#OpenBadges: “micro-credentials” vs. “progressive-credentials”

I had a great talk this week with my friend Don Presant (@donpresant) and when I reacted (negatively) to the expression “micro-credentials,” in return he suggested “progressive credentials,” an expression that I immediately fully embraced.

What can go wrong with “micro-credentials”?

There is a priori nothing wrong with issuing “micro-credentials” but that should not be the alpha and omega of Open Badges. Open Badges are credentials and credentials can be small and big. They can be used to hold micro- or macro-credentials, from the acknowledgment of participating in an event, to the delivery of a full qualification or diploma. An Open Badge is just one of the possible vessels for delivering, storing and exploiting credentials, micro or macro. Using Open Badges to encapsulate diplomas (macro-credentials) makes them verifiable digitally, so it’s probably a good idea to use them for that purpose. But Open Badges are not limited to do in small (“micro-certificates”) what others do in big (diplomas), they also have the potential to challenge existing credentialing authorities…

Serious problems arise when “micro-credentials” are used as the credentialing counterpart of “bite-size learning.” One of the main victims of the implementation of a combination of “micro-credentials” with “bite-size learning” is authenticity: authentic learning and assessment (learning about learning) rests on the implementation of holistic and challenging activities during which meaningful artefacts, ideas, relationships, etc. are created. For “micro-credentials” to have any validity, they would need to be inferred from the outcome of activities that are larger than the badge itself — good evidence, as outcome of holistic activities, generally cover multiple competencies.

One of the main dangers with micro-credentials is the fragmentation of learning into a series of meaningless activities with no relation to high order goals. If the answer to the question “why are you doing this” is “to get that badge,” then something should be done, like getting rid of that badge altogether!

Potty training with badgesOne other problem with “micro-credentials” is the focus placed on the credentialing rather than the learning. We are at risk of seeing the tail wagging the dog, the credentialing dictating the learning and not the desire to learn or achieve something meaningful for oneself as a member of the community.

How many Open Badges designed by institutions are little more than sophisticated grown-up versions of potty training stickers (to pave the potty training pathway)? How can we recognise Open Badges that are not just digitally glorified version of gold stars and potty training stickers? Is there an acid test that could tell us whether a certain badge is a gold star under disguise or an authentic badge? What would an authentic Open Badge look like? What special qualities does it have that glorified digital gold stars, regressive credentials, do not?

In this discussion, authenticity is not related to the question of whether a badge is reliable or trustworthy, but to whether it is fundamentally different from gold stars, and other constructs from the reward and punishment paraphernalia. Authentic Badges must be understood in the same way as authentic learning and authentic assessment. Antonyms of authentic are artificial and fake.

Bush Earmarks 1.5 Billion Gold Stars For Education
WASHINGTON, DC—Vowing to give the nation’s public schools ‘a much-needed boost,’ President Bush announced Monday [February 2002] that his 2003 budget proposal would allocate 1.5 billion gold-star stickers for education.” (source)

Masquerading gold stars and potty training stickers as Open Badges would be a superb opportunity to give a new boost to George W. Bush ‘vision’ of education. Is it not already happening when gold stars are superseded with bronze, gold and platinum badges? Is it what we really want?

Why are “progressive-credentials” more potent to inducing change?

While the term “micro” in “micro-credentials” refers to the content (the criteria), “progressive credentials” also have a “micro” level: it is the interpersonal level (“I trust you for…”). It is this “micro” (individual) level that we will be exploring with the Open Badge Passport (link) to support progressive-credentials.

While “micro-credentials,” nolens volens, place the focus on the sizeprogressive-credentials place the focus on the process and the ecosystem. Progressive can be associated with progression, something developing gradually, from small to big, from simple to complex, etc. Progressive can also be interpreted as in progressive education and associated with the ideas of social (and educational) reform, innovation and change. Progressive can also be associated with empowerment.

In 10 Possibilities: Badges for Progressive Credentialing in Academic Programs (link) Dr Bernard Bull interprets progressive as developing gradually:

What is progressive credentialing? It is pretty much what it sounds like. Instead of just getting one massive credential at the end of an extended degree program, this is about issuing smaller credentials along the way. Each credential represents acquisition of new knowledge or skill, building up to that final degree or completion of an overall program. How much does this help improve upon the current educational system? Here are ten possibilities. […]

  1. More Immediate Job Opportunities
  2. Documented Skills for Potential Promotions or a Chance to Work on a New Project
  3. Help Employers in Areas Where There are Employment Shortages
  4. It Helps to Address Motivation
  5. It Helps the Learner See and Understand the Big Picture
  6. It Allows Drop Outs to Walk Away With More Than Debt
  7. It Allows for Individualized Programming
  8. It Creates New Opportunities for Nano-Degree
  9. It Allows for Easier Revision and Updates to Curricula
  10. It keeps everyone focused on progress.

