The Atomic Elements of Learning

In the early stages of designing the future Cities of Learning platform, we have discussed the types of elements that live within learning systems. In the effort to create a fully interoperable digital learning framework, we struggle to create something that is both uniquely customizable and machine readable. How can we let humans express the nuances of learned subjects, while also codifying that learning in a way that is easily sorted, analyzed, and ordered? The answer lies somewhere in the middle and requires us to solve two simultaneous challenges that arise amidst the 3 atomic(ish) elements of learning.

Our initial work on Cities of Learning and Open Badges has been confused by a lack of definition between these three elements: credentials, competencies, and resources. How do these three elements relate? Which element is the smallest and least divisible? What do we need to build to properly represent them? What complicates this discussion is that, in certain cases, the three elements can look very similar and have a 1:1:1 relationship. For example, one could have a resource (a “Chisel-Sharpening Workshop”), a credential (the “Chisel-Sharpener” badge) and a competency (“Chisel Sharpening”) that were, essentially, identical. This, however, is a special case. The framework designed to express these elements must be something that has proper significance in all cases, even if it seems redudant in some. To design this framework, we must de-conflate these three elements and understand their unique role.

Resource: Any opportunity that can be used for learning, including both local and digital resources, people and media.

Credential: An artifact that proves you have learned or experienced something of value.

Competency: A specific knowledge, skill, or disposition you have acquired as a result of your learning experience.

And don’t forget the wildcard modifier: difficulty.

Credentials and Competencies

To start, we need to reconcile the proof of learning (credentials) with the outcomes of learning (competencies). This requires a certain degree of humility and creativity. The easy but incorrect approach is to conflate the two. Can’t we just credential each competency and then bundle those proofs-of-competency into larger credentials?

As logical as this sounds, this does not account for the complexity of human development. Learning is not limited to the acquisition of orderly elements, it is the formation of an identity and the pursuit of better ways to know and do and live. Moreover, the primary focus on competencies as the atomic element is problematically reductionist. Learning experiences are at their best when they are creative, interdisciplinary, and formational. Designing strictly for competencies is antagonistic to good learning design where a more a holistic approach is required.

Credentials cannot be divided exactly into a number of competencies. To support creative learning design, we need to support both credentials and competencies as related, but uniquely irreducible elements. Credentials provide a creative construct for creators to define and provide proof for the whole scope of the experience. A credential could include:

  • a description of the overall experience
  • details of the activities
  • qualitative claims about the student by the instructor
  • evidence created by the student
  • specific criteria required to earn the credential

Credentials provide proof, definition, and evidence on behalf of the overall learning experience. Competencies, then, provide an extra layer of definition by calling out specific non-unique outcomes that were part of the larger experience. The role of competencies is to call out improvements in abilities that are common to many experiences.

I’ve been watching World Cup Soccer, so I think a good sports example is in order. In the World Cup, each soccer player has a unique identity and a cumulative set of unique experiences. Yet, within their uniqueness, they have common traits: ball-handling, leadership, muscle-mass, etc. The players cannot be fully defined by their common traits, they are unique players and must be understood as a whole. Still, when we begin to compare them to other players, we begin to reference those commons traits. e.g. “Abby Wambach is so much taller than the Colombian goalie.” or “Meghan Klingenberg has better ball-handling skills than the other defenders”. To talk about soccer players, we need two kinds of elements: whole people and specific traits.

The whole is not the sum of its parts. When we are talking about human identities and lived experiences, the wholes are creative, complex, and not entirely reducible. Similarly, using credentials and competencies in combination allows learners and educators to be simultaneously complex and specific. Despite the limitations of credentials, they are a generic structure that allows the creative capturing of an entire learning experience. Competencies, then, can map onto credentials and point out specific common outcomes.

To summarize:

Credentials: Provide a proven story of the learning experiences.

Competencies: Reference specific transferable outcomes.


Adding the third element, resources, into the mix makes a crowd of three elements. As we build the future of Open Badges and learning resource platforms like City of Learning, how should resources signify their relationship to credentials and competencies?

