Information abundance means that learners have unprecedented access to information.This coupled with what we know about student engagement in academic study means that we might want to rethink the way we approach assessments. I believe that social media (SM) tools provide us with unique opportunities to asses in ways that weren’t even possible a few years ago. Using SM tools can provide opportunities not available using traditional assessment tools.
Regular readers will know that I am a huge fan of blogging as a form of assessment using SM. Some of the advantages (from my perspective) for the use of SM blogging include public exposure, and the ability to comment. Other advantages, that I think are relatively minor (from my perspective as a teacher) but are important to students, are: solid platforms, 24/7 access, universal availability, and simple and quasi-familiar interfaces. I think that the advantages that the students focus on are important to their ability to do the work, however, the advantages I focus on are real advantages for learning.
Although a few students (and a great many teachers) fear public exposure when it comes to assessment, I believe that it is of great benefit in the learning process. One of the hallmarks of authentic assessment is that the assessment is a closer reflection of the type of activity that is expected in real life. Seldom is serious writing done for the purposes of having a single individual read it, and then have it disappear. That is how most traditional writing assessments are done in HE today, with few exceptions. When students work is put up for public display, several things happen, they take more care in their work, they begin to produce work that will impress their peers, friends and family (you wouldn’t believe how many of my students invite their parents to participate in their learning this way), they look at each other’s work as models of good practise (how often does that happen with traditional assessments), they monitor each other’s work for unfair practise (with serious repercussions), and they are available for the wider community to engage with them.
My students tell me that after a few weeks of producing their weekly blog posts, I begin to disappear from their thinking when they are writing. They begin to write for their audience, in which I become a minor player. They write to convince those who will be making comments on their work, not for me, who will be grading the work. They present coherent arguments, backed by evidence and clear thinking, that allow them to get across the points that they want to make.
They also tend to invite others, not involved in the class, to read their work. They will interlink their various SM tools so that when they publish a post, it goes out to their friends and family on Facebook, Google+, and Twitter. When I see them in class and ask about a mother’s (or friends, or cousin’s) comment on their post, they invariably blush and say, “That’s my mother (or cousin or whatever) – I don’t know how she got on there.” Well, I do! The students have invited them in. In many cases, this is just an extension of them bringing the pictures home that they drew in grade 2, and looking for some measure of praise. This is great. Anyone who is going to write something that their mother is going to read is going to make sure she has a reason to say ‘well done!’. Why wouldn’t we, as educators, want to take advantage of this?
They have to read each other’s work in order to write (required) comments every week. As a part of the model I use, I write a short paragraph each week about what I have noticed in their collective writing (keeping them broadly within the parameters I set at the first of the class), and also point out the blogs that particularly impressed me. At the first of the semester, I tell them I will do this, and let them know, through a series of very unsubtle hints, that the posts I mention are the ones that got high marks that week. Over the course of the first three or four weeks, the spread of marks gets narrower and narrower as the students use the posts I mention as templates for their own writing. Our students are bright, and they want to do well. By showing them what I mean by doing well, they begin to seriously imitate the best. When they come and talk to me about how they can improve, I ask them if they have read the posts I have listed. When they tell me yes, I ask them if they notice a difference in what they are producing and what I have pointed out as being good work. They tell me yes, and then ask me what it is about the posts that make them better. I can (quite honestly) say to them that the really good posts make me go WOW!, and that is what they need to do. When they ask how that is done, I reply (again, quite honestly) “I have no idea, it just does”. They agree that it made them go wow as well, and then go away and try to make that happen in their work as well, and it often happens. “We are seeing peer-based learning networks where students are learning as much from each other as they are from their mentors and tutors (John Seely-Brown)”
I have had a single case of plagiarism in the five years I have taught this way. The students identified it (the student was using other students’ work and passing it off as his own), and were incensed that this would happen in their class. A delegation of students actually came to me demanding that the offending student be made to stand in front of the class and publicly apologise for what he had done. I told them not to expect that to happen any time soon. It was near the end of the semester, and the students didn’t even come back to the class again. Although this incident has had a few of my colleagues argue that we should protect students from this type of treatment, I tend to disagree. Although not a fan of Ayn Rand, I have to agree with her when she said “We can ignore reality, but we cannot ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.” I think that, too often, we try to protect our students from reality when that is exactly what they need to experience.
Finally, the public exposure opens them up to the likes of you and I -Professionals in the field who are always looking for good, interesting ideas that are presented in a well thought out format. In the past, my students have received favourable comments from around the world. One of my students received a scholarship to do a Masters degree at a prestigious university based on the blogs she wrote for my class. Someone commented on her work, and asked if she would like to collaborate with their research group, and when she explained that she was an undergraduate who was finishing up her degree that year, they asked if she would consider continuing her studies with them, all expenses paid. Unsolicited and unasked for, but welcome and appreciated. Not something you would get from having written an essay that only a single lecturer ever looks at (unless the work is double marked).
The requirement to comment on each other’s work is the other great learning outcome of using some SM tools for assessments.
I require my students to write five comments a week, bringing in fresh evidence each time to support the arguments they are making. This requires a significant amount of reading and thinking, and this is the one requirement that the students ask me to reduce every year. They are happy to write a blog post weekly, but feel that requiring them to make five comments makes for a heavy workload. I say, that’s what you’re here for.
Writing blog posts each week means that the students study a particular principle to a depth that I can be satisfied with in a senior undergraduate class. Having them comment on five of their peers posts means that they have to move out of their comfort zone, and engage in material that they otherwise wouldn’t. This satisfies me, as their teacher, that they have covered some breadth in the class.
However, I think the most powerful aspect of comments are the discussions and debates they spark. “It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it (Joseph Joubert)”. I couldn’t agree more to a statement. They write, think and discuss matters in a lively, civil and scholarly manner. Everything I could hope for from my students.
As a learning tool, I have to say that blogging is one of the best. And social media blogging is far more powerful than blogging behind a firewall. In higher education, we deal with adults. We should be providing them with authentic experiences, and treating them like fully responsible adults. Helping them grow and develop in the real world in, for me, one of the most wonderful aspects of the work I do. I wish there were other who shared my excitement.