Tuesday, 7 April 2009

BbWorld Europe (Day One, PM) - The Google Generation, Podcasting and Peer Review

At 4pm, I went to a fascinating talk by Dr. Chris Stokes who works in the School of Clinical Dentistry at the University of Sheffield. Apparently his talk was a continuation from one he gave last year though I must have missed him at last year's conference in Manchester. However, he gave a clear outline of what it was he was following on from...

Last academic year, instead of asking his students to give presentations, Dr Stokes decided to ask his students for podcasts as a form of assessment. They were asked to produce 5 minute mp3 files that would critically evaluate two pieces of scientific literature and then be peer-reviewed on paper.

Dr Stokes played some examples of these in the presentation and you could really hear how students used the creative freedom they'd been given while still meeting the academic criteria. Some podcasts began with a group introduction, some revolved around use of music (there were some copyright issues with this) while others took on more diverse forms, ie. a news broadcast or radio show being transmitted from a zoo. We were told that audio was chosen because there was a feeling that video would tend to make students as nervous as a presentation might - in both cases, body language is on show.

I would've add that audio is far easier to create and edit, and where mistakes and time restrictions are involved good editing is crucial. According to the presentation, students dealt with technical aspects easily but found it difficult to condense the subjects they'd been assigned for podcasting purposes.

But Dr Stokes then went on to discuss what he has been doing this year. The peer-review aspect of the project has been moved online and focus is primarily on getting students to use Web 2.0 tools they are familiar with to develop relevant academic skills. Whereas, before last year's podcast trials students were asked to give a traditional lecture or presentation as part of their assessment, Dr Stokes wanted to move away from the "lecturers' domain" and into the "students' domain", seeing as lecturing is not a necessarily a key skill for the field of dentistry. To move further into this domain, Dr Stokes allowed students to choose what format they decided to submit their work in.

Given the previous assumptions about video and presentations, the results were surprising. At the end of the project, Dr. Stokes got:
  • 5 videos,
  • 14 Powerpoint presentations,
  • 2 wikis, and 
  • 9 web documents.
There were also over twenty "described weblinks" (presumably reviews of the sources students used but also included YouTube videos) and more importantly no purely audio podcasts!

The peer-review aspect of the project also required students to write blog entries on their contribution to the group in Sheffield's Blackboard system and also, potentially, reviewing the blog entries of others. This reviewing involved giving the blog entries a star rating and leaving a comment. Dr Stokes said giving the star-rating option however had been a mistake as students would rate the presentation but then use the comment to justify the numbers of stars they had given, leaving those being reviewed with little to no constructive criticism. Consequently the star-rating is something he intends to leave out in future peer-review projects.

Students were also given the option to work in Connect, which is Sheffield's branded version of the social networking software ELGG but this was merely a provision for those who would prefer not to use Facebook or some other site they might already be using. Apparently, some students used this but others didn't even sign up.

He talked a little about taking into account the demographic of his students, all of which (I think he said this) were part of Generation Z - alternatively known as Millennials, Generation @, and the Internet Generation. Typically this demographic consists of people living in Western or "First World" cultures, born between the years of 1995 and 2010. I've also seen this called Generation C (where C is close to the U.S. pronunciation of Z and stands for "connect", "click", "computer" or any other web-related word you might think of). Dr Stokes admitted to his preference for the term Millennials, which he said was "growing on" him.

It seemed to me that he'd made a real effort to understand where his students were coming from and, in doing so, had hit upon some surprising conclusions. For one, some students want to write essays, as evidenced by the Word documents in the pot at the end of the project. Nevertheless, he recognised that online spaces for learning "seem important". And finally, students don't seem all that interested in audio podcasts - except, perhaps as part of enhanced podcasts (that is, with simple visuals like still images of Powerpoint slides).

This last point is an interesting one. I personally think this could be for two reasons. Perhaps students are trying to meet what they perceive as traditional expectations by producing something like the presentation they would've been previously tasked with, with the exception that it's digital and online.

Or perhaps students don't feel the same constraints that we ourselves feel and expect. As I mentioned, audio is easier to create and edit and therefore time-saving but perhaps, for students who have been given the creative freedom to make their project really unique, convenience isn't as much of a priority as it is for people in full-time work. Perhaps it's about students being given the opportunity to take pride in their work, to fulfil the set criteria while making the project something of their own.

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