Marking, Marking, Marking…

It has come to this.  I’m blogging about marking.  Our new semester of teaching starts this coming week so normal service will be resumed soon and I will start talking about the online component on my 3rd Year undergraduate module on Fin de Siècle Writing and Culture.  In the meantime, I’ve spent much of January writing an essay for my MA and … marking.

The marking that I’m focussing on here is the marking of the discussion forum activities that took place on my Victorians module in Semester One.   Sometimes colleagues of mine in English Departments have wondered whether it is possible (or indeed desirable) to assess online discussion.  I have become quite a proponent of assessing such work for two main reasons: (1) assessing online discussion values the work students are putting in to online activities (and if they’re anything like mine, many will be putting in a lot of work), and (2) you will ensure 100% participation, across the entire course.  Some colleagues reading this may say they have highly motivated students who don’t need the ‘stick’ of assessment to get them to participate in such activities.  If so, then good for you, although I am still a tad sceptical as to whether all students will participate across an entire course in such circumstances.  My assessment criteria aim to provide many ‘carrots’ in terms of motivating my students in terms of their online work, and it is my experience (after about 5 years of assessing online discussion) that many students will work really hard at online activities.

My marking of what my students have posted in discussion forums over the course of a semester doesn’t involve any kind of electronic mechanisms:  I basically look at the posts each student has posted (our VLE enables me to ‘sort by author’ for each discussion forum) and assess the quality of what’s there against my assessment criteria.  Soon I get a feel for a particular student’s standard, as ranged against everything else I’m looking at (as one does with a batch of essays).  As I read their posts I make brief notes for myself as to what they are doing well/not doing so well.  My feedback form is simple:  it lists the number of discussion forums the student took part in across the semester, and then I offer my comments and a grade.

When I have visited other English Departments in the UK to ‘demo’ my VLE activities I am often asked how long such marking takes.  Overall I would say it is quicker than marking the equivalent number of essays, not least because I don’t write comments on forum postings as one writes on an essay.  My assessment criteria are also often popular with colleagues.  In the forthcoming Guide to Good Practice in the Use of Discussion Activities in English (HEA English Subject Centre, 2010 — see my Ms E-Mentor ‘Publications, Presentations and Awards’ page on this blog)  I have written the ‘Assessment’ chapter and the assessment criteria I use are set out there.  They probably aren’t perfect, but they work for me, and have been ‘tweaked’ over the years to try and iron out loopholes (students are very good at finding these, intentionally or not).  At best, the marking of the online work is really enjoyable, because I see students putting in a huge amount of effort and commitment to the activities, and responding with intelligence and flair.  Although I do look at what is going on in the forums as they are happening, and as the term progresses, I don’t make any claims (either to my class or to myself) to look at everything at that time.  When I come to mark I do aim to look at every post made, and there are always new things that surprise and impress me.

The VLE is Undead!

Last Wednesday, on December 16th, I attended an afternoon event at the University of Wolverhampton on ‘The VLE is Undead’.  This was a replay/development of a session first aired at the ALT-C conference in September 2009, entitled ‘The VLE is Dead’.  The event took the form of a debate, with James Clay and Nick Sharratt arguing for the continuing usefulness of VLEs, and Steve Wheeler and Graham Attwell suggesting that they are outmoded.  It was a ‘buzzy’ event, with advance interest generated by a “quick and dirty” social networking site: VLEUNDEAD and ‘live tweets’ being posted up via the data projector screen in the room where we were meeting as the event happened.   Most of the attendees were learning technologists within HE or FE; I was one of the few academics.  But I am genuinely interested in the future of such online learning spaces, seeing as I’ve invested quite a lot of my own time in making VLE platforms work within English Studies.  There’s a Cloudworks webpage on the ALT-C version of this event if you are interested.

There was discussion of the proprietorial ‘walled garden’ nature of VLES, commercial vs. open source vs. in-house VLEs, the perceived clunkiness of VLEs compared to Web 2.0 social software such as Facebook, the future of education and technology, the ever-increasing diversity of learning and learners into the 21st century, and much more.  One attendee made the very valid point that it is not so much that VLEs are outmoded as that many lecturers have never used them to their full potential, and dismiss them based on that lack of effective usage.  Personally I think that once you as a tutor see your own students/class using a VLE effectively — and obviously doing some rich learning using it — your views change.  As I say on the ‘About Ms E-Mentor’ page of this blog, my own classes that use online discussion activities would be lesser things without the online component, and that all happens within a VLE.

Maybe it is the case that a majority of academics won’t wish to do the necessary learning to manoeuvre round their institutions’ VLE, and that online pedagogic innovation will always be led by the few.  What I have found effective from my own experience is going into other departments as a subject specialist  and demoing effective use of VLEs. There’s still a great deal of interest in this from my colleagues across the UK in English Studies, many of whom still don’t really know how to make VLEs effective in their own teaching.  The VLE is a space, like a classroom is a space.  It’s what you do in it that matters and that makes learning happen.

So for me the VLE is very much not dead, or even undead.  I am sure VLE technologies and platforms will continue to develop — and so they should — but I’m very far from convinced that anything like learning is going on in the overwhelming majority of Facebook posts.  As the name suggests, it’s a ‘social networking site’ and not a learning space.  My students’ discussion forum posts on the online activities I’ve been describing in this blog are very clearly about learning, and I still very much think there is a place for an enclosed online space connected to any given course, which is what VLEs offer.

Victorian Song

Session 3 of the Victorian Vision Online involved the class each having to find a Victorian song, post up the lyrics, and tell their classmates something about it.  This made an interesting swerve as the online exercise after an in-class session on Victorian poetry where in some ways the discussion had been more ‘highbrow’, considering the ways in which Victorian poetry found itself marginalised in the period and struggling to find a sense of its own purpose and role as the novel took centre stage.  The idea for this session online came from a colleague of mine, Hilary Weeks, several years ago.

