Tails wagging dogs

For those readers who are not native English speakers, I need to explain the title of this post. It refers to something that should be a minor factor becoming the important factor in decision making. In this case, I am exploring whether we are sometimes driven by a desire to use technology for the sake of doing so. Although I think that technology has a huge amount to offer (in my context, on student learning), surely the most important thing is doing the best we can for our students.

The example I’d like to give is the electronic management of assessment (i.e. the electronic submission, marking and return of tutor-marked assignments). It is something on which the Open University is ahead of others, and we have already faced up to some of the issues (e.g. staff resistance) that others are just encountering. However I am anxious that a requirement to submit and mark work electronically sometimes affects the way students have to produce their work, and the way tutors are required to mark it – not necessarily for the better.

I’m a physicist and so our assignments frequently require students to make extensive use of symbolic notation and graphs etc. It is important that students learn to lay out their answers correctly, and for the less technically savvy, it can be easier to do this in handwritten work. I accept that producing high quality work electronically is perhaps a skill that our students should have, and I don’t want to be a dinosaur, so let me concentrate on marking and commenting.

On handwritten work, our tutors are used to commenting on and correcting work at exactly the place where an error is made e.g. correcting an equation, showing what is wrong with layout, redrawing a graph. Tablet devices enable a similar approach when marking electronically. But not all tutors have these devices and they are sometimes fiddly to use, and some tutors are left attempting to mark using just a word-processing package. This can lead to a rather different style of commenting, making rather more general comments. It is possible that this different style is ‘better’. However my point is that the way in which we give feedback is being driven by technology. The tail is wagging the dog.

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