Category Archives: Pathways trilogy

Badge pathways: part 0, the prequel

This prequel blog post is part of an ongoing trilogy. The trilogy consists of three posts—the prequel, the “quel” and the sequel—plus a bonus paraquel post. The first post to appear, the paraquel, can be found here; the “quel” post can be found here; the prequel post you’re reading right now; and the sequel post is in process. All of these posts provide a window into our thoughts about pathways—past, present and future.

You may have noticed that these posts have come out of order. Why is this so? For a simple reason. Because they’ve occurred to me in this order. And somewhat poetically, their order underscores the exact ideas that I argue in all of these linked posts—that there are few simple linear trajectories, even with blog posts.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away
We started down the road toward making Open Badges a reality about 3 years ago, so it’s possible (and useful!) for us to take a look back to our inception to make sense of the past and provide us with clues about where we might head.

Episode IV: A NEW HOPE
In the beginning, the Open Badge Infrastructure (OBI) was focused on the development of software that allowed people to develop their own badges—badges without traditional definitions or parameters—and with little to no input from socially prevalent hierarchical organizations. Mozilla cheered badge systems that did not hew to limiting linear learning paths, badge systems that investigated new and dynamic ways to recognize learning regardless of where and when and how it occurred. And yet, in those early days we spoke about the OBI only as a sort of plumbing, as a tool that would privilege the earner rather than the badge issuer. By linking people who wanted to create badges with people who chose to earn badges with people who wanted to display and consume badges, we gambled that a meaningful marketplace would arise. This marketplace would foster new types of skill, learning, and competency acknowledgement and encourage new forms of assessment. And all of this would begin to occur in a new way thanks to the space of possibility created by this new tool, the OBI. And so it has.

The force is strong, or the power of disjunctive and conjunctive tasks
In retrospect, it’s easy to see that in addition to creating a dynamic and effective tool we were creating a community-driven movement as well. How did we arrive at that social movement? By alternately marching to the drumbeat outlined above and finding serendipitous alignments with other folks seeking similar objectives. Through the confluence of  disjunctive / conjunctive tasks. But what exactly are disjunctive and conjunctive tasks?

The organizational theorist, I.D. Steiner distinguished between disjunctive tasks, those in which only one person needs to succeed and conjunctive tasks: those in which everyone’s contribution is critical. (Page, 2007, p. xv)

The OBI began as a disjunctive task. In other words, the disjunctive nature of the task required that Mozilla succeed at developing a functional technical implementation of the OBI. The success of the OBI as a tool was of primary importance. And I’m pleased to say that we have built a robust and dynamic, fully functioning tool.

And yet, Open Badges operates as both a tool (and soon a series of tools) and an ecosystem—an ecosystem that houses a series of other systems: individual badge systems created by many different issuing organizations as well as a variety of badge consuming organizations. Each of those systems acts in a conjunctive way in reference to the larger open badges ecosystem. They’re important for the growth, continuity, and development of the ecosystem.

Prequel_single

A single badge system, consisting of a number of badges.

Wheel within wheels
Given that they’re conjunctive for the ecosystem, here’s a bit of a mindbender: each of the individual badge systems operate as disjunctive tasks. They need to depend only on their own systemic integrity to thrive. Consequently, those systems are free to explore, consider and attempt various criteria, assessments, and systems design. Even more of a mindbender? All of those badge systems are in turn, conjunctive: the success or failure of them is dependent upon the individual badges—that are their own disjunctive tasks. And yes, this can all seem a bit fractal.

Prequel_types

Similar types of badge systems begin to coalesce into a rough typology.

Indeed, this systemic plasticity creates a space of possibility and is one of the primary reasons why we (Mozilla) encourage so much developmental experimentation and why we support so many alternative approaches to assessment. The Open Badges ecosystem can accommodate significant speculative load. All this is to say that together, as a community, we’ve developed a truly distributed information project.

Setting the stage for growth
Or how we rely on the kindness of our community member to develop, improve, and police our system.

