A brief typology of feedback hubs

As part of the Jisc’s feedback hub feasibility project, I’ve started to look at systems that can present feedback in a holistic, programme wide way to learners and teachers. Having talked to the creators of a number of these hubs, there seem to be three broad types, which I’ll outline here.

One of the outcomes of Jisc’s ongoing Electronic Management of Assessment programme is the sector’s desire for a feedback hub. This is a separate application, system or service that provides a wide, degree programme or even life-wide view of the feedback a student has received on assignments over the course of their learning journey. With such a hub, learner can better track their progress, see in what areas they’ve become better and what aspects still need work. Their tutors and teachers can use the same view to feed forward, or identify areas where some action now could make a difference.

The feedback hub feasibility project is a small piece of work that follows up on the desire for a feedback hub by looking at what systems are already available, how they meet –or could be made to meet– what people want from them, and how Jisc can help make these systems available.

Research is ongoing, but from the systems we’ve examined so far, the fundamental differences between them are where they live, and whether they’re a feature of a larger system or a stand alone application. This has consequences for how easily a particular hub can gather feedback data, how people access the hub, and whether that hub can present feedback alongside other progress indicators such as analytics dashboards and confirmed marks.

VLE feature

These are the simplest feedback hubs: they are an integral part of a larger VLE, and they live in the same place as it does: either with a hosting company or on an institution’s servers.
They work by gathering links to all assignments and their associated feedback from the VLE’s own database, and sometimes from assessment services such as TurnItIn as well. The clear advantages of this approach is that it is comparatively easy to get comprehensive access to assignments kept in the VLE, and it also means that learners and teachers can interact with the hub in a familiar environment. Integrating a feedback hub view with other progress indicators from the same VLE should be easy to develop too.

Getting detailed feedback and grading data out of other systems could be a challenge, however, and students who live with more than one VLE for one reason or another would almost certainly struggle to get a unified view. Most learners’ feedback ‘story’ would also be unlikely to be portable after graduation.

Examples of feedback hubs of this type are the MyFeedback Moodle plug-in currently under development at the UCL. This plug-in builds on earlier work at the UCL Institute of Education that provided a simple chronological list for teachers, by making a view available to students as well, and integrating it with basic learning analytics indicators.

Bedford college has the Grade Tracker plug-in for Moodle, which has extensive support for tracking and even projecting grades, and is designed to work with the qualification structures of the main FE awarding bodies.

The University of York is working with Blackboard to develop something similar to MyFeedback for the Blackboard VLE. Because the work is just starting, and the development approach agile, the work at York is focusing on providing just a chronological list of assignments and feedback, and add other features when there’s a demand for them.

Tutoring/Assignment management system

These systems offer a feedback hub as well as other features designed to give an integrated view of assessment schedules, grades, tutor meetings and some learning analytics data visualisations. They are stand alone systems, and the ones available now are designed to either live on campus, or be hosted by a dedicated hosting company.

The advantage of systems of this sort is that they can focus exclusively on a well established feedback process: the personal tutor meeting. The system can give a busy academic all the progress indicators as well as private and shared notes and feedback. The same goes for the student preparing to meet her.

The challenge for a tool of this sort is system integration: a way needs to be found to get assignment and grade data out of VLEs, Student Record Systems and assignment services. This can be difficult.

An example of a well established tutoring assignment system is coTutor from the University of Loughborough, which is now available as a hosted application from the Jisc cloud service. Another example is the e-Assignments system from the University of Southampton.

Assignment service

These systems live on the internet, and are designed to integrate with other institutional systems to some extent. The advantages of such services are the same as those of all software-as-a-services: economies of scale can make them full featured for a relatively low price, upkeep is left to dedicated teams, and improvements are continuous. For feedback, that particularly means that access to the hub can be taken to whichever web platform or mobile app learners and teachers prefer, either via widgets or other front end integrations. For the learner, it also means that feedback can be gathered from several places and stay accessible after graduation.

Though the economies of scale help, integration with other systems, particularly at the back end, can remain challenging for these services. Also, although the widgets can help blend an assignment service into a VLE, it will still be another separate tool that user have to learn to use, and one that may not be able to mix in different progression data quite as seamlessly as a VLE plugin.

An example of this approach is PebblePad’s forthcoming Flourish product, which presents a student’s learning journey as a continuous stream- much like the activity stream in social media. Entries in that stream include assignments with their mark and feedback, and each such entry can support interaction with the tutor or marker. A version of each student’s stream can be made visible to the tutor.

Another possible example is to build a new app on top of box– an enterprise content management service that resembles dropbox in some ways, but one that allows institutional control. Box has embeddable viewers for common document formats, and those viewers support annotation. This suggests that it should be possible to construct an assignment service that can be embedded in any relevant web application or in dedicated mobile apps. Some school oriented box based services already get close to that idea, and the Canvas VLE already has box built in and uses it for assignment annotations.

Turnitin could also be called an assignment service, of course, but one that is more oriented towards plagiarism detection than the provision of holistic feedback hubs at the moment. This could change, however.

Next steps

These types of feedback hub give an idea about how assignments and feedback data can be aggregated and exposed to users. The next step will be to delve deeper into how these systems relate to existing and desired feedback practice, and what gaps there are between what learners and teachers want, and what the systems can provide. That, in turn, will inform what courses of action Jisc could take in the feedback hub area. Stay tuned.


Many thanks to all my feedback hub respondents.

Views are my own.

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