Here are the slides from my research forum presentation at Bath Spa University, 6th October 2011.
There’s an interesting and, I suspect, common debate going on at Bath Spa University at the moment, regarding the pros and cons of providing online feedback to students for their written work. Practices vary across the institution; every academic School has some staff members who use online essay feedback and others who provide feedback exclusively on paper (although our academic regulations require that all staff use Turnitin for plagiarism detection).
The arguments on both sides are easy enough to summarise. Those in favour cite timeliness of feedback, support for disabilities, higher takeup rate, staff time efficiency, student expectation, lower carbon footprint, legibility of feedback, increased wordcount and accessibility of feedback. Those against cite difficulty with the software interface, staff time efficiency, the learning curve required by staff to use it, physical issues using computers and displays, and the ‘academic freedom‘ of staff to defend pre-Internet working practices (of paper-based marking). Considering that this article is originally being written for a blog site (bathspaweb2.edublogs.org) about the benefits of e-learning, it’s no secret that I consider that the pros outweigh the cons. But my reasoning is not based on tech-evangelism – rather, it is because, like all of us, I have devoted a large part of my professional life to ensuring that my students have the best learning experience possible, and experience has shown me that online marking enables students to receive feedback that is more timely, relevant, extensive and clear than the equivalent paper-based method. Does this require academics to learn new skills? Certainly. Can it improve the student learning experience? I believe so.
This is not to say that all assessment feedback is better online. Feedback can and should take many forms; in my own formative and summative assessment I use face-to-face tutorials, group seminars and peer assessment, all using verbal protocols that would have been familiar to any 19th-century academic. But I also use Skype, Google talk, pdf annotations, Jing, Camtasia, Zotero, YouTube , emailed MP3s, Turnitin, Minerva (our VLE), and various blogs, sites and wikis. In each case the feedback tool, whether analogue or digital, is selected with the goal of giving students the clearest and most helpful feedback to support their learning. I personally abandoned paper feedback in 2003, initially for reasons of timeliness (emailing feedback to students was simply quicker and easier) and later for reasons of increased pedagogical benefit.
Let’s start with a scenario that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever marked a pile of paper essays. We dutifully annotate every paragraph, highlighting well known spelling/grammar errors such as possessive its, splice commas and providing notes to help students to improve academic citations. [This article is only being distributed electronically. If it were in paper form, the three hyperlinks in the previous sentence directing the reader to additional online learning resources would be unavailable]. At the end of a long, gruelling day (or week, or month!) of marking, we have a large pile of paper on our desks. We then pass these marked up essays back to the students – often some months later if it was a summer submission – or leave them in an office for collection. Sometimes students collect work and read the feedback, and sometimes they don’t. You only have to prowl the corridors of any building on any campus to find box files containing marked work that students have not collected. I know of one colleague who, at the end of a full marking/handback cycle, was left with 75% of the papers not collected by returning students, who had ‘moved on’, or for whatever personal reasons had no interest in reading the feedback. He was heartbroken – all his detailed and diligent work was wasted because the very people he was trying to help were refusing to engage with his preferred method of communicating.
Pedagogical research studies show that feedback is a vital part of the student learning experience, but the UK National Student Satisfaction Survey results consistently demonstrate that a large proportion of students are unhappy with the ‘frequency, timing and method’ (Holmes and Papageorgiou, 2009) of the feedback they receive from tutors. Online feedback is usually received more quickly by students, because they can read it without coming to the campus, or waiting until staff are available to return it. It can be accessed at a convenient time, and from anywhere, thus supporting distance learners, students with mobility issues, and students with families or day jobs. Pedagogical research supports these assertions. Bridge and Appleyard (2008) found in a comparative study of online vs paper submission that;
“88% of students reported a time saving and many reported financial benefits using online submission. 93% of students preferred having their feedback available online rather than printed and handed to them. Overall, students preferred online assignment management to postal or physical hand-in.” (Bridge and Appleyard, 2008)
And good quality online feedback can provide opportunities for additional learning beyond the limitations of paper marginalia. If a student’s essay fails to reference important academic literature in the field of study, our feedback can contain hyperlinks to further reading. If the essay makes a basic error of grammar, style or citation, we can provide hyperlinks to websites and articles that will enable the student to improve these areas for next time. I have a 500-word ‘rubric’ set up on Turnitin’s Grademark facility so that every time students misuse splice commas I can drag and drop a detailed explanation of how they can avoid making this error in future.
