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.