For the first time thus far with the VVO sessions I don’t send the class a reminder/prompt email about the session.  I figure by this point in the term they should be into the groove of the sessions and able to follow the programme of when they happen.  Sure enough they don’t have any problems getting on with the task.  I log in on Monday morning, after three days, and find lots of posts.  I had posted a number of links to suggested websites where I thought students might find examples of Victorian songs but they have also used other resources.  One student posts that she spent Sunday afternoon listening to a CD of Victorian songs, and her chosen song is a poem called ‘The Lost Chord’ by Adelaide Procter, set to music by Arthur Sullivan in 1887.  She is surprised and even a little outraged that she can find so little reference to Procter anywhere.

There are quite a lot of hymns and Christmas carols posted up — a good reminder that the Victorian period is one of quite a lot of faith as well as doubt — and I’m often impressed by the level of analysis that the class are giving to their finds.  A terrific discussion kicks off starting from someone posting ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’, written by Cecil Frances Alexander and published in 1848 (it ends up as a ‘thread’ of 19 posts).  The discussion goes all over the place, and is popular probably because so many of the class can remember singing this hymn at school.  A debate starts as to whether children should have to sing hymns in school at all and it ends up in a discussion of religion as the opium of the people and class suppressor when someone finds the now omitted second verse: 

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

Another student makes the most of my encouragement to the class to interact with each other well on the forum and posts all but the last verse of a popular music hall song.  With the subject line of ‘What happens next?’ he invites classmates to suggest how the song’s story turns out.   Great stuff.

Teaching with Youtube

If I can digress off the Victorians for this post I was teaching a course on Women’s Writing and Feminist Literary Theories to second year undergraduates this week.  It’s the point in the course where I attempt to explain Judith Butler to them and her notion of the peformativity of gender.  I had just read the latest edition of Wordplay, the English Subject Centre’s Newsletter, and Anna Palko’s article on ‘Teaching with Youtube’, where she mentions using the Dove ‘Evolution’ advert to introduce ideas around essentialism and gender performance.  The advert is quite mesmeric, and Palko rightly says that it is “extremely powerful, as it displays an issue of which many, if not all, of the class is aware and are affected by”.  I showed it as my very first slide, with a reference to Joan Rivière’s 1929 essay on ‘Womanliness as Masquerade’ and the notion of “performing the pantomime of femininity”.

It felt like it was only the start though and I am not sure it entirely ‘works’ for a discussion of Judith Butler.  Certainly the image of the woman that you see on the billboard at the end of the advert has been constructed — and it’s the photoshop adaptations in the ad that are somehow the most impacting/shocking to me — but Butler wasn’t the first to say femininity is culturally constructed by a long way.  Her point is much more about the way in which society produces gender from an a priori sex and Butler in Gender Trouble argues against that ‘logical’ causality.  For the first time I also showed my class a clip from the 1991 film Paris is Burning, which Butler discuses in Bodies That Matter (1995).  Despite the fact that Butler is often taken as advocating drag as a way of parodying the constructed nature of all gender (with no originary sex behind it), she is ambivalent about the extent to which the drag performances on offer in the film are liberatory.  There’s certainly some interesting discussion to be had around the category of ‘Realness’ which the men attempt to approximate and perform in the Balls.

The Pre-Raphaelites Online

My first online session with my third year class on the Victorians is now over.  They came up with an impressive bank of comments and discussion about how the Victorians have influenced us now, and their legacies still with us.  I kept logging on to the first Forum excitedly the day after my first class to see who was posting.  It took a little while to get going but I do always find I want to see the Forum in progress as it were.  The dynamism of it is part of the appeal and what makes it work.

As well as the Forums for each specific designated exercise our VLE also has  general forum on the menu of each online topic area which I as ‘Admin’ person can change the name of.  In past years we haven’t been able to do that, so I also set the class the task of renaming the general forum for their own use.  I’m not really bothered what they talk about in here.  As long as it’s not offensive or illegal it’s fine with me.  It helps if it’s course related but I’m not really policing it.

The suggestions for names for our ‘Virtual Victorian Inn’ were great:  The Literary Lounge, The Stiff Upper Lip, The Chamber of Converse, The Punch and Dickens, The Queen Vic, The What-the-Dickens?!, The Brontë Bruiser’s Bar, and The Having a Gas(kell).  As our second class was exploring Chartism, Reform Bills and working class pressure for the vote, we had our own secret ballot to vote for the winner.  The What the Dickens?! won, but there’s now a snug in the back called Having a Gas(kell).

Our second Victorian Vision Online session, which accompanies the third class, is one of my favourites, and works incredibly well.  The class build their own bank of weblinks to Pre-Raphaelite paintings, thus creating a resource for the class, and then make a post in a ‘Pre-Raphaelite Painting’ forum on their chosen painting, telling their classmates about it.  They are encouraged to do some research on their painting, alongside using the useful information available on good websites such as those of Art Galleries which have PR holdings.

I’m also trying out a ‘Pre-Raphaelite Poetry’ forum alongside it using the online Morris Edition being created by Florence Boos at the University of Iowa.  Margaret Lourie’s excellent annotated edition of William Morris’s The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems (1858), long out of print, has been made available online.  There are also copies of some of the original first reviews of the volume, so it’s possible for my class to see how critics of the time referred to these poems as somehow ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ and doing in verse what they perceived the PRs to be doing in paint.  I thus also set my class the quite challenging task of discussing one of choosing one of the 30 poems to discuss.  In what ways might it be perceived as ‘Pre-Raphaelite’?  Is it possible to translate techniques in painting to poetry?