‘Doing what we do already? Is that what it’s all about?’ – Gerald Haigh explores marking in the digital age

The following is a guest post from Gerald Haigh, that looks at the way in which teachers can use technology to transform one of the traditionally more time-consuming tasks – marking work and giving feedback to individual students.


Blog posts by David Didau (@learningspy) are always worth reading, not least because their thoughtful, questioning style invites equally constructive under-the-line comments. So when I read, earlier this year, his post ‘The Fetish of Marking’, which is, unsurprisingly, about teachers’ ever-increasing marking load, I was struck by how little mention there was of technology, either in David’s post or the many follow-up comments. So I added my own contribution, which included this,

‘The many teachers I’ve talked to about this all emphasise that it’s the feedback that matters, not so much the mark and comment in the book, and it’s here where technology can help.’

David replied briefly,

‘I’m sure technology can help, but it’s never quite as helpful as teachers might like. Sometimes it’s just quicker and easier to get a pen out.’

I’ve worried about David’s response ever since I read it. I’m not sure exactly what David had in mind, but for me he seemed to speak of an attitude to technology that’s described by Microsoft VP Anthony Salcito when he talks about school leaders who say‘Let’s get the stuff and then use it to help us do what we do already.’

Frankly, to see technology in that way– as a sort of lubricant poured into a rattly steam engine in the hope of making it run more smoothly – is a recipe for frustration and budgetary disaster. How many of the early top-down mass iPad purchases led to teachers muttering (or shouting in their sleep) David’s own words, ‘It’s just quicker and easier to get a pen out.’

You’d hope we were beyond that now, with hard lessons taken to heart. Certainly I visit schools, and meet teachers and leaders who realise that although technology can be a valuable tool for today’s tasks, it really comes into its own when it enables teachers to do things that would otherwise be out of reach. ‘Flipped learning’, for example, may not be new, in the sense that teachers have always given ‘prep’ tasks, not to be collected and marked, but followed up in class, but it takes technology to bring the concept properly to life. Technology ensures that rich resources are available to the student, anywhere, anytime, together with the potential for dialogue student to student and student to teacher. (We wrote here two years ago about Flipped Learning with Office 365 at Shireland Collegiate Academy).

More recently, I was privileged recently to see technology supporting a teacher in achieving something else I thought quite special. And, interestingly, a pen was involved.

OneNote marking

On a day earlier this term I watched Steve Gillott, Assistant Head at Royal Wootton Bassett Academy, teaching a Computing class. Each student had a desktop computer, Steve had a Windows tablet enabled for pen input. Working in Office 365, Steve was able to visit each student’s work on his own device and make quick inked annotations and suggestions – freehand diagrams, tables, the occasional word -- that appeared on their screens in real time. Inking was really the only efficient way this could be done – the grids and formulae involved would have been too laborious for keyboard input. As a bonus, when an issue was relevant to the whole class, the student’s work, and the annotations, could immediately be thrown up on the big screen for discussion.

The lesson was a striking example of how inking adds a whole dimension to the collaborative power of Office 365. In a more traditional lesson, work might be marked and comments added after the lesson, and errors dealt with in the next session, a day or even a week later. Steve, with colleagues in other subjects at RWBA, is demonstrating that live, instant feedback nips misunderstandings in the bud and keeps students on track, while at the same time dramatically reducing the teacher’s ‘take-home’ marking load. The response of the students, seen in their level of engagement is remarkable, and in the lesson I saw provoked lively student/teacher dialogue leading to a student coming back with an idea that Steve had not considered.

What’s important here is that the starting point is not the technology but the desire of a teacher to be able to give personal feedback to students in real time, as they work, and also judge when to open up each student’s difficulties or successes to the whole class for discussion.

Could you do this with paper exercise books? I’d say the sheer logistics of visiting each student in a busy classroom, and annotating their work, would put off most teachers. The task would certainly not be ‘quicker and easier’ than using the technology, nor would the aim be anywhere near as comprehensively realised. And as for ‘getting the pen out’ – well, Steve Gillott has that one covered too.


Royal Wootton Bassett Academy’s Office 365 installation is by Microsoft Partner SalamanderSoft

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