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Build online communities through digital peer assessment

digital peer assessment

Ever fallen behind when taking an online course? Or, even worse, have you clicked through the corporate training without reading just to get the software to show a green completion checkmark? Learning Design professionals, do these anecdotes make you shudder? Well, one simple strategy can help engage your learner on a higher level—digital peer assessment.

Digital peer assessment helps build an online community while also motivating learners. As an added bonus, learners develop a better understanding of the course content by assessing others’ work—a win-win scenario for instructors and learners.

But how? How do you create a scenario where everyone wins? Follow these 3 essential steps to building an online community through digital peer assessment.

Step 1: Rubrics, rubrics, rubrics

Okay, you don’t have to use a rubric. This section could have been titled, ‘clear assessment tools’ instead—but it didn’t have the same ring.

Peer assessment often gets a bad rap because learners don’t give great feedback to each other. Plus, the recipient often feels sad when their instructor’s feedback doesn’t match their peers. And everyone’s motivation tanks.

So how can peers give valuable feedback? By understanding the assessment tool.

In order to be able to give feedback using a rubric (or any other assessment tool) learners need to be able to confidently declare one piece of work an “A” while another a “C.” Simply handing them a rubric and asking them to start assessing each other won’t work.

Ideally, instructors develop rubrics with learner input. This online community collaborative process ensures rubrics are written in learner-friendly language and gives learners a voice in their own assessment. Learner-input in the rubric creates authentic products that may have more real-world applicability. Of course, this model moves the instructor or trainer into more of a facilitator role.

Engage best practices for designing the perfect rubric with this article here.

If you haven’t gone the collaborative route, learners need exemplars to familiarise themselves with course expectations. For learners to ace an online course, they first need to understand what that involves (and alternatively what it looks like to bomb the course expectation).

And here’s where we build an online community: by welcoming the learner’s voice.

Peer assessment empowers learners to make decisions. They aren’t in a top-down model anymore because they have been given the opportunity to decide for themselves what makes a great product.

Step 2: Build in public feedback mechanisms

Ever seen the embarrassment on a mother’s face when her toddler swears in public?

Turns out it isn’t just toddlers that learn through observation—adults do too. Psychologists label it the Social Learning Theory.

According to Simply Psychology, learners require four key behaviours to reap the benefits of social learning:

1) Give it their attention

2) Retain the information

3) Have the ability to reproduce it

4) Find the motivation to imitate it

Digital peer assessment within an online community meets these four criteria. First, people pay attention because they want to give good feedback to their colleagues. Learners offering multiple critiques interact with the course content; thereby, promoting greater retention. Then, the same skills used in the critique allow learners to reproduce the skill more accurately. Finally, if social media is any indication, we love to learn from others. So it becomes inherently motivating.

Learners enjoy rich media experiences. Designing online community forums to look like Facebook or Instagram will engage learners. Adding “shares” or “likes” to the software also promote online community because peers can motivate each other.

Step 3: Accountability partners

Rachel Wagner, in an article on Inside Higher Ed, comments that her students “always hate peer reviews.”

According to Wagner, her students feel like, “What’s the point?” Especially if they’re simply going to be given feedback from an instructor anyways. Plus, their peers always says it’s, “Good” when there’s actually more work to be done, according to the instructor.

She improved their motivation by giving them accountability partners and found they began to care about their partner’s success.

In an online community, accountability partners can become central to creating great work because they become more than simply peer assessment partners. They become your go-to person when motivation is failing, or they are there if you need someone to bounce ideas off.

Especially in settings using developmental rubrics, accountability partners can be invaluable since learners may need to work with the same rubric through multiple assessments. Ideally, every learner will move up the continuum to mastery by the end of the course with a developmental rubric. But mastery requires a lot of feedback. Peer assessment can shoulder some of the burden found in providing ongoing feedback to learners.

Accountability partners can help learners become unstuck, especially if they have similar abilities. They can brainstorm ways for the learner to move up the rubric. Depending on the context, they can share how they’re tackling a similar issue in their own context.

Ultimately, learners feel less isolated by engaging with a peer from their online community. They start to realise that others share their challenges.

At the end of the day, we build an online community up by finding friends in a course. Accountability partners become more friends than assessors.

Why bother building online communities?

These 3 essential steps will put you on the road to building an online community through digital peer assessment, but it won’t be easy and you’ll probably have to give something up to do it. It takes time to train learners how to use assessment tools. They need practice assessing exemplars before they can begin to assess their peers. You might need to cut some other portion of the course.

But everyone complains that their target audience isn’t engaged enough: teachers, instructors, professors, learning and design professionals, marketers, leaders, speakers.

An online community engages people.

Or, perhaps, an authentic online community engages people. Will our forced learning communities prove motivating?

I think the answer is yes, if we respect our learners. If we give them authentic learning tasks, then they will happily contribute to an online community, engaging in dialogue and peer assessment. If our course just checks a box, then no amount of community-building will help. Check out Rachel Wagner’s whole article for more information on her system.