Using Blogs for Formative Assessment and Interactive Teaching
This case study shows how students were taught the skills they need to find information relevant to their subject area. As groups of students are generally seen once only, measures to assess the effectiveness of teaching are needed, i.e. to determine the skills the students have acquired. Blogs were used as a tool for formative assessment and were used to measure student expectations before teaching, and their level of satisfaction with the session afterwards. The blog  helps the tutor to understand if learning outcomes have been achieved and whether the session has met student expectations. It also requires students to reflect on the skills that they have acquired.
The lecturer for an undergraduate module on Communications Policy Issues asked the tutor to help her students search for information on government policies and legislation, both UK and overseas, and those of organisations such as the EU - all of which can be difficult. Their assignment was to prepare an annotated bibliography on a chosen topic which would be peer-reviewed by fellow students. Five articles or book chapters, or one book, were also to be reviewed in the presentation. Students were expected to provide a summary of the text(s) and show how they related to the chosen topic of the presentation. A mentor from the Brotherton Library was also available to offer advice on how to improve the session and on any pedagogic issues that arose.
The 5 areas that the students would be covering in their assignment were:
- Freedom of expression and free press: where to get information on UK laws that protect and restrict it. D-Notices, libel law, human rights, new anti-terrorism laws, privacy law plus EU and UN conventions
- Pornography: obscenity acts in UK, and US Internet regulation
- Audiovisual policy EU, UK : OFCOM, ownership rules in the UK, television without frontiers in the EU
- Public service broadcasting: EU Treaty of Amsterdam, the BBC in the UK, issues of licence fee, content and programming, BBC World as an enterprise
- Information Society: UK and EU legislation
These areas had already been covered in lectures, so students had some idea of what they were looking for. There were 2 groups of 35 students, and attendance was compulsory, as the lecturer had sent a register to be signed. This ensured a high level of participation.
Learning Outcomes for the Session:
- To search for sources of information on government policy and theories behind the policy.
- To identify keywords and construct a search statement.
- To realise that they might need to review their search strategy if necessary, and identify how to do this.
- To be aware of the Harvard system.
Learning Activities Planned to Facilitate Rapport/Interaction
Past experience has shown that Communications Studies students generally appreciate the opportunity for interactive learning that is self-guided. Evaluations by Communications Studies students of workbook-based teaching have indicated that it is boring and does not offer sufficient opportunity to find out about resources. Therefore the comment facility of an online blog was used to ask the students about keywords for their chosen topic (ahead of their attendance) and also about what they expected to achieve from the session (in a dedicated time-slot at the beginning).
Computing and information technology (C&IT) is widely used in information literacy teaching, but it can be hard to determine if the students have really understood the techniques and resources taught and that they have been able to apply them independently. Using a blog for formative assessment allowed a more supportive approach to teaching. This developed work done at the University of Northumbria where lecturers on a Built Environment module used formative assessment because it 'goes beyond the formulation and reporting of judgements about students' learning, and their learning experiences, and which formatively informs those who teach, about the experiences of those who learn' . Previously student evaluation forms had been used, but they failed to tell the tutor what the students expected to learn. Using formative assessment identified what they wanted to achieve, (broadly concurring with the tutor's own ideas, which was reassuring) and that their expectations were largely met. It can also be argued that formative assessment helps concentrate the students' minds on why they are in the session while promoting the opportunity to acquire the research skills needed for independent learning -- rather than learning about the Library (which they think they have mastered already). The approach in this study most closely resembles that of Action Plan E at Northumbria, in which the lecturer at the beginning of the session asked students to note questions for which they hoped to have an answer by the end. The students are then given regular opportunities to revise this list and delete those questions that have been answered . The effectiveness of the approach will be outlined below.
Part of the motivation for this study is the tutor's interest in Web 2.0 and the developments taking place with blogs, wikis, RSS, deli.ci.ous etc.  and their applications for today's students. Brindley argues that in order to meet the needs of the millennial generation in digital information and library research, we must find a method of actively engaging with their social context . She gives the example of the recent BBC Televison series Who Do You Think You Are? and the related exhibition mounted by the British Library. This led to people from ethnic minorities and a range of social backgrounds visiting the exhibition, people who otherwise would never have crossed the threshold of a library. In order to teach today's student, I would argue that you need to be aware of, and use creatively, the technologies that are available.
Details of Content in Relation to Learning Outcomes
Submission of keywords by the students prior to arrival allowed the tutor to write their ideas on A3 paper and distribute these around the room so that the students could be divided into groups, depending on the topic in which they were interested.
The URL of the blog for the students to use was then circulated and they were asked to submit ideas on what they wanted to achieve. A description of which databases would be used, why students might use them, and how to search them was then distributed.
In their groups, the students then formed a search statement (based on an example given by the tutor) and searched for relevant information using the databases. This meant that they were able to talk to their peers about their topic and to share ideas on search statements that worked and those that did not. This helped to overcome common fears and frustrations with the research process. As a consequence, within this environment of interactivity and discussion, a positive 'learning climate' developed. Students also had the tutor in the room as a back-up for reassurance and help, if needed.
