Carol Cooper & Lyn Boddington: Assessment by blog: Ethical case studies assessment for an undergraduate business management class
Carol Cooper is Manager of Teaching & Learning Services. She has been involved in using technologies in learning & teaching for two decades, as student, teacher and academic support.
Lyn Boddington is a lecturer in business management within the Commerce Division. She specialises in the areas of human resource management and organisational behaviour. Lyn is also interested in improving teaching and learning in large class settings, especially those which have students from diverse backgrounds.
Assessment by blog: Ethical case studies assessment for an undergraduate business management class
Carol D Cooper, Manager, Teaching & Learning Services (carol.cooper[at]lincoln.ac.nz)
Lyn Boddington, Lecturer, Commerce Division (boddinl[at]lincoln.ac.nz)
Lincoln University, Canterbury, New Zealand.
Early in 2004 we were inspired by a presentation by Tom Smith (http://dev11.otherworks.com/theotherblog/) on the educational uses of blogs. We decided to research the use of blogs with a 200-level undergraduate business management class in semester two 2004.
The assignment “Ethical case studies using blog websites” was one of five internal assignment choices, of which students chose three. Students who opted to this assignment (n=82) could volunteer to also be involved in this research, which meant that as well as doing the assignment they would fill in a questionnaire about their experiences of the assignment (n=79).
No students in the class had used blogs before and they were prepared for the assignment by means of video, class demonstration and practical labs. A class blog was set up so students could practice blogging, and backup support from the teaching team was made available.
For the assignment students were allocated to a blog group (n = 7 to 10 for each group). Each of the six research blog sites contained links to the same 23 business ethical case studies. Lecture material and a reading list provided content support for the assignment. Students were expected to choose one of the case studies provided and post a critique of it onto the group blog (worth 60% of their mark). They then had to post comments on the critique of two peers (worth 20% of their mark for each comment). A marking guide was provided in advance so students could see how the assignment was going to be evaluated.
The mean grade for the assignment was the lowest of the five assignment options (53.83%, compared to the next lowest of 55.1%). This appeared to be a result of students not making full use of the supporting material (i.e., assignment instructions, lecture material and readings).
Analysis of the feedback questionnaire after the assignment had been completed showed that the majority of the students were positive about the assignment (mean for the nine questions was 4.53 on a seven-point Likert type scale). Positive comments by the students referred to enjoyment, communication, and gaining knowledge. In contrast negative comments made reference to the difficulties they found in using blogs, that the assignment was challenging, and that they were unclear about what was required. The majority however (89%), felt that the blog assignment should be repeated for next year’s students.
Over all we regard this research as successful. The majority of students did feel the assignment should be offered next year. However it has highlighted the need to ensure students have clearer instructions and that they are fully aware that their postings need to be more formal than is usually the case in this medium.
2 Background of blogs
The term weblog is widely acknowledged to have been conceived by Jorn Barger in 1997. By the beginning of 1999 Jesse James Garrett’s “The page of only weblogs” (http://www.jjg.net/retired/portal/tpoowl.html) had collated a list of the only 23 blogs known to exist (Blood). This was to be a good year, for blogs, however with the emergence of a number of free blogging applications including Groksoup, on which Cooper had her first blogging experience and Blogger which many readers will know today. From 2000 blogs blossomed at an almost exponential rate. The proliferation of blogs gave way to early lists of blogs which in turn gave way to lists of blog search engines.
The current size of the blogosphere is the topic of a blog called BlogCount.com (http://dijest.com/bc/). An entry for 14 March 2005 in this blog stated that the number of blogs tracked by Technorati (http://www.technorati.com/), a blog search engine, has doubled every 5 months for the last 20 months. This means that Technorati will be tracking 30 million blogs by the beginning of 2006.
The number of blogs may be exploding but a poll by CNN/USA Today and Gallop has found that only 7% of US adults are “very familiar” with blogs compared to 56% who are “not at all familiar”. Most people in the poll never read blogs, with readership being highest in the 18-29 age group (eMarketer). Thus the number of blogs may be increasing but blog readership has not yet reached the mainstream in the way that use of the Internet and email have.
