Online marking: is the tide turning?

 The issue of online marking has polarised academic staff for a number of years but recent years have seen some large scale shifts in attitude and widespread moves towards online marking. The pattern of institutions moving gradually to impose e-submission and e-feedback but leaving marking practice to the discretion of individual academics is a common one that fits with the sector’s attitude to change.

The most in-depth study of online marking to date comes from the University of Huddersfield EBEAM project which undertook a detailed analysis of staff attitudes to the topic and effective approaches to encouraging different types of staff to adopt new working practices. Their work is discussed more fully in the Jisc infoNet Change Management infoKit. The discourse of resistance appears to be highly personalised e.g. some older members of staff may cite eye-strain as an issue with online marking whereas others of the same age group would cite the affordances of technology to adapt to their personal needs and make reading easier. In relation to reluctant staff the University notes: ‘ It is also important to allow them to justify their decision to move to eMarking in ways that make sense to them and help them maintain their sense of identity and agency.’

The University of Huddersfield concluded that a strongly directive approach is likely to be counter-productive and that academics should be allowed to continue working in the way in which they feel most comfortable whilst the institution continues to emphasise the benefits of e-marking and reward those adopting the practice through a reduction in administrative duties: ‘… it is important to build a strategy and a system which provides each group with the support they need but also offers rewards and applies pressure in a consistent way such that moving away from paper–based marking and into eMarking makes the most sense to as many of them as possible.’ (Huddersfield)

Queen’s University Belfast has taken a similarly non-directive approach combining appreciative inquiry with demonstrating the benefits of the application of technology. Their experience does however show the powerful message that can be transmitted when reluctant users of the technology experience the benefits. Online marking was initially piloted across three modules in a single school as a result of which the school took the decision to move to fully online marking in the following year. Pivotal in the decision were the views of one academic who was strongly reticent prior to participating in the pilot but found the experience very positive. The consequences of this were extremely far-reaching with two further schools subsequently adopting the practice. ‘The implications of this are that staff sharing positive experiences can be a powerful means of bringing about change in practice and process.’ (QUB).

Reported benefits of online marking for academic staff include:

– the convenience of not having to collect and carry large quantities of paper

– the convenience of electronic filing

– the security of having work backed up on an online system

– the ability to moderate marks without having to physically exchange paper

– the increased speed and efficiency of being able to reuse common comments

– improved morale through not having to write out repeated comments

– the convenience of being able to undertake originality and plagiarism checking in the same environment as marking

– improved clarity of marking and feedback (especially the ability to include lengthy comments at the appropriate point in the text)

– improved consistency of marking

The issues relating to improved clarity (particularly not having to decipher handwriting) and consistency as well as the security and convenience of the medium are also the main benefits to students.

Whilst it can take time for staff to familiarise themselves with the system, there is a clear message that, after this initial period, marking becomes a much faster (and more satisfying) process than the traditional approach. ‘The vast majority of the staff interviewed for this study reported that using GradeMark made their marking faster and/or more efficient. What this meant in practice was that they were able to offer the same amount of feedback than they had previously in less time or that they were taking the same amount of time but were able to offer considerably more feedback in terms of both detail and quantity.’ (Huddersfield). Pilot activity at the universities of Bath Spa and Winchester produced similar outcomes.

The University of Huddersfield noted that the time saving didn’t just come from the marking process itself, but also accumulated from other administrative burdens that had been reduced or removed as a result of using the tool:  ‘I can actually spend more time writing comments than I am spending emailing students back or all those other things.’ (Huddersfield)

The University of Glamorgan reported the same global efficiency savings but noted that many academic staff were unlikely to reflect on the bigger picture of the overall process: ‘…  academic staff seem to make a direct comparison between the time taken to mark a physical script and to mark online and the speed of the system. They were less aware of the saving of time on the entire feedback process, which involved tracking student submissions, or using lecture time to hand back assessments or having multiple interruptions from students collecting marked work at different times.’ They did however cite one academic who had clearly recognised this: ‘I think the whole process is quicker. We used to rely on the faculty administrators to collect the work and then we have to collect them a few days later and ask the student to come and collect their work. With Turnitin the whole process is a lot quicker. Students do not lose their work. Whether the “marking” is faster I think depends on each individual and it will be different. But the whole process is definitely quicker.’ (Glamorgan)

The efficiencies in the overall process are illustrated by these two diagrams from the University of Huddersfield: the first shows the process of marks entry using paper based marking and requires academics to duplicate the same procedure three times and to undertake individual handling of student marks (i.e. enter the marks one by one three times);

Huddersfield process 01

the second shows the marks entry procedure available to staff marking on Grademark. There is no duplication of effort for the academic and marks are entered via batch handling. Even without being able to see or understand the fine detail of these workflows, the increased simplicity and the reduction in steps and processes is clear to see.

Huddersfield process 02

The University of Huddersfield noted that few academic staff required basic training to undertake e-marking and that the self-paced training tools available within the system were adequate for most users of average technical ability. The University suggests that training effort is better spent on more advanced features and supporting staff to share experiences both to support the working round of problems that exist in specific disciplines and to improve consistency.

Increased use of online marking is not simply an unstoppable trend: growth in recent usage also reflects the increased maturity and user-friendliness of the available tools. For example the latest release of the most commonly used tool, Grademark, incorporates integration with plagiarism detection features such that a tutor marking a piece of work can see elements identified as ‘unoriginal’ subtly highlighted in the background. It also incorporates features such as audio as well as written feedback and the ability to see whether or not a student has looked at their feedback. There are however still many issues to be overcome such as the marking of assignments requiring the use of mathematical and scientific formulae or musical notation and the marking of assignments that cannot be ‘submitted’ through the system such as performances.

One thought on “Online marking: is the tide turning?

  1. Pingback: 5. Marking and production of feedback | Electronic Management of Assessment

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