E-feedback for students – a personal view

Online grading - credit: Magna publishing[translation for Americans: staff=faculty; assessment=grading; VLE=LMS]

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.

References

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.

OLTF

Corsham Court Barn - the songwriters studio used as part of BSUs Distance Learning programme in Songwriting

Corsham Court Barn - the songwriters' studio used as part of BSU's Distance Learning programme in Songwriting

The Online Learning Task Force (OLTF) last week published its report making various recommendations about the future of online learning in HE.

The OLTF makes six recommendations to HEFCE and government;

  • Technology needs to enhance student choice and meet or exceed learners’ expectations
  • Investment is needed to facilitate the development and building of consortia to build scale and brand in online learning
  • More and better market intelligence about international demand and competition is required
  • Institutions need to take a strategic approach to realign structures and processes in order to embed online learning
  • Training and development should be realigned to enable the academic community to play a leading role in online learning
  • Investment is needed for the development and exploitation of open educational resources to enhance efficiency and quality

The report speaks for itself, and, in my view (based on what I have seen at many Universities) it demonstrates how far behind the rest of the world Higher Education’s (still primarily face-to-face) activities have fallen.

I think this is symptomatic of the unique times in which we live. For the first (and only) time in history, we have a generation of educators (and senior managers) most of whose professional experience and training occurred mostly pre-Internet; conversely, we have a generation of learners (some of this year’s HE applicants were born in 1993) who have only ever known a wired world. Marc Prensky coined the phrases ‘Digital Natives’ and ‘Digital Immigrants’ to describe this generational divide. Although Prensky’s work has been rightly criticised for its poor research methodology and lack of supporting evidence, one thing at least is clear – that younger people generally spend more time online than older people (my own anecdotal experience of observing students and academics is supported by the research). Thus, parts of the HE sector are likely to be quite resistant to some of the OLTF’s recommendations – this has certainly been my experience in some staff training sessions.

To be fair to late-adopter HE teachers, evidence for student demand for online learning is inconclusive. Students clearly want part of their learning experience to be online, but not necessarily at the expense of ‘premium’ face-to-face staff contact. The OLTF report makes the following observations about student demand, based on NUS survey data;

  • students prefer a choice in how they learn
  • students expressed concerns regarding the ICT competencies of lecturers
  • appropriateness of learning technology varies significantly from course to course
  • at present, most students are self-taught in IT skills
  • students prefer to be regarded as partners in the development of online learning rather than mere recipients

This is not to say that all teaching should pander to student preferences; HE teachers are, by their nature, experts in teaching & learning, so just because a student may prefer a certain form of learning, this does not necessarily mean it is the most effective or sound pedagogical strategy.

However, it is clear that HE itself is partly demand-led; students choose courses, and all HEIs need to fill places. Thus, any university would be foolish to ignore student demand for online or blended learning, especially in the forthcoming higher-fees climate.

And, of course, there are some students for whom online learning is the only option (actually, I’m one of them, being a distance-learning PhD student at the moment). Yesterday I met an MMus Songwriting student (she was a distance learner, and we spoke during the residential week that forms part of this particular online programme). Here’s what she said to me – as verbatim as I can remember it;

“I have to say, studying this course online has great for me. What with the family and day job, I never could have afforded to give up a year and move to Bath. I waited years to find a Masters that I could study online – and this one came along at just the right time.”

(BSU Masters Distance Learning student, Feb 2011).

This example demonstrates that there are at least some students for whom face-to-face learning at a particular site is not possible. Of course, such a demand for distance learning is hardly a revelation – the Open University has around 168,000 students, almost all of whom are studying using a distance-learning model. Unsurprisingly, the OU is at the forefront of the development of online learning in HE (its Vice-Chancellor Martin Bean was part of the OLTF group).

So although the future for HE is almost certainly neither all-online nor all face-to-face, the learning (and recruitment) opportunities appear to suggests that the current balance between the two is changing – and Universities need to adapt fast.

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The full report can be downloaded here, and is summarised by the HEFCE article below;

HEFCE Online Learning Task Force report (pdf)

HEFCE article summarising OLTF report