Are Open Badges Like Boy Scout Badges? Yes…and No

“So, what are these digital badges that you are talking about?”

“Do you know about Boy Scout badges?”


“Well, that is pretty much what we are talking about, only they are digital.”

I hear many versions of this conversation. In fact, I’ve used the example of Boy Scout Badges several times to help someone understand what we are talking about with digital badges. Some find this to be a helpful comparison, while others are quite open about their opinion that we should stop making the comparison…that is is too simplistic, inaccurate, or loaded to be useful. With this debate in mind, following are five ways in which open badges are like Boy Scout Merit Badges and five ways in which they are not.

5 Ways that Open Badges are Like Boy Scout Badges

  1. A badge includes a visual symbol. Like Boy Scout Merit badges, open badges have a visual symbol that represents the purpose of the badge.
  2. The requirements or criteria for earning a badge can be quite substantive, even rigorous. Have you looked at the criteria for meeting some of Boy Scout Badges? They are significant challenges. Consider the Boy Scout American Business Badge. To earn this badge, one must explain the free enterprise system, describe the major developments in the industrial revolution, chart the organization of a bank, explain things like interest rates and taxes, explain how a proprietorship gets capital, work through a stock purchase scenario, run a small business for at least three months, and much more. Earning this badge is no quick or simple task. Some hear the comparison to Boy Scout Badges and laugh, thinking it represents something childish, but the requirements for many of these badges are far from simple. The same is possible for establishing criteria for getting open badges.
  3. The route to earning a Boy Scout merit badge can vary. While there are specific and often lengthy requirements for earning many Boy Scout Merit Badges, there is ample flexibility in how one meets these requirements. It can come through self-study, help from a fellow scout (peer learning), help from experts and others, hand-on experiences, getting the help of a badge counselor, etc. The same is true for many open badge designs. They can easily be designed in such a way that the route toward mastery, competence, or meeting the badge requirements can be personlized.
  4. There is room to provide flexibility in the time and pace for earning a badge. While some badges have requirements that establish a minimum length of time needed to earn a badge, there is still a great deal of room for individualization of time and pace.
  5. There is a badge issuer and  badge recipient. This is how it works with both Boy Scout Badges and Open Badges.

5 Ways that Open Badges are Not Like Boy Scout Badges

  1. Open badges are digital and can be displayed in multiple places at the same time. You can earn an open badge, have it in your backpack, display it on your blog, and display it several other places as well. A Boy Scout Badge is physical and can only be displayed in one place at at time.
  2. Open badges are open. Anyone can create, design, and issue open badges. They are not controlled by one organization or centralized entity. Boy Scout Merit Badges are a closed badge system, controlled by an specific to Boy Scouts of America.
  3. Not all open badges are merit badges. Boy Scout Badges are a specific type of credential that signifies accomplishment of something. Open Badges can be used in that way, in fact that is my primary interest with them, as alternate credentials for demonstrated competence. However, they can serve many purposes. You can set up open badges that are distributed for pretty much any purpose, from the silly to the sublime, the simple to the sophisticated.
  4. Data about the badge is burned into the badge itself with open badges. This is not the case with a Boy Scout Merit Badge. The actual badge does not come with a description of the badge, who issued it, and what criteria needed to be met to earn the badge. This means that there is much more rich data included in an open badge compared to a physical merit badge.
  5. Open Badges are being designed for tons of diverse audiences: young children, teachers, pipe fitters, teenagers, military veterans, museum visitors, students of every grade level, prospective and current employees, etc. Open badges represent a credentialing currency that spans an immense spectrum of people and groups. Merit badges are very focused on a single target audience, Boy Scouts.

Of course, there are many other similarities and differences between the idea of open badges and Boy Scout Merit badges. Feel free to share some of your favorites in the comment section.

Want to issue open badges? Here are some options.

NOTE: If you notice a service in this list that is no longer active or you see one that is missing, please use the form at the bottom of the post to submit changes.

