Using social networking for assessment in a Languages study: A case study

In a first year Japanese subject, students used a social networking site to write and publish information about themselves in Japanese. They created a draft self-profile and received feedback from their tutor before publishing it on the social networking site. They then posted regular updates, or blog entries, all written in Japanese. They also posted comments on other students' pages.

The two assignments (the draft profile and the online work) together were worth 16%.

Web 2.0 tool used: Bebo www.bebo.com

About the subject

This was an undergraduate, first year subject, “Japanese 1”, taught as part of a Bachelor of Arts degree. The aims of this subject were to teach students the knowledge, strategies and skills they needed to interact in Japanese in situations that they were likely to encounter, establishing a foundation of linguistic, sociolinguistic and sociocultural knowledge and providing a basis for further study.

There were 400 students enrolled in this subject. Students came from a range of different language backgrounds, but there were large numbers of students literate in Chinese.

12 staff taught the unit, including two co-ordinators for two campuses and ten sessional staff.

Assignment tasks and timing

This assignment consisted of two tasks that were assessed separately. In the first, students hand-wrote a self-introduction or profile, used lecturer feedback to improve it, and then uploaded it to Bebo. In the second part of the assignment, students were required to invite their teachers and classmates to be ‘friends’ and write and post one blog entry per week from Week 8 until Week 11 (minimum of three entries).

They were also asked to add a comment to at least one classmate’s page each week. For the three comments, students were expected to choose three different students’ sites, writing at least one sentence to pass. To get higher marks they were expected to write two or more sentences in each comment.

At the end of semester students were asked to submit a hard copy of:
• Their revised self-profile, including any photos if they wished
• A screen shot of their best blog entry (of 300-400 characters),
• Screen shots of two other blog entries (150-200 characters)
• Screen shots showing their comments on three other users’ pages

They were expected to improve their profile progressively over the semester, adding expressions that they learned in class about their preferences in music, films, sport and food. By the end of semester their profile was expected to use between 400 and 500 Japanese characters (known as kanji).

Intended learning outcomes

The aim of this assignment was first for students to gain opportunities to use and further develop their Japanese (particularly reading and writing skills and ability to use web-based tools) through reading others’ pages and writing their own. Second, the activity was designed to enable the class community to get to know each other better and to share information and ideas.

It was anticipated that students' interaction via Bebo would be an incentive for students to learn. Students were expected to take notice of teachers’ and other students’ expressions and appropriate them for their own purposes. They could then end up with a mental map of the new language they had learned and could reflect on their own development. The assignment offered opportunities for language practice, enabling students to utilise the language they had learnt in class in a practical and relevant setting.

Why Web 2.0?

One rationale for using Web 2.0 in this assignment was to encourage authentic use of language. Engaging online is a situation that students of Japanese are likely to encounter. For people living in Australia, online communication is a very convenient medium for communication with Japanese nationals.

In addition, the in-house university learning management system (Blackboard) didn’t handle the Japanese characters (known as kanji); they could only be seen in certain ‘views’ in the university's system.

A further rationale was that using a social networking site in this way would provide opportunities for formative feedback and ongoing development. In other assignments, students have no incentive to correct their work after submission. Using Web 2.0 means students and staff can go back and see how much students have improved over a year.

Setting up the assignment

Staff as well as students created Bebo sites with profiles. If staff had taught this class before, they could use/update sites produced in previous years. Prior to running the assignment, staff also had to prepare computer lab sessions and PowerPoint presentations to introduce the assignment to students. Because Bebo is updated each year, these introductory sessions also needed to be updated.

Introducing the assignment to students

The assignment was introduced to students in lectures. A computer lab session was provided for those who needed help setting up their Bebo accounts. Further introductory support was also provided in tutorials. In the tutorial classes staff could prime students for the language that would be useful for this assignment. However, with a large number of sessional tutors teaching this course, the support provided in tutorials varied from class to class.

Students were also given handouts about the assignment. In these handouts they were reminded that, because they were writing for their classmates, they needed to use the grammar, vocabulary and kanji that were studied in the course to date. If they wanted to use some more difficult words, they were asked to include a translation, either doing this in the text or making a list at the end. If an informal style was used students needed to ensure it was understandable for classmates.

When setting up their Bebo accounts, students needed to make themselves identifiable (using first name and initial). This helped teachers to get to know their students. A photo was not compulsory, so posting could be a bit more anonymous (they could say things they wouldn’t say in class).

