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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Process vs Artefact: Thoughts on Collaborative Assessment in Creative and Critical Disciplines

Thursday, July 04, 2013

I've just attended an excellent Open University conference on "Emergent Technologies." The conference was a nice mix of the practical in the present, evaluating the technologies we currently use to support distance learners, and the visionary, imagining the shape of higher education in a few years in which anything from MOOCs to gaming-as-learning might be in play.

One interesting session was that run by Derek Jones, who lectures in architecture design. As part of a talk on the role of social media in education, he described a new system called Open Design Studio. Essentially this is a Flickr-like repository in which art and design students can deposit files and photos of their creations or sketches and models leading up to the finished product, with other students able (and indeed expected as part of the module and website design) to comment on other students' work. The thinking behind ODS is that design students are assessed not so much on the artefact that they produce at the end of a project, as the processes of creative inspiration, research and then critical reflection that go into its making. Collaboration is encouraged as being intrinsic to the process of reflection.

As is often the case when educational technologies are showcased, I immediately wondered how this might apply to my own discipline which is text oriented. In this case, though, the fact that I can see only barriers rather than opportunities is perhaps the more interesting cause for reflection.

It seems from where I stand as a front-line teacher that there is a fairly fundamental division between so-called creative subjects and so-called critical ones, even though these are often two sides of the same coin. Creative subjects (design, arts, creative writing) actively encourage peer review, collaboration, development through discussion. These are regularly built into module learning outcomes and assessment methods. Yet in critical subjects - such as literature - we remain inherently resistant to the notion that collaboration can play a part in assessment. We believe that when we assess our students, we need to judge them only on the basis of their final output, typically an essay or exam, not on the basis of the process that has led up to that output.

Some of the OU's rules on the modules on which I teach are symptomatic of this. For example, students are forbidden from posting any materials relating to assignments on forums, or from uploading their own work, such as assessed essays. The ostensible reason is that to do so might infringe copyright, and the rights of tutors whose marks and comments may be attached to assessed work; there is also a concern about plagiarism; finally, in critical subjects we need to avoid giving the impression that there is a single best answer or approach to a question, such that writing essays becomes merely a question of ticking the boxes and doing certain things like including x number of quotations (as it is increasingly at A-Level).

All of these are very valid concerns. However, I wonder whether the fears outweigh the benefits of a more liberal approach, and are preventing us from exploring alternative modes of assessment which might better inculcate good academic practice. For example, students often ask me how to write an effective essay introduction. In answer to this, I could share examples of work that students have agreed to let me use anonymously. However, coming from me this would give the impression that there is a single model that I personally have in mind, such that if students do this for me, then they will get better marks; the risk is different tutors who they encounter at a later stage in their education may have subtly different perceptions, reflected in the samples they hold up as good practice. It would thus be better for students to be able to post their own introductions to past essays on forums, to discuss them, peer review them, pick them apart independently. This would better teach the conceptual basis for an introduction, rather than my particular idealised manifestation of one. It would enable students to reflect on what they are doing right or wrong with their own individual style, rather than expecting them to conform to some idealised a priori template.

Or to give a different example, on my OU courses we run active and highly beneficial forums for students. However, when we prepare discussion questions these must always circle carefully around a particular forthcoming assessment. If an assessment relates to a short story, for example, we have to focus on a different text, though often we take students through comparable motions of analysis. There is of course a valid pedagogy behind this, in that we want students to be able to demonstrate that they can think critically and independently. Yet especially at level 1, these skills are not always intuitively there; they need to be drawn out. On many occasions, I have encountered a group of new university students who thrive in the discursive and dynamic environment of a forum, who between them tease out and articulate issues and concepts relating to a text under discussion. However, place those same students individually before the static environment of their word processor, and what emerges in the essay does not represent the critical work that in principle they are capable of. At level 1, as we try to encourage and build the confidence of students, why not make that forum activity part of the assessment? As well as judging them on the basis of their finished essay, what about also judging them on the basis of their contributions to discussions in preparation for that work?

In critical subjects - such as literature - we are resistant to the notion that collaboration can play a part in assessment, or in working towards an assessment, or in fact that it can be the assessment. We presume that when we assess our students, we need to judge them on the basis of their final output, not on the basis of the process that has led up to that output. I'm picking on the OU because as a distance-learning university where technology is prominent, the symptom is most obvious. However, in some shape or form the issue has been there in all four institutions I have taught at. The issue is a disciplinary one, not an institutional one.

Here's one final example. In the distance learning course on Modernism that I wrote for SIM University, I included a graded discussion board topic in which students were asked to debate the modernist characteristics of a piece of unattributed prose. There was also an independently written essay on a different text, and the obligatory exam at the end. I encouraged students to do the discursive bit. I demanded that they create polished artefacts in the form of end of year essays. But my course design failed to join the two aspects together, so that discussion and collaboration was not part of the mainstream process of creation of the final essay, even if it may have been a tributary that influenced their skills and thoughts further downstream.

Where, then, might we go from here? Well it seems to me - again an uneducated hunch - that we are not going to go anywhere: we will be pushed first. On Facebook and other social media collaborative discussions about assessments, sharing of essays, comparisons of each others' work and tutor feedback are already taking place. Most institutions have a policy against this; most are losing the battle.

We need then to beat the enemy by bringing it into our camp. Especially at level 1 we need to teach students that our online spaces are safe, reflective and above all genuinely useful environments in a way noisy social media is not. Trolls lurk in the public sphere; our job as tutors (just as in the physical classroom) is to create a safe zone to keep the trolls out, to steer students to learn from peer criticism in a positive and respectful way. We can guide discussions about essays and other assessment topics in a way that allows them to collaborate but without overstepping into plagiarism. We can suggest to students that the link to Wikipedia or Gradesaver that they have just posted might not be such a great resource after all. We can enhance participation and a feeling of group identity by bringing all our students under one roof, where they will happily reside if they know that their involvement on a forum or other collaborative medium is being assessed.

At present, and increasingly, students are outsourcing the process of preparation for essays to other platforms, although they continue to present us with the finished product, whose origins (such as work pulled from Wikipedia) may or may not be apparent. We need to get our students to do both under our purview. Assessing the process, as well as the artefact, is a way to achieve this.

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Posted by Alistair at 6:42 am

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