Learning pathways and badge system designs

Digital badges

A digital badge is a visual symbol of accomplishment. Badges can be awarded for any definable achievement and earned in many learning environments, games or the workplace. An Open Badge is a specialized type of digital badge that contains verifiable metadata about achievements according to a common data format, the Open Badges specification.

Badges can be organized into badge systems and learning pathways:

[Each badge] defines a relationship with an image and metadata. A badge can be used to show how an authority recognizes an earner's achievement, for example, but the important thing is that it describes the relationship between these entities such that the audience can discern its value. That value is often understood in terms of the competencies and other objectives that the badge represents. –Nate Otto

Badges can be awarded for achievements of all kinds, such as:

  • Interest and engagement
  • Participation
  • Attendance
  • Knowledge or dispositions
  • Formal certification (degrees, certificates)
  • Proficiency, competency or skill

Digital badges can be awarded for many purposes, including informal and formal learning, inside educational institutions and businesses, as well as outside. These badges can aggregate and shed light on the interests, capabilities and accomplishments of learners. Badges can serve as the stepping stones on a learning pathway.

Learning pathways

A learning pathway is the chosen route individuals complete as they progress through a range of specific courses, academic programs and learning experiences. It's a roadmap describing the landscape of a field, program or specialization. Pathways are made of steps that represent requirements, competencies or other "real-world" experiences and take the form of a hierarchy of nested steps.

Canvas Credentials allows issuers to define the learning pathways through their areas of expertise and connects steps to the badges that represent each one. Badges from multiple issuers or nested child steps can be set as a required badge for a step, and a badge may be configured as a "milestone badge" to be awarded automatically when an earner meets those requirements.

Learning pathways serve as the scaffolding and trajectory to understanding progression and experience. Canvas Credentials allows communities to organize their badge programs to fit into shared pathways to better connect experiences across multiple learning contexts.

Pathway steps can be organized around digital badge systems that are already implemented or can assist with the design of new systems by providing structure. Badges and pathways are defined by a community's understanding of what people have accomplished to get there. For example, communities can build a common understanding of the training a mechanic, teacher or doctor might need to be successful in their occupation(s), even as individuals might gather their own sets of experiences from different opportunities.

Different types of pathways

Pathways are a means for people to explore their way through different badging experiences to find new opportunities or realize new futures. The destination of two travelers is not necessarily born from the same pathway. A pathway may have multiple routes to the same endpoint; have multiple entry points to achieve similar outcomes; or outcomes may diverge based on the path taken.

Personal interests, accomplishments, family, friends and various life activities all shape who we are, the interactions we have and how we learn. Those are the customizing features that make us who we are as individuals and influence the paths we follow or choose. Just as your high school classmates, a cohort of medical students or a soccer club may intersect on a path, each person customizes their own destination and means of arriving there.

Prescriptive pathways seek to declare one homogenized, standard or recommended badge earning path. Typically these approaches rely on a form, structure and recommended path laid by institutions, governments, private companies or other formalized education plans. This badge pathway will likely be linear — a straight line from one learning experience to another.

Descriptive pathways seek to acknowledge the ways people consciously and willfully choose to earn badges. A descriptive pathway is a more natural approach for a badge recipient since s/he’s defining his/her own path. When there’s no prescribed pathway, people find the way that makes sense to them, choose to follow other people’s paths or strike out in very different directions.

Until recently, most pathways have focused on prescriptive, institutional or corporate learning objectives/achievements, ignoring the successful learning from unstructured environments such as book clubs, volunteer activities and other extracurricular interests. Badges are a means to recognize those opportunities and incorporate their benefits into creating an accurate digital portrayal of accomplishments.