The other consideration is the demographic of our current and future learners. Over 90% of BSU students own their own laptop, and 100% have on-campus web access. Many primary schools now use a VLE for key stage 2, and most secondary schools provide online feedback of some sort through VLEs, including Moodle. Teachers throughout key stage 2 and 3 are setting up their own blog sites to support student learning and encourage online interaction. When these children become young adults and enter HE, we can speculate that an 18-year-old first year undertaking our assignments would be somewhat bemused - perhaps even unimpressed – to receive an A4 printout with handwritten comments, three months after hand-in.
But good quality e-feedback, just like good quality teaching, takes training, skills and experience to deliver. And ‘late adopters‘ (Rogers, 1963) are often left understandably confused by the array of options and the difficulties of getting started. The staff learning curve for a lot of e-learning tools – and I include our own Blackboard/Minerva solution – is far steeper than it should be. As academics we’re thrown in at the deep end with these tools, and the designers of the tools are often so preoccupied with adding features that usability suffers. And although we have some excellent staff training support in our universities, the interfaces should not be as difficult as they are to operate. No-one asks for training using Facebook or Google, because these companies have poured $millions into improving usability. Setting up a Turnitin assignment in the Grade Centre is unreasonably fiddly and complicated. This poor usability creates an apartheid between early and late adopters, with the risk that only the former may provide e-feedback to students. The result is that students become disgruntled that they do not get the same quality of feedback from all staff.
The challenges of software usability and staff IT literacy are very real barriers to students receiving good quality feedback. As assessors, there are two directions we can choose. If we consider that the benefits (to our students) are worth the effort, we’ll forge ahead and confront our difficulties as learners of a new ‘language’, even if the online tool is a bit clunky and difficult. If the learning curve is too great for us, we will resist, and will find a way to intellectualise disengagement – ‘academic freedom to mark however I like’, ‘I like the tangible feel of paper’, ‘I get RSI sitting at a computer’, ‘it’s worked for me for 20 years’ etc.
Let’s look at these arguments one by one. I suggest that the term ‘academic freedom’ may be being misused here. Our own UCU definition of the term covers five areas, all of which relate to the intellectual concept of academic freedom (and all of which I would defend as vehemently as the next colleague). None of them (nor any of the academic literature) refer to the freedom to choose the administrative method by which written feedback is delivered.
The ‘tangible feel of paper’ is a personal preference that doesn’t provide an observable student benefit, and in any case, staff and students can print online materials if they need to. As regards the ‘RSI argument’, physical issues connected with computer usage must of course be treated seriously by academics and organisations, and anyone with a disability of any sort should be – and is – supported in their role. Recently, a member of my team who suffered from back problems told me he was unable to sit at a workstation to deliver online marking, and needed support and advice. We provided him with a portable MP3 recorder and a short training course in how to upload audio files to the VLE. His students received online verbal feedback that was far more extensive than the paper based equivalent, and they made very positive comments about this perceived improvement.