Supporting students through the assignment

Students were given the opportunity in class to type in Japanese characters, with quizzes to test competence. In class, students were taught how to use emoticons, studied the structure of self-introductions in online, off-line and face-to-face situations, and learned how to use electronic dictionaries and other web sources.

Staff provided students with formative feedback on their draft profiles. Students created the draft profile as a handwritten piece; they were then supposed to look at feedback and correct basic errors. They were expected to deduce the grammatical rules from the corrections. Students were able to write "text-book" Japanese – and also other less formal language. This placed an extra burden on staff though, leading to variations in feedback. Students could do "re-casts" – different ways of saying things (e.g., in a more friendly style). In the past, teachers could use their own profile as an example. But during this semester there was no specific class for it.

Teaching staff also provided students with formative feedback by writing comments on students' Bebo blog posts. It was intended that each student receive three staff comments on their blog (a staff member was supposed to put a comment on one piece of each of their students’ work).

Marking the assignment

Before the assessment process began, staff had a professional development day where, in groups of three, they worked though the possible assessment criteria by looking at samples of student work. Staff marked some samples, discussed them with other staff, then worked with the senior coordinator to finalise the assessment criteria.

During the marking process, staff worked in pairs to cross-mark students' work, comparing each assignment with others graded at the same level, to maintain consistency. The senior subject co-ordinator did not do the marking but was brought in to moderate if necessary. Students were given a grade based on the following weighting of assignment tasks:

Profile – 10 marks
Best blog – 20 marks
2 other blog entries – 10 marks
3 comments on other users’ pages – 10 marks
Total = 50 marks

Work was assessed on the basis of:
1. Content (interest, creativity, appropriateness, variety, accuracy, appropriateness of expressions and vocabulary)
2. Coherence and organisation of texts
3. Use of kanji taught in course, hiragana, katakana (all components of the Japanese writing system) and punctuation.

There was a 7% failure rate in the Unit overall, but only 2.5% in this assignment; only a couple of students didn’t complete it.

Communicating the results

Students were given a printed mark sheet showing their grades and feedback. These were available for students to collect after semester had finished, along with their printed assignments. 70-80% of students did not collect their work after the end of semester.

Evaluating and improving the assignment

The assignment had been running for three years. Previously it had run in the second semester, but in this iteration it was introduced in the first semester. The assignment therefore had to be revised to take into account the different stage of learning that the students were at, as many students were not ready in first semester to cope with the language demands of the assignment. Although the assignment had been modified, staff noted that it was still a bit too challenging for students in first semester.

The assignment was originally introduced when one staff member had had a funded Teaching Assistantship for 3 months to set the assignment up as a project. Bebo was chosen as the tool, because it had a photo album function, handled Japanese characters well, and allowed restricted access.

At the end of each semester in which this assignment had run, students completed feedback surveys. Responses to these have been used to make changes to the assignment (e.g., students had asked if they could write about pictures, and this was incorporated). Previous survey findings demonstrated many positive aspects of the assignment: students were motivated by the fact that their classmates would see their work, it provided a real forum for students to interact and they could gain exposure to cultural artefacts which served to increase their sociocultural knowledge. However, there were more negative evaluations after this semester, with many students making negative comments about the assignment and the Bebo site. Many students did not particularly like Bebo and wanted to use Facebook. In previous years, students appeared to have "found their Japanese voice" during the course of the assignment. What emerged was a hybrid text – between academic and "Facebook" style in English.

During this iteration of the assignment, two plagiarism problems were identified. For the first, there was a clear disparity between the third and the other two blogs. In the other case, for the profile and one blog, a student received help from a Japanese speaker.

Because Bebo is updated each year, the unit’s computer lab session and the related Powerpoint presentation have to be changed each time. The site introduction (Bebo Sense) is now highlighted more in the lecture so students will look at it. There was a problem this year with the Bebo software: the blog section is now more complex and harder to access.

Workload was a problem: with each staff member having 20 students per class, there was a prohibitive number of blogs to comment on on a regular basis. Before this semester, a new industrial agreement was introduced for sessional staff whereby it was agreed that it would take 1 hour to mark 5,000 words, and informal feedback, such as that for this assignment, was considered to be part of normal teaching duties. Commenting on students' work, therefore, didn't always happen. If the assignment continues, staff are considering giving more feedback in class en masse to cope with the workload issue.

Selected documents from this case study

Student handout describing the assignment: BeboAssignmentHandout.pdf

Extra handout providing clarification about the assignment: Japanese Bebo Assignment 2 Extra Clarification.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