Project Spotlight

A Digital Badge Initiative in First-Year Writing Courses

This coming fall, Coastal Carolina University in Conway, SC will be rolling out a unique curricular initiative throughout its English Department that administers digital badges to students who demonstrate mastery in the critical skills outlined in first-year writing courses. Denise Paster, assistant professor and coordinator of composition, and Alan Reid, teaching associate, have designed an online model that adds an additional fourth credit hour to the traditionally three-credit-hour English courses taken by students in the first two semesters — English 101: Composition and English 102: Composition and Critical Reading. The program is titled Coastal Composition Commons, or CCC for short, and it takes an innovative approach to scaffolding the foundational skills central to college writing.

Program Goals
The CCC aims to improve student retention, establish a unified experience for students and support the development of faculty through a multimodal approach to the teaching of composition. This program was developed in response to yearly programmatic assessments of the first-year composition program, which revealed that many first-year writing students lack fundamental skills in analysis, critique and synthesis. Accordingly, the CCC takes a highly targeted approach at improving these skills along with others identified by the writing program's learning outcomes.

An institutional ethnography and experimental study will be conducted in the coming year to analyze the following research questions:

  1. In what ways does the CCC support student learning in first-year writing courses?
  2. How does the CCC impact attitudes towards the first-year writing program?
  3. What effect does the CCC have on students' ability to transfer the skills and strategies central to this initiative?

This study is meant to help us triangulate our assessment findings as we examine the ways in which this programmatic restructure is perceived by both student and faculty users through the use of focus groups, surveys, interviews and observations. By drawing on the institutional ethnographic approach as it is articulated by LaFrance and Nicolas in Institutional Ethnography as Materialist Framework for Writing Program Research and the Faculty-Staff Work Standpoints Project, we hope to consider how the CCC reinstates or rewrites the practices, assumptions, and beliefs tied to the teaching of writing through this method.

Implementation
Coastal Composition Commons is an external site that was constructed using a WordPress theme coupled with the BadgeOS plugin, a free program that enables credit issuing in the form of digital badges. The badges themselves were developed with Credly, a free online service that allows users to create, customize, store and issue achievement-based digital badges. In total, the only cost of the program development has been the domain hosting fee. Expert reviews of the CCC were conducted by outside organizations, including individuals from MIT, the Mozilla Foundation, Harvard and the NASA Office of Education, all of whom are currently implementing digital badges in varying capacities.

Thoughtful consideration was given to the program design in terms of usability and navigability to ensure minimal mouse-clicking for both faculty and students. Cameron Collins, a sophomore who has used the program, said, "The design of the CCC is very sleek, and it is easy to navigate." Because the Coastal Composition Commons is a standalone site, faculty simply embed the URL into their preferred LMS or share it with students via email. The page opens in a new window, and on the front end of the site is a login page, where students enter their university login credentials to sign in through Google Apps. Each badge has one or more steps that must be completed, leading up to a final assignment. The steps typically involve reading an online text that resembles a chapter from a digital textbook, viewing embedded videos and listening to podcasts. Examples of final assignments include composing a document synthesizing sources, producing a summary of an article or submitting a review of a peer's work. Upon submission, the work is reviewed by an English faculty member, and students are either awarded or denied the badge based on the quality of their submissions. If awarded, the student is notified automatically via e-mail, and the badge is added to an online collection, which is displayed in the student's individual view of the CCC site and may be shared on social media, blogs or e-portfolios. In the case where a student's work does not satisfy the assessment criteria, the instructor may choose to deny the submission, provide feedback as to why it was not accepted and ask the student to resubmit a revised document at a later date.

The Writing Center badge
The Writing Center badge

Currently, the CCC is designed specifically for use in the first-year writing program, though the uses of digital badging span all disciplines and areas of the university. For instance, a professional development badge has already been issued to recognize faculty who attended and participated in a day-long department retreat. Another instance of the badge program's flexibility is the "Writing Center" badge, which is available for any faculty member to assign. To earn this, a student must schedule and attend a writing session with a consultant in the writing center located on campus. Afterwards, the student takes a "selfie" photograph with his or her consultant and submits the photo. A major advantage of the CCC is its mobile-friendly design, which facilitates anywhere, anytime learning.

Preliminary Results
Since the CCC is still being piloted on a small scale, the results are primarily anecdotal; but initial response has been positive. In one of the pilot courses, English 211: Professional and Technical Writing, the badge infrastructure has been productive. The Writing Center digital badge, referred to by students as the "WC Selfie," has yielded an increase in the number of student visits to the Writing Center. An initial concern of the Writing Center badge was that the added requirements of uploading a selfie to receive a digital badge might deter students from seeking help. Seemingly, though, it has motivated students who otherwise might not have visited the Writing Center.

Aydin Atay is an adult learner who participates regularly in the Coastal Composition Commons. He notes, "A digital badge is like a micro-certification of accomplishing a task. I am taking this class online, so going and learning something at CCC and then getting certified for that through a badge makes me feel that I actually have accomplished something. I think it may motivate some students to study more, especially since there is help." The digital badge can also serve as a metacognitive support device, as it represents learning as a tangible accolade on which students can reflect, helping them gauge their progress in the course.

Another badge focuses on synthesizing sources in research, and it was offered as an introductory exercise to a research-based writing assignment. Students who successfully completed the requirements for the "Synthesizer" badge during this informal pilot run produced noticeably higher quality writing; those who exhibited deficiencies in their synthesis-writing were directed to earn the digital badge for additional practice. In this sense, the badge was utilized as both a preparatory and a reflective instructional strategy. Not surprisingly, several submissions for the "Synthesizer" badge were denied. It is possible that students viewed the digital badge as a completion assignment: one in which credit was given simply for submitting something. All but one of the students who were notified of their denied submissions voluntarily elected to re-attempt the assignment, and each earned the badge on the second attempt. The students quickly understood that the digital badges carry a level of expectation with them and that they are not merely participation trophies.

As with any innovation, there is a certain amount of novelty expected. Although students and faculty are intrigued by the CCC now, it is reasonable to expect this interest will decline eventually, and this is why it is essential that the badges are integrated into the composition courses in significant ways. The design of the CCC has evolved slowly over the past nine months and continues to be improved. This will be a common experience for most institutions experimenting with badges since technological improvements and updates continue to be made on a daily basis. Just since the inception of the CCC in September, BadgeOS has developed the BadgeStack, a preloaded badging system template that can be added to any WordPress site as an add-on. Because the design tools are free, any organization may decide to implement a similar do-it-yourself digital badge infrastructure in order to recognize student, faculty, or employee learning.

The Future
The CCC is not meant to supplant instruction; rather, digital badges should be contextualized for the students through in-class discussions and reflection. The flexibility of its design allows customizability for each instructor in his or her own classroom while still providing a unified experience for all first-year composition students. The designers of the program anticipate that the Coastal Composition Commons project will yield positive results and become a model template for future badge programs in higher education curriculum.

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