Stephanie West-Puckett presents a case study of the use of “digital badges” to create a local, contextualized, and participatory assessment process that works toward social justice in the writing classroom.
She notes that digital badges are graphic versions of those earned by scouts or worn by members of military groups to signal “achievement, experience, or affiliation in particular communities” (130). Her project, begun in Fall 2014, grew out of Mozilla’s free Open Badging Initiative and the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory (HASTAC) that funded grants to four universities as well as to museums, libraries, and community partnerships to develop badging as a way of recognizing learning (131).
West-Puckett employed badges as a way of encouraging and assessing student engagement in the outcomes and habits of mind included in such documents as the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing, the Outcomes Statements for First-Year Composition produced by the Council of Writing Program Administrators, and her own institution’s outcomes statement (137). Her primary goal is to foster a “participatory” process that foregrounds the agency of teachers and students and recognizes the ways in which assessment can influence classroom practice. She argues that such participation in designing and interpreting assessments can address the degree to which assessment can drive bias and limit access and agency for specific groups of learners (129).
She reviews composition scholarship characterizing most assessments as “top-down” (127-28). In these practices, West-Puckett argues, instruments such as rubrics become “fetishized,” with the result that they are forced upon contexts to which they are not relevant, thus constraining the kinds of assignments and outcomes teachers can promote (134). Moreover, assessments often fail to encourage students to explore a range of literacies and do not acknowledge learners’ achievements within those literacies (130). More valid, for West-Puckett, are “hyperlocal” assessments designed to help teachers understand how students are responding to specific learning opportunities (134). Allowing students to join in designing and implementing assessments makes the learning goals visible and shared while limiting the power of assessment tools to marginalize particular literacies and populations (128).
West-Puckett contends that the multimodal focus in writing instruction exacerbates the need for new modes of assessment. She argues that digital badges partake of “the primacy of visual modes of communication,” especially for populations “whose bodies were not invited into the inner sanctum of a numerical and linguistic academy” (132). Her use of badges contributes to a form of assessment that is designed not to deride writing that does not meet the “ideal text” of an authority but rather to enlist students’ interests and values in “a dialogic engagement about what matters in writing” (133).
West-Puckett argues for pairing digital badging with “critical validity inquiry,” in which the impact of an assessment process is examined through a range of theoretical frames, such as feminism, Marxism, or queer or disability theory (134). This inquiry reveals assessment’s role in sustaining or potentially disrupting entrenched views of what constitutes acceptable writing by examining how such views confer power on particular practices (134-35).
In West-Puckett’s classroom in a “mid-size, rural university in the south” with a high percentage of students of color and first-generation college students (135), small groups of students chose outcomes from the various outcomes statements, developed “visual symbols” for the badges, created a description of the components and value of the outcomes for writing, and detailed the “evidence” that applicants could present from a range of literacy practices to earn the badges (137). West-Puckett hoped that this process would decrease the “disconnect” between her understanding of the outcomes and that of students (136), as well as engage students in a process that takes into account the “lived consequences of assessment” (141): its disparate impact on specific groups.
The case study examines several examples of badges, such as one using a compass to represent “rhetorical knowledge” (138). The group generated multimodal presentations, and applicants could present evidence in a range of forms, including work done outside of the classroom (138-39). The students in the group decided whether or not to award the badge.
West-Puckett details the degree to which the process invited “lively discussion” by examining the “Editing MVP” badge (139). Students defined editing as proofreading and correcting one’s own paper but visually depicted two people working together. The group refused the badge to a student of color because of grammatical errors but awarded it to another student who argued for the value of using non-standard dialogue to show people “‘speaking real’ to each other” (qtd. in West-Puckett 140). West-Puckett recounts the classroom discussion of whether editing could be a collaborative effort and when and in what contexts correctness matters (140).
In Fall 2015, West-Puckett implemented “Digital Badging 2.0” in response to her concerns about “the limited construct of good writing some students clung to” as well as how to develop “badging economies that asserted [her] own expertise as a writing instructor while honoring the experiences, viewpoints, and subject positions of student writers” (142). She created two kinds of badging activities, one carried out by students as before, the other for her own assessment purposes. Students had to earn all the student-generated badges in order to pass, and a given number of West-Puckett’s “Project Badges” to earn particular grades (143). She states that she privileges “engagement as opposed to competency or mastery” (143). She maintains that this dual process, in which her decision-making process is shared with the students who are simultaneously grappling with the concepts, invites dialogue while allowing her to consider a wide range of rhetorical contexts and literacy practices over time (144).
West-Puckett reports that although she found evidence that the badging component did provide students an opportunity to take more control of their learning, as a whole the classes did not “enjoy” badging (145). They expressed concern about the extra work, the lack of traditional grades, and the responsibility involved in meeting the project’s demands (145). However, in disaggregated responses, students of color and lower-income students viewed the badge component favorably (145). According to West-Puckett, other scholars have similarly found that students in these groups value “alternative assessment models” (146).
West-Puckett lays out seven principles that she believes should guide participatory assessment, foregrounding the importance of making the processes “open and accessible to learners” in ways that “allow learners to accept or refuse particular identities that are constructed through the assessment” (147). In addition, “[a]ssessment artifacts,” in this case badges, should be “portable” so that students can use them beyond the classroom to demonstrate learning (148). She presents badges as an assessment tool that can embody these principles.