Digital Badges as Curricular Building Blocks

As interest continues to grow around the possibilities for micro-credentialing and digital badges, there is one aspect that has yet to gain significant attention….how badges can help us leverage new curriculum design options. This is an idea that does not require digital badges, but re-imagining learning experiences in terms of competency-based digital badges reveals curriculum design vistas that might be otherwise overlooked. What I am about to explain is not mere speculation. This is a model that is shaping one of the current efforts at the University where I serve, as we ask what it would look like to rebuild a master’s degree around competency-based digital badges. At this stage, we are just piloting the idea with a few online courses. However, this should serve as a proof of concept for other potential applications in formal learning organizations.

Consider a traditional degree program. Imagine a master’s degree program with 30 credits required for graduation. This might consist of 9 3-credit courses plus a thesis. Usually there are also a set of program level goals. Each course is intended to help a learner progress toward meeting one or more of those program level goals. The extent to which this actually happens will vary by programs and schools. Some programs are intentional about aligning courses with program level goals. Others really leave the focus of a course up to the individual professor. In such cases, two learners taking the sake course from different professors may get an altogether different learning experience: different readings, different lectures and discussions, different assignments, different expectations for what it means to earn a certain grade. Such freeform models are increasingly uncommon as accrediting bodies and other program review standards usually call for measuring student progress toward some set of program level goals.

Despite this, most people in United States institutions still tend to think of a course as the fundamental building block for a degree. Adding course upon course builds up to the degree. From a curriculum standpoint, this also means that they tend to think of revising a program-level curriculum in terms of revising, adding, or removing courses. Customizing programming for individuals or specific groups of learners is often not considered or welcomed, except on an individual instructor level, where a professor might agree to an alternate assignment for one student or a specific group of students.

Now consider a different way of thinking about a master’s degree. What if you started by listing out the program goals? From there, you created a longer list of discrete competencies that one would need in order to demonstrate achievement of these goals. For example, perhaps one program goal related to using different models and frameworks to design high-impact learning experiences. To break this down, you might decide that achieving this goal requires knowledge and skill in designing project-based learning, service learning, inquiry-based learning, game-based learning, discussion-based learning, etc. Each of these could be listed as discrete competencies, all leading to the achievement of the overall program goal.

What if these competencies then became the building blocks of the curriculum design instead of the course? You might have a list of 50-80 such competencies, each aligned to one or more of these program goals. This is where we add the concept of digital badges. Each badge is earned by demonstrating a discrete program competency.

Screen Shot 2014-07-05 at 10.01.44 AMThis is where we get into unfamiliar ground, so allow me to explain what curricular elements would go into each competency-based badge design. The foundation of each badge is one of the program-level competencies. Then we must determine what criteria one will need to meet to demonstrate competency and earn the associated digital badge. From there we include a collection of readings, resources, suggested activities, and worked examples that have potential to help one reach the competency.  At this stage, there is not necessarily any human interaction, and that may be acceptable for some competencies. For others, there is a likely significant benefit in interaction with peers and a mentor/instructor. So, the next part of the badge design is to create plans for peers to interact a around the badge/competency: giving each other feedback and encouragement, discussing toics related to the competency in order to clarify one’s understanding and ability to apply it to novel and diverse situations, etc.

Similarly, there is ample room to plan for the role of the mentor/instructor. Instead of being the person who lectures and orchestrates all events, this model emphasizes the role of instructor as a coach and mentor for each learner. This might include monitoring the learner’s progress, providing expert suggestions and tips, giving individualized help and tutoring when a learner runs into difficulty or simple needs the wisdom of an expert, adding new suggested resources and activities based upon data collected from the needs and challenges of past learners, hosting optional real-time workshops and events related to the competency, giving formative feedback on a learner’s work, and ultimately deciding when the learner has met the criteria for earning the badge. This is a shift in how we think about the role of the instructor, as it is student-directed. The instructor/mentor is there to guide, encourage, support, correct, design resources, redirect, coach, and evaluate.

Screen Shot 2014-07-05 at 10.16.02 AMNow consider how this program looks from a curricular standpoint. Instead of thinking of the program in terms of courses. We now think of it in terms of much more granular competencies, each attached to a digital badge learning experience design. Consider the visual below. Each badge in the image represents a different competency, and these competencies support the overall program goal.

This changes the way we go about curriculum revision, redesign, and customizations. What happens if a new skill or area of knowledge emerges for a given field? It does not require a new course, but only the development of new competency-based digital badges. What about the role of electives in a program? Now it is not a matter of choosing elective courses, but about identifying specific competency-based digital badges that align with one’s needs, interests, goals, or aspirations. What if there was a company that wanted to partner with a program to provide custom training or continuing education in a very specific area? It could be as simple as pulling together a collection of competency-based digital badges around that company theme/goals and offering them as a specialized curriculum, maybe even resulting in a certificate named after that theme. Screen Shot 2014-07-05 at 10.16.13 AMTo be more specific, consider a company that wanted a team of people to be trained in assessment strategies. Instead of offering the assessment course to the company, this would allow one to sit down with the company, show the long just of competency-based building blocks, select the ones relevant to assessment and the company’s goals, and pull them together as custom programming. This model leaves room for core competencies expected of all learners in a program, but also makes it easy to customize and personalize.

