Feedback is a hot topic at the moment and was certainly on my mind when I attended the ALT-C 2008 Conference which was called ‘Rethinking the Digital Divide’. Folk were talking about the National Students’ Survey where students want more personalised feedback in order to improve their grades and, of course, HE establishments do not want to be seen as failing their students in this respect. It therefore seems logical to work towards a more personalised feedback system for students, embedded within a dialogic framework as proposed by Laurillard’s conversation framework
This all seems well and good but how can this be achieved in an era of large student/staff ratios and reports in the literature that students do not read the feedback but only pay attention to the mark. Feedback, as a term, is also debated and researchers are leaning towards the notion of FeedForward, which will prompt students to reflect on the tutor’s appraisal of their work and take the ideas forward into their next assignment. However the evidence to date is that tutors are working very hard at promoting reflection but is the advice being taken seriously and used by students in subsequent course assignments?
One of the issues researchers seem to agree upon is the timeliness of the feedback. However receiving constructive comments at the end of an assignment is perhaps not as useful as we think and it is during the construction, or co-construction, of an assignment that the student needs help. There has been a long tradition at the UK’s Open University of students being able to ring their tutor when they have difficulty and speak to them, usually in the evening, when they themselves are not at work and the tutor too is not teaching. This system has worked very well but ideally all students, whether they are studying a distance course or attending a face to face university, would wish to have a tutor respond promptly to their queries when they are working late at night and so the feedback is timely and more meaningful to them.
There is a commercial company based in the United States called “Smarthinking” which is trying to address ‘feedback on demand for students’. It provides just what it states on the tin which is on-demand, online tutoring. It has a bank of tutors who support students studying conventional courses. It is often a source of extra help paid for by the University or College which has been outsourced to the Smarthinking company. The service is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and is now being used by a number of distance universities in Australia. The grades for Smarthinking students were significantly higher according to a study undertaken by Jane Calfee at the Kapi’olani Community College but what is important here is that tutors are commenting on drafts of assignments. The university or college tutors can see the data produced by the company on their student’s progress. They can read the tutorial sessions and can then spend their tutorial sessions on dealing with student problems. Hence a change in pedagogy has occurred. Is this the future of digital dialogues?