Probably the single technology innovation that has most divided the academic community are tools that permit online marking of student assignments. Views can be extremely polarised and highly personal. For example:
- Those resisting the change may cite age as a relevant factor and state that on-screen marking causes them eye strain
- Advocates, on the other hand, may state (again citing their age as relevant) that not having to carry heavy piles of essays is a significant benefit as is the ability to make use of the accessibility functions available on screen such as being able to adjust font size and colour for ease of reading
A large scale study of attitudes to e-marking was carried out by the University of Huddersfield and the material in this section is drawn from the report on the eBEAM project published in 2013. The study identified that academic staff attitudes are split into three main groups:
- Those who are innovators or early adopters and have migrated enthusiastically to e-marking
- Those who have approached it more cautiously
- Those who have done so reluctantly or have tried it and then moved back to paper marking
The university states that:
"Our experience has proven that a particularly effective way of managing the transition to e-marking is to allow each of these groups to continue working (ie to continue to undertake their marking) is the way that they feel most comfortable and the consequence is that the movement from paper to e-marking happens organically. This is a time-consuming strategy (in that it will probably take several academic years to achieve) but it is a process that will generate the least disgruntlement and hostility."
The aim is to achieve ‘critical mass’ whereby e-marking becomes established as the ‘norm’ and those who are reluctant to mark electronically become the exceptions rather than the rule. To achieve this critical mass, the bulk of academic staff (ie those who are neither early adopters or especially resistant or reluctant) need to find it easier and more rewarding to move onto electronic marking than to stay in a paper-based system. This middle group is, therefore, the most strategically important although it is important to build a strategy and a system which provides each group with the support they need.
They note however that such an organic strategy requires concomitant pressure provided by strategic policy decisions. This pressure comes in the form of change agency from early adopters, from systems that are designed to reward academic staff who adopt e-marking (eg by lightening their administration load) and from student demand. By offering rewards and applying pressure in a consistent way, moving away from paper-based marking and into e-marking makes the most sense to as many academics as possible.
Because the attitudes of these three groups to e-marking are so different, implementation strategies need to be sensitive to all of them and it is worth looking at the experiences of those in each group in more detail.
The early adopters tend to have chosen to use e-marking themselves or have been relieved when it has been required of them. This group of staff wanted to like e-marking and expected to do so when they adopted it. This group has remained happy with e-marking and reports a wide range of benefits, some of which were unanticipated.
For the most part they report needing little if any training or support, having found the technology and interface to be both intuitive and pleasant to use. This group tends to prefer working with electronic rather than with paper-based systems. They identify as ‘tech-savvy’ and are happy (even proud) to admit that they are not good with paper. They also tend to be very resilient, particularly to outages and to absorbing aspects of the new system that they find less than ideal. They tend to seek or readily accept ‘work-arounds’ to solve the problems or limitations they encounter.
These colleagues are the ones leading the way with e-marking and are already using electronic marking systems (very often of their own devising) in institutions around the world often despite the institutional policies and strategies that are in place. From an institutional and operational point of view, while this group are going to be the least ‘difficult’ in terms of convincing them into e-marking, it is vital that any institutional policy does not neglect them or their needs.
They should experience rewards in the form of lightening of administrative workload associated with assessment, the benefits of economy of scale that comes with automation and batch handling (eg for marks entry) and opportunities to experience their work being praised and appreciated by both the institution and its students. The message here is clear: for e-marking to work effectively and for its adoption to be smooth the administrative conditions must be designed to accommodate and reward it prior to its adoption.
The second group of academic staff have been more reluctant and less enthusiastic than the early adopters. They have approached e-marking with a healthy dose of scepticism in that they had no pre-established expectations of liking it or disliking it. The University of Huddersfield evaluation found that this group were the most objective of the three and evaluated their experiences without any bias in favour of or against electronic marking systems per se.
