Saturday, 25 April 2009

Collaborative Learning

image: flickr Andross

Rewriting the introduction to the Virtual Teams Module this week and, more particularly, redesigning the process.

I want this to be an interactive and collaborative module which simulates virtual team working, so I am asking students to work together in small teams, on a project of their choosing and to present their final work electronically (as we never meet face to face on this module!)

In the midst of my ruminations on this I was given an idea for a blog post by my Twitter compaƱero @ffolliet :

"The sadness about education is that clever people can't always share their wisdom".

I think what he meant was that some very knowledgeable teachers are not very good at expressing and sharing what they know - and that is certainly true.

There is a famous cycle of learning that shows the learner moving through unconscious incompetence ("I don't know what I don't know" - the pre-learner) through conscious incompetence ("aaagh! I am terrible at this!" - the beginning learner) onto conscious competence ("hey! I am getting the hang of /pretty good at this!" - the apprentice) and finally to unconscious competence ( "I can do this in my sleep" - the Expert).

Teachers, it is alleged, are worse than useless if they are at the Expert stage because they have forgotten the struggles of learning, do not necessarily know how to help someone get to their elevated levels and can't understand why someone else is struggling to grasp the point. (see my earlier post on The Curse of Knowledge).

I think though when I first read this Tweet I immediately leaped to another interpretation: how difficult we make it in education for very clever, knowledgeable and experienced students to share their knowledge.

In Distance Learning with mature, work based students I think it only fair to assume that students will have valuable skills, knowledge and experience to share and to build upon - so why should I think I am the only person worth listening to? - or assume that the set texts and articles I am recommending are the only knowledge worth sharing?

In Action Learning (and similarly in Person Centred approaches to teaching and coaching) we start from the premise that the "client" knows where it hurts and how to fix it - they just need help in articulating & acting on that knowledge.

So - just as @ffolliet's comment on Twitter stimulated me to write this blog and share something that deep inside I have known for a long time, just maybe forgotten - with a well timed question or prompt we can all bring out the cleverness inside each other. Student-directed groups, action learning sets, wikis for collaborative writing are all spaces where we can do this.

This isn't signalling mass unemployment for academics - just that the role has to change from being the clever person in the room who has all the answers to being the one who knows how to encourage everyone to ask clever questions of one another.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Peer assessment

image: flickr chrissuderman

Not been on the blog for a while - holiday in Spain took precedence, I am afraid!

So today just a few thoughts about peer assessment as I am contemplating the topic for an assignment I am writing. This has led me to some interesting reading: predominantly Rethinking Assessment in Higher Education by Boud and Falchikov (2007: Routledge)

The main arguments against peer assessment seem to be concern for the reliability of the marking process and consequent need for training of the students. I would add that it is also deeply unpopular amongst students who generally would much rather hand over total responsibility for the process to tutors - so as not to be put in the position of sitting in judgement on their friends and colleagues ( or even on themselves: self assessment is no less unpopular in my experience).

In favour is the real world analogy - in their working lives students (and particularly work based/distance learning/ mature students) are already involved in the business of peer and colleague assessment in the course of their work - checking reports, carrying out staff appraisals, NVQ assessing, supervising another's practice.

Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that learning with & from peers is the most natural way we pick up new ideas and information (that's certainly why I blog, Twitter, diigo and wiki every day!), which is certainly an argument for collaborative learning if not peer assessment. And it furthers life long learning: if we can turn to friends and colleagues for coaching and feedback as we approach new challenges in our work or even in our hobbies, we continue the process of reflection and informal learning almost without being aware of it.

So how do we make it work?

Some ideas from Nancy Falchikov include

  1. sharing the assessment criteria or

  2. even better, designing such criteria with the students

  3. training or scaffolding so that assessment skills are developed over time and not sprung as a surprise (and a big scary task) right at the end of the course

In another place in the book, there is a chapter on assessment and emotion. It is important not to forget how emotionally fraught assessment (judgement) is. Awaiting the marks on an assignment is deeply stressful for some: we feel we are being judged for who we are, not what we wrote/created. Getting those marks from a tutor allows us a measure of distance: we can be angry at them or the system if we are disappointed. Being judged by our peers may actually be more terrifying!!

In my own experience I have had mixed feelings about peer assessment. It was a system used widely in training for counsellors and because we worked in "triads" with peer observers of counselling practice at every workshop for three years, we all became relatively skilled at and relaxed with the practice. The final assessment with peer assessment on the practice portfolio was consequently less daunting.

However, at its worst, peer assessment puts the peer in the authority position and encourages them to take on the prevalent culture of whatever educational institution they have experienced: if their own experience of assessment is largely critical or punitive, peers will mirror this. Tutors therefore have to train students not only in the mechanics of assessment, but need also to model how it is applied - with fairness, humility, self awareness and respect for the student being assessed.

Hmmmm - training the institution's markers sounds like the FIRST step!!