Edgar Whitley from the department of Management tells us about using Mahara as a tool for blogging and peer assessment and its benefits to teaching, learning and assessment.
The following was adapted from Edgar’s evaluation post on his MG492 course’s Mahara blog, in which he presents and reflects on last year’s e-assessment project funded by a SPARK! Grant.
You may also be interested in reading the report of the project evaluation undertaken by Marta Stelmaszak on LSE Research Online.
Written communication skills are an important learning outcome for many courses at LSE. They are typically assessed by having students write an essay on a course related topic. To help students prepare for the essay, it is common to have them write a shorter preparatory essay in the same “academic writing” genre as the main essay.
A student’s knowledge and understanding of the course material can be assessed through their essay writing, as can their intellectual skills of analysis, synthesis and critical evaluation. Another important feature of effective academic writing, however, involves having a clear, logical structure and argument in the essay. Shorter preparatory academic pieces may not be so successful at raising any problems with the narrative arc of an essay and its overall argument.
In particular, this aspect of academic writing was often particularly problematic for essays written for the MSc elective course on Data Governance: Privacy, Openness and Transparency.
We repeatedly found that some students were let down by the argument structure of their main essay for this course. As they became increasingly engaged with the literature and debates around their essay topic they often lost track of the overall argument they were trying to present and more than one essay simply “stopped” as students reached the assignment word limit or ran out of time.
Assessed Blogging and Peer Review
In order to address this issue, we have experimented with using alternative writing genres for the preparatory essay. This would allow students to focus on developing their argument structure whilst not worrying about the rigid conventions of academic writing. It also allows for feedback on this particular aspect of academic writing.
Realising that we were repeatedly suggesting that students write “in the style of” a blog piece, last year we decided to make the preparatory piece explicitly take the form of a blog post.
In consultation with LTI, we decided to use the Mahara platform as this tool integrates closely with Moodle. As a blogging platform, Mahara has functionality whereby it is possible for anyone to comment on a particular blog. The first part of the feedback process, therefore, involved students reading at least one blog post by another student and providing feedback (in the form of a comment) to the blog post author.
In addition, the comment function was used for the markers to provide feedback on the blog posts as well.
Alongside the process of peer and faculty feedback on the blog posts, a research officer also interviewed a sample of 18 students about their experience with using the Mahara blogging platform, the use of the blog to focus on the argument structure for the essay and the feedback received.
Their overall evaluation of the process, particularly the opportunity to read other blog posts, was very positive. Some valued the exposure to other perspectives on the same topic, whilst others appreciated the ability to read about topics covered in the course but which were not the focus of their own essay. A number liked the way in which they could see the quality of work produced by other students on the course and could adjust their own writing skills.
The peer feedback that students found most useful typically contained some sources for further reading, was critical or commented on the coherence of the argument or conclusions. Other features of the feedback comments that were appreciated involved when the comments sparked new thoughts or ideas or when the comments were generally encouraging.
In terms of reviewing the work of other students and giving a peer comment, the majority of students admitted they found it a useful exercise. It helped them in avoiding the same pitfalls, improving the structure of their own argument, improving their own writing and formulating a better argument for the final essay. Some students admitted they were positively influenced by the quality of comments received and in turn decided to provide equally useful and grounded comments to others.
Although there were some teething problems with this first attempt to use Mahara, the underlying pedagogical points of a) having students focus on their argument structure separately from their main academic writing; and b) using a blogging platform to provide peer and faculty feedback on the blog piece are clearly appreciated by students who recognised the benefits of this activity. The innovations were commended by our external examiner and probably contributed to the noticeable improvement in the quality of the resulting essays.
We had initially considered using Mahara for the student submission of the final essay to again allow for feedback “comments”, but this option was very unpopular with students. We are therefore exploring alternative approaches to delivering feedback online.
=> If you would like to know more about Mahara and more generally using blogs and other innovative ways of assessments please contact us for advice and help.
=> Find out more about funding opportunities for innovative teaching and learning projects at the LSE on our website.