about the research


About the research

Project team

News and events

Manifesto for teaching online


The MSc in E-learning is one of the few fully online, distance programmes currently being offered by the University of Edinburgh. This is about to change, with the University’s Distance Education Initiative (DEI), which will provide funding over a five-year period for up to 20 new taught postgraduate distance programmes. Distance education and e-learning are now at the forefront of the University’s strategic plan for postgraduate teaching. The University is foregrounding students’ need for meaningful and timely feedback, and interested in innovative ways of supporting and enhancing this aspect of our interactions with students. Understanding what factors contribute to a successful taught postgraduate distance programme has become increasingly relevant during the period of this project.

The MSc in E-learning programme, which has been running since 2006, has broken new ground with its experimental approach to course design and teaching, its critical and theoretical perspectives on online learning, and the energy and commitment of its participants. Students on the MSc in E-learning programme report high levels of satisfaction with the feedback they receive, and many create assignments and coursework of exceptionally high quality. They are also extremely engaged with and committed to the programme, with unusually high retention rates (over 90%). In other words, we believed that we were ‘on’ to something here in terms of our approach to assessment and feedback. The programme team’s previous and ongoing research into student learning in higher education, digital texts and authority, reflective practices and informal learning, as well as our award-winning teaching, were already informing our assessment and feedback strategies, but we believed there was a great deal more we could learn about, with and from our students and our programme.

The “Student writing: innovative online strategies for assessment & feedback” project (SWOP for short) was funded by the Principal’s Teaching Award Scheme to take a closer look at some of the programme’s practices, and to understand better how our approach works, how to make our approach even better, and how to share what we have learned with others interested in online and distance learning. Over the past two years it has been an important source of insight into the assessment, feedback and digital writing practices of the MSc in E-learning.

Learning and teaching in online environments opens up new possibilities for creating, sharing, collaborating on, and discussing writing. As we pursue these new possibilities as teachers and students, however, we are drawn to question some of the assumptions and orthodoxies underpinning our institutional assessment practices: that students’ writing is created by an individual, that it is stable and fixed, and it has no continuation beyond the point of assessment. The digital text is often collaboratively produced, fluid and persistent, and assessing it therefore becomes a matter of either artificially fixing and dividing it, or finding new ways to engage with it that are both scholarly and contextually meaningful.

Throughout this project, teacher and student perspectives on the MSc in E-learning programme have offered valuable insight into assessment and feedback of student writing. In grappling with the needs of online distance learners and the creation of digital texts, we have developed some feedback and assessment practices that we researched in depth as part of this project. These practices include:

  • tutor-student communication and formative feedback through reflective weblogs

  • assessing collaborative writing in wikis

  • assessing multimodal and hypertextual work

  • student-nominated assessment criteria

  • co-creating courses through discussion.

This project explored our existing practices in partnership with students on the programme, through a series of student-led ethnographic accounts of particular courses, an ‘assessment and feedback stories’ wiki, and a week-long discussion activity which invited student perspectives on the manifesto we developed through the second year of the project. We have been able to talk with colleagues across the university as part of our ‘innovative assessment roundtables’ and our manifesto presentations and discussion sessions. We are currently in the process of writing about aspects of the project for publication in e-learning and assessment-related journals.



updated 3 September 2009

contact jen.ross@ed.ac.uk for more information