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Blog: is technology "just a tool"?

23 May 2013

Andrew Bishop reflects on the work presented at the most recent Summits and Horizons lunchtime workshop, which focused on the use of technology in feedback.

Man using iPad. Image by C Regina.

Image: Man using iPad by Claudia Regina

“The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.” With Bill Gates’ words in mind and the ever-increasing encroachment of technology into our personal and professional lives, this month’s Summits and Horizons took a very timely look at using technology in feedback.

Rosalind Duhs (CALT) introduced the session with the ‘Student-Enhanced Learning through Effective Feedback’ project’s seven principles of good feedback. Feedback matters because it is for learning. Technology can speed up the processes involved and therefore make it faster, but it must also make it better. The session’s talks outlined great examples of technology that makes feedback both faster and, crucially, better.

Sam Green and Kevin Tang from UCL Linguistics spoke about their trial implementation of PeerWise to support both undergraduate and postgraduate teaching. PeerWise is an online repository of multiple-choice questions that are created, answered, rated and discussed by students. Students use the free online resource to create and explain their understanding of course-related assessment questions, and to answer and discuss questions created by their peers. No academic involvement or interference, beyond initial workshop sessions, was necessary though instructor moderation is possible.

Sam and Kevin were surprised by how much the students took to it. Results analysing students’ usage of the resource showed that they made constant use of it throughout the trial and continued to use it after the final deadline as a revision tool. Interestingly and, possibly because of its online and social nature, deadlines were met without academic prompting. Facilitating a greater interaction between the material and each other, students used the peer feedback received to improve both their questions and answers throughout the term. Being able to see how their feedback was used also meant the feedback they gave to one another improved, becoming faster and better. [To learn more, read the case study.]

Kai Syng Tan from the Slade and Stephanie Gauthier from the Energy Institute continued the themes of peer feedback and the online social environment. They shared their experiences of Moodle and particularly the forum feature as postgraduate teaching assistants on the CALT short course ‘Introduction to Teaching in Higher Education’.

Through various case studies, Kai and Stephanie illustrated the lively, informal and relaxed environment of the forum and the impact of this on feedback practices. Because it is social media, the feedback is freely given, uncensored and intuitive. Most importantly, it is given quickly. Also, as it happens ‘live’, students want to look good online which creates a “positive peer pressure”, improving the quality of the feedback. So as with PeerWise, the Moodle forum connects students and their learning with a techno-cultural shift happening beyond campus.

The last of the presentations saw Andrew Wills from Chemistry using technology, and in particular Google Apps Scripts, to respond to the ever-increasing workload of academic staff. Google Apps Script is a cloud-based scripting language for application development in the Google Apps platform. Based on JavaScript, it essentially provides ways to automate tasks across Google products, creating tools to perform administrative tasks but also improve feedback processes.

For Andrew, this problem of workload is fundamentally a problem of information flow, so he has turned to readily available and free online technology. Google Apps Scripts reduces fragmentation, better balances available resources and saves time. Andrew gave several examples of more efficient processes including an online form to be used by markers when giving feedback that was straightforward to complete, but that also automated a feedback sheet to be emailed to students and stored everything in a database for future reference. [To learn more, read the case study.]

There is an issue here with data protection and freedom of information. Large amounts of student data are being stored outside of UCL systems and even the EU. We must always be careful to work within data protection and freedom of information legislation and it is important that we follow the principles laid out in UCL's policies. In this case, Google recently began to regulate itself to follow the Safe Harbour scheme which brings US services into alignment with EU policy.

Technology offers great opportunities, particularly in the first two examples where it is reminiscent of social media found outside the institution. It seems what students are willing to do is just as important a factor as what technology can do. As Bill Gates carried on to say, “Technology is just a tool.” Technology can speed things up, but humans are still needed to give value to the process. Feedback is a dialogue and any way of improving that communication must be a step forward for everyone’s learning.

Page last modified on 23 may 13 14:15

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