What relationship between #OpenBadges and competencies?

Recent posts by Timothy Freeman Cook (@timothyfcook) explored (here and there) the relationship between Open Badges and competencies.  I would like to build on Timothy’s ideas.

I have rearranged in a table the initial elements of what Timothy calls “the atomic elements of learning”:

 Atom  Equivalent Definition  Learner’s perspective
Competencies Standards Definition of learning one ought to acquire What should I learn?
Pathways Courses Relationships between learnings In what order should I learn?
 Badges Credentials Proof of a learning accomplishment Did I learn it? 
 Resources Opportunities Something one can use for a learning experience  How can I learn it?

For Timothy:

The more I sketch and dwell on it, the more I am convinced that the concept of the pathway is actually something that should apply, separately, to each of the 3 elements.  […]

The 3 primary elements are:

  1. Competency
  2. Credential
  3. Resource

and each of these can be expressed on a graph with a linear or non-learner ordering or nested relationships. […] A competency graph is a prerequisite structure.

While later in the post is the following definition: “[the] competency graph is a map” I would like to explore now this idea of mapping and graphs.

What are the frameworks of learning?

Good competency standards are designed by performing a functional analysis, i.e. the analysis of all the activities contributing to achieving the purpose/mission of a sector (e.g. automotive, hotel & catering industry) or domain (e.g. management, administration, sales, engineering). The functional analysis is a mapping exercise, just like explorers drew maps of unchartered territories. Functional analysis takes into account all the activities, from the most basic (e.g. feed-in a copy machine) to the most complex (managing finance). The outcome is a competency framework.

Unfortunately, very few competency standards are built this way. Most of them are the result of task analysis leading to a fragmented representation of the territory. Moreover there is often a confusion between competencyqualification and training frameworks.

When a competency framework is produced, there is not yet an indication that a certain competency is at level 1 or 8 (there are 8 levels in the European Qualification Framework, link) nor that one competency must be acquired before another. The attribution of levels to the different competencies is based on the spectrum of routine/unpredictable tasks, basic/complex required knowledge, the degree of responsibility for oneself and others, etc. The result is a qualification framework. The organisation of competencies through prerequisites leads to a training framework.

So, at this stage we have identified three frameworks:

  • a competency framework, i.e. the map of an occupational territory
  • a qualification framework, i.e. the zoning  of this territory for establishing work/social positions
  • a training framework, i.e. the pathways of this territory for the acquisition of competencies (and possibly changing social position!)

Are those all the possible frameworks? Not exactly. Competencies are defined as a combination of skills, knowledge, attitudes and values. So we should be able to elicit the following frameworks:

  • knowledge framework, i.e. the inventory of the knowledge (concepts, facts, rules, etc.) in a domain
  • semantical framework, i.e. the connections between  the concepts of this domain
  • epistemological framework, i.e. the genesis and decay of concepts of this domain
  • educational framework, i.e. the pathways for the acquisition of the concepts of this domain like a syllabus (outcome-based learning bridges a gap with training frameworks).

NB: There is often confusion between skills and competencies. Skills are a component of competencies, they respond to the question how? Competencies respond to the question why? Someone competent is not just someone who does stuff, it is someone who can explain why she is doing this and not that. Hence my critic of the limitations of a concept like “best practices” (I do that because some committee decided that it was best) and my preference for “informed practice” (I do this, because of this and this and…).

To these maps we could add:

  • curricula, i.e. the institutional pathways to knowledge and competencies (too) often organised by disciplines, age range and future social positions (as Finland and Scotland prove, there is no need for a centralised curriculum organising learning to create a successful learning culture!)
  • career paths, i.e. the paths traveled to reach a certain job, formal (based on curricula) and informal (based on actual paths, and they can be very diverse and unpredictable!).

Of course, one should realise that all these frameworks and maps are the outcome of yet another framework that should be identified. This framework is an analytical framework, where we feel the urge to organise everything into categories, classifications, breaking down complex systems into smaller components. Yet, we should not forget Alfred Korzybski‘s famous aphorism:  “The map is not the territory” (interesting discussion on this idea here).