As I’ve written a bit about micro-credentials and digital badges this year, I have a growing number of people asking me about how they can start designing and issuing badges. While I like getting into the strategic planning part of things, most of these questions are just about what tools and technologies exist to issue badges. So, this post is my initial answer to that question.

Of course, one’s decision depends upon a number of factors: goals, desired features, essential features, reporting requirements, technical acumen, financial resources, whether there is need for long-term record-keeping, whether the badges are part of a formal academic offering, etc. Nonetheless, here is my rough draft list of some current options for badge design and issuing solutions. This is not an exhaustive list, but it does introduce you to a variety of current possibilities.

My one criterion for including an option is that it is compliant with the Mozilla Open Badge Infrastructure. If it is just a closed badging system, I’m leaving it off the list for now (my apologies to groups like Schoology). This is a fast-moving time in the badge world, so new players are likely to emerge. For this reason, as you look through this list, you will see that many of these are still in beta. That is also something to keep in mind as you consider your options.

Like everything I write on this blog, this is a rough draft. So, I would appreciate help expanding and improving it. If you have any more commentary on one of these options (including if you are from one of the companies mentioned in the list), please consider including a suggested description or revision in the comment area. I will review the comments occasionally and use them to update the article. Also, if you know or learn about other badge issuing solutions, please consider listing and describing them in the comment area. I will incorporate them granted that they meet my one criterion. Finally, I have a couple of emails out to some companies on this list, asking for help describing their product, especially those that I was not able to try out for myself. I will use their replies to improve the list also.

Acclaim Open Badges – This solution from Pearson allows trusted Universities, schools and organizations the chance to issue badges, while also giving the recipient a, “secure way to share online that they have achieved something important. They focus on working with clients that are “high-stakes credentialing organizations and academic institutions.

Achievery – This is a robust stand-alone or integrated solution for creating, issuing and displaying badges. If you are an academic institution or organization, you can sign up to participate in their public beta. Like most betas, know that there is no guarantee that it will continue to be free or even come out of beta. UPDATE: On April 8, 2015 Achievery announced that they will suspend their badge issuing services.

BadgeForge (site not active as of March 2016) – This is yet another beta that allows you to design, create, review submissions, and issue badges. It also includes options for badge earners to “set their own goals and earn their own recognition in the form of badges.” As such, this is a promising model for self-directed and student-centered project-based learning educational settings.

BadgeCraft – This is an option that is currently issuing badges in multiple languages, and can be easily and quickly translated into other languages. – Added 1/5/16

BadgeList – This is includes an option to create groups. Then you can easily issue badges. It allows for one to also “create and organize” evidence of learning.” – Added 7/30/14

BadgeOS – This free WordPress plug-in from LearningTimes (connected to Credly) allows you to design, review submissions, and issue badges right through your WordPress blog. I love how this plug-in allows for easy submission of evidence and a means of reviewing and having a text-based conversation with the submitter through a private comment tool. There is a growing number of free or inexpensive extensions that allow added features like leaderboards and reports.

BadgeKit – This kit of tools from Mozilla provides a solution for “creating, designing, assessing, and issuing badges.” Right now, this option is a private beta, but if you the technical acumen, you can download the open source code from GitHub and run it on your own server.

Added by Jade Forester of the Badge Alliance on 7/30/14 –

The hosted version of BadgeKit is being used for select partners in the 2014 Cities of Learning initiative ( If your organization has the technical resources, you can host BadgeKit on your own servers by downloading the code from Github ( A tutorial for this process is available here:

Alternatively, there are a number of other badge issuing options available – we’ve put a list of offerings from a number of badge issuing partners on our wiki:

Badgr at Concentric Sky – Badgr is a free and open source achievement recognition and tracking system used to issue, organize, and share Open Badges.

Blackboard Learn – If your organization uses Blackboard for an LMS, then you are ready to issue badges. Simply use the “achievements” tool to design, review submissions and  issue badges.

Canvas + BadgeSafe – Canvas, another increasingly well-known LMS, also has the option of designing, reviewing and issuing badges using BadgeSafe.

