Using blogging for assessment in an Information Management subject: A case study

In a tutorial group activity, students investigated a range of Web 2.0 technologies over a period of 6 weeks to explore their potential use as information management tools. Students used a blog to report on their experiences of using the technologies, and to reflect on their value for managing information both at a personal and professional / organisational level. The blogs were assessed, worth 40% of total marks for the subject.

Web 2.0 tools used: Students were free to choose any blogging platform. Blogger (www.blogger.com) was recommended although some preferred to use Wordpress (http://wordpress.org/).

About the subject

This was a postgraduate information management subject called "Document Management 1", taught in a School of Business IT and Logistics. In this subject, students were introduced to the technologies used to manage information, and investigated the types of documents used within organisations and the way in which these documents are created, described, manipulated, presented and managed. The focus was on single documents, whereas collections of documents were dealt with in another subject. Topics included examination of different file types, techniques and issues relating to document exchange and interchange, and creation of compound documents. Students were expected to explore the ways in which the content, structure, context and presentation of documents are described by metadata and markup languages such as SGML, HTML and XML. They were also expected to examine the idea of non-linear documents, the use of HTML to create documents for the World Wide Web, technologies underlying Web 2.0, and the use of XML and RDF in developing the Semantic Web.

Students enrolled in this course were in the first year of a postgraduate coursework degree. There were 60 students enrolled in the subject; most were domestic students (two students were on international student visas). They ranged from students who had just completed an undergraduate degree to those who were returning to work or changing careers, so their ages ranged from 22 to late 50s. Approximately half the students were enrolled in the course part-time, and about one-third were enrolled as online (distance) students.

One lecturer taught the subject, assisted by one sessional face-to-face tutor and one sessional online tutor.

Assignment tasks and timing

Over a period of six weeks, students worked in small groups, doing a range of activities that introduced them to various Web 2.0 tools. The weekly activities were:

Week 1: Introduction to Web 2.0 and blogging: students set up their own blogs
Week 2: Syndication: students set up RSS feeds to their blogs and investigated collaboratively authored content (e.g., students could choose to edit or create a Wikipedia article).
Week 3: Microblogging: students set up a Twitter account and investigated its potential for communication.
Week 4: Online collaboration: students used Google Wave to work on a group activity.
Week 5: Social bookmarking: students investigated and compared the information management capabilities of tools such as Delicious, Diigo, Connotea, CiteULike, Zotero, Endnote, etc.
Week 6: Maps, mashups and linked data: students could choose to create and annotate a Google map, or use Yahoo Pipes to create a simple mashup of data from several sources.

Each week students had to record their findings and experiences in an individual blog. At the end of the six weeks, students had to summarise and reflect on their experiences of using the tools and discuss the potential of the tools for personal and professional use.

Intended learning outcomes

The assignment was intended to develop students' skill and experience with regards to:
  • awareness of the changing landscape of technologies used in information management environments
  • understanding of the principles underlying Web 2.0
  • practical experience in using popular technologies
  • resourcefulness in problem solving
  • working in a group to achieve outcomes
  • experience of the practical applications of some of the topics in the course (e.g., structuring and creating documents, markup languages, metadata, cloud computing, reuse and repurposing of content)

Why Web 2.0?

The university had received feedback from industry professionals that graduates lacked experience and understanding of Web 2.0 technologies and did not know how to use them in information management. There was therefore a strong link between using Web 2.0 tools in this subject and the development of professional skills. The lecturer noted that information professionals need to have experience and understanding of the technologies that are used in their profession and be able to investigate and understand new technologies as they appear. The lecturer had found that many of the students were inexperienced with information and communication technologies and often quite fearful of failure. He felt that the best way to help students to learn would be through immersion in the Web 2.0 environment. Also the widespread availability and popularity of Web 2.0 technologies meant that students could readily adopt and experiment with them. Given the aims of the assignment, and the content of the subject, it was appropriate that students use a Web 2.0 tool (i.e., blogs) to record their experiences and as a vehicle for assessment.

Setting up the assignment

The activity was based on Learning 2.0, "a discovery learning program designed to encourage staff to explore new technologies and reward them for doing 23 Things". Originally developed by Helene Blowers at the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg (USA), it has since been adopted and adapted by libraries throughout the world.

To prepare the assignment, the lecturer got an updated version of the program from the local University Library, compressed it to a 6 week period, converted it to a format suitable for self-paced work and formalised the assessment criteria. In addition, as his assignment had been running for four years, the lecturer needed to revise the activities to ensure they were up to date before the start of semester.

Introducing the assignment to students

The assignment was introduced in the first tutorial. The tutor explained the ideas behind the assignment, introduced the range of tasks and discussed how they could be tackled, including issues such as time management and how much work was expected. The introductory tutorial given in face-to-face classes was audio recorded and posted on the subject's website, so that online students could access it and campus-based students could also review it if needed.

Supporting students through the assignment

The students worked through the first part of the tutorial in the class, setting up their blogs and configuring the security settings. Students were encouraged to try new things, rather than reporting on their pre-existing use of familiar tools. In particular, students were encouraged to actively participate in the tasks and step out of their "comfort zones".