This is probably best exemplified by the fact that even if they had anticipated problems with e-marking and these had not been realised, they were happy to say so. This group are characterised by not being prepared to tolerate interfaces which felt unnecessarily difficult or cumbersome to use. They have been persuaded to convert to e-marking either because of the benefits experiences by their colleagues, or because of other demonstrable benefits, such as the promise of a lightening of their assessment administration burden, or by student demand.
From an institutional and operational point of view, it is especially important that the move onto e-marking is comfortable and happy for this group of staff; their doing so offers the all-important critical mass that allows it to become normative. For this group to make the move, there are three important factors that need to be in place:
- It is important that they receive reassurance from colleagues who have already adopted the technology. For this, clear lines of communication need to be established between the early adopters and this group such that the early adopters can function as ‘change agents’. Having the early adopters support and train this group (rather than technology support staff) so that they can communicate the benefits directly and first hand is an ideal way of achieving this.
- The system must be set up in such a way that there are demonstrable and tangible benefits to staff when they move onto it.
- It is important that they clearly hear the student perceptions of electronic marking so that they can get a clear message that moving on to e-marking will improve their students’ learning experiences.
The simple act of forcing this group of staff to mark their work electronically can be an effective strategy but only if they are junior to, or less powerful than, those requiring them to make the move. This strategy is less likely to be effective for staff who have autonomy over their own work and marking practices.
Those staff who were reluctant users of the technology or who had abandoned the use of it report that the medium of online marking fundamentally alters the marking experience, compelling them to relinquish their own hard-won strategies for dealing with this often challenging and burdensome aspect of their role. This was described by them as a frustrating and even painful experience.
There is, however, evidence that at least part of their reluctance stems from a resistance to change in general and to giving up the paper-based systems with which they are familiar and comfortable in particular. Their reluctance tends to be articulated in discourses that are suspicious of new technologies (such as screen-reading, typed feedback and audio recorded comments) while valorising older technologies (such as paper, handwriting and face to face communication). It is likely that the self-identification of these staff members is, at least in part, wrapped up in ‘old school’ and traditional values. For them, a move to something as radical as online marking can even feel like a betrayal of these values.
It is fair to say that these staff do not want to like online marking. They tend to seek out and emphasise those aspects they did not like or those which did not fit with their established workflow and/or their pedagogical approach to marking. These staff tend to make assumptions about the older technologies feeling more personal, more authentic and therefore more engaging than the new technologies even though evidence shows that only a small minority of students share this opinion.
For successful adoption by this group of staff, patience is required. A policy of simply forcing all academics to mark electronically is going to be least popular and therefore least successful with this group. From a change management perspective, it is important to allow this group to retain a sense of agency and autonomy over their work and their decisions while at the same time challenging their assumptions (where there is little or no actual evidence to support them) and making it clear that their current way of working will mean that they will be required to continue undertaking administrative tasks that their colleagues who do adopt e-marking will not. It will also need to be made clear to them that their way of working will eventually not be considered normative or even acceptable.
Sensitive and more extensive, in-depth support and training is needed to smooth the transition for these colleagues. It is particularly important to help them perceive the attendant benefits that their colleagues have been able to independently identify. It is also likely that self-paced, on-demand support and training, particularly that which is designed to ameliorate the negative effects of simply not knowing where to click, is going to be vital to their movement to e-marking. It is also important to allow them to justify their decision to move to e-marking in ways that make sense to them and help them maintain their sense of identity and agency.
A good example is the sense of embarrassment that many of these colleagues articulated because they had printed student work to read it rather than reading it on screen. This was often described as an ‘admission’ and the causes for it were explained as being a result of their age or previous experience. This may indeed be a way of displacing the true cause of their reluctance given that so many colleagues who are the same age and have the same previous experience did not report sharing that preference. However, allowing these staff the licence to continue to articulate, and therefore displace, the real causes for their reluctance in this way is probably strategically useful.