I have been vaguely noticing an interesting feedback loop in my first year class which is technology based, so I decided to blog about it to help me think about it more.
This year we persuaded computing services to open up the wireless network so students can use Second Life on their laptops. This helps us in lab classes if they are too full, and also lets the students who live on campus work in the evenings when the labs shut. It also has a slightly unanticipated consequence of enabling them to come into Second Life during lectures while I am also logged in and demoing on the projector. This can lead to much hilarity as students walk past to get a "mention" or come and interact with objects which I demo them. It also has interesting implications for learning which I haven't quite exploited fully. During my classes I set regular mini-problems throughout the class so students have to put into practice or link together concepts I have just introduced. For example, they might have to write the code to feed a cookie monster to practice using the listen event handler in linden script. They can either write it on paper and try it out in the labs, or they can type it into their laptop there and then if they have one. An interesting aspect of SL is emergent behaviour; sometimes the students on their laptops notice interesting side effects of their code while programming in the lecture and ask me about it. For example, if you have two cookie monsters (or any object, let's face it) both talking and listening in close enough proximity you get an infinite loop of babbling. My student noticed this on his laptop and so I was then able to point it out to everyone on the projector and get them to hypothesise about why this behaviour happens.
As an interesting follow-up to this particular incident, another student wrote about that lecture in his learning log and how he had enjoyed this part of the class. I have the logs on a feed-reader so I can keep a vague eye on what the class is up to day to day. This form of feedback is useful because it lets me stamp out problems before they get too difficult (such as students who couldn't work due to technical errors in SL) and guage the pace I should teach at in the next class. In fact, one of my students performs the (unwitting) service to me of reviewing each of my lectures afterwards. This helps her to revise the concepts she learned but also gives me feedback on how it went from the students' point of view. In addition, the learning logs from last year gave me such in-depth insight into the students' learning that I was able to re-structure the lab exercise for this year to make the increases in difficulty between exercises easier to manage.
So there are three levels of feedback from the students to me here: at an immediate time scale, feedback in SL during classes, at a medium scale, feedback from learning logs between classes and in the longer term, feedback from learning logs reflecting on the whole module after the semester is finished. I know that the current mania for feedback in HE is usually considered to be feedback from the teacher to the learners, but this is really only half the equation. If you haven't been subject to this mania, let me quickly explain: lecturers now live and die by the National Student Survey which is convenient way for national newspapers and other people with too much time on their hands to rank Uk university "quality". One of the questions is about how much feedback the students get from us, and how promptly. As far as I can see, there are a lot of universities which do poorly on this, including my department. So there is now a drive from senior managers for us to do better with feedback. The drive mostly consists of people saying we should do it without offering practical suggestions for how you do it effectively with large class sizes and working hours which challenge the nature of the time/space continuum. But I digress. Usually feeback is meant to be all about the student: how they could improve their performance, what their strengths and weaknesses are and so on. I'm not arguing that it is part of our job to provide that. I am, however, pointing out that teaching is as important as assessment and that if you are going to teach well you need some way of knowing how the students are coping with your classes. The three ways I mention above are handy ways to do so, although there are face to face ways which work well such as relentlessly checking off lab exercises until you know each student's progress inside out (appropriate for first years). Of course, there are various ways to cope with getting feedback to large classes which I have been experimenting with but that can be the subject for another post.