CRR#2: Using Peer Feedback to Enhance the Quality of Student Online Postings: An Exploratory Study

As part of the educational technology program, the following is offered as a critical reflection to specific questions on the following article:

Ertmer, P., Richardson, J., Belland, B., Camin, D., Connolly, P., Coulthard, G., Lei, K., and Mong, C. (2007). Using Peer Feedback to Enhance the Quality of Student Online Postings: An Exploratory Study. Journal of ComputerMediated Communication,12(2), 412-433.

1.Identify the clarity with which this article states a specific problem to be explored.

According to Maxwell (2005), a research problem “identifies something that is going on in the world, something in itself that is problematic or that has consequences that are problematic” (p. 40). In the article, “Using Peer Feedback to Enhance the Quality of Student Online Postings: An Exploratory Study,” Ertmer et al. (2007) presented that this exploratory study was created to address the research gap in understanding how feedback impacts learning – particularly regarding how peer feedback construction impacts higher levels of thinking learning.  How problematic this gap was to the authors was presented in the introduction.  The authors noted that online discussions are critical to “collaborative meaning-making” and that to be effective discussions need to “progress to include both reflection and critical thinking” (Ertmer et al., 2007. 413). But as they noted by citing Black, (2005) there is little evidence these interactions develop much beyond the basics of “sharing and comparing information” (Ertmer et al., 2007. 413). To help move online discussions into deeper levels of thinking, the authors proposed that peer feedback “specifically related to the quality of their postings” can assist students in developing their learning towards these deeper levels. (Ertmer et al., 2007. 413).

In reflecting on the clarity of how they proposed this research problem, the most specific statement of their research problem appeared within the Purpose of Study section, but their initial idea and reasoning are presented within the introduction and are supported throughout the literature review. There was clear flow between these sections as well as to the content of the abstract. If anything were to be improved from its current state, it would only be a minor adjustment within the last paragraph of the introduction wherein the authors could conclude with a firmer research problem statement which mirrors that in their Purpose of Study. Such a statement could encapsulate the literature review specifically towards framing the foundation principles underlying the study.  Such changes, however, are not specifically required as their research problem and reasoning were presented with well-developed clarity and whetted the audience’s appetite for further reading – a task specific to the introduction of any paper.

2. Comment on the need for this study and its educational significance as it relates to this problem.

The role of feedback is to increase student motivation and performance by connecting the student to their learning in meaningful and cognitively significant ways. This feedback can come in a variety of sources, some of which may be more effective than others in both meeting student and faculty expectations. This, Ertmer et al. (2007) noted, is particularly vital for online students where expectations about feedback can often impact retention. The authors advised that meeting students expectations regarding feedback requires “a significant amount of time and effort” on the part of the instructor (Ertmer et al., 2007, p. 414).  While they offer no research regarding the impact of feedback on instructor workload, from this reviewer’ perspective (and that of her online colleagues), providing personalized, timely and constructive feedback in online asynchronous discussions often requires the instructor be online continuously, be active in the conversations, and offer detailed feedback for further improvement which is time-consuming.  In proposing the use of peer feedback to address this workload issue, Ertmer et al. (2007) referenced four studies which suggest that students benefit from both giving and receiving peer feedback within traditional classroom settings but that these have yet to be determined fully within the online environment. With the increasing number of online courses and programs being offered, knowing what works in the online education is a particularly salient issue even eleven years after the publication of this paper. One could surmise that at the time when this was written, the use of online discussion and technology supporting them were relatively new within online education. Therefore, assessing how effective peer feedback is towards promoting higher order thinking would have been just as educationally significant then.

3. Comment on whether the problem “researchable”? That is, can it be investigated through the collection and analysis of data?

The point of this exploratory study was to examine “student perceptions of the value of giving and receiving peer feedback” with a goal of determining whether this feedback impacted the quality of the discussion postings (Ertmer et al., 2007, p 416). To address this, Ertmer et al. (2007) framed three specific research questions that were investigated through the collection and analysis of data.  Their first research question asked what the impact of peer feedback will be on the quality of online conversations. This testable by establishing a research design which would allow for the collection of data on the quality of student postings over time when they are given peer feedback. There could potentially be several ways to measure quality as well as ways for creating systems of peer feedback and there would be a need to address other variables, such as timeliness and format, which could impact this process.