Concentric Sky

Credly – This is a user-friendly and robust solution for people or organizations interested in creating and issuing badges. You can use their tools to build simple visual designs or you can upload badges that you designed on your own. They have a number of existing integrations with everything from WordPress to Salesforce, along with an API that gives you the option of integrating it into other systems as well. I used Credly for my first two MOOCs. While there was not an integration with the LMS that I was using at the time, it was as easy as uploading a batch file each week and sending out the badges.

Drupal Modules – There are a few projects underway to refine modules that allow you to create and/or issuing badges through Drupal, a popular open source content management system. I’m far less familiar with these options, but you and check them out here.

ForAllBadges – This is a stand-alone solution for designing, managing, and issuing badges, with a focus on K-12 education. They recently combined this service with ForAllRubrics, allowing for a nice rubric interface for reviewing badges. is a social networking platform that can be to to create and issue Open Badges. It is, a community of thousands of schools sharing their creativity and raising achievement with badges.” – Contributed by Matt Rogers on 7/28/14

Moodle Open Badges – Like other Learning Management Systems, Moodle has the option of designing, reviewing submissions, and issuing badges. You have the option of building site-wide or course-specific badges. If you are a Moodle user, you can enable open badges in the “advanced features” section of the “site administration.”

Open Badge Factory (site not active as of March 2016) – While issuing badges through built-in features of a Learning Management System is an option, there are some downsides, and Open Badge Factory offers an external solution that integrates with a few LMSs. You can integrate OBF with an LMS like Moodle (as well as Totara and Optima). You can design, create, manage, and issue badges with this solution. Plus it allows you to generate reports. This is a pilot through December of 2014, but you can contact the developers to see if you can participate in the pilot. – Okay, so this one is not a platform for issuing badges, but it is a user-friendly tool for the graphic design part of building your badge. It includes a simple step-by-step process to create a badge. Then you can download it to your computer and upload it to whichever tool you choose for issuing.

Passport by Purdue – This one is a private beta right now, but it is a system designed to allow faculty to issue badges for student completion of challenges. Looking at their introductory video, it seems to be a learning management system and electronic portfolio designed around badges.

RedCritter – This services provides a place to display badges. – Added 4/27/2015

YouTopia – This is more than a badge-issuing service. It is a sort of LMS or CMS that allows you to create challenges, issue badges and provides a place for people to display badges they earned. – Added 7/28/14

WPBadger – This simple and light-weight WordPress plug-ins allow you to issue badges from from your WordPress blog.

Micro-credentials & Alternate Routes to Skilled Employment

If you don’t have a ticket, you don’t get in. That is how it works at the movie theater and it is a reality for many seeking skilled employment. Whether you stole it, bought it, earned it, or it was offered to you as a gift; you need to have it in your possession if you want to get through the door. That ticket is often a formal credential like a college degree. Yet, there are simultaneous developments coming together to give us a glimpse of another way. Self-blended learning, connected learning, the unbundling of formal education and micro-credentials are starting to combine in a way that we might soon see an alternative to the diploma, what we can think of as the bitcoins of the credentialing world (look for another article playing with that comparison in the near future).

Defining Blended Learning

In Classifying K-12 Blended Learning,” Heather Staker and Michael Horn define blended learning as, “a formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online delivery of content and instruction with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace” and “at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home.”

There are several important observations in this definition. First, note that it is defined as a “formal education program.” As such, they are choosing a definition for blended learning that does not include the rapidly expanding world of informal, self-directed learning, and what I often refer to as self-blended learning (This is in contrast Staker and Horn’s reference to a type of self-blended learning that is still largely teacher-directed.). By noting that part of the learning takes place online and part takes place “at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home,” this seems to rule out homeschooling and unschooling, despite the fact that many in such settings consistently embrace and leverage the rest of the this definition of blended learning (a blend of face-to-face and online; and increased learner control over time, place, pace, and path). At the same time, the definition is broad enough to leave ample room for emerging and alternate learning contexts. For example, there is no explicit mention of a teacher in this definition. While a teacher may fill the role of shaping the “formal education program”, “instruction”, partial “control”, and supervision; the definition would also fit in a context where many people (or resources) played one or more of these roles.

