Will Covid-19 finally catalyse the way we exploit digital options in assessment and feedback?

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(Previously posted on the Bloomsbury Learning Exchange blog, 29/3/21) 

The typical child will learn to listen first, then talk, then read, then write. In life, most of us tend to use these abilities proportionately in roughly the same order: listen most, speak next most, read next most frequently and write the least. Yet in educational assessment and feedback, and especially in higher education (HE), we value writing above all else. After writing comes reading, then speaking and the least assessed is listening. In other words, we value most what we use least. I realise this is a huge generalisation and that there are nuances and arguments to be had around this, but it is the broad principle and tendencies here that I am interested in. Given the ways in which technology makes such things as recording and sharing audio and video much easier than even a few years ago (i.e. tools that provide opportunity to favour speaking and listening), it is perhaps surprising how conservative we are in HE when it comes to changing assessment and feedback practices. We are, though, at the threshold of an opportunity whereby our increased dependency on technology, the necessarily changing relationships we are all experiencing due to the ongoing implications of Covid-19 and the inclusive, access and pedagogic affordances of the digital mean we may finally be at a stage where change is inevitable and inexorable.

In 2009 while working in Bradford, I did some research on using audio and video feedback on a postgraduate teaching programme. I was amazed at the impact, the increased depth of understanding of the content of the feedback and the positivity with which it was received. I coupled it with delayed grade release too. The process was: Listen to (or watch) the feedback, e-mail me with the grade band the feedback suggested and then I would return the actual grade and use the similarity or difference (usually, in fact, there was pretty close alignment) to prompt discussion about the work and what could be fed forward. A few really did not like the process but this was more to do with not liking the additional process involved in finding out the grades they had been given rather than the feedback medium itself. Only one student (out of 39) preferred written feedback as a default and this included three deaf students (I arranged for them to receive BSL signed feedback recorded synchronously with an interpreter while I spoke the words).  Most of the students not only favoured it, they actively sought it. While most colleagues were happy to experiment or at least consider the pros, cons and effort needed, at least one senior colleague was a little frosty, hinting that I was making their life more difficult. On balance, I found that once I had worked through the mechanics of the process and established a pattern, I was actually saving myself perhaps 50% of marking time per script though there certainly was some front-loading of effort necessary for the first time.  I concluded that video feedback was powerful but, at that time, too labour- and resource-intensive and stuck with audio feedback for most of the students unless video was requested or needed. I continued to use it in varying ways in my teaching, supporting others in their experimentation and, above all, persuading the ‘powers that be’ that it was not only legitimate but that it was powerful and, for many, preferable. I also began encouraging students to consider audio or video alternatives to reflective pieces as I worked up a digital alternative to the scale-tipping professional portfolios that were the usual end of year marking delight.

Microphone in close up as seen from the perspective of the user

Two years later I found myself in a new job back in London and confronted with a very resistant culture. As is not uncommon, it is an embedded faith and dependency on the written word that determines policy and practice rather than research and pedagogy. In performative cultures, written ‘evidence’ carries so much more weight and trust, apparently irrespective of impact. Research (much better and more credible than my own) has continued to show similar outcomes and benefits (see summary in Winstone and Carless, 2019) but the overwhelming majority of feedback is still of the written/ typed variety. Given the wealth of tools available and the voluminous advocacy generated through the scholarship of teaching and learning and potential of technology in particular (see Newman and Beetham, 2018, for example), it is often frustrating for me that assessment and feedback practices that embrace the opportunities afforded by digital media seemed few and far between.  So, will there ever be a genuine shift towards employing digital tools for assessment design and feedback? As technology makes these approaches easier and easier, what is preventing it?  In many ways the Covid-19 crisis, the immediate ‘emergency response’ of remote teaching and assessing and the way things are shaping up for the future have given a real impetus to notions of innovative assessment. We have seen how many of us were forced to confront our practice in terms of timed examinations and, amid inevitable discussions around the proctoring possibilities technology offered (to be clear: I am not a fan!), we saw discussions about effective assessment and feedback processes occurring and a re-invigorated interest in how we might do things differently.  I am hoping we might continue those discussions to include all aspects of assessment from the informal, in-session formative activities we do through to the ’big’, high-stakes summatives.

Change will not happen easily or rapidly, however. Hargreaves (2010) argues that a principal enemy of education change is social and political conservatism and I would add to that a form of departmental, faculty or institutional conservatism that errs on the side of caution lest evaluation outcomes are negatively impacted.  Covid-19 has disrupted everything and whilst tensions remain between the conservative (very much of the small ‘c’ variety in this context) and change-oriented voices, it is clear that recognition is growing of a need to modify (rather than transpose) pedagogic practices in new environments and this applies equally to assessment and feedback. In the minds of many lecturers, the technology that is focal to approaches to technology enhanced learning is often ill-defined or uninspiring (Bayne, 2015) and the frequent de-coupling of tech investment from pedagogically informed continuing professional development (CPD) opportunities (Compton and Almpanis, 2018) has often reinforced these tendencies towards pedagogic conservatism. Pragmatism, insight, digital preparedness, skills development, and new ways of working through necessity are combining to reveal a need for and willingness to embrace significant change in assessment practices.

