Wayne Skipper // April 16, 2018

Creating an Open Pathway for the Next Generation of Learners

Open Pathways Next Gen image

This post originally appeared on Educase Review in March 2018. Header Image: Lightspring / Shutterstock © 2018

I think we can all agree that the job market has changed to such a degree that our traditional methods of preparing learners for the workforce and assessing their career readiness are at a crossroads. Ensuring that these methods appropriately prepare learners for the workforce is as vital to higher education institutions as it is for employers. Questions about the efficacy of existing methods leave students wondering whether the value of an undergraduate education is even worth the (potentially quite high) cost of admission. Employers are searching for specifics — not necessarily specific academic achievements, but specific skills, experiences, and attributes that will increase prospective employees’ likelihood of success.

Completing a four-year program is certainly a notable learning achievement. However, hiring managers’ decisions are increasingly less influenced by a credential some see as having a too-general focus. The shift toward a free and open system of verifiable learning achievements has already begun in earnest, and semantics aside, badges or microcredentials will be the gold standard for learners to create their own pathways to the careers of the future, some of which have yet to be imagined.

Back in 2011 when the Mozilla Foundation created a technical standard called Open Badges, it established a new way to digitally verify learning achievements. The idea was brilliant in its simplicity, and it set the stage for a type of learning assessment that can follow learners from cradle to grave.

Open Badges are based on an open standard and as such can be issued and received by anyone at no cost. Badges can be issued by anyone to anyone, for any reason, and there are multiple places online where you can quickly and easily become an issuer. For higher education, badges represent an alternate mechanism of documenting learning achievements that allows institutions to show value to students and to employers who demand more information than a simple letter grade can provide. To be sure, as a community we have a few details to iron out before we can flip a switch and make wholesale changes to the traditional measures of learning outcomes. But to quote Bob Dylan, the times they are a-changin’.

Technically, an Open Badge is a digital image file with additional, non-image data added to the file at the time of creation. The descriptive metadata includes the badge name, the issuer, the earner, and the criteria met to earn the badge. It may also include a URL associated with the issuer, a link to evidence of learning achievement, and the level of alignment to educational frameworks.

Open Badges can be issued in a variety of simple ways. Typically, you enter an identifier (usually a learner’s email address) into the issuing platform and the badge is sent to that identifier. Badges can also be issued in the Badgr system by scanning a QR code with a cell phone or retroactively through analysis of learner performance data captured via xAPI. With the robust new Open Pathways standard, learners can navigate learning pathways and stack badges to earn master badges, indicating progressive achievement. Perhaps more importantly, Open Pathways allows learners to discover new learning opportunities based on the credentials they already hold.

Learning takes place on many levels and in many environments. Open Badges can be used to a signify a variety of learning events, such as viewing a museum science exhibit, mastering a middle school core competency, earning a high school diploma, or earning an advanced degree or technical certification. A traditional diploma indicates only graduation. Open Badges have the capacity to provide a much more granular picture of a learner’s achievements and skills from early childhood through adult learning.

For employers, the utility and quality of a badge are easily determined by verifying the issuer and the criteria required to earn it. Concentric Sky has also created the BadgeRank service, which is made available as part of Badgr. As with a Google search, anyone can search badges across most of the world’s digital badge platforms, see those results ranked by relevance, and select the resulting badges for inclusion on a learning pathway. Employers, who increasingly search for verifiable skill sets instead of degrees, can review an applicant’s badges to quickly and accurately determine if the individual is the right fit for a position. Applicants can determine exactly which skills employers are looking for to better direct their learning efforts.

These are the sorts of developments that are needed to more effectively connect education outcomes with workforce development, and at Concentric Sky, we believe firmly that this work should be based on open standards and open technology whenever possible. Moreover, we believe that a focus on open standards will enable Badgr and the broader digital badging movement to better meet the needs of the various stakeholders at the rapidly evolving nexus between education and the workforce. As we’ve seen with the growing use of open standards across numerous industries, interoperability is a crucial first step towards creating data-driven practices that can help address questions of efficacy for students, educators, and employers.