journeys.

Feedback & updates to the Learning Agents taxonomy

When I posted the Learning Agents adaptable taxonomy of badge types for community feedback back in February, I did get lots of feedback, so thanks for that!

Noah Geisel’s feedback gave me the most pause – he worried that having defined “buckets” for badge types could be misinterpreted by many as being prescriptive (it MUST fit into one of these buckets) rather than descriptive and adaptable “popular spots along the spectrum”, which was my intention.

So here’s a metaphor that might work better: “spaces” in a co-working facility with adjustable walls. I hope I heard him well when I adjusted my walls here:

Diagram showing a spectrum of recognition from formal on the left to informal on the right, with examples of badges along the way
Learning Agents Adaptable Taxonomy of Badge Types 2024-03-24 CC BY

Some notes about the above…

Emphazing continuity and remixability

Basically, I made the buckets look more like adjustable “spaces” and added double-pointed arrows between the spaces, indicating that they can morph into each other and be combined/stacked into each other in diverse ways. It’s also possible that a less formal badge can be formalized, through a kind of PLAR-like endorsement. For example, my colleague Serge Ravet hopes to be soon working on a project for home care workers that would see informal recognitions of practice (badges) transformed into nonformal and even formal recognition. But I suspect it’s easier to develop a more formal badge by submitting less formal badges as evidence, perhaps supported by other evidence, reflection and/or endorsement… transformation as repackaging with other elements.

This “space morphing” can work quite well for the less formal badges, but there are industry standards out there for many course certificates and certifications, even beyond academic certification standards, so those spaces are a lot less flexible: the walls tend to have structural steel or concrete in them, and the diagram reflects that.

Lumping vs splitting

I had recently lumped (merged) the Completion and Participation spaces into Organized Learning. In the feedback I got, some felt that this type was now confusable with Assessed Learning, so I’ve made it more explicit as Organized Unassessed Learning, which can include things like events. Of course, in the spirit of adaptability, some may choose to re-split these sub-types into separate types again for their particular context.

I went the other way with the Performance space, splitting that into:

  • Evidence & Demonstration: examination at a particular time (SHOWS, in Miller’s Pyramid)
  • Performance: behaviour over time (DOES, in Miller’s Pyramid)

Opinions may differ; if so, merge away!

Flexing the flexible

I’ve also now added more detail to the Flexible Recognition space, building out examples in areas like community recognition and self-declaration, but this is definitely not an exhaustive list! The idea here is that informal recogntion can be VERY useful in many cases, such as:

  • Learning who’s who in a community of practice (e.g. ambassador, guru, mentor, newbie)
  • Developing authentic, supportable self-declarations to behavioural interview questions (greatest strength, achievements you’re proud of, stuff you’re working on, goals for your career, etc.)

I have another slide where I provide lots more examples along the spectrum, but I won’t bore you with that now – maybe later!

Comparing the Learning Agents taxonomy to others

This is the fun part and was actually the trigger for this post.

I’ve been very pleased to start seeing more attempts to differentiate badges, amid what’s frankly been an all too pervasive Monsanto-esque micro-credential monoculture. These new efforts start getting us away from false binary choices like badge vs. micro-credential and begin exploring interesting nuances in formal/nonformal/informal recognition. A good example is Scouts Australia, a Registered Training Organisation that is nationally accredited to award vocational qualifications. Jeffrey Lehrer shared a Six Sigma inspired typology at the ePIC 2023 conference last December, and repeated it in a March 13 session of Open Skills Network’s Open Recognition Workgroup (link to March 13 recording):

Table showing levels of formalization of recognition, following a Six Sigma inspired coloured belt system.
Scouts Australia (shared at ePIC 2023)

and even the 1EdTech folks, who admittedly have enabled a lot of “in the box” micro-credential/transcript thinking since they took over the Open Badges standard… but see them here making an attempt to differentiate between Knowledge and Application, albeit in a fairly restrictive boxlike “TrustEd” way, that lumps everything else into a “non-trusted” category and has no provision for learner self-declaration:

TrustEd Microcredential Frameowrk

(Version 1 – I’m hopeful that it will improve.)

As a reminder, I published the Learning Agents taxonomy based on some co-creation for the Inter-American Development Bank’s IDB Digital Credential Framework:

Badge taxonomy for individuals and organizations
Inter-American Development Bank

It’s worked out well for them and their framework is now being adapted by Team Democracy for the badging system that’s being developed in the US. Here’s a preview of that:

Another badge taxonomy for individuals and organizations
Civics Credentialing – Spectrum of Recognition. Work in Progress, shared with permission

I need to also need to acknowledge the very practical workflow developed by Lesley Voigt in late 2019/early 2020 for Madison College Digital Credentials Institute’s Digital Badge Taxonomy:

A badge taxonomy for individuals, comparing formal to informal badges
Madison College – Digital Credentials Institute.