The ‘it’s worked for me for 20 years’ argument may be self-centred rather than pedagogical, but it does provide useful evidence of the need for high-quality staff support. If academics have a responsibility to their students, so managers and institutions have a responsibility to their staff. Given that opposition to online marking is almost always expressed by those who do not yet have the skills to deliver it, there is clearly a staff training issue to be addressed. And this needs to be more than a one-off Friday afternoon showing a small group how to set up a TurnItIn dropbox. Generic ongoing IT literacy must be supported and maintained. In the digital age, communicative teachers need to be able to embed a video, operate simple content management systems, resize a JPEG, make pdfs, share collaborative documents, take a screenshot, store files in the cloud, manipulate a search engine’s advanced features, record an audio file, and most importantly, provide links to other sources of learning. And the challenge of supporting digital immigrants (by which I mean all of us older than about 35) will never be greater than it is now. 15 years ago it wasn’t an issue – students were expecting to receive paper feedback, and in any case the online tools weren’t good enough to provide a better alternative. 15 years hence it won’t be an issue – the majority of the teaching workforce will be naturally digitally literate, having been born into an online society. So the tension we see now, between early and late adopters, will naturally disappear as technology, staff literacy and student benefit combine. If you’re reading these words any time after, say, 2016, you’re probably wondering what all the fuss was about.
2012′s intake of students were born around 1994 and have only ever known a wired world, at home and at school. By contrast, most of us started our professional lives in a pre-Internet age, and have had to adapt our practices – as teachers and as learners – as new tools have become available. The Internet is a new communication tool for our society, enabling instantaneous transfer of information and ideas from one to many, from many to one, or from many to many. As academics we are professional communicators, and many of us are understandably excited by the current and future opportunities for better communication with learners and colleagues. But we’re learning a new language, and we must work together to ensure that our fluency is shared.
You’ll notice that this article isn’t Harvard referenced. Rather, it is hyperlinked. Harvard referencing was invented around 1881 as a system of enabling scholars to follow paper-based trails of information by providing enough metadata about a work to enable it to be located in a physical library. Most other citation systems predate the Internet. Hyperlinks were invented in the mid 1960s and are the primary method by which users navigate online. It may be interesting to speculate whether these long established citation systems decline as the same rate as the need to access information in its physical form.
I’ll be lecturing tomorrow on our MMus Songwriting course at Corsham Court. The subject is AABA form in songwriting.
Here are the slides. In themselves they are pretty basic (and probably only of interest for the song titles) – the meat of the lecture is in the analysis of the songs.
Bath Spa University is now starting to use external hosting (using Web 2.0 tools) for some of its content. Here’s an example of the rather splendid campus fly-through created by the architects and posted on Vimeo as part of our public consultation exercise.
I don’t often blog my graduates’ work. And I’m not sure why I don’t; note to self – must do it more often.
Here’s a fine song by one of our ex-students (and graduate of our MA Songwriting) Sophie Madeleine, using some lovely ‘net collaboration with fans around the globe. Sophie’s debut album Love. Life. Ukulele. is available via iTunes or Bandcamp.
This is a quick lo-fi post for Facebook friends – a few audio excerpts (roughly recorded and edited on a phone, I’m afraid!) from last night’s performance of Don Giovanni by Bath Spa University Music Department. A thoroughly enjoyable performance in a great little venue. Well done to everyone involved.
What makes a good learning experience? I’d say it all starts with people – the right student on the right course, working with the right tutor, where both parties have enough prior learning for the intellectual/skills transaction to be mutually useful. One of my favourite quotations (frustratingly unavailable on the Internet because it appeared only once in a National Teaching Fellowship print pamphlet editorial in 2005/6) was by Paul Ramsden, chief executive of the Higher Education Academy (and a blogger!).
Higher education is essentially a conversation – between more and less qualified learners.
Paul Ramsden, 2006
It follows, then, that (assuming a talented and knowledgeable/qualified staff team), getting the right students is key. If we have an over-subscribed course, with a surplus of applicants, our admissions process can be selective based on each applicant’s ability to benefit and thrive on that particular course. If we don’t have that surplus (i.e. if we’re merely ‘recruiting’ rather than ‘selecting’) then we may be forced into selecting the ‘wrong’ students, leading to a potential mismatch of curriculum, staff and students, and ultimately a weaker course. So that initial pool of applicants has to be substantially larger than the course places available, or we’re compromising the eventual student learning experience.