Maps are not pure projections of the real into the virtual, they are simultaneously projections of our value systems onto the real. The need to organise competencies by levels has nothing to do with facilitating the learning process, it is first and foremost a self-referential social construct, the urge to organise social strata. A world with no attribution of levels to competencies would work just as well — considering that education would work so much better without grades (“grades degrade education”).

How do we know that we have reached a competency?

To address the issue of  how we know that we have reached a competency, I’ll start from Timothy’s story of a visit to the Vatican as a means to illustrating the relationship between what he defines as the three atomic components of learning:

Timothy’s trip to Vatican City:

  • a competency is my destination on a map: Vatican City
  • a credential is proof of my arrival: the selfie I take in the Sistine Chapel as one part of a larger scrapbook documenting my journey and proving my arrival
  • a resource is means by which I arrive: perhaps, the taxi I used to get to the Sistine Chapel

One limit with this metaphor is the competency represented as a state, of “being somewhere”. In my world, a competency is not a state but the result of a journey, which should be the starting point of yet another journey. A certificate, a diploma are not arrival points, but starting points. If one has traveled all the way to achieving a diploma it is not to stop there but to move forward, towards a career, social engagement and/or further learning. If not used, what has been learned is likely to die, just like a Tamagotchi left unattended.

To demonstrate the acquisition of a competency, one needs to provide a range of evidence over time (doing something once is not enough) and sometimes over a range of contexts. It is the narration of the journey structuring the evidence collected during the learning journey that creates meaning (through connecting things together). We should also probably differentiate evidence from credentials, although a credential (like anything else) can be used as evidence. Eventually, there is the why question: why be in Vatican City? If the competency was annual appraisal, the question would be why do we need annual appraisal?

The response to why be in Vatican City? might differ between a  Roman Catholic and an atheist, a nun and a scholar, a pilgrim and a tourist. While Vatican City will be placed on each of their respective maps, the representation of cities, distances, pathways and points of interest will most likely differ. For the tourist, taking a selfie might be the goal, while for the scholar it might be completing a research at the Vatican library or meeting Roman Catholic scholars. Eventually, what is the difference between going to Vatican City, Paris or Detroit? To make the geographical metaphor work, the significance of reaching those destinations should be different as well as the journeys that might follow.

To deepen the geographical map metaphor, I suggest as parallel representation to three different competencies, three different destinations: Mauthausen (taking a selfie there would most likely be considered as a manifestation of poor taste!), the Eiger and Ellis Island.

The Destination


The Eiger

Ellis island


(possible answers to the question)

Understanding (emotionally?) the suffering of fellow humans

Going beyond oneself, changing perspective on the world

Understanding who built America

The transformation

Strengthening one’s humanistic values

Increased self-confidence

Strengthening beliefs in an open society

Going there

The pathway to connecting with those who went through there to experience empathy

From there

Reflecting further on what made this possible, and still is present in our society…


Narration of the journey, self-reflections, snippets of discussions with others


Using the narrative as a means to keep current a badge self-issued years ago on personal values and civic engagement

Feel free to fill-in the blanks and rewrite my own answers!

In the French educational system I had to go through, it was always considered impertinent (a sign of potential rebellion) to ask the question why? To the question “why do we have to learn this?” the answer ranged from “because!” to “it’s in the curriculum” and “you will understand later.” The system was not designed to create competent people, i.e. people who could answer for themselves to the question why using intrinsic arguments (i.e. in relation with the content of learning itself). The only institutionally valid response to why is still one of extrinsic authoritarian arguments: the curriculum!

It is why, the why  question is placed at the top of the above table. The answer to why is not to be found in the curriculum but as the result of a self reflective process, one’s own set of goals. The personal pathways of questions and responses are the elementary elements that will help us build our own representation of the world. The map is the outcome of the journey and not the other way around, except perhaps for the more subservient or less reflective individual led by extrinsic motivation.

