Open Badges and Proficiency-Based Education: A Path to a New Age of Enlightenment – Article by G. Stolyarov II

Open Badges and Proficiency-Based Education: A Path to a New Age of Enlightenment – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
March 9, 2013

A major and tremendously promising opportunity has emerged to achieve a new Age of Enlightenment through technology and to enable large numbers of people to desire, seek out, and enjoy learning. Open Badges are an initiative spearheaded by Mozilla but made available to virtually any organization in an open-source, non-restrictive manner. Open Badges can make learning appealing to many by rewarding concrete and discrete achievements – whether it be mastering a skill, performing a specific task, participating in an event, meeting a certain set of standards, or possessing a valuable combination of “soft skills” that might otherwise go unrecognized.  But even beyond this, Open Badges allow for the portability of skill recognition in a manner that far outperforms the compartmentalization present in many of today’s formal institutions of schooling, accreditation, and employment. Individuals would no longer need to “prove themselves” anew every time they interact with a new institution.

Open Badges are still in their infancy, but you can begin participating in this exciting movement and earning your badges today. Based on the economic understanding of network effects, the more people actively use Open Badges, the more opportunities will become available through the system. An introduction to open badges (along with the opportunity to try out the system and earn several badges) can be found at For a more detailed discussion, Dave Walter’s paper “Open Badges: Portable rewards for learner achievements” is recommended. (This paper, too, will enable you to earn a badge.)

Various organizations already issue badges. To immerse yourself in the earning of Open Badges, you will be able to find several introductory badges on the Badge Bingo page from Codery. For badges that can demonstrate some basic skills, the Mozilla Webmaker series enables earners to validate their basic HTML coding knowledge. For individuals and organizations seeking to issue their own badges, sites such as Credly offer an easy way to create and grant these awards.

Mozilla Backpack can currently be used to host and share the badges, though other compatible systems also exist or are in development. Mozilla Backpack gives you the option to accept, reject, and classify badges into various “collections”. For instance, you can see a collection of all the Open Badges I have earned so far here, and a more skill-specific subset – all of my Mozilla Webmaker Badges – here. In a future world where badges will exist for a wide variety of competencies, one could imagine linking a prospective employer, business partner, educator, or online discussion partner to a page that documents one’s skills and knowledge relevant to the exchange being contemplated. Unlike a resume, whose value is unfortunately diminished by those dishonest enough to present falsehoods about their past, Open Badges are more robust, because they include metadata linking back to the issuer and containing a brief description of the criteria for earning the badge. Moreover, Mozilla Backpack offers you complete control over which badges you allow to be publicly visible, so you remain in control over what you emphasize and how.

Open Badges make possible a development I had anticipated and hoped to partake in for years: proficiency-based education. I have only known about Open Badges for less than a week at the time of writing this article. Serendipitously, I learned of their existence while reading “Ubiquity U: The Rise of Disruptive Learning” by Mark Frazier, and I was so intrigued that I embarked that same day on intensive research regarding Open Badges and the current status of their implementation. In the next several days, I strove to discover as many issuers of Open Badges as I could and to earn as many badges as I could feasibly obtain within a short timeframe.

However, my earlier writings have looked forward to the availability of this type of innovation. As a futurist, I take pride in having been able to accurately describe the future in this respect.

