Bear with me as I step with trepidation into philosophical murk with this question: If one accumulates a great deal of small quantifiable things, does it necessarily, by accumulation, equate to something larger, more complex?

Huh? Get to the tl;dr dude!

No way. I am never that organized. I might not even be sure what I am going to write.

But this is a question, not any kind of argument, nor an attempt to take potshots at … badging.

It does seem to me that an implicit assumption for Badge Advocates is that by accumulating a large number of micro-credentials represented by the badges, that they do somehow signify a more holistic set of skills, capabilities. A lot of little achievements in a pile, what does that pile signify?

I will say that a lot of people working in badges are not thinking this way, but the cloud of for service consulting firms, and maybe a lot of people out their perceive this is the way things will work.

The Badge Alliance does recognize this in their working document Open Badges for Lifelong Learning:

There may be different types of badges such as ‘smaller’ badges may be used for motivational and formative feedback purposes, like those used on the popular forum site Stack Overflow, and ‘larger’ badges used for certification purposes. For the former, it may be possible to have a lot of badges, perhaps defined by the community as they go and tied to smaller behaviors or achievements. The latter may have more rigorous or defined assessments and be endorsed by organizations or other authorities. Multiple motivational badges or certification badges may be aggregated into higher-level ‘meta’ badges that represent more complex literacies or competencies. It may be that these meta-badges are developed top-down, created and issued by organizations to target specific sets of skills, or bottom-up, as reflections and narratives around sets of badges important within a certain community or for a particular individual. Badges give us the flexibility to support learning innovation, recognize skills and achievements at multiple stages and granularities and create taxonomies of achievement that help people discover learning opportunities and extend the value of that learning.

They go on to described ways in which the badges might be put into some kind of hierarchy, or there being a system of pre-requisites/pathways.

This of course is a lot of “may”s. It is conceptual.

But this does imply that there is more to making a cohesive picture of skills and abilities than the badges alone. This likely is in play some where; I am still doing the research (aka a call for help).

I could turn this around. A quote unquote traditional educational experience is a build up of smaller “stuff”. In one class, I complete assignments, write papers, engage in discussions, this adds up to some assessment of my performance for that class. I build up a pile of class experiences as a program / major, and some organization says that is a degree. And so yes, it makes sense to be able to include into a “who Alan” is image all the other stuff I do in life. Just piling up my myriad experiences, without the meaning I can make of them, looks to me like a pile of bison skulls.

Or try this. I will take computer programming, part of my skill set, and the common topic that is easily badged. I had some formal education (high school FORTRAN class, 18 credits of undergraduate enough for a minor), but almost everything I rely on today I have learned outside of any formal entity. Do I need some system to show all the little things I did to get here, or does my body of public work demonstrate it (ignore the typos).

There are critical things in programming that are foundational. Variables. Logical expressions. Arrays. Equivalence. Abstraction. I can march through a series of lessons, and pass some micro examinations for all the foundation skills.

They are important- I am not sure how you could code without these foundations.

Yet, all these things on their own- they do not make me a programmer. It’s how you are able to apply, extend them, to synthesize, experiment, make, break, improve. All the stuff you learn when doing a real project that real people must use. I am not even sure I can list all the things which get you into a place where you can not only do all the stuff a curriculum says you should do, but enough confidence to do all the other things you don’t know how to do.

How the heck do you badge that? The “Alan Has the Skill To Learn What He Does Not Know” badge?

No, your work in the world shows that, and your ability to describe it to others.

I was still pondering the accumulation of achievements questions. In a much broader context. I needed some philosophical input, so I thought of a few colleagues who have cred here and emailed them- Rob Farrow (who has “philosopher” in his twitter handle), Stephen Downes (who goes deep in theory, and writes more words per square mile than anyone, often with a philosophical perspective), and Mariana Funes (who also comes at this from a Buddhist angle).

My question was thus:

This might sound like a philosophical riddle. A premise of badging or micro credentials us that if you accumulate many small granular records of achievement that combined that it will on its own add up to something larger -that such things are purely additive.

I am looking for a metaphor or a real example of something maybe complex or just larger/valuable that does not arise solely from adding up many small components (the human spirit perhaps not being just the combination of natural components, but that might be a bit too spiritual). Monkeys typing not producing shakespeare? Cliche.

Got any ideas? Are there fields that look at the dynamics of small / large things?

First of all, every person responded with more than just an pithy response; each gave more or less a blog post in an email (well Stephen did ask and posted his response later as a post)).

I might be mix and matching the responses, but here are some ponderings from my panel…

Rob suggested the Gestalt approach ‘The whole is other than the sum of its parts’ which is often incorrectly as ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts’. Important difference. The Wikipedia article provides a lot of detailed example different visual examples that play with the idea of how our perception works more at a holistic level than the details, for the idea of Emergence, appropriately introduced via of all things, a dog:

This is demonstrated by the dog picture, which depicts a Dalmatian dog sniffing the ground in the shade of overhanging trees. The dog is not recognized by first identifying its parts (feet, ears, nose, tail, etc.), and then inferring the dog from those component parts. Instead, the dog appears as a whole, all at once. Gestalt theory does not have an explanation for how this perception of a dog appears.

And Mariana too mentioned Emergence suggesting David Chalmers’ paper on Varieties of Emergence

“Practically, reductionist education is the frame used in micro-credentials, you end up with people who can only think in fragments.”