As the economic historian Paul David pointed out to [Scott Page], one of the great challenges in constructing distributed organizations is transforming conjunctive tasks into disjunctive tasks. For example, the success in open-source software development requires an initial template that modularizes the problem into a collection of disjunctive parts.
(Page, 2007, p. xvi).

Dawning of the open badges ecosystem

Dawning of the open badges ecosystem: many types of disjunctive badge systems begin to form.

Et voilà! Here you have the Open Badge Infrastructure. A loosely designed system rooted in this precise theory: distributed co-creation. And by direct and indirect extension, really any badge system that operates within the open badges parameters and framework.

Prequel_beginning

As badge systems increase within the ecosystem, system strengths and network ties appear.

Resilience as a result of a conjunctive system
It may seem obvious, but on the off chance that it’s not, let’s discuss what we’ve been somewhat indirectly addressing here: resilience. As I’ve noted in previous blog posts, there is great value to having an extremely resilient system. In its current iteration, the larger system (the Open Badges ecosystem) can accommodate failure because all of the systems can act both independently and interdependently. We might consider the open badges ecosystem’s ability to withstand failure—its resilience—to be one of its absolute strengths.

Some of this may have come from extremely savvy planning, some of it may have come from working with the community to build an agreeable tool and some of it may have come from luck. To quote from George Lucas, “when Star Wars first came out, I didn’t know where it was going either. The trick is to pretend you’ve planned the whole thing out in advance.”

Prequel_middle

The open badges ecosystem continue to evolve, developing systemic resilience.

All this talk about what’s come before, what about pathways? As noted above, these posts are stitching together our experiences thus far, seeking a narrative for our ecosystem pathway. Along similar lines, we’ve been finding some resonance with Bitcoin (open source P2P money) as an analogue to the development of a new system possessing social value. Of course that product also includes actual financial value as well and so is a whole other kettle of fish. (As for the conceptual trajectory Bitcoin has been tracing, now there’s an interesting pathway worth examining closely. Possibly more about that in a future post.)

To be continued…

Distributed problem solving can be thought of as a form of innovation. This opening up of innovation activities is sometimes called distributed co-creation. The diverse toolboxes that people bring to problems enable large populations to enable novel breakthroughs. (Page, 2007, p. xvii)

Prequel_finalfull

The thriving open badges ecosystem contains various types of badge systems: an expansive, inclusive universe.

Using distributed problem solving as our lodestone, we’ll continue to move ahead. We’re creating new opportunities as we go, charting new directions for other organizations to follow, and encouraging the development of the badge universe to continue to expand. We’re embracing emergence and encouraging novelty.

Much more soon.

references:
Page, S. (2007). The difference: how the power of diversity creates better groups, firms, schools and societies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Available from: http://press.princeton.edu/titles/8757.html

Hibbard, J. (2010). George lucas sends a letter to lost. Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Wars#Prequel_trilogy

Badge pathways: part 2, the “quel”

badgetypes1badgetypes2badgetypes3


In the badge pathways paraquel post we discussed the importance of the whole system and how your badges can coalesce into something greater than its parts. But let’s talk about what the parts of the system are. The parts of the system can include badges, goals, earners, organizations, stakeholders, and time. Why is it important to discuss these when we’re talking about badge pathways? Because your badge pathways will come about through pushes and pulls in the system; through different desires and needs manifesting themselves through the medium of badges.

Chains of importance, cowpaths & desire paths
In a recent conversation on the Webmaker google group, Christian Briggs shared some of his thinking about badge pathways. He mentioned a process of discovery he and a team had worked out that addressed chains of importance for all folks. This aligns with much of our earlier thinking and writing here.

At a meeting about the future of badges earlier this year, I floated the idea of badge pathways as essentially cowpaths. I mentioned this in reference to the idea of “paving the cowpaths”; seeing where the traffic goes and then paving where the paths are worn. As you can imagine, if you’re not familiar with this phrase and its related concept, it can take some getting used to. Rafi Santo kindly jumped in to offer the much more preferable desire paths. But regardless of the language used, what’s valuable and important here is where someone wants to go versus where they’re told to go.

