University College Dublin
The other essays in this dossier have examined the pedagogical rationales, goals and effects of using social media in classrooms; the theoretical underpinnings that allow students to make sense of or think critically about their use of social media in and out of class; and issues of collaboration, learning, and privacy. Whatever the platform, context, or structure of the social media assignment, however, the same question inevitably arises: How can a teacher assess work that is creative, multi-modal, collaborative, and often linked to students’ own learning goals rather than to pre-determined content elements?
This essay, an expansion of a blog entry first posted on the Antenna: Responses to Media and Culture blog, will use one specific assignment I created as a case study for investigating the challenges of assessing social media assignments. I’ll offer the solutions I found and consider the questions and problems raised by giving grades for this kind of work.
The assignment: The class was a small seminar (17 students) called Contemporary TV Genres. Each student selected a genre for which they would create a Google+ profile. I chose Google+ because it seemed easier to protect students’ privacy and to create profiles with names of genres or characters rather than students’ real names. If I did it again, I would use Facebook pages and groups for ease of use and make sure students understood how to manipulate settings to achieve a level of privacy for their work that they were comfortable with. During the semester, students wrote an “About” page describing their chosen genre and its history. Each student posted a certain number of items including pictures and links illustrating past and present iterations of the genre, complete with comments and captions analyzing their significance to the genre’s evolution over time. Each student also shot or edited at least one video, and students interacted with the other students via wall posts, relationship statuses, +1s (“Likes” in Facebook parlance), sub-circles (Google+’s organizing principle is the Circle, rather than Facebook’s lists or groups), and comments on classmates’ posts. These required tasks were intended to cover all levels of thinking from recall to evaluation and application, and to demand that students practice more traditional writing, research, and analysis skills alongside collaboration and creative expression. In short, it encompassed all the course’s learning goals. When it was successful, the class created a vibrant, interactive, and analytical community of characters/genres.
The successes were the engaged, excited students who quickly demonstrated that they were capable of applying and synthesizing research into cogent, creative output. For the majority of students, the interaction among their profiles was best when I planted questions or suggested areas of overlap they might discuss with their fellow genres. But because the assignment was cumulative for the semester, with four scheduled checkpoints and feedback sessions built in, it was also easy for less motivated students to check out when there was no threat of imminent grading.
Nonetheless, the assignment worked overall much as I hoped. It demonstrated mastery of class content, and in addition to research and analysis, it allowed for and even encouraged vital academic and social skills like creativity, humor, collaboration, and peer feedback that are often extremely difficult to incorporate in content-driven courses. Students returned to their Google+ profiles throughout the semester, building, editing, and interacting with peers based on new information from class materials, discussions, screenings, and independent consumption. The social media assignment did not sacrifice the all-important practice of writing, but allowed students to practice writing in more common, less formal modes, encouraging them to distinguish between platforms and audiences, a vital skill with which many so-called “digital natives” struggle.
But how do you assign a grade when a student asked to impersonate a television procedural changes his or her relationship status to “Married to Melodrama?” Unfortunately, I don’t have a magic answer, but I will offer you the strategies I used in this instance and evaluate how well I think they worked. First, each checkpoint was assigned a specific point value and students were provided with a list of how activity on their profiles would be weighted. For example, the fairly extensive About page might be worth 15 points, while a 2 sentence post or comment would be worth 1 point. Photos with no caption or explanation for their presence would receive no points. Additionally, very specific requirements for the amount, content, and frequency of posts with certain deadlines, was posted on the course website. I created a very basic sample profile, and monitored, participated in, and provided feedback on the class’s interactions, without assigning grades or values, for the first several weeks. At each of 4 checkpoints throughout the semester, I emailed each student with detailed feedback, and a point-by-point breakdown of their grade for the Google+ assignment so far. Despite all these best attempts to create transparency and rubrics, in the end, grading creative output is inevitably at least somewhat subjective. Indeed, the content students produced was so varied, it often fell outside the rubric’s structure altogether. Also, and not insignificantly, this assignment was enormously time consuming to read, participate in, and grade, even in a very small class. Despite these problems, grading Google+ was fun, and students were almost universally enthusiastic; if they felt concerns or reservations about being graded on creative and collaborative content, they didn’t express them in class or in evaluation questions that specifically addressed the assignment. As this was the first time I worked with this assignment, future iterations of it will likely become more streamlined, for example by giving students the opportunity to help create the rubrics on which they will be graded and by shifting at least one of the mid-semester check points from instructor feedback to peer review and assessment.
Finally, I’d like to consider the effectiveness of this kind of social media assignment at reaching students who react negatively to, or are less likely to engage with or succeed via more traditional modes of assessment. In my experiment, the students’ willingness to participate might be due, at least in part, to the fact that they were highly motivated seniors in a relatively small major who were therefore already comfortable working with each other. Additionally, they had already applied to jobs and graduate schools and therefore weren’t quite as concerned with their grades. And because I was teaching primarily motivated, ambitious, and gifted students, the community that developed was overall a smashing success. Unfortunately, it did almost nothing to encourage the few students who, for whatever reasons, felt marginalized or disengaged from their peers, the class material, and the instructor.
As a set of concluding thoughts, I’d like to briefly mention my experience with assignments like this one in a different academic context—one with much more diverse populations in terms of economics, family experience with higher education, and engagement with learning as an active process than the group that participated in the Google+ assignment. In this context, results are often much more varied, with much more class time spent demonstrating the technologies, touring campus facilities to familiarize students with the available resources, and convincing students to participate in what is, in the end, still “work.” This raises important questions perhaps sometimes lost in the excitement of experimenting with evolving methods of pedagogy and scholarship: does bringing social media into the classroom expand the reach or effectiveness of the content of our classes? Can social media assignments convince less motivated students of the importance of critical media consumption and production, and teach them skills of analysis, creativity, and collaboration? By turning to social media based on the assumption that students are already engaged with those platforms, are we extending the so-called digital divide into the very structure of our classes? These are complex questions that can’t be answered in a single short anecdotal essay. Hopefully, as educators, we can continue to share experiences as we explore the possibilities as well as the pitfalls of social media projects like The Google+ Assignment.