No path for badging (or MOOCs)

Khan Academy Learning Dashboard

Yesterday I (virtually) attended a great chat with Sal Khan of the Khan Academy. I posed a question that was fortunate enough to be aggregated with others. When asked about the “knowledge map,” Sal responded that it is where they are “investing most heavily.”

My guess is, the Khan Academy folks are investing because they have already grasped what badging and MOOC proponents have not — single courses or competencies do not translate to deep learning.

If you’re not familiar with the Knowledge Map, it’s a tool that plots the relationship between related concepts in a given subject (currently math). A learner can thus use the map to forge a path to higher levels of learning in that subject, or to move down to more foundational topics when they find themselves in too deep.

Thus, the Knowledge Map forms the curriculum for self-paced, online learning. Without the clear path that a curriculum provides, a learner can have a difficult time knowing what they do not know — or where best to expand their knowledge.

Currently, MOOCs and badge/competency-based programs largely have not addressed this problem. Learners pick courses based on interesting titles, or notable teachers. As good as many of the online programs might be, without a surrounding curriculum many learners hop from one interest area to another.

Certainly badges play a role as a new form of certifying achievement in a discrete subject area (and in motivating learning). MOOCs also play a great role of opening access to great course content.

Yet, on their own, badges and MOOCs foster dilettantism in learning. Students who have taken this approach in traditional higher education have traditionally not been successful. It stands to reason that online learners working on their own might reach a similar fate.

4 thoughts on “No path for badging (or MOOCs)”

  1. Hi John,

    I understand your point but would suggest that it’s worth distinguishing the ideas and technologies around badges or MOOCs from their current instantiations. It’s certainly true that many badge initiatives offer only discrete badges or badges scaffolded together around a course or that many MOOCs are fire and forget courses rather than guided programs – but that’s an implementation issue.

    Thinking of badges one could scaffold badges to support a curriculum or program just as easily as one offers traditional registry services. On top of that badges would also offer the incremental capability to recognize cross-cutting themes or skills through a program. However, as you say few current badge initiatives have this broader outlook and focus on more granular recognition. This would shift rapidly if, for example, an institution offered badges for courses and programs in parallel with transcripts. Alternatively, taking one of the really interesting groups working in this area – such as – I’m not sure if they pass or flunk your criticism – they’re taking a bigger picture but don’t know their work well enough to know if they’re matching experience to simple buckets of criteria or to a richer knowledge map like approach.

    For MOOCs, yes there’s a lot of single course and incomplete offerings that are a tad frustrating but looking at ‘s gen ed program or EDx’s xseries programs – I think it’s more MOOC immaturity than an intrinsic encouragement of dabbling.

  2. Hi John,
    Thanks for the great comment! I can definitely take your point that it may be a case of “not being there yet,” but unfortunately much of the press on MOOCs and badges doesn’t frame it this way (they’re supposedly bringing the end of higher education).

    The difficulty I see is the difficulty of the implementation. Technology aside, I don’t think many have considered the planning that needs to be involved in stringing together a learning path. A learner can’t be expected to know what they don’t know. While curiosity can take one far, I’m not sure it lends itself to the broad-base of knowledge that one is forced to experience in a traditional education.

    To take the badge analogy to it’s end, a Boy Scout earns badges towards succeeding ranks. I agree that badges might be a good supplement to a traditional degree, but don’t see them making up a full learning experience on their own.

    In the end, I don’t disagree that it’s a work in progress. I’m pushing back (perhaps too hard) on the notion that automated, online learning can take the place of a traditional experience.

  3. Hi John,

    Thanks for sharing this with me.

    I can imagine people in the “learning sciences” figuring out how to articulate badges with the kind of Knowledge Map you described. Whether they will or not, remains to be seen.

    I also think that some of the work with badges by educators working with younger learners might have “relational” learning in mind. I would have to dig deeper to know for certain, but I think some of those experimenting with and thinking about badges, like Dan Hicks at Indiana, are mindful of the concerns you raise.

    The U.C.-Davis program in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems may be an example of a medium point in which faculty have developed a program, and associate badges with accomplishments and achievements that cross course and field experiences.

    But, perhaps more to the point, is that badges will likely gain the most traction in being awarded for discrete skills and accomplishments associated with occupational standards that can be expressed as “competencies.” And, it is likely to be commercial testers and credential developers, like Professional Examination Services, as well as larger, private education and workforce preparation firms that will bring badges to the masses.

    It is also likely that badges will enter academia at the community college level, and even there, in the non-credit and continuing education terrain, before they enter traditional four-year institutions in a major way.



    P.S. Did you ask why Khan is all of a sudden advertising in a big way on television? What is the competition they are worrying about?

Comments are closed.