E-Musings: Social Media, Learning & Assessment

Several of the modules my department offers its undergraduate students have, as part of their assessment strategy, an online participation element, either via blogs, or – and this is what this post is concerned with – discussion boards within our virtual learning environment. Rather naively perhaps, I assumed that students would appreciate this “innovative” mode of assessment, considering it’s significantly shorter than an essay, much less formal (no need for extensive research or sophisticated arguments), and provides an opportunity to discuss module material outside of the pressure of the classroom and with more hindsight than can be applied in seminars.

This post, however, is prompted by some interesting comments made yesterday by some of our student representatives. Rather than offer a solution to any of the issues raised, I want to use this space to reflect briefly on some of the arguments made, perhaps in the hope that others have encountered similar challenges and have – dare I say it – perhaps found solutions to them (any comments welcome, of course). I refrain here from recounting my own and other staff members’ rationales for using discussion boards as a means of assessment, and will concentrate, instead, on how our students’ concerns problematize those very rationales, at least to a certain extent.

When introducing my students to the discussion board, I proudly declared that they really needn’t worry excessively: “We don’t expect you to write essays here. Just write down what you found interesting or odd about a certain theory, or anything that perhaps doesn’t make sense to you (yet). Don’t say anything you wouldn’t say to each other in class, but don’t feel like to have to write as formally as you would in an essay.” Formatting was also an issue, as any paragraphing and line spacing gets lost once you click the ‘Submit’ button. Thinking I had made things rather clear, I checked the discussion board a few weeks into the semester to find 10+ thoughtful and clever posts on psychoanalysis (who can resist a bit of Freud-bashing?), forming, overall, a string of comments which evidenced that, more often than not, students clearly had read each others’ posts before submitting their thoughts to the digital world.

But two interlinked (and actually fairly obvious) points were raised today which snapped me right out of my smugness about what I had hoped (and indeed still hope) are the benefits of online learning platforms. The first concern the student reps voiced challenged my idea that this assessment was “easier” than writing an essay, as it’s supposed to be much less formal and is much more flexible in terms of content, structure and writing style. I am paraphrasing here, of course, but the main worry seemed to be that it is still a written piece of work, and the fact that it is an official part of their module assessment almost renders void any assurances that register, writing skills and sophistication do not matter in this task. How much less formal should the post be? Can it ever be less formal when it is – almost by necessity, for it is an assessment – treated like any other written assignment, that is, it is planned, proofread, revised, etc.? They very fact that it is embedded in our virtual learning environment (rather than in a non-academic, non-institutional platform, such as Twitter or Facebook) makes it impossible to ignore that it will – by whatever criteria – be marked by your seminar tutor. Any attempt to render it less formal on purpose defeats the very object of setting a task which requires you to submit more spontaneous and less “academic” (but more frequent) pieces of writing, does it not? So the context of the discussion board somewhat renders moot our encouragement that students write a little more casually. It also raises much wider questions around notions of ‘academic’ and ‘formal’ writing, to a certain extent. To what genre does a post on a discussion board belong?

As a direct result of these issues, the discussion boards also do not really host “discussions” as such, although my students certainly have made an effort to indicate whether they agree or disagree with the previous comments in a thread. Secondly, and related to the problems I have tried to outline so far, are students’ concerns regarding their posts’ visibility. Their comments are, of course, only visible to those who have access to the virtual learning environment and to the module in question, but this also means that students can check, if they wish to do so, the discussions going on in the forums the discussion boards of other seminar groups within the module, too. So next to knowing that their seminar tutor will read their posts, there is also the awareness that others, who are not privy to our seminar discussions and whom they may not even know, are able to read their posts, putting yet more pressure on them to carefully word and plan their contribution. Making their posts private, and only visible by the respective tutor, would, on the other hand, defeat the purpose of using a discussion board at all (and the same applies to the use of private blogs as a means of assessment).

Perhaps, one may argue, these concerns only highlight that the intended outcome we often associate with these kinds of assessment methods hasn’t been met yet, namely the ability to express one’s opinions confidently and clearly in a variety of (academic) environments. But no matter what we envision the outcome of this particular assessment strategy to be, we must consider whether, and to what degree, these aims are actually achieved with the methods we employ, be they new or old. What I want to tell my students is not to be so anxious about their posts, but then we all know that with a comment like that I’d be placing myself in a glass house, thanks to my own anxious mind.