In their second research question, Ertmer et al (2007) asked how students perceive “the value of receiving peer feedback” and how this compares to their perceptions of instructor feedback (Ertmer et al. (2007), p 416). The third research question considers the “students’ perceptions on the value of giving peer feedback” (Ertmer et al. (2007), p 416). These questions would be testable by establishing a research design which could collect pre-feedback perceptions of students’ values of both peer and instructor feedback. This could be done using surveys and/or interviews. Then after receiving both peer and instructor feedback, students could reflect on their experiences with these two forms of feedback through surveys and/or interviews. Since issues of ordering, timeliness and quality of feedback and overall motivation and past experiences may impact this perception, this design would need to address these variables.

4. Critique the author’s conceptual framework.

A conceptual framework, as proposed by Maxwell (2005), is the basic model about what a researcher plans to study “and of what is going on with these things and why” so as to create a foundation of a tentative theory which can “inform the rest of your design,” (p 39).  Primarily within their introduction and literature review, Ertmer et al. (2007) outlined a conceptual framework that ties discussion, higher order thinking, feedback, and perceptions together and examines them within an exploratory case study framework.

The authors started from the vantage point that there is a consensus among faculty and students that student discussions are “where the real learning take place” (p. 412). Citing Black (2005) and Lang (2005), Ertmer et al. (2007) shared that discussions create learning opportunities as they engage the student in a “dialogical process that leads to increasingly sound, well grounded, and valid understandings of a topic or issue” and “have the potential to motivate student inquiry and to create a learning context in which collaborative meaning-making occurs” (Ertmer et al., 2007, p 413). But given this, they returned to Black (2005) in reflecting that there is little evidence that “the critical level of learning desired” is a natural outcome of student discussions (Ertmer et al., 2007, p 413).

In suggesting more is needed to promote higher-order thinking, the authors looked to feedback as a means of providing this stimulus.  Citing Higgins et al. (2002), Ertmer et al. (2007) offered that “feedback that is meaningful, of high quality, and timely helps students become cognitively engaged in the content under study as well as in the learning environment in which they are studying” (p 413). The authors commented that feedback is critical within the online environment. Referencing Ko and Rossen (2001), the authors noted that “students in online courses are more likely to disconnect from material or environment than students in face-to-face courses” when there is a lack of feedback (Ertmer et. al., 2007, p 414). Furthermore, Ertmer et. al (2007) indicated that student perceptions of feedback are significant as Schwartz and White’s research indicated that “students expect feedback to be 1) prompt, timely and thorough; 2) ongoing formative (about online discussions) and summative (about grades)’ 3) constructive, supportive and substantive; 4) specific, objective and individual; and 5) consistent” (Ertmer et al., 2007, p 414). However, in looking to Dunlap (2005), the authors surmised that the ability to provide this level of feedback is problematic to the instructor’s workload.

Consequently, the authors offered peer feedback as an alternative since, as Corgan et. al (2004) noted, peer feedback “offers a number of distinct advantages including the timeliness of feedback, providing new learning opportunities for both givers and receivers of feedback, humanizing the environment and building community” (Ertmer et. al., 2007, p 414-415). However, the use of peer feedback is not without issue. In citing Palloff and Pratt, the authors shared that “the ability to give meaningful feedback which helps others think about the work they have produced is not a naturally acquired skill” (Ertmer et al., 2007, p 415).  This coupled with “overcoming anxiety about giving and receiving feedback…ensuring the reliability of the feedback” and addressing how the online environment affects communication means that there is no guarantee that peer feedback will help develop higher level thinking. (Ertmer et al., 2007, p 415).

To this end, they propose testing the connection between peer feedback, higher-order thinking (as demonstrated by the quality of discourse), and perceptions about feedback with this exploratory case study. The authors outlined that the use of a case study was an appropriate avenue for inquiry but not until their methods section. According to Yin (2012), “case studies are the preferred strategy when ‘how’ or ‘why’ questions are being posed, when the investigator has little control over events, and when the focus is on a contemporary phenomenon within some real-life context” (p. 1).

