Transitioning to Remote Teaching Blog Series – Post 6: Providing Feedback in an Online Environment

March 27, 2020

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19), has caused many PreK-12 schools to transition from face-to-face instruction to online learning. In order to support the transition to remote learning, the faculty, students, and alumni of the Master of Arts in Educational Technology program have put together several blog posts which focus on general considerations, challenges, and specific strategies at the PreK-12 level. 

Please enjoy this post by William Bork and Bret Staudt Willet, MAET instructors of CEP 813: Electronic Assessment for Teaching and Learning and CEP 817: Learning Technology Through Design.

William Bork (he/him) is a researcher and educator interested in data science, global education, and teacher pedagogy. He is a doctoral student at Michigan State University in Educational Psychology & Educational Technology. William works on digital accessibility and is a member of the SEISMIC research group. He has teaching experience in K-12 and higher education and is licensed as a P-12 school building principal. William speaks English and Spanish and developed cross-cultural competency working in the USA, Mexico, and Taiwan. William has programming experience in web development with JavaScript and Ruby languages and is an emerging data science practitioner in the R language. You can contact William via Twitter: @williambork, LinkedIn, or williambork.com

Bret Staudt Willet (he/him) studies teacher networks and social media. He is a Ph.D. candidate in the Educational Psychology & Educational Technology program at Michigan State University. His research focuses on networked learning at the intersection of information science and teacher education. Specifically, he has been exploring how social media platforms support induction and ongoing professional learning for K-20 educators. Visit Bret’s website, bretsw.com, to learn more, and connect with him on Twitter:@bretsw


Wading into Online Assessment: Focus on Feedback

Recent global events have challenged working professionals to quickly adapt to virtual productivity. PreK-12 educators are no exception. Although virtual teaching and learning is not a new concept, pivoting into virtual teaching and learning with little notice and preparation is challenging. In this post, we present several considerations and strategies for online assessment in teaching and learning as well as some helpful resources for making a smoother transition to becoming a virtual educator during this unusual time.

Often, when someone thinks about assessment, they imagine a final, summative evaluation of what a student knows (or doesn’t know). In contrast, Lorrie Shepard talked about “The Role of Assessment in a Learning Culture” in her AERA 2000 presidential address (PDF download). In this talk, she called for more formative assessment, which is more like a dialogue between teacher and student. The teacher gives meaningful, detailed feedback to students—shaping future learning. At the same time, based on how the student performed in the activity, the teacher also adapts and modifies their upcoming lesson plans—shaping future teaching. Feedback is the key to formative assessment, and it serves as a bridge between teaching and learning, as Dylan Wiliam discusses in this brief video:

Formative Assessment

When we teach CEP 813: Electronic Assessment for Teaching and Learning, we are actually teaching a course about formative assessment. In this course, we discuss numerous foundational factors for formative assessment, such as starting with a clear idea of where we want students to end up, taking into consideration their trajectories of learning, and thinking through how we might measure evidence of learning in valid and authentic ways. These foundational factors are appropriate and useful when instructors are able to carefully plan for and design online learning. However, the basic reality of our current disrupted time is that instructors are pivoting to virtual and online at a moment’s notice, with no lead time for planning. So here and now, we advocate for a practical, “good enough” approach to electronic assessment. We suggest that the key idea is simply feedback. As you think through how to assess your students during this disrupted, online period, focus on feedback. Find ways to give meaningful feedback, and let this feedback shape both future learning and future teaching. That is enough.

Seven Principles of Good Feedback

In their article, “Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: A model and seven principles of good feedback practice,” Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick (2006, p. 205) offered a list of seven functions that good feedback serves. Of course, good feedback is more than just checking off items on a checklist, but particularly during disrupted times such as these, a tidy checklist can be a helpful starting place. Note that Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick were not writing for an online context, but we have found that these seven principles are still useful guideposts for online learning:

  1. Clarifies what good performance is (goals, criteria, expected standards);
  2. Facilitates the development of self-assessment (reflection) in learning;
  3. Delivers high quality information to students about their learning;
  4. Encourages teacher and peer dialogue around learning;
  5. Encourages positive motivational beliefs and self-esteem;
  6. Provides opportunities to close the gap between the learning goal and the students’ current performance;
  7. Provides information to teachers that can be used to shape teaching.

Specific Considerations to Keep in Mind

This is a picture of someone making a checklist in a notebook. A hand holding a pen appears in the image with the notebook.
Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Tech Features

When evaluating a digital tool for feedback, consider first whether its affordances correspond with your goals for the assessment. In his seminal book, The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman defined affordances as the actions that are possible within a system, the “relationship between the properties of an object and the capabilities of the agent that determine just how the object could possibly be used” (p. 13).

When evaluating a digital tool for feedback, consider also whether its constraints make it difficult to attain your goals for the assessment or impose too high of a price for you to consider using the tool. Constraints can be thought of as the things that a digital tool limits you from doing (or make it difficult to do) because of the way it is designed. As much as we appreciate their affordances, online platforms and tech tools also have many constraints that should be weighed carefully. One such constraint is the accessibility of learning materials. The MSU Web Accessibility website addresses digital accessibility as an “inclusive practice of removing barriers which prevent access to information and functionalities.” For example, using accessible text styles helps online learning materials to be easily understood and used by everyone, regardless of whether they use adaptive (i.e., assistive) technologies or not. To get started, take a look at these video tutorials for learning how to make your online feedback more accessible.

