Report from the Grading Trenches, Dispatch Two

"Grading," ninniane. Flickr Commons.

As you'll know if you've read the last few posts that my ambitious course plans for the semester have prompted me to think more carefully not only about the feedback I give, but how I give that feedback and how fine-grained I can make that feedback without driving myself to distraction. Here at the Writing & Communication program we've been talking a lot about better approaches to assessing multimodal assignments, since composition here is defined as encompassing more digital forms than traditional essays.
Thanks to our LMC/IAC/OIT department I've been offered a number of tools and platforms with which to begin. Not only have these supportive colleagues started partnering with us to streamline our digital platform installs (Installatron-connected and networked WordPress, mediawiki, and Omeka anyone?) But they've actively sought us out to collaborate on best-practice approaches to do what we do better.
Last week I began experimenting with A.nnotate. I wasn't convinced at first that this would be the system for me - it felt kind of clunky when I first started working with it. But I quickly discovered that it helped on three fronts:

  • It auto-sucked blog posts into the system as PDF's, allowing me to view and review collaborative student writing in a format that approximates the blog environment much better than traditional, ancillary assessment of blog-type assignments. It's also a lot less cumbersome than manually taking screen grabs of 75 student essays, annotating in Preview or Reader, and then manually uploading them to the LMS for students to review their work.
  • Once we figured out how to permit uploaded word-processed documents, it gave me much better tools with which to mark up essay drafts. Those who know me will appreciate my track-change phobia, and I was relieved to be able to provide specific commentary at key points of a text in highlight, insert, and strike through modes. It also spread up the review process for me to turn around 75 essays in five days.
  • It provided a simple-to-navigate forum for students to engage in substantial work shopping of those drafts. It seems (why am I surprised by this?) that they figured out the interface faster than I could. I split them into teams of two and they went to town prior to class, marking up one another's essays in preparation for the in class workshop. When I've incorporated work shopping in the past I've had to resort to elaborate email and/or print dissemination of essays; this always led to heartache for the students whose partners forgot, or skipped class, or weren't concerned with process. This time the peer groups readily engaged with one another and continued to add and reply to feedback as the workshop unfolded. When I asked them yesterday how they felt about getting and giving feedback in this new format, most seemed genuinely pleased with the clarity and simplicity that A.nnotate afforded them. I could be wrong, but I also think they found it kind of fun.
Demo annotated page from A.nnotate website

I was initially concerned that the possibilities inherent in giving feedback like this would suck me down into a deep, dark pit of good intentions. Since my TA days I've struggled with the need to provide too much information- at least more than I could manage in the allotted turnaround time. In truth, with my initial A.nnotate experiments I did have to watch my time investment, and learned over the last week how to automate some tasks, like pre-loading "shared" tags that help with default comments like "word choice" and "comma splice". Good old comma splice. It did take me a day longer to turn around feedback than I'd budgeted for, but that was a result of personal and departmental obligations, and I was able to pick back up the pace pretty easily.
There are still some things I would like to configure, like incorporating a rubric box at the head of the document rather than typing that in manually with every document. I'd also like to make the feedback process work better between me and individual students. Today I discovered the Reply function, which allows for inline dialogue between two or more respondents. So that will be a good thing.
I'd also like to experiment with how to effectively mark blog comments. This term I'm using a two-week posting cycle: in the first week students write a post, and in the second week they respond at length to a classmate's post. Even if it means uploading a second web shot of each post specifically to provide feedback on the comments rather than the posts, it will still be better than my previous system, which basically provided a completion mark for comments.
What next? They submit their revised essays (directly to A.nnotate) tonight. I've given myself a somewhat healthier two-week turnaround on this set, which will give me a better opportunity to experiment with more sophisticated approaches. There's one more essay cycle (draft/workshop/revision) and four more blog posts and comments. Students have to write reflection essays about each modal assignment (written, oral/nonverbal, electronic, and visual) so I'll do the same with those - which will help as they compile their final portfolio documents. I haven't yet figured this part out, but it may help me respond to the written portion of their short research projects: an abstract about their topic on the course blog before they make their in-class presentations. That abstract will also include a Works Cited list; I may use the web-suck feature to help me give proper feedback on their citation format. The final digital edition project also involves a personal reflection that can be handled through A.nnotate as well.
So this goes a long way toward supporting the composition components for the course. There are two things A.nnotate doesn't do - or at least I have yet to figure out how to access them. I haven't discovered a "work offline" mode, so I'm bound to grading in wifi enabled spaces (eg, no grading on planes). And it doesn't answer my ultimate multimodal assessment question: how do I give inline feedback on digital assignments that are designed to be separated from more straightforward, static modes of communication? I can't use this tool to give feedback on a Google Map or Prezi or multi-slide Powerpoint or YouTube - and especially not the many faceted collaborative digital edition projects that will end the term.
But that's for another day's trench report.

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