Descriptive pathways vs. prescriptive pathways
Let’s take a minute to understand the difference between descriptive approaches and prescriptive approaches. Descriptive pathways approaches seek to acknowledge the ways that people willfully choose to earn badges. This technique may feel more natural to the badge earner since they’re defining their own paths. In this manner, the badge earner makes use of personal agency. Prescriptive approaches seek to declare one standard or recommended badge earning path over another. It can feel more limiting and formal. The badge earner is compelled to follow the proposed pathway or drop out of the pathway. Each approach has its own pluses and minuses.

The three-fold path
Several potential uses of these two approaches exist. For example, people may choose to (or be compelled to) move through a badge system in these three ways:

  1. Command path: suggested or recommended badge arcs.
  2. Contract path: desired or pledged badge groupings.
  3. Badge desire path: independently followed or pursued badge passages.

The importance of the distinctions between these paths cannot be overemphasized. Why? Because to the earner, each of these avenues will feel very different.

badgeflows

Part of the beauty of open badges in general is their extreme flexibility. This flexibility extends all the way from their creation to their earning, from their earning to their consumption. The system is designed to accommodate flexibility and alternative uses. This means that all badge creators/issuers are developing badge systems that will express emergence—one way or another. And one of the ways that emergence will come about is in the ways that people will choose to progress through your badges. So let’s return to the three different pathways.

Command pathways
The command approach is the most prescriptive: it relies on a formal, structured and recommended path. Most likely, this badge pathway will be linear—a straight line from one learning experience to another. This is not unlike what occurs in many school courses.

Contract pathways
The contract path encourages the earner to think about and select a potential learning arc. In the strictest sense, it, too, is prescriptive. But because its prescriptiveness is set forth by the earner herself, the potentially dictatorial nature does not carry the same paternalistic qualities.

Desire pathways
The badge desire path carries with it the greatest capacity for knowledge and system emergence. When there is no prescribed pathway, people can find the way that makes sense to them; can choose to follow other people’s paths or can strike out in very different directions.

The learning trail
All badge earners leave behind a trail. That badge trail may prove to represent merely a series of required steps; that path may illustrate a series of revealing, personally inspired choices, or that path may appear to be erratic and nonsensical, indicating nothing. But rarely is that last example the case. All of these directions may make perfect sense to the badge earner. But perhaps the one that makes the most sense to her is her own constructed narrative: the path that she develops a story about, even if her story can only be understood in retrospect. Sense-making often occurs after an experience: that doesn’t render the process any less meaningful, even if that process has seemed peculiarly arbitrary and idiosyncratic. They’re sending you messages about finding meaning and building personal value in the midst of communication chaos. And do not underestimate the immense power of self-reflection and self-assessment. Indeed, the badge earning iconoclast asks the badge system—and the people designing it—to not only acknowledge their atypical badge pathway approaches but also to appreciate their unique ability to see what might be rather than what is. They’re your badge system’s true north.

- – -

More soon.
carla [at] mozillafoundation [dot] org

Badge pathways: part 1, the paraquel

badgepathwaysA few weeks ago I posted this image and stated that I would be following up with several posts about badge pathways. In particular, how they fit into our work at Mozilla along several different lines: the web literacy standard, webmaker, and open badges. Straightforward, yes?

Badge system design, white papers & badge pathways
Sort of. This is the paraquel (!) post coming before the quel itself. I have an inkling that there’s a prequel yet to be created because quite some time ago I started a post about how these tasks all come together from a conjunctive / disjunctive approach. In fact, all sorts of -quels are in the offing, the main event being a white paper about Badge System Design. While I have written quite a few blog posts about badge system design before, a solid white paper along with some example cases will help to more fully explain our direction of thought travel.

So, let’s take a minute to talk about what step comes both after badge system design and very much in the middle of it: badge pathways. Like many complex, long-form thoughts, it’s hard to say exactly when this idea began to ease itself into the (badge system design) picture.

