Marking an essay? Big Brother may be watching...

University of Edinburgh developing tools to monitor academics’ performance in areas such as assessment and feedback

October 29, 2015
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Two-way signals: keeping tabs on students is ‘only half the story’, said a senior university figure

One of the UK’s leading universities is developing analytical tools to monitor academics’ performance in areas such as the quality and timeliness of feedback on student assignments.

Gavin McLachlan, chief information officer and librarian at the University of Edinburgh, said that the move “sends a very strong message” about what is expected of lecturers at the institution.

He was speaking at a round-table discussion on the role for digital technology in higher education, commissioned by Jisc and hosted by Times Higher Education.

The event heard that digital applications are increasingly being used to identify students who are struggling and need support. For example, they can be used to collate data on attendance, engagement with virtual learning environments, and compliance with submission deadlines.

But Mr McLachlan said that this is “only half the story”, noting that analytical tools could also be used to “measure the quality” of academic staff, particularly in relation to the quality and timeliness of assessment and feedback.

“We are starting to measure both sides, because it’s only by combining that together, I think, you can go ahead and increase the quality,” Mr McLachlan said.

Phil Richards, chief innovation officer at Jisc, said that Mr McLachlan was “absolutely right”, but questioned whether staff may offer “tacit resistance” to being monitored in this way.

“I think starting with the students is probably a good tactical order to do this and then let the other uses you’ve just suggested emerge a couple of years later,” Dr Richards said.

Mr McLachlan said Edinburgh had had a “big debate” on this subject but decided to “go down both routes at the same time equally”.

“It sends a very strong message about the value that we place on academic excellence from the professors, that they will be measured on it, that it will be part of their progression,” Mr McLachlan said. “It’s very important because any academic is balancing research publications, outside speaking events and many other non-teaching activities and, just like any other human, they need to decide where they are going to go ahead and balance that.”

The event heard that the UK has many areas of strength in adoption of digital technology in higher education, but that there is variation in performance between universities, and within institutions.

Support from senior leaders was identified as an important factor, as was the provision of incentives for staff.

David Maguire, vice-chancellor of the University of Greenwich and chair of Jisc, warned that sector-wide change would not happen overnight, highlighting that most institutional leaders “don’t know much about IT, frankly”.

“Our focus has been dominated for too long by an interest in research and research outcomes and metrics,” Professor Maguire said. “Until senior leaders work their way through and feel comfortable and interested talking about these things, I think it will remain like [the current situation] for some while.”

Jon Baldwin, managing director for market development at education support services company Tribal Group, said there is “a lot of conservatism” among senior staff and that, although managers may support individual initiatives, they are less likely to impose change.

“If you’ve got a steady flow of students coming through the door, if you’re a selecting, not a recruiting university, you perhaps don’t see a need to disrupt things in that way,” Mr Baldwin said.

For more coverage of this round-table discussion, see the Jisc supplement in this week's issue

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Reader's comments (2)

What's an interesting organisational structure they have at Edinburgh - where the academics answer to the library.
Hahaha. Yes. And the librarians are the slightly more qualified ones. Most of us report to admins with high school degrees who have worked there for 30 years. Never set foot in a classroom but sure to remind us daily what we are doing incorrectly. We spend very little time with students and yet plenty of time filling in forms electronic or otherwise.

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