If you agree with my logic so far, you’ll also agree that it’s in everyone’s interest for that applicant pool to be as large as possible. And the tool we use to achieve this is, of course, marketing. Not just ‘promotion’, because marketing can include tangibles like RAE or NSS results, and these are part of building a reputation, which also counts for a lot among applicants, schools/colleges and parents. But promotion – providing interesting and exciting information about our courses, campus, staff and students – is certainly a large part of the chain of events that leads to a happy and successful on-programme student. My implication here is that marketing and promotion are, at one remove, a part of the student experience.
Studies (including our own) have shown that potential students looking for a course have three tiers of influence on their decision to apply for HE. They are, in order of effectiveness, open days, web searches, and printed prospectuses. Let’s discount open days (because these applicants are already interested in us; once a student has arrived at the campus they are likely to know a lot about the course/institution anyway). So the single most effective method for getting new students interested in our courses is the Internet.
The secret of excellence
Now to the anecdote. I met some visitors last week from a Further Education College, for some preliminary discussions around whether we might be able to run some courses together at some point in the future. We talked at length around their current FE provision (in Performing Arts), and the story was exceptional – partnerships with theatres, excellent student placements, European tours, high retention, and some advanced curriculum content that you might expect to find at HE (FHEQ) level 5, let alone at NQF level 3. The course was run by talented and charismatic staff with extensive experience as educators and practitioners.
The week before, in advance of our meeting, I Googled the course name, the college itself, and the names of the college staff who were to attend the meeting. The only thing I could find was a course page with three or four paragraphs of text, no images, no hyperlinks, and no reference to the estimable staff, industry partners or student performances associated with the course. In my case, this was not a problem – I met the staff and they filled me in on all this excellent activity (but they had it all to prove, considering my first impression of the course was actually fairly negative due to its poor web content). Now imagine I was an applicant, choosing between courses at different institutions. I might not even have applied. Drab, terse and pictureless prose is always going to lose out to dynamic, attractive and vibrant pages with links to projects, staff and student work. Truly, content is king.
Ask any HE or FE course leader why their web pages are unrepresentative of the quality of their curriculum or student/staff work, and you hear something like “that’s dealt with by the marketing/web people”, or perhaps “we’re trying to fix this, but the text has to be approved by marketing/committee/webmaster”. So we have a situation where people with an exciting story to tell (a story that would eventually directly benefit the student experience through solid recruitment) are not being heard.
I think there are two reasons for this – a ‘gatekeeping’ mentality on the part of institutions, and a lack of tech knowledge on the part of some academics. The latter solves itself – (some of) those academics simply vote with their feet/mice and set up Facebook accounts, blogs and so on, but these are inevitably and rightly designed for on-programme students, rather than with recruitment in mind. And anyway, academics who are not engaging with these communication tools will eventually die out – in the literal sense – as a new generation of web-literate ‘natives’ become HE teachers.
The ‘gatekeeping’ issue reflects a one-to-many communication method that predates the web by more than a hundred years – that the institution ‘publishes’ online in much the same way it would print a prospectus – a single, annual ‘print run’ which is then set in stone until the following year’s recruitment cycle. This 365-day cycle is in sharp contrast to the way the web works – where pages and content is fluid and in a permanent cycle of change/development. JISC themselves have identified (in their Web 2.0 report) the average life of a web page to be between 44 and 75 days. I’ll post more on the JISC report soon, but for now you’ll find it in ‘links’ on the right hand side of this page.
