Electronic Submission of Assignments part 2

Manchester Postcard by Postcard Farm (Flickr – “http://www.flickr.com/photos/postcard-farm/5102395781/” )

As promised here’s part 2 of my report on the E-submission event held at Manchester Metropolitan University last Friday.

The presentations from the event are available here; – http://lncn.eu/cpx5 

First up was Neil Ringan, from the host university talking about their JISC funded TRAFFIC project. (More details can be found at http://lrt.mmu.ac.uk/traffic/ ) This project isn’t specifically about e-submission, but more concerned with enhancing the quality of assessment and feedback generally across the institution. To this end they have developed a generic end to end 8 stage assignment lifecycle, starting with the specification of an assessment, which is relatively unproblematic, since there is a centralised quality system describing learning outcomes, module descriptions, and appropriate deadlines. From that point on though, practice is by no means consistent. Stages 2-5; Different practices can be seen in setting assignments, supporting students in doing them, methods of submission, marking and production of feedback. Only at stage 6, the actual recording of grades, which is done in a centralised student record system does consistency return. Again we return to a fairly chaotic range of practices in stage 7, the way grades and feedback is returned to student. The Traffic project team describe stage 8 as the “Ongoing student reflection on feedback and grades”. In the light of debating whether to adopt e-submission, I’m not sure that this really is part of the assessment process from the institution’s perspective. Obviously, it is from the students’ perspective.  I can’t speak for other institutions, but this cycle doesn’t sound a million miles away from the situation at Lincoln.

For me, there’s a 9th stage too, which doesn’t seem to be present in Manchester’s model, which is what you might call the “quality box” stage. (Perhaps it’s not present because it doesn’t fit in the idea of an “assessment cycle”!) I suppose it is easy enough to leave everything in the VLE’s database, but selections for external moderation and quality evaluation will have to be made at some point. External examiners are unlikely to regard being asked to make the selections themselves with equanimity, although I suppose it is possible some might want to see everything that the students had written. Also of course how accessible are records in a VLE 5 years after a student has left? How easy is it ten years after they have left? At what point are universities free to delete a student’s work from their record? I did raise this in the questions, but nobody really seemed to have an answer.

Anyway, I’m drifting away from what was actually said. Neil made a fairly obvious point (which hadn’t occurred to me, up to that point) that the form of feedback you want to give determines the form of submission. It follows from that that maybe e-submission is inappropriate in some circumstances, such as the practice of “crits” used in architecture schools. At the very least you have to make allowances for different, but entirely valid practices. This gets us back to the administrators, managers and students versus academics debate I referred to in the last post. There is little doubt that providing eFeedback does much to promote transparency to students and highlights different academic practices across an institution. You can see how that might cause tensions between students who are getting e-feedback and those who are not and thus have both negative and positive influences on an institutions National Student Survey results.

Neil also noted that the importance of business intelligence about assessments is often underestimated. We often record marks and performance, but we don’t evaluate when assessments are set? How long are students given to complete? When do deadlines occur? (After all if they cluster around Easter and Christmas, aren’t we making a rod for our own back?) If we did evaluate this sort of thing, we might have a much better picture of the whole range of assessment practices.

Anyway, next up was Matt Newcombe, from the University of Exeter to tell us about a Moodle plugin they were developing for e-assessment More detail is available at http://as.exeter.ac.uk/support/educationenhancementprojects/current_projects/ocme/

Matt’s main point was that staff at Exeter were strongly wedded to paper-based marking arguing that it offered them more flexibility. So the system needed to be attractive to a lot of people. To be honest, I wasn’t sure that the tool offered much more than the Blackboard Gradebook already offers, but as I have little experience of Moodle, I’m not really in a position to know what the basic offering in Moodle is like.

Some of the features Matt mentioned were offline marking, and support for second moderators, which while a little basic, are already there in Blackboard. One feature that did sound helpful was that personal tutors could access the tool and pull up all of a student’s past work and the feedback and grades that they had received for it. Again that’s something you could, theoretically anyway, do in Blackboard if the personal tutors were enrolled on their sites (Note to self – should we consider enrolling personal tutors on all their tutees Blackboard sites?).

Exeter had also built in a way to provide generic feedback into their tool, although I have my doubts about the value of what could be rather impersonal feedback. I stress this is a personal view, but I don’t think sticking what is effectively the electronic equivalent of a rubber stamp on a student’s work is terribly constructive or helpful to the student, although I can see that it might save time. I’ve never used the Turnitn rubrics for example, for that reason. Matt did note that they had used the Turnitin API to simplify e-marking, although he admitted it had been a lot of work to get it to work.

Oh dear. That all sounds a bit negative about Exeter’s project. I don’t mean to be critical at all. It’s just that it is a little outside my experience. There were some very useful and interesting insights in the presentation. I particularly liked the notion of filming the marking process which they did in order to evaluate the process. (I wonder how academics reacted to that!)

All in all a very worthwhile day, even if it did mean braving the Mancunian rain (yes, I did get wet!). A few other points were made that I thought worth recording though haven’t worked them in to the posts yet.

• What do academics do with assignment feedback they give to theire current cohort? Do they pass on info to colleagues teaching next? Does anybody ever ask academics what they do with the feedback they write? We’re always asking students!
• “e-submission the most complex project you can embark on” (Gulps nervously)
• It’s quite likely that the HEA SIG (Special Interest Group) is going to be reinvigorated soon. We should joint it if it is.
• If there is any consistent message from today so far, it is “Students absolutely love e-assessment”

Finally, as always I welcome comments, (if anyone reads this!) and while I don’t normally put personal information on my blog, I have to go into hospital for a couple of days next week, so please don’t worry if your comments don’t appear immediately. I’ll get round to moderating them as soon as I can

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.