Audio feedforward for distance-learning assessment support

Recently my BDRA colleague Ming Nie posted an item about the use of audio files or podcasts for feedforward. This was based on work with distance-learning psychology students in the DUCKLING research project, providing dissertation and module assignment support. She highlighted two key benefits in terms of encouraging students to ‘think ahead’ and also providing them with reassurance about being ‘on the right track’.

For the past six months, I have been an online module tutor on a distance-learning course supporting master’s-level management students. As a relative novice in the podcasting arena, this provided a good opportunity to see how audio files could be used to support students’ work on their assignments, coupled with the VLE Discussion Board for assignment and other questions related to the course materials. Some students have access to local tutor support, but others do not. However, for distance learners the assignment is always a potential source of anxiety. So providing resources to complement both the assignment brief and the facility to post discussion board questions seemed likely to be received positively.

The approach comprised three separate audio files, one on assignment process issues and one on each of two assignment questions. At 10 to 14 minutes in length, these would be classified as ‘long’ using the 10-factor model for podcast development (1) derived from the IMPALA research project. However, given the ‘distance’ aspect involved and likely levels of discussion board traffic, providing fewer if longer audio files was a ‘justified compromise’.

It is still early days, but the following observations can be made:

  • The relevance of audio files for non-native English-speaking/English as a study language students, who are able to ‘rewind’ and listen repeatedly to help develop their understanding of the language and of the assessment requirements.
  • The ability to ‘start-stop’ and make notes while listening and then to refer back and use the notes as a reference source or checklist when developing the assignment.
  • The more personal nature of listening to a spoken commentary, compared with reading course materials or asynchronous discussion board Q&A episodes, thus increasing the diversity of teaching media available to students.
  • Students identifying aspects of academic research and writing that their professional background and previous work experience have not highlighted, thus cultivating a different outlook and learning from the study experience rather than from the course materials as such.
  • The use of audio files as vehicles for student discussion in locally-based face-to-face study groups or via ‘closed’ social networking sites set-up by students at the start of the course.

To date, the investment made in interpreting the assignment brief and reflecting on what might be helpful for students seems warranted. Conceptually, this feels no different from preparing personal notes in advance for a class or workshop teaching session where assignment questions might arise, but instead recording the thoughts for wider distribution and remote access.

Roger Dence / 20th November 2009

(1) Edirisingha P, Salmon G and Nie M (2008) “Developing pedagogical podcasts” in Salmon G and Edirisingha P (eds) (2008) Podcasting for learning in universities, SRHE and Open University Press/McGraw-Hill, Maidenhead, 222pp.

Podcasts for feed forward

Using podcasts for feedback has been discussed a lot recently. Findings indicate the benefits of being able to deliver clearer and more detailed information, and make feedback feel more personalised, interactive and connected through voice. Another type of podcast – podcasts providing feed forward information – is understudied. In DUCKLING, Psychology has produced dissertation podcasts providing instructions in guiding students through the dissertation process and assignment podcasts explaining module assignment, both types of podcasts are to provide feed forward information.

I talked to a small number of Psychology students and they reflected on what was considered beneficial to their learning by using feed forward podcasts.

1.       Thinking ahead

Feed forward podcasts are particularly useful for students to plan and think ahead. As one student said about assignment podcasts,

“I think it was easier because you have it before you start doing anything [rather than leaving it to] the most panicking stage…”

The dissertation podcasts have a similar impact. Students can listen to it and start developing ideas even though they haven’t started their dissertation process. This is particularly beneficial to distance students as they can think ahead in an organised way, as one student pointed out,

 “I haven’t started developing ideas, and [I’m] hoping to start in the next few weeks, and that’s why I listen to the podcasts… A has broken down the different types of dissertation. I find that very useful. It’s kind of giving you an idea what kind of areas you can look at. It’s kind of making you think in an organised way. It’s just starting to think how I’m gonna approach it and where I should start thinking about this.”

2.       Reassuring

Students also find feed forward podcasts reassuring. As they pointed out in the interviews, ‘They set you at the right direction’, ‘They reconfirmed a lot of what I had read already’, ‘They reassured that I was on the right lines’, and ‘I feel comfortable that I’m on the right track’.

I’ve only spoken to a few students so far; the research is still in its early days. One of my colleagues, Roger Dence, provided similar types of podcasts explaining module assignments to his distance students studying for an MBA. He has already collected some evidence from students. It would be very interesting if we can compare and contrast our findings from different studies.


Ming Nie              20 August 2009

“Grade-centrism”: Are we in danger of trapping students to behave in a certain way?

Recently we had the privilege in Beyond distance of hosting Charmaine Ryan, from the University of Southern Queensland (USQ) in Australia. She gave a presentation on approaches to e-Assessment at the School of Information Systems at USQ. She described the challenges faced by her department in 2004 of late submission of assignments and several request for extensions. To resolve these problems, and taking into consideration that the majority of students on the programme came from collectivist societies, a decision was taken to introduce collaborative group online assessment strategy utilising a mixture of group and individual assessment and group on-line discussion. Students were required to contribute to the development of two case study reports within their groups and to also make postings to a general discussion area either critiquing or summarising a number of prior postings. At the end of the semester a 24 hour individual case study report was submitted followed by a two hour examination. Reported outcome, of the new intervention, was reduction in the number of requests for extensions and also improvements in grades.

In the UK, and like many parts of the world, the use of “marks” and “grades” to drive learning and to measure learning outcomes is well established. The view that students will only learn if they are awarded “grades”, “credits” and “marks” etc has led to a situation where curriculum design has placed much emphasis on learning outcomes in terms of the number of credits a student has to receive at the end of each academic year. The question which needs to be asked is, by promoting “grade-centrism” are we not in danger of entrapping students to behave in a particular way by using the carrot and stick of grades and marks (MacDowell 2007), which may lead to “shallow learning” i.e. learning what is needed to pass an exam? How do we make students aware of deep learning where outcomes are not grades, marks or credits but include the capacity to learn more effectively making learning to learn the main goal (Hulberg et al 2008). The Assessment Standards Knowledge exchange (ASKe) initiative has made the case for greater emphasis to be placed on assessment for learning rather than assessment of learning.  The collaborative group online assessment strategy at USQ is surely a “blended assessment” process which provides a lot of food for thought.

Sahm Nikoi (BDRA – 26 April 2009)

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