If you limit the online communication (e.g. on the institutional website) centrally to a small handful of individuals (I call this the ‘print publishing’ website model), you achieve the following advantages for your pages;
- maximum level of editorial control
- accurate course pages (in terms of module content, admissions criteria etc)
- technically correct and standards-compliant pages
But there are attendant disadvantages;
- less content (a small number of gatekeepers have to do everything)
- less relevant content (those gatekeepers don’t have the on-the-ground knowledge)
- less up-to-date content (gatekeepers haven’t got time to update every page)
If you allow a free multi-user environment (let’s say where every member of a course team could update their own pages at any time), you achieve new advantages;
- maximum relevance of content (the content comes from those with the most knowledge)
- more content (the workload is shared)
- more frequently updated content (the information is more up to date)
To achieve these advantages without descending into free-for-all chaos, some user management would be necessary, and this in itself is time-consuming. But a lot of this workload can be thrown back to the user – self-regulated password systems and levels of privs negotiated by line managers, not by ‘the IT department’.
Our own School website puts this philosophy into practice. 45 staff each have their own login, and all can upload student work, change course pages, add links to projects and so on, all driven by a simple browser-based content management system. Does this seem like a recipe for online chaos and contradictory ‘message’ to the world? It seems not. Since 2007, no-one has ever sabotaged a page or posted anything which is out of line with institutional or school strategy. Why? For the same reasons we don’t trash each other’s offices or turn up late for lectures and open days – because we’re professionals with respect for our institution and for each other.
Using this ‘wiki’ method of user administration, we have gradually built an archive of student work, which says more about our courses than any amount of prospectus blurb ever could. Our graduate stories (many of which we discover through Facebook) can be turned into news items quickly and efficiently, and our course pages benefit in similar ways. It’s not the best-looking website in the world (although it is fully standards-compliant) because it’s content-driven, not design driven, but it does have the advantage of being much richer than any centralised solution.
And that’s where Web 2.0 comes in. An academic School doesn’t operate as one monolithic ‘course’ – it’s a community of lots of talented staff and students putting their passions into practice via a plethora of courses, modules, taught sessions, research projects and performances. So its web presence fragments into semi-formal and informal Facebook pages, student blogs, applicant BBS posts, VLE pages, research project pages, FlickR/Picasa photo archives, and personal student websites. (You’ll note that I didn’t post a link to the VLE pages. That’s because you can’t see them, because they’re only available to people registered on that module). It’s never going to be possible to collect all these links completely – the web just moves too fast (Bath Spa’s web team manfully tried, but take a look at the attempt and see how many broken links you find – not surprising given the lifespan of a typical web page).
It’s all beautiful and mercurial chaos – you can’t control it, only observe it and join in. Like the world. And just as in the world, humans achieve greatness through working collectively.
Gatekeepers – you’ve lost your keys. But you can still join the team.
A colleague (let’s call him/her ‘P’) gave a research presentation the other day at the University. The subject was interesting, the research was a result of more than a year of work, and it was P’s first research seminar at this University. For all these reasons I was keen to attend and support P. Unfortunately a meeting over-ran and I couldn’t make it. Of course I sent P my apologies over email, and I learned that actually the presentation wasn’t very well attended because other interested colleagues had teaching commitments at that time.
Undaunted, I asked P if I could see some of the research outputs – a paper or other documentation of this work. Nothing was available – the work had been presented ‘live’ on that day, and had taken the form of a verbal lecture. I suggested that P could put some documentation of the work online and send out a link to interested colleagues – at our University and elsewhere in the subject, perhaps to network with those working in a similar research area, and build future projects. P asked me a question I’ve been asked many times about Web 2.0 skills – “Can I get some staff training to do that?”.