One of the more fascinating parts of this definition compared to other definitions of blended learning is the part about increased student control over time, place, pace and pathway. It is certainly possible to create instruction that blends online and face-to-face but does not give learners more control over time, place, pace and/or path. As a result, this is not only a descriptive definition, but one that promotes a certain approach to the blending of face-to-face and online.

Self Blended Learning

Looking at the essay from Staker and Horn, one can see reference to self-blended learning. However, there are at least two working definitions for this term. In fact, compare the visual representation of the four types of blended learning in the previously mentioned article with the similar image here. You will notice that “self-blended” is replaced with “a-la-carte”, which is used to refer to a situation where learners choose a combination of face-to-face courses and online course to make up their overall formal schooling experience.

There is a different working definition for self-blended learning that I favor, one that seems more directly connected to the words “self” and “blended.” For more detail, see my articles on Beyond Blended Teaching to Self-Blended Learning and 5 Example of Self-blended Learning. Here and elsewhere I define self-blended learning as the combination of self-directed learning and blended learning. As such, self-blended learning is where a learner takes the initiative to blend face-to-face and online experiences to enhance learning in a traditional course, or to design an altogether new learning experience that is self-organized.

With this second definition in mind, self-blended learning encompasses the power of personal learning networks and the massive growth of formal and informal self-directed learning through online communities, social media, open courses, educational apps, and other aspects of a networked world.

Self-Directed Learning Limitations

With the growth of this movement toward self-blended and self-directed learning in the digital world, there is a growing clash between the people with increased knowledge and skill developed through self-blending that is often un-credentialed, and those who study in formal learning organizations and conclude with a credentials like a certification or diploma. Given that many skilled jobs list formal credentials as requirements for unemployment, we are beginning to see a growing number of people who likely have the knowledge, skills, and disposition to thrive in a given job, but they are excluded from consideration because they lack the credential. At the same time, due to the fact that these traditional credentials are often not trustworthy evidence of one’s qualifications for a given job, some credentialed but unqualified people make it further in the application process than the highly qualified but un-credentialed. This is not a new phenomena, as many scholars from the 1970s have rich insights into the stratification of society through education credentials (For a brilliant read on the subject, see Randall Collins’s 1979 book, The Credential Society: An Historical Sociology of Education and Stratification. I plan to write more about this and related texts in the near future). What is different today is that the Internet has rapidly opened and democratized learning resources, communities, and opportunities; but frequently without formal credentials. Credentials remain the least open and democratized part of contemporary education, even as we see many other aspects of education beginning to unbundle.

We certainly have ample examples of self-taught and self-directed people without formal credentials who found their way into significant positions, ones that are often limited to people with formal credentials. Many of them did so in new, emerging and less regulated jobs (startups, programming and other computer-related work, social media, sales and marketing, etc.). However, there are also a few like Joi Ito, who serves as Director of the MIT Media Lab. While not having a college degree, his record of accomplishments was significant enough for people to make an exception. Joi is clearly brilliant, but there are likely hundreds of thousands, even millions of people who are equally qualified for various jobs, but they lack the credential and are never considered for them. Consider a local sales job that requires a minimum of a college degree, but a self-taught person lives blocks away and may well be far more skilled at sales than any nearby college applicants.

The Credentialed or the Competent? 

Many point to schooling as the remedy to social ills and issues, as a rescue from poverty, unemployment and incarceration, but part of that is generated by how we value credentials more than competence. Is it getting the credential that keeps one out of jail and poverty, or is it something else that society just happens to attach to a degree? When people talk about the importance of getting an education, is it really focused on getting educated, acquiring important knowledge and skills? Or is it instead about earning a credential that serves as a ticket into more exclusive aspects of society? Is it the knowledge and skill that opens the door or the credential?

While school is one way to gain new knowledge and skill, it is not the only way. Yet, much of society is set up as if the credential itself was critical. Why, for example, don’t more job postings simply list the required competencies for consideration, regardless of one’s credentials? Is it because many in society have come to trust that the credential truly does further qualify one person over another? Or is there something else going on under the surface of our collective consciousness? Why do we trust the abstraction of a credential over more concrete measures of competence for many employment purposes?