As former programme leader of an online PGCertHE (a lecturer training programme) I was always in the very fortunate position to collect and share theories, principles and practices with colleagues, many of whom were novices in teaching. Though of course they had experienced HE as students they were less likely to have had a more fossilised sense of what assessments and feedback should or could look like. I also have the professional and experiential agency to draw on research-informed practices not only by talking about them but through exemplification and modelling (Compton and Almpanis, 2019). By showing that unconventional assessment (and feedback) are allowed and can be very rewarding we are able to sow seeds of enthusiasm that lead to a bottom-up (if still slow!) shift away from conservative assessment practices. Seeing some colleagues embrace these strategies is rewarding but I would love to see more.


Bayne, S. (2015). ‘What’s the matter with ‘technology-enhanced learning?’ Learning, Media and Technology, 9 (1), 251-257.

Bryan, C., & Clegg, K. (Eds.). (2019). Innovative assessment in higher education: A handbook for academic practitioners. Routledge.

Compton, M. & Almpanis, T. (2019) Transforming lecturer practice and mindset: Re-engineered CPD and modelled use of cloud tools and social media by academic developers. Chapter in Rowell, C (ed.) Social Media and Higher Education: Case studies, Reflections and Analysis. Open Book Publishers.

Compton, M., & Almpanis, T. (2018). One size doesn’t fit all: rethinking approaches to continuing professional development in technology enhanced learning. Compass: Journal of Learning and Teaching,11(1).

Hargreaves, A. (2010). ‘Presentism, individualism, and conservatism: The legacy of Dan Lortie’s Schoolteacher: A sociological study’. Curriculum Inquiry, 40(1), 143-154.

Newman, T. and Beetham, H. (2018) Student Digital Experience Tracker 2018: The voices of 22,000 UK learners. Bristol: Jisc.

Winstone, N., & Carless, D. (2019). Designing effective feedback processes in higher education: A learning-focused approach. Routledge.

Building new cultures: A visit to UCL East (Marshgate)

A panoramic photo realistic illustrtaion of the UCL East campus showing Marshgate and Poole Street as well as the Mittel Orbit

I have worked in primary and secondary schools, further education colleges, overseas colleges & universities and at three UK universities. So much of the identity of all those institutions was not only woven into the fabric of the buildings but, in many ways, defined and moulded by the spaces themselves. As an alumnus of Thames Poly (aka University of Greenwich, my former employer), I experienced a rough round the edges, radical, class-conscious undergraduate degree that oozed 60s idealism from the concrete 60s edifice that was plonked awkwardly on a bunch of shops in Woolwich in South East London (this wasn’t in the 60s by the way; I’m not that old). That block is now flats and, with the change in name, the poly has become a uni and has moved the largest part of its operation to the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich. How much of its current identity is wrapped in the huge selling point that is those buildings? How much of that cultural capital seeps into the subconscious of the staff and students as well as into the conscious marketing, framing and ongoing aspirations? Frankly, the place I studied at and the place I used to work at couldn’t be more alien to one another.

I have seen new buildings or radical re-fits from a ‘college without walls’ (disaster!) to a construction hub that was almost all atrium along with its too small triangular classrooms. When I moved to UCL I loved the post lockdown opportunities to visit many of its Bloomsbury buildings: the old, the repurposed and the refurbished. Many of the spaces are locked into pre 20th century architecture or, like the IoE buildings, echoic of late 60s/ early 70s modernist design (and protest!). Limitations on space and light in particular are ‘themes’ so I was delighted to be able, with a dozen or so colleagues, visit the Marshgate building of the new UCL East campus yesterday. Due to open in September 2023 it is paired with the One  Poole Street building which is both study and living space (this one opens in September ’22). On the site of the Olympic Park and a stone’s throw from West Ham United’s new stadium (you can’t have everything I guess), the broader site is welcoming, feels quite safe and is very accessible by public transport and bike.

the helter skelter building in stratford olympic park in london is a messy red scaffolding like structure and it sits on the right of this picture. The left is dominated by a huge concrete structure of eight floors with a wall of narrow windows that is the Marshgate building

UCL East Marshgate building with West Ham stadium and ‘Mittel Orbit’

The UCL site has all the accurate information you could want about location, development, opening and maps by the way, so I won’t bother repeating any of it here!