The threequel
But first, a look down the road to where the next few posts will be heading. This first post will address how we got to thinking about badge pathways from a badge system design perspective. The following second post will address how we’re working with them and where they might be effective. And the third and final post will consider how badge pathways might link together vast systems to more accurately represent the individual learner and how that might be represented.

Finding networks
About two weeks ago at Dan Hickey’s digital badges design principles workshop, just prior to the DML conference in Chicago, I had the opportunity to speak to many of the impressive DML winners. Dan’s work along with his grad students’ work digs into some really interesting areas arising from grantees’ experiences. The DML grantees have created some amazing badges and badge systems and hearing them describe their work as the day progressed was particularly enjoyable, especially when they discovered unanticipated commonalities with each other.

During that gathering, Dan asked me to speak to the assembled group about the importance of badge system visualization, an absolutely sound and worthy discussion point. I started off with the best of intentions about responding to his extremely rational request but soon enough found myself diving into a soliloquy about badge pathways. It was a heady few moments. One in which I may have even asserted something along these lines, “Badge pathways are more important than badges themselves.”

What?! To the attending audience this statement may have seemed completely strange and unexpected. Yet with a bit of pruning, that statement is true. Badge pathways are just as important as badges themselves. And, with a bit of hindsight, I now realize that a visualization like the one above begins to illustrate exactly how relevant that comment was, so I was answering the question Dan asked, but I was speaking about it in a new way.

What’s a badge pathway?
A quick sidebar to clarify what we mean by badge pathways. Let’s start with what they’re not. Badge pathways are not necessarily predefined, nor are they limited to one educational category or issuing organization or type of learning, nor do they necessarily have an end point.

And now let’s address what they are. Badge pathways can be and most likely will be entirely emergent. This, friends, is from whence all their magic derives. Badge pathways provide people with opportunities to make decisions based in personal agency, to define steps that may seem more like hops, and to think about ways to do things that aren’t sequential or even seemingly rational. They allow earners to link unexpected badges (read concepts, learning, achievements, etc.) together in exciting and unanticipated ways. They allow folks to connect the outlying dots that constitute lifelong learning. And while predefined badge pathways can provide easy and simple directions and pointers along a certain direction, the self-defined or peer-defined or team-defined pathway can resonate in ways that may prove far more meaningful to an individual than those that are suggested by experts. Badge pathways can act as a form of distributed intelligence. In that way, badge pathways are inextricably linked to badge system design.

Order from chaos
What we have repeatedly spoken about—that your badge system design must be flexible, that there are multiple ways to learn things, that badges are outcomes of learning—is still all true. But as you work through your badge system, as it evolves past the first 10 or so badges, you’ll find that prescriptive and descriptive approaches begin to come seriously into play. In other words, the angle with which your badge system is viewed can easily shift from a prescribed series of steps to a free for all wherein earners pick and choose their own way and the pathways you think you’ve created are not the paths that people are following. Here’s an opportunity to embrace the chaos of your system. Chaos that given enough time will reveal order. Order that will have evolved from actual usage.

The most stunning thing living systems and social systems can do is to change themselves utterly by creating whole new structures and behaviors.… The ability to self-organize is the strongest form of resilience. … Self-organization is basically the combination of an evolutionary raw material—a highly variable stock of information from which to select possible patterns—and a means for experimentations, for selcting and testing new patterns. … The source of variety is human creativity… (Meadows, 1999, pp 14-15)

A recommendation
When you are deep into designing your badge system, pause. Look outward: consider the bigger picture that your earner will see. Imagine the thrill of being a learning explorer charting new territory with badges as your guideposts! Now with that new perspective, rough out some potential badge pathways that do not solely include your badges—that include far flung and seemingly unrelated badges. Begin to imagine a future where your badges mingle with and build on a variety of other badges; where new constellations of learning pathways evolve into being from earners devising their own paths, guided by light from distant badge galaxies.

More soon.

references:
Meadows, D. (1999). Leverage points: places to intervene in a system. World91(7), 21. POINT. Retrieved from http://www.sustainer.org/pubs/Leverage_Points.pdf 

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