Private and public learning spaces: an integrated system

This post is in response to recent communications with my colleagues David Sims, Darren Raven, Paul Lowe, Andy Stiff and Lindsay Jordan regarding a risk assessment of the online submission of work. It draws upon the recent podcast by Educause entitled ‘The Genius of “And”: Reconciling the Enterprise and Personal Learning Network’.

Open and closed systems
There are open and closed systems within online virtual learning environments. Open systems operate within the public domain. These systems use the many and rich online tools such as blogs, social networks (Facebook), Delicious (bookmarking), Vimeo and Flickr amongst others to manage words and images connected to study. Closed systems are the private learning spaces that offer relative protection and confidentiality. These are course management tools such as Blackboard. Blackboard has the current advantage of working with University information management systems. This means that once enrolled, students have access to Blackboard. Many would also seek the reassurance that certain aspects of study such as feedback and assessment results remain private and within the control of the tutor and student. The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) ‘safeguards quality and standards in UK higher education’. It is a QAA principle that ‘assessment is conducted…with due regard for security’.

Courses that embrace the ‘And’ concept
Jon Mott, speaking at Educause, suggests that the choice between open and closed systems is a ‘false dichotomy’ and that you can have the best of both. It is not ‘either or’ but both…closed AND open. Numerous courses use Blackboard purely to communicate announcements and store information. There are few examples of courses that utilise the learning and teaching potential of the virtual environment, preferring the traditional ‘sage on the stage’ approach. The Blackboard paradigm has not shifted much in five years. Building blocks such as Image Board (University of the Arts, London) have been added, but these have been judged as being behind current standards such as Flickr. Closed systems are difficult to export from once you graduate from a course. All the learning, reflections, resources and links are left behind. Students on the Design for Visual Communication course at the London College of Communication (LCC) began to post links out from Blackboard to external resources such as blogs. Courses such as MA Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at the LCC use Blackboard as a gateway out to the rich world of industry standard online tools such as Ning sites, photoshelter and slideshare. The FdA Design for Graphic Communication at LCC embraces online technologies such as iShowU, issuu and podcasting to explain concepts to their large cohorts. These are archived at the externally hosted Doing Graphics website.

Assessing the future
The QAA Code of Practice is ten years old. Although e-learning is considered within one of the sections, to date the QAA has resisted developing a ‘distinct form of quality assurance’ for this mode of study. Some may suggest that the time is right to review the QAA paradigm in respect of online educational standards. It is unfortunate that QAA are perceived as an educational police force enforcing the law of the code and constraining innovation. With a perceived loss of faith comes a lack of confidence to originate new modes of conduct. There is a cost to progress and innovation in this loss of faith but there is equally a financial cost. There is an obsession with an audit and inspection culture. In Louise Morely’s book ‘Quality and Power in Higher Education’, she quotes the Times Higher Education Supplement (August 2000) as stating ‘a report for HEFCE found that the bureaucracy of subject review cost universities £250 million a year’. Mantz Yorke writing in 1999 reported that ‘more than 2000 individual institutions underwent subject review…only six courses were found to be failing’. A very expensive finding! The power of the quality assurance infrastructure within higher education is clearly felt. Fear breeds misperceptions, but there are perhaps more reasons to rediscover our confidence. The section of the QAA code on assessment states: ‘It is not QAA’s intention to prescribe how higher education providers will implement the precepts…which are intended to assure good assessment practice’. Although the revised code is a little more cautious in tone, the original code published in 2000 suggested it was offering a framework which: ‘institutions may wish to use and adapt according to their own needs, traditions, cultures and decision-making processes’. One final quote offers the notion for some scope: ‘The QAA wishes to encourage innovation and diversity in assessment practices’.

Online submission of work: a risk assessment
This is an extract from a paper to be presented at the LCC College Academic Committee (10.03.10). The following are proposed principles to be adopted to ensure a secure process.
• Students need to be briefed and clear on what the expectation is with regards to assessment requirements and the process of submission eg what are the acceptable limits on the different types of digital formats.
• The IT infrastructure needs to be robust enough to manage the submission for example the size of submission multiplied by size of cohort needs to be considered.
• There should be clear contingencies should the technology fail to accommodate the submission.
• The means of submission needs to be appropriate to the situation
• There needs to be a clear receipting system
• There should be clear lines of responsibility – what is expected of the student, administration and academic staff. It is not expected that administrative or academic staff will be collating different aspects of the student submission.
• Where work is printed out this should not adversely effect the quality of the work and marking should not be related to the quality of the print.
• The risk factors need to be identified for example do all students have access to the internet from where they will be submitting? What happens in the event of a server failure? If email is used staff will have to look out and could inadvertently miss the submission.
• A submission form should be designed requesting student information in a consistent format eg a content list of items
• There should be a pilot with one course in each Faculty being identified to undertake this. This should not be a final year cohort or summative assessment.

A summary critique
Colleagues with a particular interest in online submission reviewed these principles. The following is a summary of their critique.
• Risk can be minimised but not eliminated completely. This is also true of conventional hand-ins
• Digital Dropbox on Blackboard would not cope with large files from a large cohort. Externally hosted online facilities such as Vimeo, Flickr, Blogs, etc can handle volume and file size but are not within our (LCC/UAL) control.
• For LCC/UAL to handle volume and file size it would need to invest in an all encompassing content management system, the like of which has no precedent (as far as we know) either in the commercial or education sector.
• There are advantages to students engaging with external industry standards, but there could be quality issues eg security or updating beyond assessment deadlines.
• The management of the postgraduate provision may be an easier proposition than undergraduate as students studying at that level mostly have acquired undergraduate academic skills and/or professional experience.

Returning to ‘And’
Imagine a screen split in half. One half is a private learning space the other a public learning space. The student posts a link in the public space. The tutor visits the resources (blogs, Vimeo, Flickr, etc) the student has carefully edited. The tutor clicks the record button and speaks or writes in the private space. The student collects their feedback and feed forward comments as well as their mark from the private space. We have been operating the ‘And’ option. The ‘And’ option has the security of the private space but adopts the less regulated world of the public space. As a sector do we trust uncertainty and loss of control? We expect risk taking in the face of uncertainty of our students. Do we trust ourselves? As someone responsible for quality assurance in a higher education institution such questions make me anxious. As a subject and teaching specialist I don’t have such concerns. We are at a point where we have to define our future practice and this may mean a progressive and responsible letting go of some of what we have known for something potentially better.

The Genius of And, Jon Mott
Quality and Power in Higher Education, Louise Morley
The Quality Assurance Agency website
The Doing Graphics website
Online Submission of Work: A Risk Assessment, Tony Pritchard