Pathway structure varies

Pathway complexities vary depending on the individual's career goals, personal interests and experiences. Some pathways may be short, while others may be lifelong. Pathway structure takes on many forms and badging for these pathways may be simple, linear or complexly interconnected. Those active in the Open Badges space have organized their thinking into competing pathway taxonomies. For example, in 2014, the Open Badges Discovery project identified four possible structures for pathways (linear, freeform, tiered and clustered).

pathway structure varies

Carla Casilli's badge system design research provided another set https://wiki.mozilla.org/Badges/bsd/wiki of defined learning pathways with an alternate set of four structures:

  • Simple — badges are only related because they come from the same issuer (e.g., a university)
  • Linearly connected — one badge leads to another (e.g., beginner, intermediate, advanced)
  • Complexly interconnected or non-linearly connected — badges cross categories and don’t follow a linear pathway (e.g., attendance award, pharmaceutical training)
  • Complex cross-system linking — badges are connected to badges from other issuer’s systems (e.g., university CS degree, Microsoft programming certification, Cisco data security credential)

While both of these schools of thought on pathway structure may be a useful lens into how to think about organizing badge systems, it's important to note the field is evolving and rapidly being defined as new issuers, earners and recipients enter the arena.

Canvas Credentials Pathways

Theoretically, pathway structure concepts are well accepted; however, operationalizing them into an applied application can be a challenge. Canvas Credentials implementation of pathway structure is based on a hierarchically organized set of steps. Completing each micro-step can be thought of as the pieces that form a pathway to the parent objective(s).

The Canvas Credentials pathway structure is not overly complex, making it accessible to many use cases while providing enough structure to offer a common way to think about badge system design, including defining the achievement of an individual or organization's learning goals.

The graphic below depicts the pathways Canvas Credentials employs to support badge earners. You can see the nested structure of steps in it, modeling real-world relationships between concepts that people understand as categories or containers full of smaller component ideas. Looking at Pathway B, you can see three levels of steps, where some have a badge associated and others have only child pathway steps. A badge may be shared between multiple pathways published by the same issuer.

badgr pathways

Pathway design considerations

When integrating a badge system, it's important to think about your badges as a whole. How will you implement them? What kind of badges are you awarding? How often will you award badges? Are badge earners allowed to test out of specific steps, demonstrate relevant competencies or bring in badges earned from other issuers? Rather than plodding through the creation of each badge, one by one, how might you organize them in a meaningful way for the recipient and consumer? For pathway design, identification of purpose, structure and achievement are critical no matter if you are starting from scratch or badge mapping an existing system.

Purpose (steps)
  • Guide decisions: Are you recognizing competencies or tracking progress through the curriculum — Is the pathway meant to be completed in full or to show specialization across a range of options?
  • Use community definitions: What values do you want to recognize that are already accepted in your community?
Structure (shape)
  • Movement: How do you expect people to move through the pathway, leveling up or getting from point A to point B?
  • Customizable or prescribed: Is the learner allowed to pick and choose specializations or do they follow a path of prescribed objectives?
Achievement (endpoint)
  • Acceptance of external badges: Does the pathway recognize and/or incorporate badges earned from other or more than one issuer(s)?
  • Assessment: What are the assessment practices required to implement recognition of badges for steps in the pathway?
  • Collection: Does the collection of badges clearly demonstrate the objectives of the pathway, and is it understood by the community?

Mapping existing systems vs. new learning systems

One of the biggest considerations when designing pathways is the distinction between (a) integrating badges into an existing curriculum and (b) creating a badge system and a curriculum at the same time.

"When badges are being added to a pre-existing curriculum, the curriculum may constrain the way learning is recognized. For example, if an existing curriculum is not aligned to standards, it is very difficult to align a badge to standards. Alternatively, when the curriculum is being developed alongside badges, the options for both may seem limitless and overwhelming. A pre-existing curriculum can importantly help to structure design decisions. There are specific advantages for either approach." —source:

Let the experts help!

If the thought of designing badges and learning pathways seems overwhelming, there are resources and experts that can help. Canvas Credentials is a fully open-source platform for awarding badges. It can be integrated with many other platforms (e.g. LMS, CRM) or developed as a custom stand-alone app. We've been involved in setting badge standards and are part of the thought-leadership in the emerging concept of learning pathways mapping and standards. We can support your efforts every step of the way, from creating your badge and learning pathway system to simply providing some gentle nudges to steer you in the right direction.

Other resources to consider:

Creating badges as an issuer in Canvas Badges.

Badge system design template, by Carla Casilli