Friday, July 17, 2020

Feedback is the lubricating oil of teaching and learning. Yet feedback in online learning – its mostly absent...

In this age of Covid-induced, online learning, people have rushed to Zoom, recorded videos and content that, far from being Blended Learning, is Blended Teaching. To be fair, some effort is made to get learners to do effortful learning, usually multiple choice questions or tasks which are returned to the teacher or lecturer. Unless you already have a good platform and have been doing this for some time in something like Teams or Google Education, what is so often missing is good FEEDBACK.

Locomotive power of feedback 
Feedback is the lubricating oil of teaching and learning. Feedback is, to be precise, an accelerator. It speeds up learning and reduces the amount of time spent teaching. It motivates and propels learners forward. 

Most of the frustration experienced by learners is poor, slow or inadequate feedback; the embarrassment of being asked questions in a classroom in front of others, even one-to-one by a human tutor, the fear of asking questions in a classroom or in a Zoom session, as you’d feel stupid, the lack of opportunity to ask for clarification or ask questions in a Zoom lesson, classroom or lecture, the email reply that takes days to come back, that solitary mark A-D and brief comment on a piece of work or general and non-specific comments like ‘needs more clarification’.

Good feedback

Ideally, feedback should be:

These are all problems that technology can solve, yet we spend so much of our technology time to present media ‘experiences’ that we forget about the locomotive power of feedback. Creating videos, graphics and screeds of text is easy, feedback is personal and hard. Yet there are methods that have emerged from recent technology that make it much easier. We need more focus on technology to deliver feedback and less on technology to deliver media.


It is difficult in a classroom or lecture hall to provide personalised feedback. At best you provide feedback for the few not the many, the extroverts not the introverts, the knowledgeable not the confused. The typical ‘hands up anyone’, still common in classrooms, encourages exactly the wrong type of feedback from the wrong learners. Eliciting whole class responses is difficult and providing generalised feedback often misses the very learners that need it most. It’s the people that don’t have their hands up that matter. Mazur has tried group questions and peer learning and feedback in lectures. The research suggests it works but few have implemented it, as it’s clumsy and takes a lot of preparation. Lecturing is easy, actual teaching is hard.

Technology allows you to target specific feedback to specific learners at the time of need. This can be within an online session, where the problem or misconception is diagnosed and feedback quick, precise and useful. It can also spark off other learning activities and motivate the learner on to the next task or level. In some systems feedback nudges and alerts are delivered to do precisely this, within the learning journey. At a higher level, adaptive learning provides realtime adjustments in the learning for every individual, as they go through their own learning journey. Its feedback mechanism is to remediate, represent and resequence to make sure that no one goes off-course, like your GPS or SatNav in your car. You take a wrong turn and go off course, it gets you back on course. If you believe in feedback, you should believe in personalised learning, as feedback needs to be targeted at that learner. Its granularity should not be at group level, it needs to be particular to the individual.


Learners need feedback at their point of need. That can be a need for specific clarification during a teaching event, it can be about where to look next, it can be feedback about an assignment, feedback on work submitted, clarification on progress, clarification during revision for an exam. Whatever the context, it needs to be immediate and quick. If it is not, the moment has passed and the opportunity has been lost.

Technology can deliver fast. At Georgia tech, the teaching assistant chatbot delivered so fast that the students suspected it was a bot, so they slowed it down to make it look as though someone was typing. Don’t underestimate the efficacy of timely delivery. When you need help, you need help there and then, not later.


Feedback is so often generalised. Comments such as ‘needs more detail’, ‘further clarification needed’ and so on. Learners need precise feedback that solves their problem, a correction, clear clarification or suggestion on how to improve. This makes it difficult for feedback to be wholly generated by human hand. The workload would be huge. Yet we know that feedback, is, to a degree, repetitive. The same misconceptions, issues, problems and requests come up again and again.

Technology can provide degrees of automation, with consistent precision. It never gets tired, ill, grumpy or hungover. It doesn’t sleep 8 hours a day, work 8 hours a day, forget to get back to you, or have other work to do. It can deliver consistently 24/7 and is scalable to as many learners as you want.


This may seem odd but is often forgotten. The problem with verbal feedback, is that it is not recorded or visible down the line. For feedback to be truly effective it needs to be recorded, made visible and archived. Feedback needs to be made visible so that it is not forgotten and is acted upon.

I’ve been involved with students who do their entire degrees online. Year on year they outperform their campus-based colleagues. One of the reasons for this is that their work is submitted digitally and all tutor feedback is literally written on the work, everything is recorded or archived, as it is online. This means the feedback is available for students to see, reflect upon, deal with and progress. It is also available for tutors to check further down the line, in terms of being acted upon. It can be written, audio or video. It literally makes for better teaching and learning.


Feedback is not merely a corrective mechanism, like the regulator on an engine, it is the accelerator pedal. Good feedback is a call to action. It can unblock a confusion or misconception freeing the student to move forward. It can also allow them to move forward and complete that solution in maths, analysis in an English essay, coding problem in software and so on. More than this, it can propel the student forward, push them onwards doing something for themselves to solve the problem. Feedback is sometimes giving straight answers to straight questions but it is also, often in teaching, giving signposts to students in how they can find the answers out for themselves. It can also open their minds up to the possibilities of personal research. Feedback on how to use search on Google more effectively, use Google Scholar or write something more concisely... all of these things can move things on quickly.


Learners often share things. We know that they help each other and peer sharing and learning can be productive (when it’s not cheating!). Making general feedback visible to others, generally and anonymised is a good thing.

Of course, young learners share things every few minutes on social media. That is their area of expertise. We can tap into this by encouraging the sharing. Technology such as adaptive learning does this beautifully. It takes aggregated data from everyone who did a course, or even series of courses, along with personal data, and applies what it knows and learns to the task of providing help in realtime to all future students. These are systems that literally get better with use. Yet, even though a world leader in such systems is a UK company, no UK educational establishments use it for learning. All of its use is in the US and elsewhere.

Feedback is a process not an event

Learning and feedback is an essential feature of formal learning, is a process not an event. When people learn online the structure of periods, lectures, classrooms and timetables disappears. You need to work harder to keep learners on task, feedback is the spark and stimulus that gets them to the next stage. Feedback is the process that propels online learning.

Technology is a process that never sleeps

Technology can deliver teaching as well as feedback. We’ve been using AI to create  content, in minutes not months, using WildFire. It creates questions that get learners to be active and effortful in their learning with formative feedback that pushes them towards competence, not simply multiple-choice questions but open-input, where full sentences are semantically interpreted. We’re also working on AI to generate massive amounts of feedback that can be captured and used in online learning. Natural Language Processing is opening up all sorts of fascinating possibilities for feedback. It’s a shame we’re still stuck largely with Zoom, Oak Academy and multiple choice as our default.


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