Overall, the authors offered a clear and easily read body of information as to how they were constructing their research, and for the most part were consistent in connecting the varying aspects of their reasoning together.  There were a few issues this reviewer noted that could use additional investment for clarification.  Within the introduction, Ertmer et al (2007) indicated that discussions are not enough to get to “critical level of learning desired” (p. 413) but they are rather vague as to what that level of learning is exactly and why achieving higher order thinking is important within the online environment.  In addition, the authors are not clear enough in explaining how this is a problem indicative of the innate aspects of discussions and not reflective of a problem found within online learning in general. At this point within their article, the authors inserted a separate paragraph on how the “use of discussions in online environments is supported by the socio-cognitive perspective” and referenced Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (Ertmer et al., 2007, p 413). This separation is a bit confusing as the prior paragraph is also discussing the importance of discussions, either online or face-to-face, as being important for learning. By giving it its own paragraph, it initially led this reviewer to consider that they would be using this theory as part of the conceptual framework since this could connect into why peer feedback (and scaffolding it) may be effective towards higher order thinking. However, after this section, this theory is not eluded to in any way. This reviewer took this to mean that the intention was only to use this theory as a means of additional research support but that it was not a significant part of the conceptual framework.  Given this, perhaps incorporating these ideas within the prior paragraph may be warranted.

5. How effectively does the author tie the study to relevant theory and prior research? Are all cited references relevant to the problem under investigation?

Within their article, Ertmer et al. (2007) cited numerous prior research studies in support of their conceptual framework and there is relatively good connection between these sources and the points the authors are making. They provide references to studies on why discussions are an important part of online learning, what role feedback plays within instruction, what makes good feedback, and what expectations students and faculty have about online feedback. However, most of these are of singular citations to each sentence which is much fewer than this reviewer has seen in other papers. This may indicate a clear and directed focus by the authors on the most relevant research (as some authors superfluously cite references to convey scholarly aptitude) or a lack of available studies as the authors mention later in their purpose of study.

In addition, there are some gaps in their research at points.  For example, there is no citation to their comment that “lack of feedback is most often cited as the reason for withdrawing from online courses” when one would expect a citation to support that statement since it is different in scope to the prior sentence prior mentioning student disconnectedness due to lack of feedback (Ertmer et al., 2007, p 414). In reflecting on their feedback, most of their commentary centers on overall critical components of feedback when given online and not much research is given specifically to feedback that occurs online or specifically within discussions which is the central focus of their research study.  This likely due to the overall lack of research available in these areas, as the authors note in their purpose of study. However, a note to this effect would clarify this within the earlier section. Thirdly, while the authors discuss the potential student benefits of giving and receiving peer feedback, the issues students may have with giving feedback, and student expectations of feedback, there is little that is discussed regarding how students perceive of giving and receiving peer feedback even though this is a focus of two of the research questions they present.

In examining relevant theories, Ertmer et al. (2007) specifically only reference Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development but overall nothing with this theory throughout the rest of the article.  In this case, the authors seem to use this more as additional support to why discussions can be important avenues for learning rather than as a specific theory underpinning their research design.  As such, it seems a bit disingenuous in its usage as they have several references which already address this idea.

6. Does the literature review conclude with a brief summary of the literature and its implications for the problem investigated?

Unlike other articles this reviewer has encountered, Ertmer et al. (2007) structured their article such that the literature review is presented not specifically as one. Following their introduction, the authors presented sections outlining the role of feedback in instructions, the role of feedback in online environments, the advantages of using peer feedback and the challenges of using peer feedback. Within each of these sections they presented literature to support their ideas and connect the reasoning behind their conceptual framework. Thus, it is left to the reader to surmise that these sections were intended as the literature review. A simple header of “Literature Review” prior to the first section could clarify this more. In seeking a brief summary of the literature, there is none where one would expect to be between these sections and the purpose of study. Rather, within each section the authors summarized the main points of that area within the final paragraph or few sentences. The inclusion of a summary to pull these salient ideas together from their prior sections and transitions into the purpose of study would clarify this more for the reader.

7. Evaluate the clarity and appropriateness of the research questions or hypotheses.

In this exploratory study, Ertmer et al. (2007) offered three research questions within their purpose of study that were appropriately related to the research problem they stated. These were specifically constructed to fill in the research gap by assessing the “impact of using peer feedback to shape the quality of postings” and to examine “student perceptions on the value of giving and receiving peer feedback regarding the quality of discussion postings” (Ertmer et al., 2007, p. 416). While for the most part these research questions are very clearly written, the wording within the second part of research question one is problematic. Within research question one, the first part questions the “impact of peer feedback on the quality of student of student postings in an online environment” (Ertmer et al., 2007, p 416). This is very clear and measurable. The authors then questioned if “the quality of discourse/learning can be maintained and/or increased through the use of peer feedback” (Ertmer et al., 2007, p 416). This is confusing as written since it conflates quality of discourse and the quality of learning within a single entity. As these are two different variables to be assessed in this research question, these may be differently affected by peer feedback and thus combining them within a single question may not yield clear answers.