While this approach to progressive-credentials suggests a systematic use of “micro-credentials” (down to the “Nano Degree”) there are a number of other posts where Dr Bernard Bull describes what progressive education is about, for example in The Best Course That I Never Taught: Heutagogy in Action (link) or Education is a Narrative More Than a Dictionary (link).

I would like to suggest a possible path for exploring progressive credentials as the means to and an expression of progressive education (of course, progressive credentials exist also outside of the realm of education):

  1. No to regressive credentials. The desire to learn and to achieve something meaningful should be at the centre of the learning process, not the desire to earn a doggy biscuit under the disguise of a badge. Good learners should despise badges offered as rewards or awards (“don’t spoil my pleasure to learn with badges!”). The pleasure of learning and measuring its impact on our lives and communities, the sense of agency and empowerment are the best possible (intrinsic) rewards.
  2. Yes to progressive credentials. We need to start from the premises that good learners despise regressive credentials. We can then explore what kind of credentials could be meaningful in a progressive learning environment where learners are fully empowered — for example,  I suggested some time ago to give a “Reflective Rebel” badge to those refusing regressive credentials (and a “Meta Reflective Rebel” for refusing it as well!).

To differentiate between regressive and progressive credentials, we could use the following rule of the thumb:

  1. regressive credentials are the expression of a deeply asymmetrical power system
  2. progressive credentials are the expression of the will to create a deeply symmetrical power system

One of the comments I made several times regarding the current Open Badge Infrastructure (OBI) is that it is deeply asymmetrical to the point that learners have been denied the right to trust others with their own credentials —credentials are generally limited to predefined paths established by institutions. Too many badges are no more than glorified regressive credentials — awards and rewards, i.e. potty training stickers for grownups. The very nature of the current OBI combined with the nature of institutions of formal education are the main obstacles to the emergence of any scalable progressive credentialing system. There are pockets of innovation  where Open Badges are used to implement progressive credentials (c.f. Mouse Wins! and others in the Badges Design Principles Documentation, link), but they are in the minority. They will not survive long nor scale up if something does not change soon.

“It is too difficult to become an Open Badge issuer” recently wrote Bohdan Andriyiv in 8 reasons why Open Badges do not get traction and why they eventually will (link). Only very few initiatives have taken the necessary steps to create more open and democratic (symmetric) ecosystems were individuals are not confined to contrived (and controlled) roles but fully empowered to act within and on the badge system itself. They are silos of openness in an ocean of control.

Progressive credentialing, its technology and practice, is about transformation, the kind of transformation enacted by Dr Bernard Bull in The Best Course That I Never Taught: Heutagogy in Action (ibid.). Let us put the learner at the centre (as origin, not terminal point) of the progressive credentialing movement. Let us start by giving them the power to trust — and distrust…

N.B.: the open source code for the Open Badge Passport is in the process of being uploaded to github: https://github.com/discendum/salava. More about it soon!

2 thoughts on “#OpenBadges: “micro-credentials” vs. “progressive-credentials”

  1. That was interesting. I am working with a project at American Council on Education developing quality standards for new credentials. We were originally charged with developing standards for credentials that were “stackable” and “digital” but now those of merged into one under the notion of “connected credentials” which pulls it into the exixting Connected Credentials program that Lumina has funded. https://www.luminafoundation.org/resources/connecting-credentials. Definitely some overlap here.

    • Serge says:

      Thank you Dan for pointing my attention to the Lumina beta framework. It’s interesting to read that “The Framework’s design was informed by examination of similar frameworks being used in other countries, many of which are based on the European Qualifications Framework.” That’s why it has 8 levels, like the EQF.
      It is worth noting that the “social skills” overlap with a number of “management skills” that are comprehensively detailed in the Management Charter Initiative standards (MCI, UK) http://www.management-standards.org/standards/standards.

      I can’t help but notice that there is no reference to “values” that should be a key component of competencies — e.g. integrity, authenticity, compassion, courage, truthfulness, trust etc. It’s true that these personal values do not fit the straightjacket of 8 levels (“is there integrity level 1 to 8” or is “integrity at level 6 and authenticity at level 5?” seem rather irrelevant questions, at least in my value system ;-). It’s true that I recently came across a “vision” of a hierarchy of values starting at level 1 with submission to authority…

      It would be interesting if this framework was used as a generative matrix for sector-specific competency frameworks (industry and services, private and public) so individuals would have maps to find their ways to the destination they want to reach (in the UK, over 90% of occupations are covered by occupational standards). One question we have to address is: what is the relationship between an occupational map and the associated badges? Should they share the same structure (one competency = one badge) or should they be loosely coupled? Should a competency badge be delivered if the evidence provided do not cover other competencies, if the learning is not motivated by superior personal goals? Should practice inform the framework, to keep it current? Could we even imagine an application similar to Open Street Map, where individuals would co-construct competency maps (and get a badge for it!)?

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