In the first tutorial class, students formed their own buddy groups of 4-5 students. They were encouraged to work together to explore the technologies and solve problems.

The teaching staff monitored and commented on the blogs. However, this required a substantial time commitment so staff were unable to do this as often as they would have liked.

Marking the assignment

The lecturer and tutors marked the blogs for their own tutorial groups. Assessment was individual, based on the content of each student’s blog. The lecturer and tutors used the following assessment criteria to mark the blogs (each worth 20% of the assignment mark):
  • Participation (how much of the work the student has done. If students have made a real attempt to investigate the technologies, they can expect full marks here.)
  • Communication (how well they have communicated within their group especially using the tools. Students can use any methods including face to face, but they must report on them in the blog. This can be difficult to assess if they do not report on it.)
  • Execution (technical skills, how successful have they been in carrying out technical processes, e.g. embedding resources into blog)
  • Persistence (this rewards problem-solving ability, effort and resourcefulness, regardless of eventual results achieved, also providing assistance to others. A student with poor technical skills who perseveres in a task can do well here.)
  • Reflection (quality and depth of reflection on the processes they have undertaken and the relevance of these technologies to information management. For some students who struggle to complete the tasks their reflection may focus on their experience and learning. Students who are already familiar with the technology for personal use are expected to develop their understanding of new uses and/or find new and emerging tools.)

Following the marking process, the lecturer checked selected assignments from the tutors to ensure a degree of consistency.

Communicating the results

Individual feedback sheets were either handed back in class or emailed to the student. The feedback sheet comprised qualitative feedback regarding each criterion and an overall grade for the assignment.

Evaluating and improving the assignment

The lecturer was able to collect evidence about how the assignment worked through the student blogs: students were asked to comment on the assignment itself, and to make suggestions for its improvement in their final blog postings. Most students did this. In previous years, many of the student comments led to changes in the assignment - for example, the sequence of introducing tools and concepts, the choice of tools, and clarification of expectations, including the amount of work required. Some student comments revealed unexpected outcomes. For example, some students observed that they had enjoyed doing the activities and had gained confidence in using and experimenting with technology.

One unexpected negative outcome from the first iteration of the assignment was that some students who were already experienced in using Web 2.0 technologies put most of their effort into describing their previous experience and the advantages / disadvantages of the technologies rather than finding new things to learn, or new ways to experience familiar tools. This led to changes in the way the assignment was introduced to students.

Some students expressed concern about the need to create online profiles and the potential invasion of privacy, particularly as this was a compulsory assignment. One student pointed out that it fell short of the standards for privacy required by government departments.

Although students were told to secure their blogs from being crawled by search engine robots and by the blog platform, it was not possible to enforce this. It was also not possible to ensure that students did not, intentionally or otherwise, take actions that affected other students’ rights. This was demonstrated in the most recent iteration where one technically proficient and adventurous student created an RSS feed from student blogs to a Twitter account, thus making student work public. This required action by staff who insisted that the student reverse those actions. This incident demonstrated the need for greater emphasis on issues of student privacy and intellectual property.

Over the four years that this assignment has been running, the lecturer has reviewed the activities and made a number of changes. For example, he removed social networking from the tasks (e.g., Facebook - most students were either completely familiar with it or had made a conscious decision not to use it), along with social video and photo sites (e.g., YouTube, Flickr – most students knew about them and did not take long to learn how to embed them in their blogs). New technologies deemed worthy of inclusion include microblogging (Twitter, Yammer etc), the Google Wave collaboration platform and tools such as Yahoo Pipes that make it easy to create data mashups.

In future iterations the lecturer plans to weight the reflection component at twice the value of each of the others, to add emphasis to students’ interpretation of their experience, including making the connection between personal and professional / organisational practices. The lecturer also plans to provide a stronger focus, both in the assignment documentation and in the verbal introduction, to principles of privacy, intellectual property and cybersafety, and to emphasise the need to ensure that university requirements are satisfied. The lecturer is considering changing the blogs from the publicly accessible blogging tools to a Wordpress installation within the university, or using the blog feature in the Blackboard learning system. However both of these options would limit an important part of the assignment which is for students to use and communicate with widely available tools.

The lecturer has received feedback on this assignment from industry: during the recent program accreditation process the assignment received favourable commentary from the relevant professional body. The assignment was also identified by an Australian Learning and Teaching Council project (Library and Information Science Education 2.0: guiding principles and models of best practice) as an example of best practice in developing ‘Librarian 2.0’. It was the subject of a ‘videoette’ created by that project.

Selected documents from this case study

An extract of the handout used to introduce the assignment to students in an earlier version of the assignment: Web2AdventureIntro to Assignment.pdf

Assessment criteria: Web 2 Adventure Assessment Criteria.pdf

Page source:
Gray, K., Waycott, J., Thompson, C., Clerehan, R., Sheard, J., Hamilton, M., & Richardson, J. (2011) Using Social Web (Web 2.0) Activities for Student Assessment: Resources for University Learning and Teaching. Retrieved from https://web2assessmentresources.wikispaces.com