Monday, February 16, 2009

Don't mention the B-word

Guillotine This is the 19th year I have run my final year virology course. It's starting to feel like a life sentence. Over the years this venerable module has served as a testbed for many different things:
There was a promising start this year when the students took on themselves what they perceived as the need to "organize" topics for blog posts. But the complaints started again, that this task is "too difficult", "takes too long" and that the detailed assessment criteria and marking scheme (with marked examples) is "unclear". So when I read: Post-Secondary Students' Purposes For Blogging. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 9 (3) 2008, it struck a familiar chord:

Findings revealed that the primary use of blogging was for social purposes. Self-disclosure was the most notable purpose for blogging, in addition to sharing emotional responses to learning. The lack of teaching presence may have influenced students’ use of blogging for social rather than instructional purposes.

I cling to the hope that there is some sort of assessed blog sweet spot, that if I can just get the assessment criteria right, all will be well, but in truth I'm starting to think that "blogging" needs to be placed in the same education category as Facebook so far as I'm concerned - a netherworld of zombie vampire superpokes where no sensible teacher ventures. Is assessed student blogging an impossible dream?

...despite new opportunities to engage in such distribution of content, relatively few people are taking advantage of these recent developments. Moreover, neither creation nor sharing is randomly distributed among a diverse group of young adults. Consistent with existing literature, creative activity is related to a person's socioeconomic status as measured by parental schooling. The Participation Divide: Content Creation and Sharing in the Digital Age. Information, Communication and Society.

I don't entirely blame the students for their reaction. After three years of didactic force-feeding it's difficult for les petit foie gras to switch to a system which requires them to think rather than merely swallow information. And if you're inclined to suggest that I should simply stop awarding marks, then you haven't been paying attention. All this is reminiscent of our discussion a week ago about reflection and ePortfolios. I'm finding the zone between formal and informal learning difficult to navigate. I have considered using wikis (preferably collective but I have also thought about using individual wikis, although that seems a terrible waste of effort) as an alternative writing system, but apart from the difficulties of assessing group work, I can't see any reason why wiki contributions would generate a different response to writing blog posts.

I've spent the last six months thinking about my response to this hostility. Next year it's back to writing essays for my final year students. The final deciding factor was the realization that I've been asking students to do something that most of my colleagues can't or won't. At present, I can see little alternative to pulling back from the hope that we can expect students educated in this system to think or reflect. The persistent complaints that this assessment format "takes too long" and the almost total aversion to any form of collaborative learning makes me think that 18 years of instant gratification is too great a heritage for me to overcome in one module. Perhaps that's where Twitter comes in?