It’s also important to mention at least some of the industry standards out there for assessment and recognition:

Various pundits are becoming fond of saying that “micro-credentials are not new” and indeed that’s true: they’re typically course certificates in colourful new Spandex suits.

So certificate and certification standards are important elements in an inclusive taxonomy and many regulatory, professional and industry bodies have been using these standards for decades. The list above highlights a very recent new addition in italics, which my colleague Jeremy McQuigge from CAWBL believes should be labeled Work-Based Learning or WBL, but that’s another post, maybe from him! I’m still working my way through the new standard and seeking feedback from knowledgeable colleagues like Jeremy.

I haven’t included Quality Matters or other academic accreditation systems, because I’m trying to take the badge/recognition dialogue beyond the ivory tower.


This is a big list of things and hard to visualize all at once. So, being the “opening up recognition” nerd that I am, I thought it might be fun to cram everything I could onto one slide:

Learning Agents Taxonomy compared to a selection of other frameworks.

You need to select the image to view it full size.

I was going to add lots of arrows to connect things, but that would have made things even busier, so I decided to try analyzing them in a table to check for gaps, overlaps and any new ideas that might pop up:

Some notes…

I think the Learning Agents taxonomy holds up pretty well overall – of course it’s very similar to the IDB framework from where it draws a lot of its inspiration, but it’s also great to see Scouts Australia call for self-declared assertions. And the Madison DCI taxonomy is also holding up pretty well, although again no self-assertion. I wonder why 1EdTech’s TrustEd Microcredential Framework didn’t include it? I do note that Madison College doesn’t seem to be a member of 1EdTech, so that may be a factor.

Those four top rows have the best coverage across the scope of recognition. More than a single flavour micro-credential, certainly.

I’d love to see more about capturing and recognizing Work Based Learning. I’m hopeful that organizations like the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation and the Council for Advancing Work Based Learning can help.

And I don’t do any analysis here of team, group, organization or community badges – these increasingly important, but for another post.

Looking forward

Part of the reason I’m diving so deep into all this is that we’re starting to do a lot of work in adult learning in French Canada, alors mon français est en train de s’épanouir… 8->

That community is currently abuzz with an amendment to the Official Languages Act that just went through on January 1st of this year. Here’s a clipping from the website:

Quality lifelong learning opportunities for linguistic minority communities that can be formal, non-formal and informal… wow.

It sounds even better in French:

…faire des apprentissages de qualité, en contexte formel, non formel ou informel, dans leur propre langue tout au long de leur vie…

Or, as Mona Audet, a community leader from Manitoba improved it at a recent national summit:

Tout au long de leur vie et tout au large de leur vie

Mona AUDET, pluri-elles, Manitoba

Lifelong and lifewide learning. I can understand why they’re excited, it kind of makes me want to move back to Quebec as an Anglo. So, believe me when I say that they are ALL OVER the notion of opening up recognition. As just one example, see how the Ontario Coalition for Adult Learning (COFA) is piloting evidence-based badges for adult learning practitioners that align to a recently developed competency framework for the workforce. Not courses, but packages of evidence or « preuves », as they call them, in this case submitted for assessment by competent professionals.

There’s another badge system being developed for community learning implementation in several provinces called Familles engagées that engages entire families in projects to improve their local communities, activating their lifewide skills and capabililties (and sense of self-efficacy and citizenship) in the process. And recognizing that.

I’m very happy to be working with these communities on this inclusive approach to lifelong, lifewide learning. For myself, this is also a great opportunity to renew my own lifelong learning relationship with French – that’s a story in itself, that I may well tell in a badge sometime… 8->

Updating the Learning Agents badge taxonomy

I’m seeking feedback from all you awesome people in your various recognition communities as I update the badge taxonomy that Learning Agents uses for its various consulting projects in Canada and internationally, and for support of clients using the badging platform. Also, wearing my Advocate hat, it has supported my rants about opening up recognition, regardless of platform. So, tactical and strategic utility for me, wearing my various hats, and for others too – at least so they’ve they’ve politely said to me (many are Canadian, after all.)

Thoughts – clarification or complication? Flexible and inclusive, or complex and rickety?Feedback welcome, whether on my blog or on LinkedIn. Help me make this better!

