Ever increasing circles

A thought-provoking article by David Nicol in yesterday’s Times Higher explores some of the issues around the provision and reception of feedback in UK HE.  Writing in response to the National Union of Students’ Feedback Amnesty which was itself inspired by the poor rating for assessment and feedback in the 2007 National Student Survey, Nicol discusses a range of issues that can impact on the quality and value of feedback, describing it as a process that permeates every stage of the assessment process.  Feedback is a dialogue, not just from teacher to learner but from the learner to his teachers, his fellow students and most of all, himself.  The general understanding of feedback as something that is done by teachers to students should be refocused to centre on the learner, and give him both ownership of and responsibility for his own learning. As Nicol says, ‘when teachers deliver written feedback, students must be able to decode it, internalise it and use it to make judgements about their work.  Only then can they make improvements.’ 

Of course, the teacher has to provide a good level of feedback to enable the learner to do this.  It’s hard to start a dialogue when the only feedback provided is a mark and a terse comment.  One comment from the survey cited by Talat Yaqoob on the Amnesty’s Facebook page illustrates the frustration students can feel: ‘Getting an essay back where the only comment was “use a bigger text size” [tells me] nothing on how to improve my grade’. 

Despite this, however, Nicol observes that ‘a further problem is students’ willingness to participate’ in such dialogue despite the range of opportunities some teachers and institutions provide.  One of the reasons for this apparent student disinterest could be revealed in another story in the same issue, the publication of a ‘manifesto for change’ in assessment processes to which Nicol is one of a number of signatories.  Amongst a number of issues identified, the manifesto argues that the emphasis on marks and grades encourages students to take an instrumentalist approach to their studies at the expense of deeper learning.  It’s hard to imagine how this can be avoided, however, in a financial climate which effectively only allows students ‘one shot’ at university, and in which student loans, tuition fees and graduate endowments make a degree all about ‘the magical 2:1′ and very little to do with learning for its own sake.

Second Life on a mobile phone. Yes, really.

Wired and Newsweek are reporting on a new client which allows users to run Second Life on a 3G mobile phone.  By customising the Second Life client to suit a small phone screen and limited controls and streaming content from their own servers, developers Vollee have produced a system which appears to run extremely well.  The beta launches next month in the States, before being rolled out elsewhere; you can sign up now for future access.  Having just got a new laptop on the grounds that my desktop machine has a fit of the vapours every time I try to log in to the resource greedy virtual world, I’m more than a little impressed with this – certainly the signficantly lower cost of a 3G phone and appropriate data plan will make Second Life more accessible and participation a more realistic possibility for future learners.

Death of the author

This Sydney Morning Herald article on Philip Parker’s prolific publication record popped up on a couple of mailing lists this morning and is certainly worth a read (it’s also worth noting that, since the article was written, Amazon have added a further 127 titles under Parker’s name, taking his current total to an eye-watering 85,864).

Using patented technology to source, compile and distribute works on some phenomenally obscure subjects, Parker is able to make it economically viable to produce titles which may sell to just a handful of readers.  These are strange, Frankenstein books, not worth anyone writing but worth someone reading – a genuine ‘birth of the reader‘, perhaps.  There does seem to be something empowering about such bespoke reference works, and even a vague post-structuralist appeal to Parker’s forays into poetry and romantic fiction, although there’s still an unshakeably forlorn aspect to these parentless little books.

This technology is also of interest given the increasing emphasis on personalisation in education and lifelong learning.  The ability to automatically collate, summarise and deliver content that is directly relevant to very specialised interests has definite applicability, particularly for assessment in vocational training courses where general principles taught in a course can be supplemented with assessments that are narrowly focused on learners’ particular requirements in a way that would otherwise be impractical and prohibitively expensive.

Future imperfect

Following the third Pew Future of the Internet survey and the most recent Horizon report, I came across this Map of Future Forces Affecting Education recently and keep finding myself drawn back to it despite myself.  Though the interactive map itself looks smart, it’s a bit clumsy and impractical to use (somehow I wasn’t surprised that their ‘how to use this map’ video was made on a Mac ;-) ), but there’s a nice pdf version (requires registration) also available for the more Web 1.0 amongst us.

It’s intentionally US-centric, but many of the trends, dilemmas and topic hotspots will be very familiar to educators elsewhere, such as participatory pedagogy, cheap mobile devices, serious games, open content, transformed learning environments and alternative financial models.  The map offers an opportunity to look at these in a wider context of change and under influence from other, competing or complementary, factors.

So why does it make me feel so uncomfortable?  There’s a heavy emphasis on personsonalisation and diversity, yet at the same time there’s a strong underlying perception of ‘Generation Y‘ as a homogenous group, all of whom are highly adaptable (or fickle), socially-orientated, technologically adept and heavily into group activities, and a distinct sense that all the innovations proposed serve a single, extroverted learning style.  There’s the inevitable reference to ‘integrating digital natives and digital immigrants’, yet voluntary and involuntary digital exiles are disregarded, and there’s an apocalyptic, been-watching-too-much-Mad Max feel to some of the predictions which undermines its intention to ‘provide a common framework to explore innovations, new solutions and experiments’.  To be fair, it doesn’t intend to propose a single potential future but rather to act as a ‘conversation catalyst’ based on the assumption that ‘a trend is a reasonable possibility’, and it largely achieves that with only the odd wtf moment. 

SQA licence BTL’s Surpass Suite

BTL Group Ltd have just announced that the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) have licenced their Surpass Suite for authoring, storing and delivering eassessments across a range of qualifications and subject areas.  This follows shortly after news that the SQA worked with BTL to convert a range of English for Speakers of Other Languages materials into interactive electronic versions available both on CD and as SCORM packages.

The SQA has taken an interest in the possibilities of online assessment for some time, with the first Standard Grade assessed online in a 2006 pilot and online access to results available to candidates.  Linn van der Zanden and Bobby Elliott have both presented on some of the SQA’s more innovative work at recent SIG meetings.

IMS release QTI v2.1 public draft 2 Addendum

IMS Question and Test Interoperability v2.1 public draft 2 was released almost two years ago.  Since then there have been a number of implementation activities, including the JISC Capital Programme projects demonstrated to the community last February.  Insights and lessons learned from these development activities have contributed to the QTI v2.1 public draft 2 Addendum now available through the specification webpage.  The Addendum incorporates ‘bug fixes and updates to some of the examples, the specification documents, and the XML schema’ and now offers the best version yet of the specification.

Feedback can as always be submitted through the ‘specification problem and suggestion reporting’ section of the IMS website (registration is required so I can’t link to it directly in this blog) or through CETIS.