What relationship between competencies and Open Badges?

Badges differ from competencies just as signposts differ from what is signposted — competencies are one of the many types of things they can point to. What they have in common is being relationships.

A competency is a relationship between:

  • skills
  • knowledge
  • attitudes
  • values

An Open Badge is a (trust) relationship between:

  • issuers and
  • earners, defined by the
  • criteria and supported by
  • evidence — satisfying the criteria

Open Badges are credentials. What makes them especially valuable is that they are verifiable credentials. As verifiable credentials, Open Badges can be used for almost anything, not just competencies as defined in competency frameworks. Long before competency frameworks appeared, we were able to recognise a competent carpenter, a competent barber or a competent baker. How was it possible without competency frameworks? Moreover, one should ask whether the emergence of competency frameworks has had any role in making a trip to the moon possible. If the answer is no, then we would probably want to relativise the value of the human resource paraphernalia… and reconsider whether issuing competency badges is the best possible use one can make of verifiable credentials —e.g. to foster innovation…

In the middle age version of communities of practice, the guilds fostered a lifetime progression from apprentice to craftsman, journeyman, master and grandmaster. Trust played a fundamental element in societies where trade and craft secrets were a precious capital: “apprentices would typically not learn more than the most basic techniques until they were trusted by their peers to keep the guild’s or company’s secrets” (source). Would “competency badges” have had any value in those times? Probably not. The only badge that might have had value could be a “Guild Membership” badge with the levels apprenticecraftsmanjourneyman, master and grandmaster. Probably the criteria and evidence fields would be merged into one, pointing to actual realisations and, possibly, narratives.

What I would like to suggest and explore is whether we need anything called “competency badge” to make informed decisions in relation to hiring or planning learning. Is it not possible to infer someone’s competencies based on one’s actual achievements and position within social networks? One of the things I learned as a trained assessor is that the way to assess knowledge is to infer it from performance evidence: “if you have done this and that then, as qualified assessor, I can infer that you have the required knowledge.” To assess knowledge, no need for an exam and even less of multiple choice questions. So, if we can do that for knowledge, why not do it also for skills, attitudes and values? Do we not already have plenty of information to make this kind of inference, such as individual and collective achievement badges, membership badges, aspiration badges and more, combined with the endorsements of those badges.

So my challenge to the Open Badge community is this: let us attempt for a moment to move our gaze away from competency badges and try to imagine how we could do without them, or put otherwise, how competency could be inferred out of evidence of actual achievements and the relative position within a community of practice (from apprentice to grand master).

For that, we need to bring our efforts to different kinds of badges, like collective achievement badges, exploiting the property of connectivity, like people connected together because they have the same badge, or same collection of badges. If the same badge is delivered to a group of people, e.g. a collective achievement badge, then the badge has created a relationship between all the earners of the same badge. If two different badges delivered to two groups of people make reference to the same piece of knowledge (the same knowledge can be used in different competencies) then the piece of knowledge can become the link between all the people earning the badges making reference to it. There is no limit to the number and types of connections Open Badges can generate.

What Open Badge pathways?

Open Badges can be interpreted as the signposts of our past and future journeys. Our journeys, like our narratives, are intertwined and contribute to establishing a collective map of the world where we can trace how trust relationships are being established, nurtured and sometimes destroyed.

Institutions of formal education have precise ideas about what our journeys should be: it is called the curriculum, with its landmarks, the formal credentials (grade, certificate or diploma). I am afraid that a number of the so-called Open Badge pathways I see emerging, if they were to be compared with maps, would be more like tour operator maps for tourists rather than survey maps created by and for explorers.

Moreover, by focusing too much of our attention on competency badges, aren’t we like those countries practicing mono-culture, something bad for a sustainable economy and bad for bio diversity.

If we want Open Badges to thrive, we need to encourage badge diversity and think out of the badge, out of the box.

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