Friday, 19 December 2008

The indirector

Three years ago, beginning my exploration of audio feedback, I was a one-man band. I did the literature search, decided on the technology, taught myself how to use it, recorded the feedback on my students’ work, sent it to them, gathered their comments on the experience, analysed the data and published the results. In a very straightforward way, my actions (or lack of them) determined how things went. It was hard work, but I was in control and it felt comfortable. If I had been lusting after a title, I might accurately – but absurdly – have called myself ‘director’ of the one-man band.

Then came Sounds Good, a 17-person audio-feedback ensemble at Leeds Met. Again it was my baby: people looked to me as the person ‘in charge’ and I readily accepted the responsibility of shaping the project and moving it along. So, amongst other things, I decided on the technology, issued briefings to team members, gathered completed questionnaires, analysed the data and, as before, published the results. But it wasn’t as before. The important difference was that I was at one remove from the action: I had almost no contact with students and produced none of the audio feedback. I did deal directly with the producers of the audio feedback – teachers at Leeds Met – but I don’t think I ever ‘directed’ operations, in the sense of ordering people what to do. Instead I largely made requests, offered recommendations and suggestions. We’re not in the army and the informal style seemed appropriate. I called myself ‘project manager’ rather than ‘director’. Being at one remove, and being lousy at delegation, I was often anxious as to what would happen. See here and here, for example. I wasn’t as comfortable as when I was running my one-man band but, as it turned out, the team did a great job and Sounds Good worked well. Thanks, colleagues!

Now it’s Sounds Good 2, an even bigger audio feedback enterprise where, in many instances, I’m yet further removed from the action. Most of the original Leeds Met team are continuing to use audio feedback with their students, but new teachers have joined us and some of the ‘old lags’ act as their mentors. So in some instances the communication chain between me and students now has an extra link: me – mentor – mentee – student (and back again). There are indications that it doesn’t always work perfectly and I occasionally detect a bit of ‘Chinese whispers’. At this moment, I’m not confident that I have the full roster of Leeds Met student groups who are, or will be, receiving audio feedback this semester as part of Sounds Good 2.

And then there’s what’s happening elsewhere. As part of Sounds Good 2, audio feedback work is getting under way at three partner institutions: Newman University College, the University of Northampton and York St John University. What’s going on there? I’ve visited all three places, know my institutional contacts and have met quite a few of the staff intending to give audio feedback. Some of them have started to blog about their experience and information flows back and forth. Even so, I worry that I don’t have the full picture and I do feel far removed from their students.

Considering the project as a whole, it’s bigger than I could have imagined back in 2005-6. I believe it’s going well but, as of today, I don’t really know. What I’m sure of is that other people now have far more influence over the outcomes than I do. Emphatically, I’m not the director, in the sense of being in full control, able to pull levers and make the intended actions happen immediately.

So I’ve dubbed myself the ‘indirector’ of Sounds Good 2. ‘Indirector’ is, I think, a neat label for someone who is, sort of, in charge of something, but not with the expectation of control that a director may have. An indirector operates indirectly, through other people, along sometimes lengthy and rickety communication channels. An indirector can’t or won’t order people to do things and instead resorts to other strategies, including encouragement, facilitation and finger-crossing. Some indirectors seem to find this easy. Given my instincts for simplicity and do-it-yourself, I don’t. But the new badge helps, a bit.

Bob Rotheram
Indirector, Sounds Good 2

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

First impressions

It's a few weeks now since we did the "first run" of audio feedback with our first years - a few weeks to allow us to catch our breath, look back and reflect on what we did. So what can I say? Initial responses to audio feedback, from both staff and students, have been overwhelmingly positive. Students particularly liked the informal nature of the feedback (particularly pertinent when bearing in mind that they are first years and the importance of retention rates these days), with comments like "It felt like the tutor was in the room there with you" being not uncommon. Interestingly, the (very) few negative comments from students were regarding the quality of the feedback itself, and not the medium - definitely something to bear in mind.

Staff were also generally positive, and comments tended to follow the patterns predicted by Bob in his helpful advice. Virtually all staff felt that the process saved them time, and, obviously, those who were more familiar with the technology felt much more comfortable with the process. Staff training sessions on the equipment generally went very well, and I think we'll keep these ongoing, so that familiarity breeds ease of use. Our turnaround time for marking (something that our Exams and Assessments Office keeps close tabs on) was markedly reduced.

It would be interesting to see if the move to audio has led to any change in the levels of engagement that students have with feedback. A common perception here at Newman is that students are only interested in their marks, and often don't read or only skim the feedback given to them for assignments. A first reading of their comments would suggest so, and as our students are now clamouring for more audio feedback in other modules, this may be something to take further...

Monday, 8 December 2008

Simon Sweeney's first post

Greetings from York....
Finally making a contribution to the Blog. I saw the Guardian piece last week and was pleased to see good publicity for this innovative project!
We have had some interesting discussions at York St John on various kinds of electronic feedback - including electronic marking - something I have experimented with in the last year or so. But audio feedback is much more exciting. Bob came to YSJ a month or so ago and clearly articulated the benefits observable so far from the SoundsGood project and it sounded uncomplicated and student friendly.
I have a number of modules lined up to provide electronic feedback on - first of all an M-Level module that I have already marked and am about to record the feedback and distribute to students. I am planning to ask students for an instant response to see what they make of it. Most of these are NNS (non-native speakers) which I think adds an extra dimension to the benefits of audio feedback.
Later this term (hopefully before Christmas) I will have added another larger cohort on an undergraduate module. A colleague is also planning audio feedback for another M-level module.
I have used the recorder already - and have so far found it OK to use, if a bit complicated to rename files (it's vital to name the files in an instantly recognisable way).
That's enough for an initial contribution.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Power of the spoken word

Sounds Good is featured on p.5 of the 'Digital Student' supplement in today's Guardian, published in association with JISC. You can see the online version at: