Competency-based Learning

From Badges to Breakthroughs: Unleashing Learner Potential through Competency-based Achievements

In the past year, we’ve seen rapid-fire and highly publicized new phenomena in education. Even those of us who cause and live the changes in educational technology have been taken aback by the rapid rise of MOOCs and other developments. But of course it’s not just about MOOCs. There are a convergence of transformative changes that challenge some of the foundational assumptions of higher education, one of which is the course as the primary unit of educational “currency.”

In Nov. 2012, Josh Jarrett (Deputy Director, Education, Postsecondary Success, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) commented that the rapidity of change that we’re currently experiencing in education is real and unprecedented (informal discussion with Deb Everhart). Watershed phenomena include:

  • High-profile brand universities are increasing the pressure on all higher ed institutions to promote their brands in MOOCs or be left out. This has accelerated the MOOC stampede, and it has also brought widespread public attention to free online learning opportunities.
  • Professors are seeing their peers become MOOC super-stars and are jealous, wanting to do the same. This has generated angst but also new curiosity among educational practitioners who’ve been generally uninterested in online learning.
  •  The case of UVA President Teresa Sullivan demonstrated the heightened visibility of online learning concerns among legislators and university boards. This brought national visibility to questions about whether universities should be run more like businesses and whether more students can achieve degrees while decreasing costs but not decreasing quality.
  •   The student loan debt of Americans reached $1 trillion and surpassed credit-card debt and auto loan debt. The “bomb” of this increasing debt burden has been widely publicized as not only pulling down individuals and families, but also hindering economic growth overall.

These phenomena, among others, are driving the increasing consumerism of education and the demand for low-cost, reasonable-quality educational experiences. Innovative institutions are beginning to respond to this demand by developing a variety of approaches, including:

  • Credit for completing MOOCs, whether or not those courses are offered by the institution giving credit.
  • More robust and flexible ways of providing prior learning credits.
  • Verifications of competencies from a variety of learning contexts, and bundling these competencies into credits.

Examples like these are still credit-based. Even more provocative examples use badges, social learning reputation frameworks, and non-traditional validation of skills and abilities to construct alternative credentials that are starting to get respected for employment and other opportunities.

So what happens if/when courses are no longer the coin of the realm, and increasingly learners acquire skills and demonstrable knowledge through individual learning activities from multiple providers that have been unbundled/disaggregated from traditional educational frameworks? Clay Shirky has argued that MOOCs are the MP3 of higher education, threatening to disrupt current business models when consumers expect easier, cheaper access to individual components of education, rather than being forced to buy the whole “album” from a traditional provider (“Higher Education: Our MP3 is the MOOC”).

Can we position the phenomena driving changes in education to unleash new opportunities for learners and educators? Possibilities include:

  • Traditional degrees and certificates that are composed of traditional credits, but the credits are compiled from courses plus a variety of other sources, such as prior learning credits, community service, and badge frameworks. Many institutions already offer some version of this type of opportunity, but they are not as widespread or well-understood by students as could be beneficial.
  •  Alternative credentials that substitute for a traditional degree or certificate, composed of demonstrated/validated competencies that are tailored to the desired output. Examples are emerging in some vocational areas, such as specific manufacturing skill sets, where the source of the learning is insignificant in comparison to the verified ability to perform a job.
  •  Fluid, lifelong engagement in learning communities that provide reputation frameworks for peer validation, with badging and other output designations of achievements. As these communities evolve, we can expect them to vary broadly in their quality and applicability to the purposes of higher education, but certainly a subset of these learning opportunities will displace and/or contribute to degrees and credentials.


The capabilities for these possibilities already exist. Emerging technologies make it increasingly easy to track and aggregate learning activities, as well as provide assessment and human/social validation. Data visualizations from learning analytics make it easier than ever before to find and develop learning connections (human and intellectual), formulate alternative learning paths and track progress, gather evidence of learning, and combine achievements for a variety of purposes. Badge frameworks are being integrated into many different types of learning environments.


None of us will pretend that there are not significant barriers to these opportunities, including ponderous institutional infrastructures and attitudes, inflexible policy and regulatory frameworks, and centuries of ingrained expectations about what it means to be educated. No doubt in 2013 we will also see numerous examples of failures and poor quality offerings that will adversely color this market space. But failure to shape these opportunities could severely disadvantage traditional educational institutions, even help create a marketplace of alternatives that degrade education without optimizing learning.


Many are trying to gauge the impact of MOOCs in the coming months and years. But it’s critical to see MOOCs as just one factor in a broader set of phenomena that are fundamentally reshaping education. Writing about MOOCs and alternative credentialing, Thomas Friedman postulates “nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty…. nothing has more potential to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems” (“Revolution Hits the Universities”). We should expect that learners will increasingly demand flexible learning opportunities, and by providing them, we can contribute to changes that fire learning enthusiasm, improve learner success, and ultimately increase human potential.

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