Our tour didn’t include an inside visit to the ‘One Poole Street’ building as it is very close to completion and will be used from September this year. The twin block is multiple stories of student accommodation atop teaching spaces which include a cinema that it is hoped will also be a community venue. The landscaping, shifting of bus stops (108 route) and general polishing were very much in evidence. At least one of us was heard to say: “I’d like to live here!”

Poole Street Building- this is two towers of accommodation more than 15 storeys high on top of flatter blocks which contain classrooms and other usual university things

One Poole Street building (formerly known as Poole Street West)

Our tour was led by Helen Fisher who is the UCL East operations lead and we were accompanied by the UCL East Director, Professor Paola Lettieri, as well as representatives from the building contractors. Three of my colleagues from Arena were there and, after a ‘short’ delay while one of our sub-party was found some trousers, we trudged to the entrance in our hard hats, boots and protective gloves.

UCL name in relief in front entrance of Marshgate building at UCL East

Entrance to Marshgate building showing UCL logo in relief

front view of as yet unfinished marshgate building at the new UCL East campus

‘Front’ view of Marshgate though over time this may not be the main entrance

Whilst it’s quite hard to visualise how some of the spaces will look, being there really helped me to  appreciate the scale and the vision. The thing that I kept coming back to as I listened to Helen and others enthuse about the realisation of the spaces is how much working cultures could be defined by the way the building (and the wider environs) are shaping up. The thought that has gone into the teaching spaces, the design and centrality of inter-disciplinary spaces, the community-focussed spaces and possible activities, the value placed on wellbeing & access and the importance of communal space, light and views for both staff and students all permeated the framing of the tour and the conversations within the group. While debates rage in the wider world about the various pros and cons of working from home and returning to offices, I couldn’t help thinking: ‘This place would pull me in of a morning”.

A trip up in the goods lift (some might say appropriately enough) saw us to our first stop on the 7th floor and the communal space. The light from the windows coming in on the left in the picture below will be supplemented by the central pool of light from the glass-not-glass roof in the central section which will supply light within the whole building. It was shame this was still covered as it will likely change the look and feel incredibly. The glass panes in the widows are designed in such a way as to prevent the summer sauna/ winter freezer effect of other buildings many of us are familiar with.

A large space with high ceilings and pillars still clearly unders construction but with a wall of wiondows just about visible

7th Floor staff communal space- the wall of windows sit in the void at the top of the building that can be seen in the image above

On the 6th floor we walked through shared lab spaces and looked at some teaching rooms. Space and light define the lab, office and communal spaces while the classrooms pull light from the ‘core’.

View from window of part of the olympic park- the canal, greenery, buildings and the construction of the London CVollege of Fashion

View from a shared lab (I think!)

Escalators as yet still being fitted lead from second to fourth floor

Escalators that will take staff and students from the ground to the second floor. Another set will enable swift movement from 2nd to 4th.

As I understood it, along with stairs there are lifts (and toilets) in each corner of the building but swift access to the student communal spaces and library are facilitated by the floor skipping escalator system.  One thing I very much liked was the ‘picture window’ below. Apparently, this is designed in such a way that it can be opened as a bridge to other builds as and when they are completed.

Picture windows with view blocked by building works

Picture window at far end of the library and study spaces

We saw standard classrooms, a sort of ‘executive’ conference venue and audio-visual creator spaces as well as spaces for film that had some colleagues drooling! We didn’t see the object-based learning spaces or the in-situ ‘museum’ space but, as a former history teacher, knowing these will be a feature of a planned, authentic pedagogic approach is very exciting. The large lecture hall with seating designed for whole and small group activity will I hope contribute towards shifts away from over use of the uni-directional, ‘classic’ lecturing style.

A lecture hall space that is still being built. No seating yet in this large, wide space. The exposed pipe work and scaffolding make it hard to visualise what the space will look like.

Large lecture hall

As we worked our way down the building we eventually arrived at the main hall. This will have public spaces, commissioned art work and will double as a gallery space. I wondered as we went round how the spaces will settle on the names that become common. No doubt the architects and the UCL East staff will strongly influence things but I wonder if the things like the often-heard ‘the Mez’ will be well-established or if, as staff and students arrive, new names will emerge.

View of the entrance hall of Marshgate building on the ground floor showing concrete pillars and a huge open space

Entrance hall (currently being fitted with underfloor heating)

We rounded our visit off with a walk around the Olympic park, the cultural district of which is being branded as the ‘East Bank’ . The morning was completed with lunch in the sun with colleagues at ‘The Breakfast Club’ in ‘Here East’ which I only recently discovered has been a UCL presence in Stratford for some time. Maybe it was the sun, the lunch and/ or spending more relaxed time with colleagues but I came away feeling very positive about UCL East. The possibilities are definitely there.