The Role of Micro-Credentials and Competency-based Education

Over the last few years, we’ve seen growing interest and development in both alternate credentials and competency-based education. Much competency-based education is still closely tied to traditional schooling and credentialing structures, but this movement has begun to help us recognize the weakness or limitations in many of our models. Competency-based education (CBE) challenges us to question the validity of forcing the marriage of learner progress or accomplishment with required seat time in a class, the number of days or hours in a school building, or the number of credits earned. Instead, competency-based education focuses on outcomes. The concept of CBE leaves room to recognize the significance of part of the earlier definition of blended learning, that of giving learner at least some control over time (how long it takes), pace (when to go quickly and when to go slowly), place and learning pathway (how to achieve a given learning goal or demonstrate a given competency). At its essence, CBE is agnostic to the length and how of learning as long as one demonstrates the competency at the end. Of course, all formal CBE programs that I’ve reviewed so far do place some restrictions on learner control of these four features.

Add this essential aspect of competency-based education to one potential use of open badges. A badge is a digital symbol plus associated meta-data that can be issued and received as a result of some skill or achievement. Consider the possibility of establishing online collections of competency-based badges or micro-credentials that parallel the knowledge and skill acquired as one progresses toward getting a traditional credential or diploma.

Imagine that these badges have clearly stated criteria and a careful review process, one that ensures competence of the learner as well or better than what is done in traditional schooling. What would it look like to establish collections of these badges in the open, allowing people to suggest or provide both free and fee-based resources to help one reach the necessary competence to earn a given badge. Such a model has the possibility of creating a credentialing system that could potentially give an alternate route to skilled employment for the growing number of self-directed learners, especially those who do not elect to go through the sometimes bureaucratic hoops of a more traditional degree program.

This would challenge traditional schooling, but it would not replace it. What it would do is decrease the credential as the primary and culminating benefit of school. Instead, to justify the expense, a school would need to place even more attention on helping learners become increasingly competent and confident (and the social and extracurricular aspect of schools would maintain value among many). Of course, most schools would continue to issue traditional diplomas, but what if these micro-credentials gained enough social trust and recognition that they genuinely were accepted along with a college degree or separate from one? Some would still go to college. Others might piece together their own self-directed route to the same or a comparable credential.

Many opportunities would be made possible for such a model. It would create even more opportunities for new education startups and open source communities. And it would give learners even more choice and access to personalized and customized pathways to desired professional and life goals. One could freely blended learning resources from multiple schools, organizations, on the job training, online communities, life experiences and personal study to help gain the competencies desired or required for one or more career aspirations. It would even allow for easier retooling and retraining as a person aspires to move from one career track to another.

There is a massive “what if” in what I am writing. I am casting a potential vision for what could be more than what will be. Yet, the possibility for such a model exists now, and we are already seeing small version of it with the development of Udacity’s nanodegrees, people exploring open badges for employment, systems that promote and offer badges as a form of high-stakes credentialing, and companies like DuoLingo challenging trusted credentials like TOEFL by providing their own free or very low-cost (as in $20) certification program. Badges are gaining more traction for professional development purposes, as supplements to formal schooling, and in community education efforts. Yet, each of these efforts are increasing awareness and acceptance of badges. I am beginning to see increased promise for this proposed vision as I continue to watch more badge efforts develop, as public awareness continues to grow, and as people begin to recognize the possibilities for badges as a tool for further democratizing education. This may help to create a more open and authentic route to skilled employment, just as it appears to be speeding the unbundling of the education system.

This alternate form of credentials is not needed by everyone who chooses a less conventional educational route. See my article on Uncollege for another possibility. Austin Kleon’s book Show Your Work is yet another option, where people learn to manage their online identity and build connections around their work and interests. These connections might even lead to jobs for which they do not even need to directly apply. The self-employed, freelance, and entrepreneurial options are often less restricted by the required entry tickets of traditional credentials. For other forms of skilled employment, the lack a formal credential is a barrier. Without that socially trusted abstract representation of one’s ability, options are limited. It is for these self-directed learners that micro-credentialing seems to offer new possibilities and increased opportunity.