This also leads to a much more accurate and granular approach to documenting both student learning and the effectiveness of a part of the program learning experience. In the course-based model, a student often gets a final letter grade that supposedly represents the student achievement in the course. The problem is that it does not tell us anything about the strengths and challenges of the learner. Perhaps the learner has a “B” for a grade. Does this mean that the learner had moderate knowledge and skill in all areas of the course, that the learner only did a certain percentage of the work, that the learner doesn’t test well, that the learner got stuck on early skills which led to struggles with more complex parts of the course, or something else? There are so many different ways to a “B” in a course, and that single letter is of limited value in understanding the learner’s knowledge and skill.

With the competency-based badge model, earning a badge means that the learner met specific criteria that gives strong evidence of meeting a very specific competency. We know when the learner is struggling with something and when the learner is flourishing with another. Looking at the data for a group of learners, we get to see common struggles, successes, challenges, and “aha moments” that we can use to improve each competency-based badge design; putting us in a constant state of micro level curricular designs intended to improve the experience for current and future learners. It is not a full course design, but rather tweaks targeting a single competency.

This model also offers unprecedented opportunity for shared resources across programs in a school or even across organizations. It would be possible, for example, to set a specific standard for what goes into a competency-based badge design and how it should look and function. From there, people in different programs and organizations could design to those standards and share their work in some sort of repository. Or, it might be possible to offer degrees and training where parts of the education and training are offered, housed, and/or managed by different organizations. This creates vast opportunities for new partnerships and consortiums. Imagine a national repository of competency-based digital badges that can be used by all high schools. This would potentially reduce the cost of textbooks and other resources, and it would allow schools to benefit from the good work done elsewhere. While there is still the option of “reinventing the wheel” if a school so desires, it would make it unnecessary. As it stands, we can find plenty of lesson plan repositories, but this would take things to an completely different level.

This also seems to be a significant step forward in terms of clearly communicating what a learner knows and is able to do. As noted before, the letter grade system is limited in this sense. Yet, competency-based digital badges, even earned across organizations, allow a learner to demonstrate specific knowledge and skills through badges that might be earned from a single issuer or dozens of them. Using the open badge infrastructure, all of these badges are easily represented in a digital backpack.

Screen Shot 2014-07-05 at 10.01.34 AMScreen Shot 2014-07-05 at 10.01.23 AMSuch a model can even be used within an otherwise traditional course-based system. That is just a matter of reconsidering what goes into a course. In a traditional course, it usually includes elements like learning objectives, assessments, teacher-led learning activities, and units of instruction.  Now imagine replacing all of that in a course with a different model, one like what is represented in the following image. There is a competency, suggested readings and resources, examples, practice exercises and activities, a mentor to coach and provide personalized assistance, clear criteria that one needs to meet to earn the badge, etc. Screen Shot 2014-07-05 at 10.01.44 AMThere is still plenty of room to leverage the power of instructor-student interaction, student-student interaction, along with more personalized and self-paced elements. This switch in thinking helps us make progress toward a truly personalized learning experience rather than the one-size-fits-all model that continues to dominate most American educational institutions.

This also provides a way for leveraging the power of digital badges as a new form of curriculum building blocks, but doing so in a way that works within existing systems. It would be easy enough to revise individual badge elements, move badges from one course to another, share badges between programs and institutions, or even pull some badges out of courses and use them as stand-alone learning modules. These could maintain a credit equivalency so as to work within a credit-based system, but they could also be used to move away from such a system to more competency-based models like we see at Western Governor’s University, SNHU, or the UW Flex program.

There is another promising possibility afforded by such a model. Now consider a student learning digital dashboard that allows a learner (or others) to track learner progress within a curriculum. Building all these badges as OBI-compliant would allow for easier software and educational app development. It would allow schools to pull in curricular building blocks across dozens of sources and platforms. A school could pull digital badges that are self-designed, others from large publishing houses, some shared from other schools, etc. Yet, all the learner progress could be monitored and tracked in a single dashboard. They could even be shared across multiple dashboards. This has the chance to solve one of the more frustrating challenges of many schools as they pull curriculum from multiple providers, but then grapple with a way to present them as a unified and seamless experience.

This model offers us with a new way of thinking about how we design and develop curricula and programs. It offers more granular developments and revisions. It creates more flexibility. It provides an easy way to think about shared curriculum projects. Along the way, it also helps us progress toward truly personalized learning. All of this can be done while initially maintaining the framework of traditional courses, credits and degrees, but it also offers a method for mashing up curriculum from multiple sources while also potentially creating rich learning dashboards. Of course, the more we begin to experiment with such models, the more we are likely to discover ways of thinking about teaching and learning that lead us to let go of traditional frameworks.

Posted in blog, competency-based education, digital badges, education, educational technology

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.