In February 2013, in “The Modularization of Activity” (here, here, and here), I wrote that “Education could be greatly improved by decoupling it from classrooms, stiff metal chair-desks, dormitories, bullies, enforced conformity, and one-size-fits-all instruction aimed at the lowest common denominator. The Internet has already begun to break down the ‘traditional’ model of schooling, a dysfunctional morass that our culture inherited from the theological universities of the Middle Ages, with some tweaks made during the mid-nineteenth century in order to train obedient soldiers and factory workers for the then-emerging nation-states. The complete breakdown of the classroom model cannot come too soon. Even more urgent is the breakdown of the paradigm of overpriced hard-copy textbooks, which thrive on rent-seeking arrangements with formal educational institutions. Traditional schooling should be replaced by a flexible model of certifications that could be attained through a variety of means: online study, apprenticeship, tutoring, and completion of projects with real-world impact. A further major breakthrough might be the replacement of protracted degree programs with more targeted ‘competency’ training in particular skills – which could be combined in any way a person deems fit. Instead of attaining a degree in mathematics, a person could instead choose to earn any combination of competencies in various techniques of integration, differential equations, abstract algebra, combinatorics, topology, or a number of other sub-fields. These competencies – perhaps hundreds of them in mathematics alone – could be mixed with any number of competencies from other broadly defined fields. A single person could become a certified expert in integration by parts, Baroque composition, the economic law of comparative advantage, and the history of France during the Napoleonic Wars, among several hundreds of relatively compact other areas of focus. Reputable online databases could keep track of individuals’ competencies and render them available for viewing by anyone with whom the individual shares them – from employers to casual acquaintances. This would be a much more realistic way of signaling one’s genuine skills and knowledge. Today, a four-year degree in X does not tell prospective employers, business partners, or other associates much, except perhaps that a person is sufficiently competent at reading, writing, and following directions as to not be expelled from a college or university.”

Even earlier, in 2008, I offered, as a starting point for discussion, an outline of my idea of proficiency-based education to PRAXIS, the Hillsdale College student society for political economy and economics. Below is my (very slightly expanded) outline. It pleases me greatly that the infrastructure to support my idea now exists, and I hope to contribute to its widespread implementation in the coming years.

Proficiency-Based Education: A Spontaneous-Order Approach to Learning

Outline by Gennady Stolyarov II from September 2008

The Status Quo

– Shortcomings of classroom-based education – “one size fits all”

– Shortcomings of course-based education – difficulty accommodating individual skills, interests, and learning pace. Grades lead to stigma of failure instead of iterative learning.

– Information problem of communicating one’s qualifications

– Negative cultural effects of segregating people by age and by generation – i.e., the “teen culture” generation gap

– Factory-based education system versus meaningful individualized education

Proficiency-Based Education

– Proficiencies replace courses.

– Proficiency levels replace grades.

– Proficiencies are easily visible and communicable to employers.

– Proficiencies are transferable by those who have them, up to their level of proficiency.

Emergence of Proficiency-Based Education

Can be done privately by individuals or firms

– Can be done in person or on the Internet

– Can be done within and outside the university system

– Can be done for pay or for free

– People with proficiencies can pass the proficiencies on to their children/relatives/friends

– Incentives exist to restrict transfer of proficiencies to qualified persons.

– Networks of providers of Proficiency-Based Education can form. It will not be a centrally planned or directed system.

Advantages of Proficiency-Based Education

– Faster learning

– More individually tailored learning

– Ease of displaying one’s exact set of skills

– More hiring will be based on merit, since merit will be easier to see and verify.

– Indoctrination in politically or socially favored but objectively absurd notions will be much more difficult.

– The “teen culture” will disappear. Young people will be better integrated into adult society and will assume meaningful rights and responsibilities sooner.

– Proficiency-Based Education takes full advantage of all existing technologies, leading to a more technologically literate population with greater ability to control and improve the world.

– Greater integration of theory and practice and market selection of ideas that tend to bring about useful practical results


Open Badges provide the mechanism to coordinate the many thousands of competency-based or proficiency-based certifications and other achievements that I envision. While the processes leading to the demonstration of competency or accomplishment can be undertaken in any way that is convenient – online or in person – it is essential to have a universally usable digital system documenting and affirming the achievement. The system should be compatible with most websites and organizations and should not be locked down by “proprietary” protections. Proficiency-based education can only work if the educational platform is not inextricably attached to any particular provider of certifications, or else the very use of the proficiency system will remain compartmentalized and inapplicable to vast areas of human endeavor.