There is a dark side to this. There is the possibility that micro-credentials will amplify or at least perpetuate the already significant problem of credentialism in contemporary society (look for a couple of posts on this topic as well). That is why the “open” part of the open badge movement is so significant. What I am writing here has both a realist and idealist side to it. The realist in me recognizes that credentialism is deeply rooted in much of contemporary society. However, I also see that is excludes when it does not need to do so. Concern about this issue is what drives the idealist in me, the part that resonates with the open education movement, and that sees the possibility of blending open education with a credential mindset that can open employment opportunities by further democratizing credentials, and challenge what some refer to as the current monopolization of skilled employment. That is my hope for micro-credentials.

Notes, Quotes & Reflections about Geoffrey Canada’s Keynote at #BbWorld14

Geoffrey Canada, educator and activist took the closing keynote spot at Blackboard World 2014 last week. You might know him from his engaging TED Talk on “Our Failing Schools: Enough is Enough!” Perhaps you know him for his inspiring work with Harlem Children’s Zone or by watching Waiting for Superman. Or maybe you read one of his books: Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence or Reaching Up For Manhood. For those at BBWorld2014 who never heard of him, maybe they will remember him for a compelling, passionate, provocative closing keynote.

This was his first public appearance since retiring after 31 years with the Harlem Children’s Zone, and he started with a short reflection on the way his work has spread and influenced education. “All I ever wanted to do was save my kids…but the ‘my’ kept getting larger and larger,” he explained. Then he got into it, launching his main talk with the following quote:

“I’m convinced that if we don’t do something radically different, we’re going to preside over the decline of our country.”

“When I stared, I went to Detroit and found out that it was worse than Harlem.” And as he learned more, he wondered, “How big is this problem?” “I discovered that as a nation, we’ve developed a strategy”…a toxic one, designing a system where many kids don’t get an education. What do we do when places produce kids who are unemployable? “We lock up all the guys.” ‘We incarcerate more people per capita than any place in the world bar none.” “We created an industry around incarceration in our country that is rivaling education.”

What does it take to education kids coming from poverty? He explained that it is difficult, but we can do it. We invest in kids from the beginning, carefully measuring how they are doing so that we can do something to help them. We stay with them through high school and college. Canada claims that this will cost $5000 per child above what we already spend on education. Right now, Canada pointed out that the average cost per child is $30,000 per year, but in some places it is $60,000 to over $100,000. He described this to argue that, when put in perspective, this $5000 is not that much. “People scoff at this modest investment, but we don’t seem to worry that the cost of incarceration is so much more.”

“We see an American tragedy unfolding, and those of us in education are part of the problem.” Canada used a couple of illustrations to explain that we see problems elsewhere and don’t think they will impact us. Perhaps it is a problem in another part of the country or with a different demographic. Yet, Canada argued that this education problem “is an American problem.” He saw a report that 75% of American kids can’t qualify for the military. 30% of the kids don’t graduate high school. 30% can’t pass the entrance exam. 27% are so obese that they can’t qualify. “We let this happen to our kids.”

Canada then went on to explain a few things that need to change.

1. “If you are a teacher and you can’t teach, you should probably find another job.” and “If you are a barber and you can’t cut hear, get another job.”

2. Canada argued that we should expect of each kid what we would or do expect of our own. If we want our kids to graduate high school and go to college, what about having that goal for every kid? “When you walk around Harlem, almost every kid in my zone goes to college, ” Canada explained. “This is about normative behavior.”

3. “Let’s stop teaching to the middle and start teaching to the student.”

4. “We need to hold everyone accountable for the work they do, and we need to use real data. While this is controversial for some, this is how you improve things in education.”

5. Kevin ended his talk by reciting one of his poems, “Don’t Blame Me”, a poem that calls us to take responsibility and take action to address this crisis in education…not to piont the finger at someone else, but to do something.