Update to Learning Agents’ “Adaptable taxonomy of badge types” — DRAFT, for community review

Significant updates to the Learning Agents taxonomy

  • Creating a new type, Performance, based on recent work by Chris Newlon of (see below) and my increasing interest in 70:20:10 model for development that shifts the focus from training to performance
  • Merging Completion and Participation into (unassessed) Organized Learning, also inspired by Chris’ work above
  • Renaming Demonstration to Evidence and Demonstration
  • Forking the Assessment “frontier” to indicate that both Evidence & Demonstration and the new Performance category could be assessed or not assessed, depending on fitness for context
  • Hinting at a new category of badge types for Teams and Organizations, thanks to Stella Porto of Inter-American Development Bank from our work together last year


The trigger for this new version is some exciting credentialing work that’s getting underway for adult learning in French Canada, not only in Québec, but supporting lifelong learning and skills development in minority francophone communities across the country.

I’m helping several of these organizations get started with badges for adult learners and for the professional community that serves them. Some early badges I’m designing are for a project for family learning in in Manitoba, and an upcoming National Summit on Learning for Canada’s Francophonie, which is sponsored by the Canadian Commission for UNESCO. One of the stated objectives of the Summit is (my translation, with the help of DeepL):

A collaborative digital badge accreditation system for non-formal and informal learning recognized by formal institutions, community development organizations and workplaces – a tool developed BY and FOR Canada’s Francophone minority communities.

Translated from RESDAC.NET

The badge taxonomy has gone through quite a few iterations, probably beginning with back in 2017. I’d say the most significant version so far was for the IDB Digital Credential Framework in early 2023 that I co-created with Stella Porto:

Taxonomy from the IDB Digital Credential Framework — 2023 CC BY

…. which I adapted to the more generic one that I’m updating now. This taxonomy feeds into the badge templates that we provide for CanCred customers and consulting clients. They’re models for well-constructed badges that fit into the taxonomy, which people can use as a starting point, instead of being confronted with a blank canvas. Or I guess ChatGPT, these days.

Anyway, I’ve been madly translating those badge templates into French (with the help of real human French speakers), and it’s been a chance to re-examine the Learning Agents taxonomy.

I mentioned above that a recent influence has been the great work that Chris Newlon of has been doing in adapting the IDB/Learning Agents taxonomies for their prototype Civics Credentialing System, designed to help achieve their multi-organizational mission of rallying all Americans to a shared identity, and a shared commitment to democracy. So Civics Credentialing is not just about assessed learning and certification, but also engagement, commitment, action and community recognition. Here’s how I shared their draft taxonomy at a recent career conference in Ottawa:

Team Democracy: Civics Credentialing Badge Image Language — DRAFT 2024, shared with permission

Another influence, also mentioned above is 70:20:10, which I’ve used before in my frequent rants about micro-credentials as old-school training certificates in new digital clothing.

From a previous blog…

By the way, I’m trying out this new riddle about micro-credentials:

Q: What is a micro-credential?
A: Whatever the funder says it is.

Anyway, all feedback welcome, even about micro-credentials (notice that I do include them…) before I republish the new version of the taxonomy and update the badge templates.


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.

Stacking micro-credentials: the joy, the horror.

Part of “Scenes from a MOOC” – excerpts from an orphaned video-centric MOOC about micro-credentials based on Open Badges (as most are..)

I often say to people that stacking micro-credentials is one of those things that sound great, but can come with unwanted baggage, can lead to unintended consequences and generally complicate things that were supposed to be simple.

Stacking for what?

l’ll start the discussion with this useful diagram from Brown et al in the Journal of Learning for Development (J4LD). The authors developed a model for a credential ecology that I’ve fiddled with a bit, leaning on the CC BY licence.

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.

The diagram maps different kinds of credentials across 2 axes:

  • The vertical axis is about formality, or credit versus non-credit.
  • The horizontal axis is about credential “bundling”, or aggregation

In the top two quadrants related to credit, diplomas and degrees are called macro-credentials that can be stacked from individual micro-credentials. I’ve added the notion of “meso-credentials” of intermediate sizes in the centre. The bottom two quadrants are focused on industry recognition. The terms provided by the authors aren’t widely used – I’ll just call these non-credit micro-credentials

A new element added by the research team is the concept of transforming non-credit to credit via the Recognition of Prior Learning or RPL. This is what they call the “diagonal axis” and I’ve added diagonal yellow arrows to illustrate. RPL is normally done at the institutional level, based on internal policies, using evidence portfolios and other methods of assessment. Within the institution, it’s usually possible to carry forward the valuation of an external nonformal credential, in the same way that an external academic credit only needs to be evaluated once for credit transfer. There are some initiatives in early development in Canada, Australia and perhaps elsewhere, to build this into a more system-wide approach, using terminology such as “”external credit bank” or “micro-credentials marketplace.”

Horizontal and vertical stacking

Vertical, sequential and horizontal stacking (diagram by Don)

Stacking of micro-credentials is often described as vertical or horizontal. Vertical stacking, also called laddering, usually means that one credential builds on top of another, leveling up as in this Python example. However, leveling up within a skill is not as common as the notion of sequential pathways.