8. Critique the appropriateness and adequacy of the study’s design in relation to the research questions or hypotheses.

Ertmer et al. (2007) approached their research from a case study framework and utilized the collecting of qualitative and quantitative data from student discussion postings, surveys and interviews in order to build their dataset. A case study is form of “empirical inquiry about a contemporary phenomenon (e.g., a “case”), set within its real-world context—especially when the boundaries between phenomenon and context are not clearly evident” (Yin, 2009, p. 18). According to Yin (2012) a case study approach would be appropriate when the researcher is asking descriptive or explanatory questions, is collecting data in a natural setting, and/or is concerned with an evaluative process that is occurring.  Since the research was on “describing the process of giving and receiving peer feedback within an online course” (Ertmer et al., 2007, p. 416), offered several descriptive research questions, and focused on the collection of data within the “natural” setting of the discussions that were occurring within the class, the use of the case study framework is appropriate.

By using the combination of qualitative and quantitative data, the authors may be attempting to balance the strengths and weaknesses of each form of data. As Ertmer et al, (2007) commented within their study, “limited research has been conducted that examines the role or impact of feedback in online environments in which learners constructs their own knowledge, based on prior experiences and peer interactions” (Ertmer et al., 2007, p 416).  As Hoepfl (1997) noted qualitative research “can be used to better understand any phenomenon about which little is yet known” and are “appropriate in situations where one needs to first identify the variables that might later be tested quantitatively” (p. 48-49). Therefore, the focus on qualitatively derived data collected from surveys and interviews is an appropriate choice since there is little prior work that has established student perceptions on peer feedback and how this would impact quality of work within the online context and their research questions (RQ2 and RQ3) are specific to this.  Ertmer et al. (2007) also chose to collect quantitative data by statistically analyzing student posting quality (based on scoring) after receiving peer feedback. This is an appropriate methodology since their first research question was designed to determine if there is a relationship between these peer feedback and posting quality is specifically asking if change occurred.

9. Critique the adequacy of the study’s sampling methods (e.g., choice of participants) and their implications for generalizability.

Based on the descriptions of their context and procedures within this case study, it appears that rather than randomly sampling from several classes, Ertmer et al. (2007) utilized purposeful sampling to focus intensively on a small group of fifteen students (10 females and 5 males) who were enrolled in a single course. Hoepfl (1997) noted that “purposeful sampling is the dominant strategy in qualitative research method” as it seeks “information-rich cases which can be studied in depth” (Hoepfl, 1997, p. 51). However, there is little to indicate if these fifteen comprised the whole class or why this class was specifically selected for this case study. Such information is needed to ascertain if the authors were selecting out of convenience which, as Patton (1990) noted “saves time, money, and effort” but has the “poorest rationale; lowest credibility” and yields “information-poor cases” relative to other purposeful sampling strategies (p. 183).

While small sample sizes are problematic for research for quantitative studies, Patton (1990) remarked that,

There are no rules for sample size in qualitative inquiry. Sample size depends on what you want to know, the purpose of the inquiry, what’s at stake, what will be useful, what will have credibility, and what can be done with available time and resources” (p. 184)

However qualitative researchers must still be aware of the potential for sampling error when using purposeful sampling. As Hoepfl (1997) noted, sampling errors may be introduced into purposeful sampling when there is insufficient breadth in the sampling, there are “distortions introduced by changed over time” or they lack depth of data collection within each case (p. 52). In the Ertmer et al. (2007) study population, the 15 participants were drawn from only a single class during a single term. Within this group, 12 were either educational administrators or educators and 14 were pursuing advanced degrees.  Given the short period (one term) there is likely little distortion due to changes over time and the fact that they collected multiple forms of data from each participant means there was a depth to their data. Perhaps the greatest weakness in the study sample lies in the potential lack of breadth due to the common backgrounds within this small group (educational administrators or teachers pursuing advanced degrees). Patton (1990) remarked that purposeful samples should “be judged on the basis of the purpose and rationale of each study and the sampling strategy used to achieve the study’s purpose” (p 185). In applying Patton’s measure, Ertmer et al. (2007) used Bloom’s taxonomy and one could suggest they rationalized the sample selection since these participants “were familiar with Bloom’s taxonomy or assessing levels of questioning and determining instances of critical thinking” (p. 417). This indicates that this lack of breadth is not a source of sampling error however it does hold issue for generalizability.