At the end, the students were required to go back to the blog and state whether their objectives had been achieved. This then allowed the tutor to evaluate whether the session and the approach had been successful, as well as the tutor's own observations and those of the mentor. The success of the students' evaluation and of the blog may be seen  and this was analysed after the session had taken place. The reason for choosing this form of learning activity was that it was a recent, online technology with which many students would be acquainted. It also allowed some work to be done by the students by way of preparation, thereby focusing their efforts. Finally, it is accessible from anywhere and does not require any sort of login and thus is easy to access.
Students were encouraged to use databases that were relevant to searching for British and European legislation and policies. They were able to read them on their computer screen and this provided a good opportunity to engage with primary sources. This meant that they understood the existence of different models of, and the nature of, contemporary policy and debates. As many students had not really handled this type of material before (but as level 2 students were used to electronic resources and evaluating information), this seemed to be pitched at the appropriate level.
Critical Review of the Session
The blog worked well in that it engaged all the students in considering their objectives for the session. However, it took up too much time and meant that it was hard to get them to re-focus on their group work. The mentor also agreed that the session was geared to achieving the set objectives and that these were made clearer to students through use of the blog; their blog submissions showed they had understood why they were there. He also felt that the session definitely instilled confidence and represented a satisfactory start. However, more time was needed, probably best devoted to a follow-up session covering any queries arising from completion of the workbook and information on referencing.
It is interesting to note that Northumbria University also found they ran out of time and that this was a pressure they had not anticipated in their use of formative feedback. However, they also felt that 'identifying needs that had not been anticipated for the module was a positive outcome' . I would concur with this; although for the tutor the comments of the students represented more of a reassurance that ideas and materials about which they knew little were being covered, and at the right level.
Significance in Future Planning
This session forms the basis of what could be a very effective and interactive session, wherein the students engage in formative self-assessment of what they wish to achieve. However, more time is needed for the session if it is to be fully used and integrated with other activities.
The fact that the blog was accessible by students wherever they were was especially appealing, and made it possible to submit keywords prior to the session, requiring them to give serious consideration of their topic and of what might be expected of them in researching it. This meant that they were more aware of their need for research techniques. This aspect of a blog is well worth further investigation.
This experience makes it possible to think about future strategies. An example would be to ask 1st year students to complete an online poll about Library knowledge and skills. Many think that they already have these skills and do not see the reason for the session taught in the 1st year. This poll would then highlight what they do not know, and would encourage them to add reflective comments to the blog on what they learn during the two sessions taught. This would build on the idea of formative assessment and also help students to become reflective practitioners.
They could also respond to each others' comments, with ideas and advice, thus helping to build an online peer community. This may go someway to answering the question posed by Garrison and Anderson: 'how does one establish social presence in an e-learning environment that will support a community of inquiry and the concomitant, critically reflective discourse?' . A blog is accessible to everyone and allows anonymous and therefore, one hopes, open communication (although some ground rules on etiquette will need to be established). Group cohesion will be promoted because the class members will also know each other in real life and therefore can enter into discussion off-line as well. However, it does need to be recognised that online discussion boards usually have limited success and that students often fail to engage with them. Therefore other methods may need to be investigated.
Moretti's advice  also needs to be considered, so that objectives are not overlooked in the excitement of using new technology. One should also be aware that not all students will have the same C&IT skills. Although blogs are usable by all, accessible vocabulary needs to be used rather than 'technobabble' and library jargon. Students will want to question tutors face-to-face and tutors must maintain visibility in this regard, thus aiding blended learning.
Finally, awareness in the e-learning field should be maintained and tutors should be ever ready to respond to the changing environment and new opportunities. Morrison outlines his visualisation of the future of e-learning as encompassing simulation ('an environment where learners can practice, fail, succeed and learn in a rich and realistic setting' ; mobilisation (by which he means the use of PDAs and WAP-enabled devices); and permeation (in which learning simultaneously delivers many types and forms of learning at different levels of granularity). I would argue that we have already reached this stage, and, like Brindley , just need to find the appropriate method to engage the users of these devices in e-learning and react responsively to their needs. Therefore constant vigilance and evaluation of methods is key to any future work undertaken.
- Lisa's information literacy http://www.livejournal.com/users/leedsinfolit
- Cowan, J. 2004. Improving student learning through departmental student feedback self-studies: Project position paper, pg. 1. Higher Education Academy: LTSN Subject Centre for the Built Environment (CEBE)
- LTSN Subject Centre for the Built Environment (CEBE). 2004. Improving student learning through departmental student feedback self-studies: Possible action plan (E) for a participating development. Higher Education Academy: LTSN Subject Centre for the Built Environment (CEBE)
- Kelly, B. 2006. Web 2.0: Implications for Higher Education. (Accessed 10 November 2006). Bath: UKOLN, 2006
- Brindley, L. 2006. A world of contrasts: information literacy in the digital world. In: LILAC 2006, 29 March 2006, Leeds. (Accessed 25 April 2006). Leeds: CILIP Information Literacy Group.
- "Students aims" in Lisa's Information Literacy http://leedsinfolit.livejournal.com/894.html
- Garrison, D.R and Anderson, T. 2003. E-learning in the 21st century: A framework for research and practice. London: Routledge Falmer, p. 53
- Moretti, F. 2005. "Support in the use of new media" in Melling, M. (2005) Supporting e-learning: A guide for library and information managers London: Facet Publishing, pp85-111
- Morrison, D. 2003. E-learning strategies: How to get implementation and delivery right first time Chichester: Wiley