I just finished a weeklong marking marathon that has caused me to re-examine my marking processes: what is important and how best to assess the work of my students given the changes in the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) in today’s classroom. I teach face-to-face at the undergraduate level and I teach fully online at the graduate level. More and more I deal with many of my students asynchronously, using a variety of ICT’s. Regardless of my teaching medium, I am attempting to do away with hardcopy and try to make available viewable and/or downloadable softcopy documents for my students and, in return ask for softcopy documents to be handed in for all assignments. Based upon the types of work I assign, most responses come to me in the form of a Word document.
I have found that marking softcopy Word files takes longer than hardcopy but I also believe I can provide richer commentary in the process. With Word documents I use various review features such as “Track Changes” and the “Comments” feature plus I use the text highlight feature to emphasize words as I read. I use all of these features as a means of “talking” to my students during my review and marking process. I think that in many cases this is becoming the norm today. Additionally I have experimented with converting documents to PDF files and added audio comments. (Adding audio comments in Word is a real pain). This process is picky, as you need to make sure that you set the sampling rate low so that your audio files do not become too large although I have found that I can have a fair bit of audio in an assignment and still keep the file size to less than 10mb. I believe however that audio comments will remain less used as long as file size and bandwidth concerns are an issue.
Marking up Word files as described above remains my number one reliable means of addressing student work and this past week I found myself floundering. The course I had been teaching was a graduate online course and for the final assignment students were offered an opportunity to present their work in any creative way they chose as long as it covered all of the points asked for in the assignment. I had no idea what kind of a process I was to be faced with when it came time to marking. Up to this point in the course students handed in “papers” where I demanded certain academic standards such as APA formatting of the document as well as proper citing of sources and a correctly formatted reference list. I pushed them in this way with the belief that they were heading towards their thesis after my course was finished and academic writing would be something they would need to remain familiar with. Great, you might ask – so then why give an assignment where students could present their work using whatever medium they felt was appropriate? There were many reasons for this and my co-facilitator Lisa deserves much of the credit for encouraging this altered view of an assignment but suffice it to say I received an amazing array of Prezi’s, Wiki’s, Google Docs, a YouTube, an MP3 audio file, several blogs, and a few academic papers, some in Word and some as PDF’s. These ran the full gamut from rich and thick full of ideas to thin and in much need of work. But how do I mark these – how can I read, listen, and watch without having track changes and comments available to annotate and discuss and “talk” to my students in this process? Now I know that some might just shake their heads and suggest that my supposed challenge is an easy fix yet this is a big challenge for a guy who no longer had access to his tried and true method for providing feedback.
Yes I found ways to make the marking work and yes it took a lot longer than it might have if I were just marking nicely formatted Word documents; however the richness and diversity of products was amazing. The different ways my students found to articulate their thinking was a great eye-opener for me. Some students indicated that they only wanted to hand in a traditional academic paper for the practice while others felt that they could express themselves more appropriately using a medium within which they felt more comfortable. I still got to see correctly formatted reference lists and in most cases I saw (or heard) citations in support of the literature being used. I had to find a way to make side-notes as I listened or watched and I created and annotated a checklist of questions I wanted answered. I stopped worrying about word counts and began to see different ways that today’s technologies offer rich and innovative opportunities for students to express themselves. As with any assignment and with the use of any tool, some individuals have a finer hand than others and some have a keener sense of what is needed to get the job done given the parameters and the depth of their commitment. Regardless, as I have always attempted to get my students to understand – education is all about the process and process is just another word for refinement. If I intend to keep pace with the evolution of the use of technologies in education then I need to continue to allow my students to push themselves as I was witness to this past week. Maybe we can all begin to see that learning is about learning and the environments within which learning can occur, and should be supported, are for and about learning regardless of the medium. I am a learner as are my students and dissonance is not necessarily a bad thing.