End-to-end EMA at Walsall College

Walsall College is using an integrated suite of technologies to support the whole of its assessment and feedback lifecycle: read more about its implementation here.

Background and context

Walsall College is a general FE College that also delivers HE level provision. Its FE level provision is purely vocational and does not include A levels. The College has about 600 teaching staff and about 12,000 students (4,500 of which are full-time). The College has been rated as outstanding by Ofsted and the way in which its joined up approach to assessment and feedback has empowered learners and enhanced their learning is an important factor in this outstanding rating.

Walsall College aspires to be world-class in its use of technology. Assistant Principal, Jayne Holt, told us that they have a culture of staff being ‘tech savvy’. ‘In this college staff can’t even book a day’s leave without going online‘ so looking to make best use of technology to support assessment and feedback practice was a natural thing to do. There were however some quite specific problems that the EMA implementation hoped to solve:

  • old processes that were based on paper or spreadsheets were not transparent and were thus disempowering for learners – ‘staff were working very hard managing student learning when the learners should have been doing this for themselves’.
  • staff spent tens of thousands of hours creating student record forms on paper: tutors had to write out one form per student per unit which was then passed to the information services team to input. This process was entirely manual and the handwritten forms were a source of considerable error.

EMA implementation

The College has implemented EMA to support the whole of the assessment and feedback life-cycle based on two main tools:

  • Gradebook which is an in-house development that is basically a customised version of Moodle used for submission, feedback and marking.
  • SharePoint which is used for timetable; attendance; punctuality; careers advice; and maths and English progress.

Students have a personalised page that enables them to see all of the information in these systems. There is single sign-on for all systems (with password requirements adapted for students with special needs) and enrolment at the start of the year generates accounts for all of the systems.

Aspects of the implementation that relate to specific areas of the assessment and feedback life-cycle include:

2. Setting: staff set up the assessment plan in the online system and identify when assessments will happen so that students can see this. This helps students with their time management and also helps staff to avoid issues of ‘assessment bunching’.

3. Supporting: students undertake a study skills programme to educate them about formative and summative assessment covering what they can expect and how much feedback they will receive on each.

There is also a support tracking register, available only to staff, that identifies students at risk. Every student is given a status of 1-3 to indicate their risk status in relation to successful completion of their course. Identification of this risk status begins during the admissions process so that factors such as special educational needs are picked up early on. Any member of staff can input to the support register e.g. examples of good or bad behaviour in the learning centre might be recorded to inform discussions with the student about their progress.

4. Submitting: Gradebook can encompass all types of assessment for example if a tutor is assessing something like a dance performance that is not ‘submitted’ in the physical sense they use a quick grading entry screen and can even upload a video of the performance. The College also does a lot of online exams as many of the professional qualification bodies demand this.

5. Marking and production of feedback: the College policy on return of feedback is 10 working days. Feedback can be delivered in a variety of formats and audio feedback is often used for learners with particular needs. All feedback is visible in the student Gradebook so the College can see the quality and timeliness of feedback being given to students. Different styles of tutor feedback are thus also very obvious to the student. The College is very focused on the longitudinal development of its students and tries to ensure that feedback supports this. They have a number of ‘coaches’ who sample the feedback for each subject area and provide staff development for any tutors whose feedback is felt to be inappropriate for the level of study particularly feedback that focuses only on the assessment criteria and not on longitudinal development. Feedback provided by new tutors is also carefully monitored in the early days.

6. Recording grades: marks undergo a process of internal verification prior to release to students.

7. Returning marks and feedback: the student has all of their marks and feedback available in one place.

8. Reflecting: the College also operates an e-ILP (individual learning plan). Tutors can look at feedback from other tutors on Gradebook before they discuss the learning plan with the student (as well as seeing comments on the support register which can be from any member of staff in the organisation).

The College places a lot of emphasis on action research so it did not opt for a ‘big bang’ implementation in relation to its learning and teaching practice. They did take a big bang approach to the use of SharePoint to improve administrative processes and this coincided with the move to a new building in 2009 but the development of Gradebook has evolved more slowly with the involvement of tutors. When the idea was initially introduced there was some nervousness about the fact that all data about what staff were doing would be totally transparent to senior management: this was seen as a ‘Big Brother’ approach. Success was therefore founded on making sure there were enough benefits to win over the teaching staff e.g. saving on routine administrative effort by producing forms automatically whereas previously they had to be handwritten. Marking within Gradebook is entirely online. The College has not faced any issues in relation to staff resistance to online marking and Jayne Holt puts this down to the culture of the College and the fact that staff see the benefits of full integration, automatic spell checking etc. The use of Gradebook is now fully embedded into all of the quality processes in the College and is not optional.

Benefits

The main driver for EMA was to address the issue of student passivity in relation to the assessment and feedback process. The previous arrangements led to a situation where hard-working tutors were creating increasingly passive learners. Now there is learner control and a level of transparency that allows learners to question what is happening. The College has seen a strong correlation between the EMA implementation and a change in the learner voice: students are now ‘quite vocal and more demanding‘. This has been noted by Ofsted inspectors who were surprised and pleased by the level of student involvement in the process.

The College culture is one that does not lead to the kind of risk aversion often seen in relation to assessment practice. The nature of the student population means that the College has to ensure its learning and assessment practices are creative and fun in order to deal with less engaged students who might not otherwise complete the course or achieve their full potential. The College sees peer review and group work as important to its learning and teaching practice (from 2015 all level 3 students will have tasks to solve in groups using online materials and supported by library staff) and realises that technology can help to support the assessment of these types of activity e.g. if students are working together on a Google doc it is easy to see who has contributed what.

Although efficiency savings were not the key driver for EMA implementation, the College has saved tens of thousands of hours of staff time that previously went into low value administrative activity i.e. hand writing and then retyping forms that are now generated automatically. This has also improved the quality of data by getting rid of the need to transcribe handwriting. The system also generates all of the evidence needed for HEFCE audit of its HE level provision.

The transparency of the system has improved the quality of the feedback the College provides to its learners. This has been achieved through a supportive staff development approach and the use of coaching to help tutors develop their skills in this area.

Key to the success of this implementation have been the supportive approach, the fully joined up and integrated nature of the systems and the fact that the College approach is to settle on a few core technologies and stick with them rather than change technologies too often.

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