Let’s investigate this perfectly reasonable question. What would this staff training involve and what skills does someone need to put their work online? P already has standard/typical web browser skills, can type text onto screen, can cut and paste between MS Word and a browser, and can save/upload images and documents, i.e. all the necessary skills to get started with a blog. So I suppose we could run a simple demo of, say, Blogger – this would probably take less than an hour, then P would be ready to go. So we’d hire a ‘trainer’, book a room and ask the trainer to put some teaching materials together. They’d probably create something like this – i.e. a YouTube ‘How To’ video for Blogger. But these materials are already out there – and anyone who Googled the term ‘how do I start blogging?‘ would find it pretty easily. So P already has the skills, not only to create a blog, but to self-learn by using a search engine. No training necessary – only the will on the part of the trainee to investigate a new method of communication. Shouldn’t every academic exhibit this hunger to communicate as effectively as possible?
Now look at P’s work itself – it’s the result of more than a year of endeavour, excellent in its field, and ground-breaking in many ways. And no-one knows about it – the chosen method of research dissemination (a face-to-face seminar) has vanished into history, and anyone who wasn’t there has missed out. This research is effectively locked away in the memories of those who attended P’s seminar. The information has ‘died’ – all that work, down the drain.
In the ‘old’ (i.e. pre-Internet) research landscape, P could perhaps have published a paper or spoken at a conference. As we know, much of this culture still pervades in HE, perhaps because many academics remain Digital Immigrants (or even take obtuse pride in being ‘Digital Foreigners’ – personally I find this noble-savage approach irresponsible and even arrogant, given our pedagogical duty to our students). Papers are submitted to peer-reviewed/edited journals, printed, dutifully mailed by academic publishers and equally dutifully filed by libraries, and any suitably tenacious academic or student can discover them (though we know anecdotally that many students don’t do this in practice, preferring simply to use Wikipedia as the fount of all knowledge – it’s not hard to find a grumpy academic who will bemoan this trait). A lot of research content – actually, MOST research content – is still fairly difficult to discover through a simple web search, for a variety of reasons relating to copyright/IPR, but also, I suggest, through a lack of understanding by individual researchers of how to put their work online. Of course, many academic journals are available online, but just try posting an interesting Athens or JSTOR link on your Facebook page, Twitter feed or blog – and see how far the recipient gets without a login. Another locked gate.
Colleagues who present at conferences effectively ‘broadcast’ their work using the ancient Greek model of one-to-many speaking. Almost every academic has the skills to communicate using this method; the job title is ‘lecturer’ after all. But with the academic conferences, you’re left with the same problem as P’s seminar – if you weren’t there on the day, you’ve missed the boat. And realistically how many people can we reach in this way? A few hundred at most.
So, for the last ten years or so we have had a new and revolutionary method of communication available to us as professional sharers of knowledge. During this period it has been easier to publish content online without ‘tech skills’ i.e. HTML coding etc; this is what the world (and this blog) refers to as ‘Web 2.0′. Tim Berners-Lee, by the way, argues that the phrase is meaningless, and that there is really no difference between the two generations of the web.
“Web 1.0 was all about connecting people. It was an interactive space, and I think Web 2.0 is of course a piece of jargon, nobody even knows what it means. If Web 2.0 for you is blogs and wikis, then that is people to people. But that was what the Web was supposed to be all along. And in fact, you know, this ‘Web 2.0,’ it means using the standards which have been produced by all these people working on Web 1.0.” (arstechnica.com interview, 2006)
In practice, though, Web 2.0 (i.e. the world of blogs, free urls and wikis) is substantially different for us as teachers, because it’s possible for academics who are self-defined as ‘not very techy’ to publish material online using skills they already have. 20 years ago anyone who wanted to publish research on the Internet would, at the least, have had to learn about FTP and HTML. Now that’s just not necessary – anyone who can use a web browser can show their work to the world.
The gates are unlocked. All we need to do is push.
Here’s our first entry, knocked up quickly sitting on the rather nice Victorian Chaise Longue in Main House building. It’s a little dull right now – and it’s 11:57, so we’re due to start soon. Let’s add more content soon.
Last week I had the privilege of working with some very talented songwriters, half from Hong Kong, half from the UK, as part of a project for the PRS Foundation. Pics and audio on the blog.