Electronic Submission of Assignments: part 1

All Saints Park (David Dixon) / CC BY-SA 2.0


All Saints Park, Manchester Metropolitan University

On Friday I returned to my roots, in that I attended a workshop on e-submission of assignments at Manchester Metropolitan University, the institution where my professional career in academia started (although it was Manchester Polytechnic back then). The day was a relatively short one, consisting of four presentations, followed by a plenary session. That said, this is a rather long blog post because it is an interesting topic, which raises a lot of issues so I’m splitting it into two in order to do it full justice. I’m indebted to the presenters, and the many colleagues present who used their Twitter accounts for the following notes (if you wish to see the data yourself search Twitter for the #heahelf  hashtag).

The reason I went along to this is because there is a great deal of interest in the digital management of assessment. One person described it as a “huge institutional wave about to break in the UK”, and I think there is probably something in that. How far the wave is driven by administrative and financial requirements, and how far by any pedagogical advantages it confers was a debate that developed as the day progressed.

The first presenter, Barbara Newland, reporting on a Heads of E-learning commissioned research project offered some useful definitions.

E-submission   Online submission of an assignment 
E-marking Marking online (i.e. not on paper)
E-feedback  Producing feedback in audio, video or on-line text
E-return  Online return of marks.

(Incidentally, Barbara’s slides can be seen here: http://www.slideshare.net/barbaranewland/an-overview-of-esubmission)

While the discussions touched on all of these, the first, e-submission, was by far the dominant topic. The research showed a snapshot of current HE institutional policy, which indicated that e-submission was much more common than the other three elements, although it has to be said that very few UK institutions have any sort of policy on any aspect of digital assignment management. Most of the work is being done at the level of departments, or by individual academic staff working alone.

Developing an institutional policy does require some thought, as digital management of assessment can affect nearly everyone in an institution and many ‘building blocks’ need to be in place. Who decides whether e-submission should be used alone, or whether hard copies should be handed in as well? Who writes, or more accurately re-writes, the university regulations? Who trains colleagues in using the software? Who decides which software is acceptable (Some departments and institutions use Turnitin, some use an institutional VLE like Blackboard or Moodle, and some are developing stand-alone software, and some use combinations of one or more of these tools)

A very interesting slide, on who is driving eSubmission adoption in institutions raised some the rather sensitive question of whether the move to e-assessment is being driven by administrative issues rather than pedagogy? The suggestion was that the principal drivers are senior managements, learning technologists and students, rather than academic staff and this theme emerged in the next presentation, by Alice Bird, from Liverpool John Moores University, which seems to be one of the few (possibly the only) UK HEIs that has adopted an institution wide policy. Their policy seems to be that e-submission is compulsory if the assignment is a single file, in Word or PDF format and is greater than 2000 words in length. Alice suggested that for most academic staff, confidence rather than competence had proved to be the main barrier to adoption. There was little doubt that students had been an important driver of e-submission, along with senior management at Liverpool One result of this was a sense that Academics felt disempowered, in that they had less control over  their work. She also claimed that there had been a notable decline in the trade union powerbase relative to the student union. Of course, that’s a claim that needs unpicking. It seems to me that it would depend very much on how you define “power” within an institution, and the claim wasn’t really backed up with evidence. Still, it is an issue that might be worth considering for any institution that is planning to introduce e-submission.

Although there were certainly some negative perceptions around E-submission at Liverpool, particularly whether there were any genuine educational benefits, Alice’s advice was to “just do it”, since it isn’t technically difficult. As a colleague at the meeting tweeted the “”Just doing it’ approach’ has merits in that previously negative academics can come on board but may also further alienate some”. I think that’s probably true, and that alienation may be increased if the policy is perceived as having predominantly administrative, as opposed to educational, benefits.

She did point out that no single technological solution had met all their needs, and they’d had to adapt, some people using the VLE (Blackboard, in their case), some using Turnitin. What had been crucial to their success was communication with all their stakeholders. Certainly e-submission is popular with administrators, but there are educational benefits too. Firstly feedback is always available, so students can access it when they start their next piece of work. Secondly, electronically provided feedback is always legible. That may sound a little facetious, but it really isn’t. No matter how much care a marker takes with their handwriting, if the student can’t read it, it’s useless. Thirdly, students are more likely to access their previous work and develop it if it’s easily available.

There are tensions between anonymous marking and “feedback as dialogue”, some tutors arguing that a lack of anonymity is actually better for the student. Other difficulties, in spite of the earlier remarks about confidence, was some confusion over file formats, something we’ve experienced at Lincoln with confusion between different versions of Word. As another colleague, suggested this is a bit of a “threshold concept” for e-submission. We can’t really do it seamlessly, until everyone has a basic understanding of the technology. I suppose you could say the same about using a virtual learning environment like Blackboard. Assessment tends to be higher stakes though, as far as students are concerned. They might be annoyed if lecture slides don’t appear, but they’ll be furious if they believe their assignments have been lost, even if they’ve been “lost” because they themselves have not correctly followed the instructions.

There was also a bit of a discussion about the capacity of shared e-submission services like Turnitin to cope, if there was a UK wide rush to use them. (Presumably it wouldn’t just come from the UK either). There have certainly been problems with Turnitin recently, which distressed one or two institutions who were piloting e-submissions with it more than somewhat!

The afternoon sessions, which I’ll summarise in the next post focussed on the experience of e-submission projects in two institutions, Manchester Metropolitan University and Exeter University.