Timing

In addition to thinking critically about the features of online platforms and tech tools, also take into consideration the timing of and mode through which online feedback can be given. Let’s first consider the difference between synchronous and asynchronous feedback.

Synchronous means everyone is interacting with each other in real-time. For instance, synchronous is when teachers and students engage in teaching and learning activities “live”—in real-time with a definitive start and stop time. To help remember the term synchronous, think of a heist movie where all the characters synchronize their watches so that they are all working in the exact same time frame. Synchronous feedback might take the form of a teacher providing verbal feedback in a live video chat to one or more students. That is, students receive their feedback in the same moment it is given by the teacher.

Conversely, asynchronous means not everyone is interacting with each other in real-time. To remember the term asynchronous, think of a time when you’ve sent someone text messages, but they don’t respond until hours later—that is asynchronous communication. Asynchronous feedback might take the form of a teacher leaving written, audio, or video comments on a student’s work. The student then reviews the feedback at a later time, when it is convenient for them.

Strategies for Providing Feedback Online

This is a picture of yellow notecards scattered around to create an outline of a a dialogue bubble in the center. The green dialogue bubble has 3 crumpled notecards in the center that appear as dot, dot, dot to indicate that someone is thinking or typing.
Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash

Both synchronous and asynchronous feedback can be useful and appropriate for instructor-to-student, peer-to-peer, and self-reflection forms of feedback. We have a few suggestions to keep in mind when using synchronous and/or asynchronous feedback in online spaces.

Synchronous Strategies

Set video chat norms: Establish norms for video chat feedback sessions at the outset. For example, if your feedback session is one-on-one, then both participants can have their video unmuted and their camera open. With large groups, it may be better for each participant to mute themselves until they are ready to talk. This prevents background noise from entering the session, which can be very distracting and even prohibitive to learning with larger groups.

Allow for internet lag: Sufficient wait time is always a good practice for teachers to employ while conversing with their learners, whether online or in a traditional face-to-face classroom setting. While online, some learners will have unreliable or slow internet. This lag makes it common for people to talk over each other. Intentional, multi-second long pauses in speech give other video chat participants a chance to jump into the conversation.

Asynchronous Strategies

Set clear dates: Communicate clear dates for when feedback is ready to review. This will free students from needing to constantly check, wondering when the feedback is ready. If a specific date seems too challenging to meet, try setting the norm of using notifications to alert students that feedback is ready and waiting for them.

Provide clear navigation: Wherever your asynchronous feedback resides—be it a written comment, video response, or something else—make sure students are able to easily get to it. Keep all feedback as centralized as possible to simplify the feedback retrieval process.

Key Tools and Resources for Feedback in an Online Environment

This is a picture of a white wall that has at least 50 wooden and metal tools displayed on it. There is a large industrial machine in the photo as well.
Photo by Lachlan Donald on Unsplash
  • MSU Zoom Cloud Web Conferencing: This tool has obvious utility for synchronous feedback (e.g., a one-on-one conversation between instructor and student), but you can also use it record screen capture for asynchronous feedback (e.g., making voice comments while scrolling through a student’s work). In case you were not aware, “MSU faculty, staff and students have free access to Zoom Pro Meeting up to 300 participants and Zoom Webinar up to 500 participants.” This support has been available for the past several years, not just in response to COVID-19.
  • G Suite for Education: In teaching CEP 813: Electronic Assessment for Teaching and Learning, we provide feedback through a variety of modes and using a variety of resources. But in our experience, one of the best approaches to feedback is still just providing comments and suggestions in a Google Doc. G Suite has been announcing a number of changes and updates in response to COVID-19, which you can read on the official G Suite blog. (Note that if you’re teaching at MSU, the university has long offered integration between G Suite apps and your MSU login; visit this web page for more details.).
  • Kaizena:  If you’d like to give your learners a more personal touch, the Kaizena add-on allows you to add voice-recorded comments to Google Docs and Google Slides. Use Kaizena the same as you would use the normal written comment feature. To get started, first go to the Kaizena website to install. After the installation is finished, open a Google Doc. In the menu bar, find the “Add-ons” menu (right between “Tools” and “Help”). There, click on “Kaizena” to activate the add-on. Now, you are all set to begin. Keep in mind that because Kaizena lives inside Google Docs as an add-on service, your students will need to use the same service as well. That is, your students will need to have installed Kaizena also, but this will allow them to both listen to your feedback and also respond and leave their own voice comments as well.
  • Remote Learning with Flipgrid: This is another video tool we have found useful, especially for asynchronous feedback, for both peer-to-peer and instructor-to-student. 
  • Keep Teaching: A Guide to Remote Teaching at MSU: If you teach at MSU, we recommend the resources offered through the Keep Teaching web page.
  • Online Resources for E-Learning Days: Participants in the r/Teachers subreddit have been curating and updating this list of resources.

The MAET community is here to support you. Looking for a resource? Feeling stuck with your next step? Trying to troubleshoot something? In search of inspiration? Have something funny or inspirational to share? Send a tweet to #MAET to connect.

References

Nicol, D., & Macfarlane-Dick, D. (2006). Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: A model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in Higher Education, 31(2), 199–218. [Link to a PDF of the article, available through the MSU library]

Norman, D. A. (2013). The Design of Everyday Things. Mit Press.