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Understanding and Supporting Peer Feedback at Massive Learning Scale

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - WeLearnAtScale (Understanding and Supporting Peer Feedback at Massive Learning Scale)

Reporting period: 2018-09-03 to 2020-09-02

Higher education is the highest scholarly degree for professional growth and development of individuals and aims to advance knowledge, people, and society. Economic growth of countries is highly associated with the quality of the education delivered in the higher education institutions. Therefore, in today’s knowledge-driven global economy, the competitiveness of Europe can be sustained through the delivery of high-quality education in universities. In this regard, this project is centred on an essential element of student learning in higher education, which is feedback. This project will advance the feedback practices in higher education to impact students’ learning processes in a positive way and support their knowledge and skill development. This project will lead to an increased human capital in Europe in terms of knowledge, skills, and creative abilities, resulting in a significant contribution to society and economy.

Timely, constructive feedback is essential to student learning and achievement in higher education. However, university students’ experiences with feedback are often negative for several reasons. First, feedback arrives quite late in the learning process, leaving almost no time for students to reflect on their work and improve it. Second, feedback practices lack interactivity as students are often left alone to make sense of the feedback by themselves with no opportunities to interact with the feedback provider (e.g. instructors or peers). These problems are barriers for students to move the feedback forward and inform their future actions so that they can learn and perform better.

The WeLearn@Scale project was prompted by this critical need for enhancing the current feedback practices in higher education, with a particular focus on large online/blended courses, including massive open online courses (MOOCs). This project investigates peer feedback as a scalable solution to creating effective feedback practices and aims to innovate the higher education with a dialogue-oriented collaborative approach to peer feedback.
One of the main activities that the WeLearn@Scale team has engaged in this project was to critically examine the feedback literature. The findings of this examination were critical in determining through which theoretical lenses the feedback should be framed within this project. In particular, peer feedback was conceptualized as a dialogic learning process that involves rich social interactions among students. Accordingly, we developed a novel theoretical framework that conceptualizes peer feedback as a collaborative learning activity centred around continuous dialogue. We also proposed seven design principles to guide practitioners and researchers’ use of this theoretical framework in designing powerful feedback practices in higher education.

Another major work performed was the design and development of the online learning platform, called Synergy, to support collaborative peer feedback. The design of Synergy was grounded in the theoretical framework. Therefore, the affordances of Synergy to facilitate peer feedback are highly aligned with the design principles. Synergy also comprises a comprehensive learning analytics component. While learning analytics support targeted at students aims to facilitate self- and peer-monitoring to improve the engagement in peer feedback, learning analytics support targeted at instructors aims to allow monitoring the engagement of the whole-class during various phases and process of peer feedback activity.

Synergy has been successfully used in practice in several higher education contexts (in Spain, Greece, and Taiwan) to facilitate peer feedback. Its further use is planned to be expanded to other countries all around the world (including Turkey, Germany, and the United States). Qualitative and quantitative data were collected to examine the impact of Synergy on students’ feedback experiences and performances. Preliminary analyses suggest that students perceive Synergy as a useful tool for their learning and their performances were found to be associated with their engagement in Synergy.

The results of this project have been disseminated in several ways. The fellow published various high-impact journal articles and made several conference presentations to share the results with a broader scientific community. He also gave several invited talks about the project and the Marie Curie fellowship in Spain, Turkey, and United States, and he organized several workshops in universities and international conferences to promote the use of machine learning in educational sciences. Moreover, Synergy is freely available for practitioners’ and researchers’ use. The source code of Synergy is also made publicly available for other developers.
The outcomes of the WeLearn@Scale project can have a significant impact on European excellence and competitiveness, as they offer a novel and concrete way to design and implement feedback practices that can enhance the overall quality of learning in higher education. The Synergy platform can be used also in graduate programs to facilitate feedback interactions with peers and instructors to improve any academic work (e.g. reports, draft manuscript). That is, the applicability of the project outcomes can be easily extended beyond the undergraduate education toward graduate programs to improve Masters’ or PhD students’ learning experiences while conducting advanced studies. Thus, the proposals of this project can create a broader impact on the quality of higher education programs, which can help increase the workforce readiness of the graduates, creating a bigger value for the economy and society in Europe.

The WeLearn@Scale project also has opened a number of new avenues of research, which are already being explored in follow-up projects and proposals (e.g. ERC Starting Grant), including: a) the application of gamification in the design of Synergy to promote student engagement in peer feedback; b) integration of AI technologies into Synergy to augment students’ capacities in transitioning from feedback to action; c) the use of more advanced learning analytics technologies to assist instructors in intervening the feedback activity; and d) the use of more advance techniques (e.g. eye-tracking) to build optimal interfaces for facilitating feedback processes in Synergy and for designing learning analytics support. These research ideas can innovate the higher education in Europe and create the impact of universities in the society and economy. In a collaboration with a Taiwanese researcher, a research grant was already achieved from the Taiwanese Ministry of Education to gamify the Synergy platform and measure the impact of the gamification.

Finally, the WeLearn@Scale project has significantly contributed to the career of the fellow towards being an independent academic. During the project, the fellow had numerous opportunities to gain and practice technical skills (web programming, machine learning), research skills (academic writing), management skills, transversal skills such as writing and oral communication, as well as proposal writing, student advising, and teaching. The experience and the knowledge gained by the fellow has boosted the résumé of the fellow not only in terms of the scientific productivity but also by the prestige that Marie Curie Actions have in the international research scene.