Tails wagging dogs

Earlier in the week I gave a workshop at another University. I’m not going to say where I was, because it might sound as if I’m cricitising their practice. Actually I’m not crititising them particularly, and indeed the honest, reflective conversation we had was amazing. I think that many of us would be advised to stop and think in the way we all did on Wednesday.

I was running a workshop on the electronic handling of human-marked assignments. I should perhaps mention that I was in a physics department – and I am a physicist too. This is significant, because if we expect students to submit assignments electronically, then they have to produce them electronically – complete with all the symbolic notation and graphs etc that we use. This can be a real challenge. At the Open University we encourage students to write their answers by hand and scan them, but then the quality can be mixed – and plagiarism-checking software doesn’t work. Many OU students chose to input their maths in Word Equation Editor or LaTeX, but it takes them time and they make mistakes – and frequently they don’t show as much working as they should.

Then there’s the problem of marking; how do we put comments on the scripts in a way that’s helpful without it taking an unreasonable amount of time? At the OU, we comment in Word or using PDF annotator, using various hardware like the iPad Pro and the Microsoft Surface. We can make it work reasonably well, and actually some of our tutors now get on quite well with the technology.  As a distance-learning University, we can at least argue that electronic handing of assignments speeds the process up and saves postage costs – and trees!

I’d been asked to run a workshop about what we do at the OU; I think I failed in that regard – they knew as much as I do. However, halfway through, someone commented to the effect that if the best we can do is to mimic handwritten submission and marking, why are we doing this? They’ve been told they have to, so that there’s an audit trail, but is that a good enough reason? They are allowed to make a special case and the mathematicians have done this;  but isn’t it time to stop and think about the policy?

We then started thinking about feedback – there is evidence that audio/video feedback can be more useful than written feedback. So why are we giving written feedback? Indeed, is the feedback we give really worth the time we spend on it? We’re driven to give more and more feedback because we want high scores on the NSS, and students tell us they want more feedback. But is it really useful? I’ve blogged on that before and I expect that I will again, but my general point in this post is that we should stop and think about our practice rather than just looking for solutions.

On a related point, note that JISC have run a big project on the “Electronic Managament of Assessment” – there is more on this here.


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