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.

Meadows, D. (1999). Leverage points: places to intervene in a system. World91(7), 21. POINT. Retrieved from 

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13 thoughts on “Badge pathways: part 1, the paraquel

  1. Pingback: Badge pathways: part 1, the paraquel | Badges f...

  2. simSchool


    I like the “two pathways” idea (one that emerges, one that a community already recognizes) and these might be like arbored networks in the sphere of knowledge, perhaps with both roots and branches that overlap but also some that are standing alone (for now). The pathways seem to be amenable to network analysis too (so someday will there be a badge that has centrality for several domains? Will there be a “small worlds” network for certain domains? Is the very concept of a domain about to change? Note for example the color fields in your graphic; they seem to be in columns but could be intermixed in a photo-effect of a new integrated field). You have got me thinking today!

    1. Brett Bixler

      So check this out:

      This is another visualization of the concept. I personally love the idea. In FFX, you start on a portion of the Sphere Grid and can see what is immediately available to you, what is “near” to you – meaning you can earn it relatively soon, and what is “far” from you – meaning it will take some time for you to work through the grid, one node at a time to get there.

      What not easy to see here is the ability to “jump” from one portion of the grid to another, or to have multiple, non-contiguous clusters of earned nodes, er, badges. Imagine a central node – a uber-node (meta-badge) that could only be earned by working towards it from multiple, non-contiguous clusters (skill sets) that MIGHT RESIDE IN DIFFERENT BADGING SYSTEMS. In that case you might be working on seemingly non-related multiple nodes over a period of time – only when you have the grid, what seems to be non-related becomes related through your interpretation of the entire grid, nodes earned, and you current path(s).

      IMO this should be built into a badge system.

      Awesome sauce.

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