The free, open-source, and user-driven design of Open Badges provides exactly these desirable characteristics. At the same time, while Open Badges are free to create and issue, individual badges can be designed and offered by organizations that offer paid instruction – so that even traditional classes could be revolutionized by the introduction of competency-based elements, perhaps as a replacement for grades or, in the interim, as a mechanism for earning a grade. With the latter method, to get an “A” in a course or on a project, one would not need to pass a timed exam where every wrong answer constitutes a permanent reduction of one’s grade. Rather, one would need to earn certain kinds of badges demonstrating the completion of course objectives.

The motivational aspect of Open Badges stems from the immense engagement that is possible as a result of visible, incremental progress. This same motivating tendency explains the tremendous popularity of computer games. (Indeed, one initiative, 3D Game Lab, is developing an explicit educational computer game that will allow integration with coursework and Open Badges.) By enabling the earning of granular achievements (similar to “achievement” in a computer game), Open Badges keep learners focused on honing their skill sets and pursuing concrete objectives. At the same time, Open Badges facilitate creative approaches to learning and recognize the diversity of optimal individualized learning paths by leaving the choice of activities and their sequence entirely up to individual badge earners.

If billions of humans could become “addicted” to learning in the same way that some are said to be “addicted” to computer games, our civilization would experience a rapid transformation in a mere few years. Technological progress, institutional innovation, and the general level of human decency and morality would soar to unprecedented levels, at an ever-accelerating pace. Age-old menaces to our civilization, arising from pervasive human failings and institutional flaws, could finally be eradicated through vastly enhanced knowledge and a voluntary, enticing channeling of many people’s desires and enjoyments into highly productive paths that produce “positive externalities” (to use the jargon of economists). Open Badges, proficiency-based education, and the addition of game-based learning elements (up to and including full-fledged games, like the Mars Curiosity Activity from Starlite Digital Badges – just a hint of what is to come) can enable humankind to make decisive strides in its efforts to build up our civilization and beat back the forces of death, decay, and ruin.

7 thoughts on “Open Badges and Proficiency-Based Education: A Path to a New Age of Enlightenment – Article by G. Stolyarov II

  1. Proficiency based education (PBE) is a very interesting development. I am also reminded of the work of John Holt, a teacher who began as an education reformer and ended up thinking schools ought to be abolished (or at least their role in education minimized).

    I just completed a MOOC (massive online open course) with Coursera in Data Analysis, taught by a professor of biostatistics from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. In the MOOC format he was able to reach thousands of students around the world and teach a graduate level course, complete with discussions, quizzes, and written assignments.

    I do not think that K-12 schools, four year colleges, or formal classroom courses will be replaced. Fact-to-face contact and individual attention have their places, and so do formal rubrics. But they aren’t everything and often are neither an effective nor low cost delivery method. Instead, they’ll be augmented, by MOOCs, PBE, self study courses, learning games, and other developments.

    I’m more skeptical, though, of compartmentalization. Here’s an example — suggested by your essay — of why compartmentalization in a PBE setting is not a replacement for more “formal” education. You suggest a “proficiency” in Comparative Advantage… but to really understand comparative advantage as it applies to countries one must understand an enormous amount of economics that goes well beyond the simple two country-two good constant cost assumptions with no resource constraints we use in Econ Principles classes. I regularly meet non-economist academics who imagine that they understand comparative advantage simply because they know “every country should produce the things it can produce cheaply and trade them for those it produces at high cost.” They are stupefied when I point out that corollaries are that such trade will have no impact on the rate of unemployment and will raise real wages, or that the law does not explain the pattern of economic activity within a country. Back in the day when he was still an economist, Paul Krugman wrote a cogent piece on this (see section 3 in the linked paper)… and this really just scratches the surface of the complexity.