Utilizing a resource (something you learn from, e.g. a workshop or a book or a game) can result in a learner acquiring a new competency or a credential, but there is not always a one-to-one relationship. You do not complete one resource and gain one credential or one competency. What confuses this issue is that, very often, there is a one-to-one ratio. Sometimes you do sign up for a single class (a resource) and earn a single credential. Sometimes a credential represents a single competency.

To best signify the three-fold relationships and the complexities that they need to represent, we need to consider resources as the foundational element, overlaid with credentials that are earned when one experiences certain combinations of resources. These credentials are then overlaid by their associated competencies. Credentials, however, can have a direct relationship with the resource. Even if a learner is not earning an entire credential from a particular course, that course may constitute a “level-up” in a specific competency.

This last pairing, of resources directly related to competencies, is something that the community has not yet pursued with any seriousness. The idea that one could receive “credit” but not a credential for improving a specific competency after engaging with a learning resource requires a serious level of data granularity that does not yet exist.

The way this type of progress has been recorded in other systems is through a point system. Each learning resource, when completed, provides the learner with a number of points for each associated competency. The number of points is weighted by the estimated level of improvement one might receive from completing that resource or, possibly, could be awarded by the educator on a case-by-case basis. One student’s work in a specific workshop might merit 10 competency points related to the improved leadership competency while another student might only deserve 5 leadership points.

Quantifying progress towards competencies with a specific number of points is simple in a game format, but incredibly difficult in the real world. Of course, so is grading. What would happen if, instead of picking a number to define the quality of a student’s work we, instead, spent time choosing a number that defined their progress towards specific competencies. Rather than a “B+”, a student could earn “4 out of 5 competency points” in a particular area.

So, there are two main possibilities here:

  1. When you are awarded a credential, you get credit for the competencies associated with it. — This credit could come in the form of points, decided by the credential issuer depending on the scope of the learning resources. Or, your archive of competencies could simply note all credentials you have earned that constitute each competency. e.g. a learner has 6 badges for x competency and 9 badges for y.
  2. When you complete a learning resource/experience, you earn points towards your competencies based on the quality of your work. If you earn a credential, you earn additional competency points based on the quality of your work towards the competencies associated with that credential (not counting those already earned from completing individual resources associated with the credential).

What’s your pick? For now, due to the nascency and great difficulty of the work, the simpler first option may be the best path forward. As soon as you start relating competencies directly to resources you open up a hallway full of possibilities, point systems, and ranking systems that could start to look frustratingly similar to our existing grade-based systems.

The relationships then, could go like this:

Resources correspond to credentials and credentials have associated competencies.

Resources → Credentials → Competencies

The Wrong Typology

Throughout much of the early work on Open Badges, we have talked about a few major types of badges. In our work on Cities of Learning, we currently define these as: Skill, Knowledge, and Disposition. However, as we dig more into the relationship between competencies and badges, it becomes unclear whether this typology should be attached to badges or to competencies.

In fact, when we start to consider the unique roles of each element, this typology seems better suited to competencies. Badges, as a form of credentials, are a fairly generic structure and, in many cases, might contain all three types of learning outcomes. A credential, as proof of a learning experience, could represent skills, knowledge, and, dispositions gained within a single credential. In some cases there might be a 1:1 relationship, but that is not a rule of credentials, nor should it be. If we try to limit badges to a single competency, then we restrict the significance of the credentials and eliminate the need for having both competencies and badges.

Instead, badges and credentials more generally should be defined by a different typology, while competencies are organized into types such as skills, knowledge, and dispositions. This is a typology for learning outcomes, not for credentials. If we want to search by which badges have these types of outcomes, we can search relationally for any badges that have associated competencies that fall into a certain type. Having these types applied to competencies makes more sense in the logical framework and allows for a level of sorting that will be useful to educators and learners when browsing competencies.

That’s all for now. Moving forward, let’s be very careful to not conflate these atomic elements of learning and to more exactly define their relationship and divisibility. If connected learning technologies are to actually connect learning across local and digital spaces, we need to clarify these foundational questions and build technology that supports them throughout our learning platforms.

bonus question: Any thoughts on where difficulty fits into all of this?