Jury ‘is still out’ on online marking

As peak marking season approaches, Julianne Law gives a frank assessment of where her university’s new paperless marking system has gone right and what could be improved

March 24, 2018

Peak marking season used to mean piles of essays stacked high on my desk.

It was sometimes an intimidating sight, acting as an ever-present reminder of how much work I had yet to do.

This year, there will be no such problem. Last September, my employer, Bangor University, decided that all undergraduate dissertations and essays would be marked online, using part of the Turnitin software package.

The switch followed a successful year-long trial period of marking postgraduate work online.

I had been quite sceptical about moving to online-only marking, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by my first experience with the new software.

Like any new software package, it took a bit of extra time to pick up how things worked. But once that learning curve was over, I experienced only a few problems.

I’ve found that the level of detail and feedback that I’ve been giving to students in our online system is far superior to what I used to give them when I marked hard copies.

Because the system is so user-friendly, and because Turnitin works very much like “track changes” in Microsoft Word, I have been able to help the students improve the standard of their writing much more easily than I could in the old system – and they were able to see my comments clearly.

Writing all this information on to a paper copy of the essay would have been laborious for me and difficult for students to read. This was especially true if they forgot to double-space the text, which meant that I did not have room to write those comments between lines of text. The new system also allows me to use “quick marks” to make comments on the essay. This lets me make comments on multiple essays that contain the same mistakes. It is possible to build up an unlimited number of “quick mark” comments that fit the same scenario, but edit them to give very specific advice to individual students.

I have also encountered some disadvantages, the unforeseen technological issues involved in adopting a new system.

For instance, our system of Feedback Studio is not supported by the web browser Chrome, which most people tend to use on their electronic devices. Thus it was necessary to switch to using Firefox.

Personally, I’m not a fan of Firefox. Chrome is much more user-friendly, and having to go back to using Firefox was painful. However, it did solve the problem of Feedback Studio “freezing up” every few minutes; and it did prevent the loss of data, sparing me the grief caused by Chrome not saving comments that I had made on the essays.

Other problems arose when I tried to mark essays online at home over the Christmas holidays. This task required an up-to-date computer and a reliable high-speed internet connection. (It is possible to get around this problem by downloading the essays then working offline.) However, not everyone owns a laptop or a tablet that they can use to do marking away from the office, so universities will need to loan those devices to lecturers.

I work at a university in rural North Wales, where the internet coverage in many small villages is less than perfect. This has meant that marking at home or while travelling by bus or train is not always possible.

But it seems that most students are happy with the new system. Submitting essays online means that they can save time, paper and printing costs – and they never have to rush to the university to “post” their essay into a wooden pigeonhole before the dreaded 4pm deadline.

When the essays have been marked and the grades released, the students do not have to return to the campus to pick up their printed feedback sheets, which saves them yet more time and money on travel.

Students get instant feedback on Blackboard, where they can see written comments about the content of their essay as well as feedback on their spelling, grammar and other technical issues, such as how to improve their use of Harvard referencing.

This type of online feedback is especially helpful to mature students with children and to students who may have other caring responsibilities. One student emailed me within 10 minutes of the grades being released to the entire class to ask why I had written a certain comment on her essay, which she did not think was justified. I was happy to respond to her message within a few minutes, and the issue was resolved quickly and efficiently.

Of course, students too can struggle with factors that affect their ability to work online; among such constraints can be poor internet connections, outdated technology and devices and the lack of a proper quiet study environment to work in.

Given all these factors, is online marking the greatest technological invention since sliced bread? That depends on who you talk to.

From the perspective of most universities that have moved to this new online marking system, the project is a resounding success. But when you talk to some lecturers and students, it seems that the jury is still out on online marking.

Julianne Law is a lecturer in healthcare sciences at Bangor University.

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Reader's comments (3)

My university uses an online marking system built within blackboard, and it astounds me how staff can complain about having to do marking online rather than on paper copies. I save my student submissions as PDFs after download and add audio comments throughout that work, thereby adding context and tone and explanation to my feedback so that they better understand it and know where you're coming from so that they can improve. The staff that still download online submissions print them out, write on them, then scan them in and upload them completely baffle me. But it's often these people who also complain about having too much work to do and not enough time to do it.
There is substantial pedagogic research on the accuracy of online marking carried out in the US which UK university administrators have ignored in their focus on neat solutions that vide verifiable records.
I find that having to mark online gives me headaches when looking at screens for long periods of time, and don’t like that I am tied to a computer to do my work.

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