Quantum Mechanics of Learning

Recently, as I have discussed the atomic elements of learning, it includes things like:

  • Competencies (Standards): Definition of learning one ought to acquire
  • Pathways (Courses): Relationships between learning objects
  • Badges (Credentials): Proof of a learning accomplishment
  • Resources (Opportunities): Something one can use for a learning experience

or more simply, from the learner’s perspectives:

  • Competencies define learning (What should I learn?)
  • Badges offer proof of learning (Did I learn it?)
  • Opportunities are used for learning (How can I learn it?)
  • Pathways set relationships between learning (In what order should I learn?)

I have struggled with which of the first 3 elements should be nodes on a learning pathway (the aspirational idea we’ve been talking about for a couple years). The more I sketch and dwell on it, the more I am convinced that the concept of the pathway is actually something that should apply, separately, to each of the 3 elements. And still, each of the 3 elements can map to a node on a different elements pathway. In fact, I would go so far as to nominate the word “pathway” to exclusively be used in reference to resources (a.k.a learning materials or in-person opportunities), because the word implies past use. A “pathway” is not a untravelled route one might take, but rather a route that is and has been taken. An untravelled route is getting off “the beaten path”.

To clarify this, another semantic iteration is necessary:

The 3 primary elements are:

  1. Competency
  2. Credential
  3. Resource

and each of these can be expressed on a graph with a linear or non-learner ordering or nested relationships.

public domain: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graph_theory#/media/File:6n-graf.svg

The significance of the graph for each element is different:

A competency graph is a prerequisite structure

In the open badges framework a credential graph is often utilized as either a prerequisite structure or an uber-credential (e.g. a meta-badge)

A resource graph then, has a lot of names: a syllabus or course catalog or playlist or knowledge map, or, perhaps, pathway.


An issue that has been persistent in this work arises here again:

Are badges really that different from competencies?

I think they are, but to maintain this distinction we need to differentiate the terms better between the competency graph and the credential graph.

For this, let’s explore a poor metaphor:

I’m taking a trip to Vatican City…

  • a competency is my destination on a map: Vatican City
  • a credential is proof of my arrival: the selfie I take in the Sistene Chapel as one part of a larger scrapbook documenting my journey and proving my arrival
  • a resource is means by which I arrive: perhaps, the taxi I used to get to the Sistene Chapel

Each of these can be graphed:

  • Where I want to go: before I arrived at my destination in Vatican City (my competency), I flew first to New York, then through Frankfurt, then took a train, then walked to the Sistene Chapel — a prerequisite structure!
  • Proof I have arrived: before I took my selfie (my credential) in the Sistene Chapel, I captured and proved my arrival in many other places in my scrapbook.
  • Means to facilitate arrival: before I took the taxi (my resource) I had to take 3 planes, 2 trains, another taxi, use a suitcase, etc.

Here, the competency graph is a map; the credential graph is a set of proofs that are part of a scrapbook or registry; and the resource graph is a means of traversal or a collection of means.

In an attempt to choose some names:

  • I like competency map as the unique name for the competency graph, it speaks to the aspirational nature of competencies, both for the learner — “Here is where I want to go” — and the educator — “Here is what I want to teach.”
  • I like credential registry or credential narrative as the unique name for the credential graph (this implies that there is a set of proof being acquired into a history or archive).
  • I like resource collection as the unique name for the resource graph (this implies ongoing curation of something that could consist of tools and things for use)

Of course, it might just make sense to refer to these groups of elements in consistent terms, as the competency graph, credential graph, and resource graph. I think I like this better…


The final trick then, of course, is to fully understand the relationship between the elements and their graphs.

Can you have a 1:1:1 relationship between a competency, credential, and resource graph?

Can individual credentials and resources be mapped to nodes on a competency graph?

Most importantly, what is the data model that makes all of this clear and interoperable?

More soon on the ramifications of this and how it might affect the development of the nascent learning maps project.