Blogging and innovative assessment practice at Edinburgh

Pixabay CC0
Pixabay CC0

Numerous positive teaching and learning outcomes have been associated with the use of blogs in both formative and summative assessment (Park, 2003; Smith, 2010; Kidwell et al, 2012; Glass, 2013; Dunleavy, 2015; Hansen, 2015). In this post I outline the findings of a PTAS project undertaken with Hazel Christie and Jacob Barber designed to explore the use of assessed blogs at the University of Edinburgh across a variety of disciplines. An extended version was published as part of the Higher Education Academy (2017) Transforming Assessment in Higher Education: A Case Study Series.

The Course Organisers (COs) we spoke to were motivated to use assessed blogs for a variety of reasons, e.g. a desire to get students writing in dynamic, concise ways, an ambition to connect academic theory with the ‘real world’, an aspiration to encourage the students to take ownership of their ideas, and a wish for the students to develop a transferable (non-academic) skill. However, it is not always easy to implement this form of assessment. The most commonly cited problem was having to use software that is not fit for purpose (or with limited features), often (but not always) with limited support from locally-based ICT staff. Other issues included the pressures of balancing innovative assessment with institutional/disciplinary inertia; the dilemma of whether to make the blogs public or private; and, a lack of standardised marking criteria. It also takes longer to mark this type of non-uniform, creative work than traditional types of assessment (essays, exams, multiple choice), a fact rarely reflected in workload models.

Assessed blogs also pose a series of challenges for students. The students we spoke to complained about unintuitive software and/or software with restricted functionality, noting that ICT problems (e.g. formatting, uploading non-textual materials) made the assessment time-consuming. Some students expressed frustration at having to ‘decipher’ unclear marking criteria and said that having to ‘feel their way through’ the assessment made them anxious. The provision of (sometimes sparse) guidance notes in lieu of a specific marking rubric, limited or overly subject-specific (as opposed to writing skills-based) feedback on formatively assessed posts, and weak direction regarding the intended audience for whom they should be writing, all contributed to this angst.

Other issues the students cited tended to be more double-sided, e.g. some struggled to select their own topics, some found the requirement for concision challenging, others felt overwhelmed by the need for regular submission. For students, blogs seemed to both open out opportunities to negotiate what to include in their work, and present a conundrum for them in terms of the appropriate selection of materials and the extent to which they could truly present a personalised effort. Nonetheless, all acknowledged that these efforts had contributed (in transferable ways) to their learning (e.g. capacity for independent thought, improved writing technique, more motivated work ethic, applied knowledge of the whole course content). In general, the students appeared to welcome the opportunity to do something different (a ‘change from the norm’), they enjoyed the ‘refreshing’ informality and personalised nature of the writing style, they appreciated the opportunity to apply their learning to contemporary ‘real world’ issues, and (where applicable) were enthusiastic about being able to incorporate A/V material, hyperlinks, images, and creative formatting into their work. Students were less comfortable with the possibility that their work might be subject to review from their peers before it received some measure of approval from assessors.

For innovative forms of assessment to work, both staff and students require appropriate and dynamic support from academic colleagues, computing staff, and departmental administrators. This includes the provision of opportunities to share good practice and discuss novel forms of assessment within specific disciplinary contexts in addition to those provided by dedicated teaching and learning forums, access to relevant ICT training/advice, a responsive rather than prescriptive approach to software provision (e.g. the development software packages with enhanced blogging capabilities), and adequate time allocation in workload models.  There is also a need to stimulate cross-disciplinary, cross-institutional debate about what constitutes best practice in relation to assessed blogs (e.g. what constitutes a blog, formatting techniques, marking criteria), and a need to refine/expand debates on innovative forms of assessment in a context where open, accessible and collaborative learning is becoming increasingly important. Future work might support and find ways to empower instructors and students to engage in innovative forms of assessment especially when this activity challenges institutionalised or disciplinary norms.

Nina Morris
Dr Nina Morris (N.Morris@ed.ac.uk, @_NinaJM) is a Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Edinburgh and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. She is Course Organiser for the geography Honours option course Space, Place and Sensory Perception which is partially assessed by blog.

One comment

  1. Hi Nina, this is a great read. We’ve been using blogs for learning at our institution for some time. I’ve been administrating a WPMU network for learning sites. I have to agree with the majority of what you’ve said in this article in terms of ICT support etc. I’ve worked on several projects with WordPress as a learning tool including having a network of blogs setup for an entire program where students administrate their own blog. This in particular has been tricky when aligning the idea of social pedagogy with access to peer blogs.

    One aspect we’ve found to be effective is to develop one blog to serve an entire subject, ie, multple authors on one site and locking down access to content via restricted CPT for student collaboration and safe community learning. With permission, lead academics are able to move content from the private blogging area to the public domain. This has been fairly effective in engaging students with blogging as assessment.

    We’ve found that workload can be mitigated as a result of the assessment design. We suggest blogging every week with the opportunity for students to nominate 2 pass weeks of their choice to balance their competing assessments (this various from student to student). No more than 500 words per blog post. The marking component is means only 4 blog posts get assessed by the marker; 2 in the first 5 weeks (for early assessment and feedback), and 2 in the remaining weeks of the session. Students nominate 2 of these blog posts (one each before and after week 5) for assessment where the other 2 are randomly selected (this keeps the work at a consistently high standard). In the end the lead academic only needs to assess 2,000 words per student, but students themselves output 4,000 per 10 week session if they use their 2 ‘get out of jail free cards’.

    But ultimately, there needs to be greater central support to scale this up across an institution. We’re still piloting and building a proof of concept. However anecdotal feedback from staff and students indicates a strong appreciation for the style of learning.

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