During 2004 both of the researchers were part of the “Teachers for Teachers for Tertiary” project (T4T4T) (http://t4t4t.interact.ac.nz) an online professional development programme for tertiary teachers, funded by the New Zealand Ministry of Education. Boddington was a participant in the pilot and Cooper was a mentor-researcher. The pilot ran through 2004, and was a collaborative venture between Ultralab South and the Canterbury Tertiary Alliance (CTA), involving Canterbury University, Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology, Lincoln University and Christchurch College of Education.
The aims of the pilot were:
“to establish in the tertiary institutions a professional learning community of tertiary teachers with a common purpose of improving teaching and learning in tertiary contexts, and
to contribute to our knowledge of what makes for effective eLearning in tertiary education.” (T4T4T)
Early in 2004 the authors were inspired by a presentation at Ultralab South by Tom Smith (http://dev11.otherworks.com/theotherblog/) on the educational uses of blogs. Those who have seen Tom Smith in action will know him to be a lively enthusiastic speaker. Cooper had looked at blogs about four years previously, but at the time found them to be uninspiring. After Smith’s presentation, which illustrated the interactivity that was now possible she decided they were worth another look. For Boddington blogs were new but she was immediately struck by their possibilities as a learning tool. We decided to research the use of blogs with one of Boddington’s 200-level undergraduate business management classes in semester two 2004. As the CNN/USA Today and Gallop poll (eMarketer) reported that 91% of 18-29 year old used the Internet, it was hoped that using a web application would be attractive to the students, the majority of whom were in this age group.
The aims of using a blog as a vehicle for internal assessment with the class were
-to provide a useful tool to enable learning about business ethics, and
-to provide a way of promoting interaction between students in a relatively large undergraduate class (160 students); in particular to enable students to learn from each other.
This class traditionally attracts a high number of international students (approximately 50%) for whom, it was hoped, the ability to read, reflect and compose asynchronously would be appealing. This was hoped that using blogs would improve interaction between those for whom English was not their first language and other class members.
Following approval from the Lincoln University Human Ethics Committee, students of the class were told about the research in a class lecture. For the internal assessment in this course students have to choose to do three out of five pieces of assessment. The ethical case studies using a blog website was one of these five pieces of assessment (the others being writing a business report, presenting a seminar, a selection assignment, and designing part of a training programme). Those who opted to do this assessment were given the chance to be part of this research, which as well as completing the assignment involved filling out a short questionnaire at the completion of the assignment. Students did not have to be part of the research to do this piece of assessment.
Sixty-one students (74%) of the 82 who did this assignment consented to be part of the research and hence be willing to later fill out a questionnaire on the assignment. These students were grouped together into “research blogs”, where their postings and comments could be anonymously reported in this research. Those who did not consent to be part of the research were grouped into identical “non-research blogs”, where their fellow bloggers were all non-research students and therefore their posting and comments are not reported. When it came time to fill out the research questionnaire however, more than the 61 students in the original research group decided to fill out the questionnaire and we ended up with a total of 79 completed questionnaires.
4.2 Blogging and the Blog sites
At the time of the research Lincoln University did not have a blog application as part of its virtual learning environment. Blogger.com was chosen to host the blogs. As a free blogging tool it was well established and had recently been bought by Google so it was felt unlikely to disappear overnight; it also appeared to be fairly easy to set up blogs and assign students to blogs in groups.
Students were asked in class whether they had used blogs before. Unlike the findings of the CNN/USA Today/Gallop poll (eMarketer), none of the class had read or written a blog before. Therefore as a class we looked at several blog sites. To prepare the students they were shown Will Richardson’s video (http://www.weblogg-ed.com/weblogs_in_ed_video) and the skills needed to read and write on Blogger.com were demonstrated. A general class blog site was set up and students were able to practice blogging on this. Workshops were also held in a computer lab, which provided the opportunity for students to have a go at blogging with the support of the teaching team, and their fellow students.
Setting up the blogs on Blogger.com was relatively easy though somewhat laborious. The blog was created and links made to the case studies and other assignment information which were located on our university Virtual Learning Environment. A welcome message and instructions on how to proceed were posted. This process was repeated for each blog. To allocated students to one of the groups the blog administrator (one of the teaching team) sent an email invitation to the student from the blog. The email contained a link which the student needed to click on and then follow the instructions on Blogger.com to create an account and login to the blog. Unfortunately this process is easier to describe than do and numerous students were initially unable to login to their group’s blog. Unfortunately when a student fails to login Blogger.com “loses” the invitation and the only way for the teaching team to identify students with problems was to manually go through each blog and cross-reference with a student list or rely on the student to identify themselves. By the end of the process we had six research-group blogs and two non-research group blogs, with 7-11 students in each group.
