Re-imagining Learning & Credentialing in a Connected World

I’m playing with this idea of multiple pathways to learning and earning associated credentials. So, I wanted to get the following rough ideas out to you as a way to spark discussion and invite help; especially help creating better ways to illustrate the possibilities. I’m particularly interested in how all this relates to the promise and possibility of micro-credentials. As I was driving to work a few months ago, I had this ideo of a map that could represent what I’ve been thinking about with regard multiple pathways to learning. I describe it below and then end with a 5-minute rough visual intended to visually communicate some of these ideas.

I pictured three main road: Continuing Education Court, Self-Directed Street, and Degree Drive.

Continuing Education Court 

This street represents the many accelerated, non-credit, intensive and/or compacted learning experiences available to people today. There are experiences like weekend workshops on writing, how to start a business, managing your finances or anything else. This road also includes learning from the thousands of webinars that are free or fee-based on the web today, covering topics ranging from personal development to compliance issues at work. It also includes stops at other learning events: conferences, retreats, “boot camps”, etc. These are usually just-in-time learning experiences, and I put them in the class of semi-formal learning, as they don’t include all the trappings of a full formal schooling experience. They are usually discrete and disconnected, self-selected based on learner need and interest. Sometimes there are credentials associated with the experiences, but often not. They are a collection of experiences, often provided by multiple organizations; and there is less of an overall formal curriculum across all learning experiences. Instead, the learner opts in and out as she deems useful for her goals and interests.

Self-Directed Street

Like Continuing Education Court, the learner determines the curriculum / path on this street. Activities and learning experiences are largely designed or coordinated by the learner. Sometimes they are independent learning experiences. Other times learners come together to share and learn with or from one another. Learners not only choose what to do, but how much they will do. For example. note that I put MOOC Mountain on Self-Directed Street when it could also go on Continuing Education Court. I did this because of what the research tells us about how learners use MOOCs. Most do not sign up and complete the course as formally planned. They do it their way, on their timeline, and the extent do which they believe it useful or a high priority. Nonetheless, a case could be made that there are MOOC mountains on both roads. Over time and with focus and effort, people can become incredibly knowledgeable and skilled by traveling on Self-Directed Street, but there are few to no credentials to use of evidence of this learning.

Degree Drive

This is the most familiar road when people think about learning. It represents the formal programming of a student in a school (k-12, higher education). It is often course-based and a pre-determined curriculum (decided largely by others). This curriculum determines where learners stop along the way, what they do and how they do it. There can be sights and features that resemble what you see on Continuing Education Court and Self-Directed Street, but the formal structure and directedness is a common hallmark of this road. Also, the stops along the way can be carefully connected, with one stop preparing a person to get the most out of the next. Even as one progresses, there is careful documentation of what travelers completed and how they performed. Traveling on this road culminates in a credential that is intended to give evidence of one’s accomplishments and growing competence in some area of study.

Combining the Three

What happens when we don’t think of these as three disconnected and unrelated learning pathways? What if we see this as representative of a city or region in which one travels on a lifelong learning journey? What possibilities does that create for us? Consider a model where credentials can be provided as people demonstrate competence through any of these stops along the way, whether it is the weekend workshop, the self-guided tour, the self-study stop, or a formal course. This is one of the interesting and exciting possibilities of micro-credentials and digital badges. Their affordances give us a greater ability to imagine such contexts, as evidenced by the cities of learning initiatives.

What we imagine can be exciting and terrifying. Some worry about what this would mean for formal learning organizations if such an idea were to spread. Others point out that, in this age of democratized information, it may be even more dangerous if the idea does not spread, as it could turn schools into credentialing factories instead of rich, human, and collaborative learning communities…what they are when they are at their best.

Regardless, what I just described is already partly in place. This is not simply some vision of a possible future. This, apart from the credentialing element, is already what happens for many people. It is how we learn in a connected and increasingly digital world. Now we have the opportunity to let this current reality inform our thoughts and planning about 21st and 22nd century credentialing.

Below I’ve included an embarrassingly rough draft visual to help illustrate the idea that I just described. I would love to have partners in this effort, people who can take what I started and create a more robust and aesthetically appealing version of the visual. Please let me know if you are interested, or just create it, share it, and let the conversation spread. Even if there are no takers on that front, I look forward to continuing the conversation about how we might imagine and re-imagine learning and credentialing in a connected world.

Alternative Pathways to Credentials

3 Replies to “Re-imagining Learning & Credentialing in a Connected World”

  1. moodlemuse

    I am not a graphic designer either but I will accept your invitation as I have been working on something similar and would really like to continue this discussion. Bernard, I have been reading your blogs for a while now and they are the highlight of my day – part of my learning community. I will send a direct message to you too with more details about my current project which I would like to discuss with you. I mapped your ideas onto my draft which had a focus on Digital Media. (If there are graphic designers lurking here who want my improve source psd files please ask) Perhaps it will help this conversation to discuss a specific career that is leading the way in innovative approaches to learning due to due the abundance of online Open Education Resources.

    My draft image is online here:

    DrEvil1 has bought up a few good points (I am enjoying having a conversation with DrEvil 🙂 I have terminated each road into different career choices. The merging and criss-crossing of the roads beautifully describes how our Industry recognises and encourages formal qualifications whilst simultaneously encouraging self directed learning and continuing education through Professional Development. It seems the middle road is the one taken by a highly motivated individual who dips in and out of group learning as needed. The bottom path of continuing education – perhaps it could be called work-based education – has a focus on group learning in non-formal settings.

