“He just smiled and gave me a feedback sandwich”

With apologies to Men at Work. An unusual post today in that it is about teaching. I’m currently our department’s ‘e-learning champion designate’ and so starting to think again about all of this stuff, having had almost a year not to think about teaching at all (at least undergraduate teaching.)

I’ve started to look again at Liverpool’s VLE, VITAL, to see what is on offer in the latest release of Blackboard. We now have wiki tools, blog tools and podcasting tools incorporated into the VLE, and I can certainly see that the blog and wiki tools could be very useful for first year courses that we have which are based around group work and the creation of project portfolios. This would enable tutors to monitor more effectively individual contributions to portfolios and also allow students to produce more genuinely collaborative work (leaving aside the ability to stick in mult-media, hyperlinks etc. etc.) I’m not so sure about the benefits of the podcast tool, as I already ‘podcast’ my lectures (in the sense of making Mp3 -very occasionally Mp4- files available via the VLE) and I don’t particularly see the need for other third parties to have access (as they would do via an RSS subscribed podcast.) If anyone out there has used similar podcasting tools though, and sees some benefits, I’d appreciate your thoughts.

The other thing I am looking at is improving our feedback mechanisms using new(ish) learning technologies. The problems with standard student evaluation forms are fairly obvious, as pointed out by Stephen Draper on his excellent site. 1. Feedback is only gathered once, at the end of the semester/term when the current cohort of students will be unable to benefit from it. 2. These forms tend to discourage diagnostic responses: ‘Was the lecture a) fabby b) super-nice c) excellent? – tick one’ is less helpful than questions that ask for more reflection ‘What made the lectures super-nice?’

I’ve experimented with some well-established means of getting more regular feedback – namely the one minute paper – which I incorporated into a discussion board on the VLE were students could post their comments on what they found helpful/unhelpful about seminars/lectures on a weekly basis. I’ve also been looking at experimenting with SMS messaging as a possibility, but the technology stills seems not to be up-to-scratch (at least for a system that it would be affordable for an academic department to look into buying.)

Overall, the response to this from students was pretty poor. This is despite some empirical evidence that the ‘one minute paper’ does lead to improved performance. At the moment, I think a number of factors are holding students back from making more use of these channels for regular feedback.

1. I didn’t put enough emphasis on the exercise. Perhaps in the future this could be incorporated into learning exercises – the ‘one minute lecture’ as a way of discussing the assigned reading – what didn’t you understand about that article? What questions did it raise for you?

2. As a department, our use of our VLE is pretty uneven. Some tutors like me use it a lot, and some barely use it all. We’ve yet to establish firm groundrules and expectations concerning students use of our VLE in the same way that we have with regard to face-to-face seminars and lectures.

3. Students viewed the discussion boards as another supervised ‘work’ environment. To borrow a notion from J.C. Scott – the discussion boards were definitely not sequestered sites. Students were wary of posting here for fear of saying something dumb/getting things wrong. Some anecdotal evidence from other colleagues seems to support this. One lecturer had set up a VLE discussion board where students could discuss their group project but found that hardly anyone was using it. The students were not slacking, however, but had simply preferred to set up their own group on Facebook to discuss the module. They were busy working but wanted to do so away from the stern, supervisory gaze of the tutor.

Possible remedies for all this.

1. Allow anonymous posting on the feedback discussion board. Hopefully this may help get someway away from the sense that the tutor is checking up on them. Possibly also designate students to act as moderators for a week, again, getting across the sense that the strand is owned by them, not me.

2. Incorporate the idea of giving regular feedback into the module’s learning strategies, as suggested above, possibly also through the device of reflective, rather than synthetic student presentations (student offers presentation on what they found difficult, problematic in their reading, rather than try to sum up a topic or answer a question set by the tutor.)

3. Encourage more uniform use of VLE across the department, ensuring that students are more accustomed to using these channels for giving regular feedback.

I should stress that my interest in gaining more regular student feedback is essentially pedagogic (whereas I think a lot of the current concern with student feedback is based around the ‘student as educational consumer’ model.) Encouraging students to seek regular feedback seems to me a good way of getting them to reflect more critically on the material that they have looked at, and to reinforce what they have learnt by asking more questions. It’s not about keeping everyone happy which is 1. impossible. 2. not even desirable.

Again, any thoughts, experiences of using VLEs for getting regular feedback much appreciated.


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