As the use of the blog was going to be a piece of assessed work it was important that we were able to identify the individual students when it came to marking the assessment. Blogs tend to be informal, and people do not need to use their real name. It was suggested to students that they use the name that other students knew them by, but the choice was theirs. In the vast majority of cases the students chose names that other students could identify them by. Part of the individual’s data held by Blogger.com is their email address. The blog administrator can see the email address of all the individuals in each group and we were thus able to identify individual students. This was however another manual task which needed to be carried out by the teaching team.
4.3 The blog assignment task for the students
Students were provided with 23 ethical case studies. (The same 23 case studies were provided for each blog group.) Students had to choose one ethical case study and make a critical posting about it on their blog site. In this posting they had to unpack the ethical issues involved in the case. This included such things as:
-what was the ethical dilemma,
-what ethical theories might be relevant,
-what were the possible solutions,
-was more information needed before those in the case could make an ethical decision?
The assignment was supported by lecture material on business ethics, and a short reading list, some of which was provided as a handout. A marking guide was also provided before the students started the assignment so that they knew in advance how the marks for the assignment were being allocated and it also provided information about what needed to obtain a good mark.
There was a cut-off date when all initial postings of critiques had to be made to the blog websites. This critique counted for 60% of the grade for this assignment. Students then had another week to read the critiques of other students in their group, choose two postings, read the case study appropriate for the postings and then make comments on the other student’s critique. This might have included congratulating the student who made the post on an aspect of their posting, pointing out areas that they may not have considered, drawing attention to parts of the case that might be different in another culture – in short to give a considered feedback on the original posting. This section of the assignment was worth 40% of the grade (20% for each comment).
4.4 Checking posts and comments
The blogs were checked on a daily basis for inappropriate comments, though we need not have worried as no inappropriate comments were made in any of the blogs. In fact the opposite occurred and there were a number of very supportive comments made to fellow students, for example:
“First of all, I would like to say C you doing very well on your essay”,
“Firstly, I think you did very well job in the case study”,
“I would like to say is that you wrote very well”,
“This is V here, we are doing the same topic…haha…Well done, I found your one is much better than my one.”
Blogger.com comes with a feature to have any posting and/or comments emailed to any email address. Once this feature was discovered it was an easy matter to monitor the blogs via email rather than having to browse each blog via the web. A blog aggregator, Bloglines.com, was also used to facilitate easier reading as students posted over the period of time allowed for the assessment. Initially we were daily checking the blog sites themselves, but ultimately it was easier, with so many sites, to check the emails of the postings made that day. Unfortunately we did not discover the ability to email comments until later in the research. Had all the students postings and comments come in by email it would have been an easier task to bulk print everything from email for marking rather than having to print out from the blog.
4.5 Allocation of grades
The existence of the blogs was not made public (i.e. not added to Blogger.com’s index) but anyone with the URL (perhaps given to them by one of the students or found by accident) would be able to access the blogs. For this reason the assessment was marked from hard copy. In this way the three sections of the assignment (the initial posting and the two comments) could be combined together, and comments could also be made on the hardcopies of the assignments. This also protected the confidentiality of the students, as there was no mechanism on Blogger.com to provide feedback only accessible to the individual student. To provide consistently across the grades a marking guide was used and a single person (Boddington) did all the marking. The marking guide also highlighted to students what was expected of them. Assignments were returned in class.
5.1 Survey Questions
There were a total of 82 students who were involved in the blog assignment for the course, of these 61 consented to be involved in the research. The mean mark for this assignment was 53.83% (minimum = 20.00 and maximum = 90.00), with a standard deviation of 14.04. This was the lowest mean for any of the internal pieces of assessment mainly because so many students just wrote what they thought without reference or consideration to the literature or theory on ethics (other means were 62.2% for the report, 68.7% for the seminar, 55.1% for the selection assignment, and 59.9% for the training assignment). The median mark for this assignment (51.0%) was also the lowest for any of the internal pieces of assessment (other medians were 64.0% for the report, 67.0% for the seminar, 55.0% for the selection assignment, and 58.0% for the training assignment)
Seventy-nine students provided formal feedback in lecture time by answering nine questions as part of the research (this is higher than the 61 students who originally said they would be involved in the research group, the increase in numbers might be due to an increased understanding that being involved in the research was not arduous). Each question was answered on a seven point, Likert type scale (1 = strongly disagree; 7 = strongly agree). See Table 1 for the questions asked, the means and standard deviations.