    I would be very skeptical of someone with a “proficiency” in comparative advantage, and maybe one or two other bits of economics. Economic theory is not a collection of bits but a logical structure of integrated concepts. Compartmentalizing this into little proficiencies is likely to disintegrate it, it practically takes us in the opposite direction from what Bastiat tells us a good economist does — notices that which is not seen, that which is outside the compartment. I suspect many disciplines are like this.

    Of course, one can have PBE and certification over broad disciplines; in many respects this is a part of what graduate schools and professional organizations such as Society of Actuaries do. But multi-year courses of study in classroom/clinical/lab settings are very effective for covering broad integrated disciplines like economics, medicine, physics, etc.

  2. Dr. Steele,

    Thank you very much for these thoughtful comments and also for earning my badges on indefinite life extension. I hope to have more available soon.

    I tend to agree with you that an augmentation approach will be the most readily foreseeable way in which PBE takes hold. This could have the advantage of letting the existing system transform itself from within and invite change, instead of seeing the change as threatening. If nothing else, institutional inertia will enable traditional classroom-based structures to continue in some form for at least a few decades. My hope, though, is that even in these traditional contexts, proficiency-based elements will increasingly take hold and whittle away at the shortcomings of the current system. For instance, a classroom teacher could establish a set of learning objectives and issue badges for those objectives. The badges could be issued in a number of ways – including manually by the teacher after oral examinations, class discussions, or lab activities. The Open Badge infrastructure is extremely versatile, and sites such as allow for badges to be issued in various ways – through automated claim codes, or solely at the initiative of the issuer. The badges could be arranged in a hierarchy, with some concepts being prerequisites for others. There is also the possibility of developing higher-level badges that require the earning of a specific set of more granular badges. This could address your concern about stand-alone proficiencies not incorporating related or more foundational concepts. If an instructor incorporates a system of proficiencies into his syllabus, he might eventually start seeing less of a need for “one-shot” examinations and, as a transitional approach, might equate various course grade levels with earning various numbers and kinds of badges.

    I see PBE as enabling a learner to assemble pieces of an open-ended puzzle that can stretch in various directions toward the learner’s objectives. The puzzle analogy recognizes that some concepts require knowledge of others (the proximate “puzzle pieces”) in order to be fully grasped and useful to the person who has studied them. Individual instructors and organizations would have a great deal of discretion about how they structure the proficiencies they recognize and the badges they award, and experimentation will result in more refined systems over time. In the meantime, the field is rapidly opening up to precisely the kind of creative tinkering that is needed to launch a full-fledged revolution in education.

    One of the great benefits that PBE can offer almost immediately is the transparency and portability of educational experience, as well as the ability to obtain various “puzzle pieces” from different sources – including encounters that would not qualify for formal educational credit. For instance, if a student were to attend a conference and strike a conversation with a professor of economics from another university, the professor could use this as an impromptu teaching opportunity. If he finds, through interaction and questioning, that the student has adequately grasped the ideas he has articulated, he could issue the corresponding badge. The student could then show the badge to his regular instructors to let them more accurately gauge his state of knowledge.

  3. Good points. I see these various developments as complementary. I also think we’ll see changes in how “traditional” classroom courses are taught, e.g. classroom flipping seems like an excellent idea to me (despite the fact that I love lecturing to a roomful of captives!)

    There’s an interesting article the 3/29/2013 WaPo that suggests we’ve barely scratched the surface of the innovations in education that we’ll develop from technology.

  4. Dr. Steele,

    Thank you for sharing the Washington Post article describing various developments in the area of open, technologically based education. It is indeed encouraging to see the wide variety of approaches being tried, and the many different organizations striving to develop such approaches. We are in the midst of a market discovery process in which entrepreneurs are bringing all of these possibilities to our attention. Information technologies tend to advance at an accelerating rate, so we will hopefully see these emerging innovations rapidly set the stage for other even more ambitious and effective educational methods.

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