Emergence was the second topic Rob recommended (and was also the focus of Stephen’s response) of Emergentism:

A property of a system is said to be emergent if it is a new outcome of some other properties of the system and their interaction, while it is itself unexpected and different from them.

Stephen elaborates this idea further, suggesting that Recognition is the means of identifying Emergence, which leads to thinking about recognition in networks:

The mechanism for identifying emergent properties is recognition. For example, pattern recognition enables us to identify shapes out of a complex array of perceptions. Recognition is a result of the interaction between a perceiver and the entities being perceived.

For examples where “the whole is other than the parts”, Stephen provided:

  • A journey is not composed merely of many small trips. The very same set of small trips can either mean “a pilgrimage to Mecca” or not, depending on the intentions of the traveler.
  • A school of fish (or a murmuration of starlings) is not made up solely of individual fish; they have to be swimming as one unit, not merely happening to be in the same place at the same time.
  • A holiday is not merely a sequence of days with no work (the same thing could describe unemployment).
  • A song is not merely a collection of noises; they have to be arranged in a particular way, and they have to be pleasing to a listener.
  • A fact is not merely a collection of perceptions or observations (not even if joined together with logic).

And Mariana added a few more examples

Water puts out fires, hydrogen and oxygen make it worse.

Some argue that consciousness is an emergent property of the brain – no bit can be pointed to yet it emerges. Murmuration is emergent. You can badge each bird for flying but you will not be awarding a badge for the murmuration behaviour.

At the same time, people who support the idea of accumulation of experience markers say it does matter, as everything we do are part of who we are. Carla Casilla makes an argument to douse the Myth of the Lightweight Badge -those being the ones that you get for showing up at an event. Serge Ravet contends they should not even be called badges, more like tickets, but that they count for something.

Carla summarizes:

Interest-driven participation badges communicate in subtler ways than skill or competency badges do but they are sending signals to the earner as well as the larger social structure. They act as windows into alternate interpretations of self. Not only do they work to represent past experiences but also possible future selves. They accumulate and in their accumulation they tell different stories to both the earner as well as the public.

offering as an appeal to the classics:

So, the next time you hear someone note a concern about “lightweight” or meaningless badges, think about Tennyson’s “Ulysses” quote below. Ask yourself if you’re not the composite of everything that you have experienced, large and small.

“I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.”

Et voilà. The myth of lightweight badges is dispelled.

But that is the rub. As a composite, we are more than an assemblage of parts or of experience markers. You can break down the human body to an assemblage of chemical elements but that is not what makes us human.

And thus it’s not the piles of things that matter, but how we make sense of it, how we do what machines cannot do. Again, as I tried to say earlier, it’s not a batter of just Badges Great / Badges Are Poop it’s what we create around them as context, connection that gives them meaning.

I am not quite sure that software / automation can really do that job.

Top / Featured Image: Sometimes a free toss of hope into Google Image search pays off. It did today, my search on pile of small things (with of course limits to open licensed images) got me this image of a giant pile of bison skulls. If I read the information right, the photo is from 1870, and in its volume representing the slaughter of bison for fertilizer, is outright repulsive. Am I using that metaphorically? Not quite yet.

It’s a public domain image in Wikimedia Commons but more than that, it’s a Featured Picture a Picture of The Day just the meta data on the Wikimedia Commons is a story in itself

Originally posted at CogDogBlog

Profile Picture for Alan Levine
Technologist, open web advocate, attributes nearly everything, wordpresser, photographer, dog lover, blogging since 2003 at My role on this project is technology development, outward communications, and occasional silly video.


  1. Hi Alan:
    I think badges are good but not sufficient indocators of learning. Yes, they can be sequenced and aggregated, but typically only within a particular badge system where all the pieces can be worked out in advance. Cross-context situations will inevitably lead to to gaps and overlaps, a bit like credit transfer. I went to 3 universities before I got my degree, leaving orphaned courses in my wake.

    Although algorithms may be able to recognize patterns (that’s why there have been some learning analytics summits for Open Badges such as OBIE 2015 tacked onto LAK), I don’t think this kind of learning recognition will automated for the foreseeable future.

    I do think personal spaces like portfolios are good places to curate badges and fill the gaps with reflection, curation and constructive alignment. And heck, maybe some gap training.

    That’s why, in a blog post a few weeks back, I said:
    “Open Badges can help structure and reinforce blogs and ePortfolios”
    If we’re talking about past learning, I see a person’s body of work and the sum of their experience as similar to a swampy archaelogical site or an unexploited mine. For ongoing work and learning, maybe an abundant wetland estuary. It requires investigation, cooperation with others, triage, channeling, sifting, extraction, refinement, construction and packaging before you can develop transferable value from the raw materials that different audiences will recognize in environments where you want to build your social capital. So I say that Open Badges can be like structural supports for a person’s body of work, like gabions for an embankment or corduroy roads in a wetland. Signposts, like localized GIS markers or 3D beacons helping you map and leverage your assets. These hardened pieces of validated (and ideally aligned) evidence can support other kinds of evidence to tell your learning story.

    I hope that’s helpful.

    If you’re interested in digging further into small pieces adding up to bigger pieces, you may want to poke at what Andrew Downes of Rustici is saying about the interface between xAPI, LRS and Open Badges. Here’s a starting point:

  2. My mom calls this kind of questioning as relating to “age and stage.” As you get older, you divest yourself of stuff, pare yourself down to what matters.

    Younger students and younger teachers are still in the shiny thing acquisition stage, and this badge movement is for them, not for us older folks. Make badges for them.

Comments are closed.