Table 1 containing the survey questions, mean response values and the standard deviation of responses.
Survey question / Mean / Standard deviation
1. I enjoyed using a blog in this subject. 4.65 1.64
2. I would choose to do an assignment with a blog again. 4.61 1.76
3. I found it easy to make blogs on the blog website. 4.85 1.66
4. The blog assessment was more convenient than the other assessments in this subject. 4.71 1.66
5. I communicated more with other students than I usually do as a result of the blog. 4.42 1.39
6. I enjoyed the blog assessment more than other assessments in this subject. 4.44 1.59
7. I felt more motivated to complete the blog assessment compared to other assessments in this subject. 4.25 1.45
8. I would choose another subject which used a blog. 4.46 1.52
9. I would choose to do another subject which used blogs (but not for assessment). 4.42 1.44
The means indicate that students were generally positive about using blogs as a form of assessment. Further statistical analysis of the survey is being presented at “The first international conference on enhancing teaching and learning through assessment.” in June 2005 (Boddington & Cooper); this paper will examine the comments made by students on the survey and in class feedback.
5.2 Survey Comments
Twenty students made comments on the survey forms. Comments fall into eight themes:
-Preference for using a blog for assessment.
No one commented negatively about the use of a blog as an assessment tool. One student was neutral “I found the blog neither better or worse than other forms of assessment. … I would not choose a subject just b/c of a blog assessment or a blog site.”, whilst two students were positive, “Doing assignment online is more interesting and makes student enjoy it.” and “I think, the blog is good. Especially for doing this assignment, as behalf of myself, I am really enjoyed it.”
-Knowing what was expected for the assessment
All five of the students who commented on this were unsure as to the requirements of the assignment. Uncertainties ranged from not knowing how to structure the assignment, to not knowing the time line, to knowing what was required. These comments were typical, “I did not know what had to be handed in and what didn’t.”, “… not very clear as to requirements structure and due dates at times.”
-Perceived level of difficulty of the assessment
One student commented that the assessment “was possibly a little more difficult …” but this was countered by another who said “Not too hard for assignment. Easy to finish tasks.”
-Knowing how to use the application
There were mixed views about the practicalities of using blogs. Of the five students who commented on this, two found blogs easy commenting that, “It was relatively easy to use/understand.” and “How to use the site was clear …” The other three commented on various difficulties, including unfamiliarity with the medium, “It was very hard to understand what the blogs where [sic] to be about and how they where [sic] written”; difficulties getting started, “The blog was okay, had a little bit of trouble getting started” and technical issues, “I found it hard to post comments, they would take a while to come up on screen so I was unsure if it was working or not. The format form [sic] Word to blog (html) messed with the layout a bit, brassed me off.”
-Communication / Community of practice
This was the theme which attracted most comments (9 students). Comments included:
“I like using the blogs, because we can exchange our ideas among students.”, “If we use the blogs to discuss the question, we can get more knowledge from other people ideas.”, “Blog-site is interesting assignment which is good place to share ideas.”
Communicating with other students,
“It create the communication between classmates which is great!”; “More willing to do the discuss. [sic]“, “During this assignment, I communicated with other students and therefore got some meaningful ideas.”, “It is good for communication with others.”, “That is a good way to communicate with other student”
Working in groups,
“The group system is really good.” and
Having personal values challenged,
“Particularly beneficial was the communication with other students in discussing the topics and values, and it really made me think about my own personal values. I found it very challenging.”
One student raised the issues of plagiarism, “I think you could’ve easily cheated.”
One student wanted the assignment to be “… started a little early in the semester.”
Overall comments (3 students) included, “It was a great experience. I learn lots of other things besides blogging in the execution of this work”, “BLOG is good for learning” and “Thought it was a good assessment …”
5.3 Course Feedback
As well as the research questionnaire all students were asked to give feedback regarding all five pieces of internal assessment as part of the process of continual course improvement. This is an informal feedback conducted by the lecturer (Boddington) as a check to see what worked well for the students and what did not work so well. Students were asked to comment only on the assessments they undertook. When asked if the blog assignment should be used as a form of assessment for the class next year, students were overwhelming positive that it should, with 48 of the 54 respondents to this question saying yes, it should be run again (see Table 2).
