Online and Interpersonal

Research and pilot testing by professors at the University of Westminster suggest that online feedback loops can improve communication on student assessments.
July 17, 2009

NATIONAL HARBOR, MD -- It may seem paradoxical, but educational technology as a supplement to face-to-face learning could personalize the educational experience. That is, at least according to a presentation on student assessment and feedback here at the Blackboard annual conference Thursday. Two professors from the University of Westminster in London explained research finding that use of educational technology such as blogs and online questionnaires, combined with personal tutors, could enhance the feedback loop while also making face-to-face communication more efficient.

The presentation, led by Mark Kerrigan and Mark Clements, both professors in Westminster's school of biosciences, began with data regarding the emphasis different groups put on feedback. Among other things, the research asked students how much they feel feedback on assignments and tests contributes to their learning, and asked professors how much they feel students take feedback into account. Students responded that they highly value feedback, while teachers said that they thought students do not. The task at hand then became to create a system whereby students receive additional valuable feedback and professors and tutors don't have to spend onerous amounts of time dishing it out.

"We wanted to develop a value added process, so when we do see students, we make it as efficient and valuable as possible," Kerrigan said. He added that "Students want more feedback, but in the back of our minds, we don't want to make this an extra burden on staff as well. We want to do as much as we can without trickling the work."

The professors came up with a model in which students complete a test or assignment and get feedback from their professors. Then students fill out an online questionnaire responding to the feedback -- and the students' answers are sent to their professors. The students then use this response to write a blog post embedded within Blackboard about their assessment. Individual tutors respond to these blogs, in the process fostering an individual and interactive experience about the assessment. This is further enhanced when students and tutors meet face-to-face and have a more focused discussion than they would have otherwise.The entire process repeats itself for each assessment, so that progress can continue to be made. The idea is for students to be able to use educational technologies to increase communication and chronicle their improvements throughout their academic career.

At the same time, technologies enable the tutors and teachers to deal with the influx of information created by the interactive feedback without losing time, Clements said. For example, tutors are using RSS feeds to aggregate all of the blogs, and blogs can also be sent to mobile devices for quicker reading and response. Kerrigan remarked that on the whole, the interactive feedback model did not cost the teachers excessive amounts of additional time.

To try out the program, the researchers worked with nine tutors and their students at Westminster, charting their progress from January through March. Though Clements, Kerrigan, and their team are still evaluating the results -- and plan to perform additional pilot programs -- the initial responses seem positive, they said.

"Those people who participated in the process were very positive, both about the process itself and about the engagement. " Clements said. At this point, the researchers do not yet know whether the new products are directly responsible for an increase in grades, but initiating a full academic year of the program at Westminster in the fall is likely to show more marked results.

A big part of the success thus far, the researchers said, has been the efficiency of utilizing the online resources. "It doesn't take more than five minutes," for example, to complete the questionnaire, Clements said. But he also said that students liked the face-to-face contact that went along with the electronic feedback. "They like the fact that they were getting this feedback, but that it wasn't replacing face-to-face contact. They don't see it as a process whereby we are trying to avoid them," he said.

Although this pilot program requires a specialized academic setting -- including personalized tutors for each student -- the researchers remarked that it addresses larger issues in academia in both Great Britain and the United States.

"From listening to talks here, academics are all facing the same challenges in both countries," Kerrigan said. "How do you personalize and develop a relationship with students? ... At the end of the day, you want to get the best learning environment for the students."


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