    Conversations about Ed Tech are often polarised with the choice of technology being the focus. For example online and offline learning. This implies solo and group learning which is far from my experience. MOOCS are basically solo learning experience despite the massive numbers. We chat and peer-assess but there is very limited learning together. Instructor led training can happen face to face or with the use of technology. It is really this level of facilitation and true group interaction that should be the focus . Being in a classroom does not guarantee group learning any more than in a MOOC.

    Getting back to the map I will offer a few scenarios. Scenario 1) If you asked Game Designers how they got to where they are now they may say taught themselves, followed the degree path, or learned through a ‘professional’ online gaming community prompting them to continually up skill. Either way they ended up with an awesome portfolio of work which may or may not have formal credentials. My Industry accepts this as normal.

    Scenario 2) A website designer may have followed the degree path and want to have a thorough understanding of computer science. But with the technology changing so rapidly and new tools always being invented, some learners may have dropped out of formal education because they felt like it was wasting their time. The curriculum development life-cycle just can’t keep pace with this industry . They learn more from Stack Overflow online forums than from their professor. However, they might jump back in to formal study at any point to obtain a specialist skill.

    Scenario 3) A teacher is focused on their profession and has limited time. Through work-based professional development opportunities they develop some skills in using education technology and practice these skills in their classroom. They attend a few Ed Tech conferences and are inspired by other teachers. They start blogging about their classroom experiences and become part of an ongoing learner community. Their mix of practical application and commitment to keep on learning makes them ideal ethnographic researchers who have much to contribute to the academic discussions.

    At the heart of all of this is a learning community – or communities of practice. In my map there is a dragon in the tower which is part of a metaphor I am using for the learning journey, the ancient ‘Hero’s Journey’, which most stories are based on. We are taken away from our comfort zone, past the barriers to fully commit, face the challenges, obtain the boon, fight the dragon, and return to our normal life with our new skills and values integrated into a new version of ourselves. So you may be a part of a learning community but the highest level of status is kept for those who have fought the dragon. Obtaining a uni degree is like conquering the dragon, but there are other rites of passage accepted by this community than a uni degree.

    I am applying gamification principle to this journey and badges are an essential part of the plan. Along the way badges can be earned using various identities rolled up into a Backpack. The badges can also be rolled up into higher level badges and linked to an online evidence portfolio. The one I am working on at the moment maps competencies to portfolio items.

    Like language and currency, any certification (paper, badges etc) are all dependent on both the status of the issuer and the agreed community value at that point in time. Are they really that much different? Badges may fluctuate in value but that doesn’t make them useless. In fact that is what makes them powerful. Any arguments presented for universal vs local monetary system (Euro), or a global language vs a tribal languages can be carried across to the conversation around Digital Badges. The answer is we want (and need ) both. They can exist simultaneously so why waste energy on debating which is best? Bernard’s image describes this concept in a powerful and simple way.

  2. DrEvel1

    I’m not much of a graphic artist, so I’ll respectfully decline your offer to generate a new graphic for you. But to keep the geographical metaphor intact that me suggest that there are two other factors to consider. One is the destination – what’s at the end of each of the roads in your graphic. The second is the nature of your traveling companions – who joins you in your trips down any or all of these roads .

    The issue of the destination is essentially the question of why we need credentials in the first place. Credentialing seems to be essentially a delegation to somebody else of the work involved in finding out someone’s competencies. If you insist that someone has a MCSE credential before you hire them, what you’re really saying is that you need a competent systems engineer but you don’t want to go to all the trouble of testing for that competence yourself. You are relying on a known certification process to establish in advance that competence on the part of your candidate. But as we all know, there are lots of different kinds of competencies, ranging from the highly specific to the very general, and from the absolutely critical to the merely nice-to-have.

    A drivers license is a credential that is relatively unspecific – presumably, it says that you can drive lots of different kinds of vehicles under lots of different kinds of conditions – but also quite critical; unless your ability to drive is established, you ought not to be behind the wheel of anything on the road. A bachelors degree in history certifies only that you have been exposed to a variety of general education and liberal arts course material; it’s not particularly essential for anything except possibly continued study in the same field. The value of such a credential depends much more on who provides and certifies it; a Harvard degree presumably certifies a higher level of accomplishment than a degree from the University of Phoenix. Note that this credential has nothing particular to say about its bearer and everything to say about its issuer.

    In your geographical terms, this suggests that each of these roads may terminate in a different place, characterized by necessity and specificity. If so, then they aren’t particularly substitutable for one another, and the choice of one road or another is fairly constrained. You can’t in most cases substitute one kind of credential for another.

    The issue of traveling companions relates to whether the particular credential needs to be obtained in a group setting rather than an individual exercise. Earning a credential like an MSCE is a matter of private study and individual examination; there aren’t many group dynamics involved in obtaining it. On the other hand, earning a credential from something like Toastmasters is explicitly group based; their certificate is an assurance that you can in fact stand up in front of a group and make yourself understood. A teaching certificate similarly guarantees that you’ve been able to stand in front of room full of students and meaningfully educate them. In these cases, you’ve got to have a body of individuals working together toward a similar certification, and that constrains you in terms of time and location where the certification can take place.

    Once upon a time, a general certificate like a bachelors degree could only be obtained in a group setting. These days, with the proliferation of online and self-directed learning, certificates of this sort have become asynchronous. It’s still an open question whether the quality of the experience is the same whether it’s obtained in a group or by yourself, but you get basically the same piece of paper in either event.

    It might be useful to see these additional two dimensions reflected on your graphic in some form, whether represented by elevation, color of the roadway (blue highways?), size of the vista points represented, or some other convention. It’s particularly important to acknowledge that different roads may end in very different places, and that learning is not entirely fungible in terms of its results.

    I’ll be interested to see how this extended metaphor plays out.

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