Table 2 showing whether students who did the blog assignment thought that it should be run next year.
Yes, students next year should do a similar assignment - 48
Yes box not marked but comments positive - 2
Yes box not marked and comments negative - 2
No, students next year should not do a similar assignment - 2
As students had strongly indicated that this assignment should be repeated for the next cohort it could be said that this was a popular assignment for the students. There are however, a number of issues which deserve further examination.
The fact that students performed less well in this assignment was concerning. The informal nature of blogs seemed to “rub off” on the students and although this was a formal assessment many students just wrote what they thought (i.e. as a lay person) rather than providing an academic critique as the assessment guidelines required. It is not uncommon to find that students have difficulties writing this kind of assessment and we envisage working with the Student Learning Centre staff in future to provide generic help with completing a case study critique.
Difficulties with using the blog application were experienced by some students despite the group tutorial and one-to-one support provided. Many of the difficulties were experienced due to using an external blog. Students at Lincoln pay for external web access and even though we had arranged free access to the group blogs students with no web credit were unable to access the Blogger.com signup page. This was often the cause of their email invitation failing. It then took some time to identify which group they were in and resend the invitation. It also meant that students had another username and password unless they registered with the same username and password as the one they used for the Lincoln network. Having to login to the network and to the blog was undoubtedly a barrier for some students. By the time we repeat this assessment Lincoln will have its own blog application and hopefully many of these issues will be resolved.
Comments from the students indicate that some were uncertain about what was expected for the assignment. A worked example would have alleviated any uncertainty and this will be provided for the next cohort.
The fact that so many of the students chose to comment favourably about the benefits brought about by communication and sharing of ideas, was excellent, and probably one of the best outcomes from this assessment. Students were very respectful of each other and the beginnings of working in communities of practice may not have been identified overtly by students but it was definitely evident. This is something they will need to develop further as human resources and business professionals.
Only one student commented on concerns about plagiarism and we had considered this might be an issue as the work of students would not all be posted at the same time and later posters could potentially plagiarise the work of earlier posters. We need not have worried however as there was no evidence of collusion or inappropriate copying. It might be argued that having the work open to all the students actually curtailed some students who might otherwise have been tempted. This is a question to explore with the students next time.
We regard the assessment as a success for a first time of using this medium in this way.
As a spin off from the T4T4T project it has enabled us to contribute some knowledge to “what makes for effective eLearning in tertiary education” and has enabled a lecturer and a teaching & learning staff member to work together “with a common purpose of improving teaching and learning in tertiary contexts”. Had we not both been involved in the project and present at Tom Smith’s blog presentation we would never have got started on this particular road, so T4T4T has definitely had a beneficial effect for both of us.
As for the aims for using a blog as an assessment tool we have certainly proved that the tool can be used as we intended. The students liked it, but the requirements of the assessment need to be clearer, we need to provide a worked example and we definitely need to use an in-house tool to overcome many of the technical difficulties we experienced.
Some students obviously enjoyed the collaborative nature of this assignment and we need to examine this further to refine our ideas about how to explore this aspect of blogging to better effect.
It has been an interesting time. Doing something new with students is always challenging. The fact that none of the class had any experience (or concept) of blogs made it even more challenging. Blogs were also new to one of the researchers and the blog we used, Blogger.com, though an excellent blogging tool, was not set up as an educational application. All that aside we greatly enjoyed the experience, we have learnt a lot along the way and we will do it better next time.
Blood, R. “Weblogs: A History and Perspective”, Rebecca’s Pocket. September 2000. Accessed 30 March 2005. http://www.rebeccablood.net/essays/weblog_history.html
Boddington, L. & Cooper, CD. “Ethical case studies using blogs as an assessment tool for an undergraduate business management class”. The First International Conference On Enhancing Teaching And Learning Through Assessment. Hong Kong Polytechnic University, 13-15 June, 2005. (in Press)
eMarketer. “Ages of the Blog”. Accessed 30 March 2005. http://www.emarketer.com/Article.aspx?1003318&type=resources
T4T4T. “Public Space – About T4T4T” Accessed 30 March 2005.