Sequential or linear pathways are programs of learning that have been pre-designed with micro-credentials as signposts on the way. They might include a range of topics and activities, but everything been built into a program plan.

Horizontal stacking is defined as broadening knowledge across multiple topics at a similar level, or perhaps specializations within a topic area. In this example, a creative technology skillset is being broadened with operational and business skills. Horizontal stacking is usually more learner centric than vertical stacking: educators and often learners can swap elements in and out to build more custom solutions.

This very popular and useful image from Bryan Mathers is another take on the various kinds of stacking and pathways:

Pathways by Visual Thinkery is licenced under CC-BY-ND

The Stepping Stones model is the one I was just describing: sequential pathways, or linear progressions. They are prescriptive, programmed in advance. This is often the default for an instructional designer. It might be a certificate program in Continuing Education, for example. But this doesn’t have to be the only model.

The Collection model is still prescriptive, but the order doesn’t matter: program requirements are met once enough micro-credentials have been earned, or “collected”. Collections can actually be more flexible than than the preset pie form you see here: think of a honeycomb or a small, multi-cell organism that can add horizontal options organically.

The Constellation is a very popular metaphor that is non-linear AND descriptive. As Rebecca Solnit says:

“The stars we are given. The constellations we make. That is to say, stars exist in the cosmos, but constellations are the imaginary lines we draw between them, the readings we give the sky, the stories we tell.”

So a constellation is human construct: it’s a way of finding patterns, connections and stories among a scattering of stars or a collection of skills and achievements.A constellation can be a way of looking back and making sense of what you’ve already done, as in a portfolio for the Recognition of Prior Learning.Or it can be a way of looking forward at what you might do next, based on what you’ve already done, as in a smart learning ecosystem. This is the most learner-centric and even learner empowered model for pathways.

Dreaming big about stacking

The words horizontal and vertical imply a grid, where the horizontal axis could express the breadth of topics and the vertical axis could express the levels of learning:

Ugly diagram by Don

I’ve actually provided two vertical axes here. The one on the left displays education qualification levels. Over on the right, I’ve added a popular model for leveling up skills in the context of work that’s mentioned in the Australian National Microcredentials Framework.

As an educator, if your thinking naturally leans toward stacking micro-credentials for credit, then it can be exciting to imagine modular educational pathways for Bachelors degrees for example, where students could complete programs in bite-sized chunks, stepping on and stepping off the “qualifications trolley”, and being recognized for even partial completion of larger qualifications.

Some initiatives are even exploring the feasibility of supporting “build-your-own degrees”, where lifelong learners of all kinds would be able to custom assemble credentials from multiple institutions, based on a common currency for micro-credentials. So in theory, the modularization of credentialing through micro-credentials could take the practice of Credit Articulation and Transfer to an entirely new level.

In practice, we’re not there yet, and it can be very difficult to innovate at the core of established credentialing systems, where the stakes are very high and practices are firmly established. Some objections that have been raised for this vision of stacking credits include:

  • Lack of awareness and trust between institutions. Micro-credentials do not magically remove structural and cultural barriers to mobility.
  • Most academic macro-credentials are not “build your own degree”, they are built on specific programs of study, usually within a single institution. A micro-credential may be worth x credits, but only if it can be applied to a program. There are actually very good reasons for having integrated programs that describe a learning arc.
  • And finally, academic stacking doesn’t solve the problem that micro-credentials were invented to solve, which is to provide more agile and authentic ways to develop and recognize skills. A focus on credit slows things down, comes with baggage and pushes us back to old ways of thinking. And Employers usually say they’re not interested in the credit value of micro-credentials, they are interested in their practical value in the workplace. From an employer perspective, credit may be nothing more than a proxy for quality, that can also be delivered by institutional brand.

Let’s remember that Open Badges were originally invented to recognize and share learning and achievement everywhere. Micro-credentials have emerged as a more formal subset of Open Badges, focused on agile education for workplace skills.  But the idea was to supplement, enhance and fill gaps in formal learning, not to replace the entire damn system.

Institutions don’t need to totally reinvent themselves to start reaping the benefits from micro-credentials: innovation can begin at the edges, in Continuing Education, Extension programs, Adult Education, even in Contract Training. Value and quality can be balanced with agility by a “credit ready” approach, where micro-credentials are developed and documented according to standardized processes that can be confirmed for credit later.

This means starting with smaller initiatives and programs more related to workplace-relevant expertise than academic qualifications. And smaller stacks that have immediate practical value. Then maybe think about stacking further, but also think about unifying, transformative elements to bring these things together, that go beyond building a Bachelors like Lego.