In commenting on their study limitations, Ertmer et al. (2007) remarked that sample size did “limit the results of this study” (p. 428). This comment may be reflective of this issue of sample breadth. As Ercikan and Roth (2014) denoted that as long as qualitative studies “take into account the contextual particulars relevant to the manifestation of the generalization” (p. 17) they can offer aspects of generalizability. In examining the population within this study, the relative homogeneity of this population does represent that the results of this study may not be as applicable to groups which lack this similar occupational and educational composition but the Ertmer et al. (2007) are candid in describing the population parameters recognizing this in their section on study limitations.

10. Critique the adequacy of the study’s procedures and materials (e.g., interventions, interview protocols, data collection procedures).

Ertmer et al (2007) elected to collect data through scored ratings of student’s postings, participant interviews, and participant surveys. In order to collect the data, the researchers utilized a group of 7 graduate students and 2 faculty members. This team collaboratively created the data collection instruments and “each team member took primary responsibility for collecting and analyzing the data from a subgroup of two participants” (Ertmer et al., 2007, p 416-417). They also indicated that “each member of the research team interviewed two participants via telephone or in persons (Ertmer et al.,2007, p 420). However, as there were only 15 participants and 9 members of the research term so there may be some clarification needed here in how this procedurally worked.  To address how data would be analyzed, several well-designed protocols were established by the researchers to address observer bias in scoring discussion postings and in coding interview responses.

Within this study, feedback students viewed was given on each discussion postings as both a score and descriptive comments.  For the first five week of the course, the two instructors of the course provided the feedback to the students. It was unclear if these are also members of the research team. Beginning in week seven and for the next six weeks (ending week 13), the students provided peer feedback to two classmates with peer review assignments being rotated on a weekly basis. At some point within this peer feedback period, interviews were conducted however it is unclear specifically when these started and ended as Ertmer et al. (2007) only denoted in the data analysis that the interviews were conducted “several weeks after the peer feedback process had started” (p. 420). Further clarification of this timing would be beneficial towards understanding the study timeline. Three weeks after this peer feedback period had ended period (week 16), the students then completed a post survey for final perceptions on both the instructor and peer feedback they received. It is unclear why there is a three-week gap between when the peer feedback period ended and when the surveys were administered. This could have potentially impacted the survey data as students were recollecting their perceptions rather than providing them in-the-moment.

For a scoring rubric, the researchers used Bloom’s taxonomy to create a 0-2 point scale for students and researchers to use evaluating posting quality. The selection of the Bloom’s taxonomy was appropriate as this is one their education students should have some familiarity with to some degree but this a very narrow scale considering the number of levels within Bloom’s taxonomy and the desire by the researchers to measure a change in quality.  The study would be improved with a larger scale more reflective of the actual structure of the taxonomy and with more ability to measure quality change over time. In addition, while the instructors modeled scoring feedback through the rubric for the first five weeks, there was very little evaluation of the students’ ability to effectively evaluate postings based on the rubric prior to its implementation. Ertmer et al. (2007) mentioned that students were provide examples of possible responses and explanations for these but there was no demonstration within the study that the participants could effectively apply it in giving peer feedback. Incorporating a scaffolded approach to this peer feedback wherein, after modeling the rubric use, the instructor offered feedback to individual students on their effective use of the form in giving peer feedback would have established a better foundation for students effectively using it. Overall lack of training could be one of the reasons why peer feedback was viewed as less preferred than instructor feedback by participants within this study. The author’s seemed to be aware of this after the fact and discuss this as part of the limitation of their study

Since the scorings were used for grading, the procedures of the study required that all peer feedback be passed through and reviewed by the instructor before being sent on. This was a thoughtful step designed to address issues anonymity and any problems that might arise. However, this likely impacted the study’s outcome. Students within the class saw the scores and comments from their instructors very soon after their submissions so they were useful in how they responded on a subsequent discussion. However, peer feedback was moderated by the instructor and resulted in up to a couple week delay on response to the student.  This meant students would potentially have no recent peer feedback to use for improvement on subsequent boards.  This is likely one of the larger issues in this study’s design and may have impacted not only student performance on postings but students’ perceptions on peer versus instructor feedback.

To determine the change in quality of student postings when given peer feedback, the researchers did not rely on the actual instructor and peer feedback scores that were given but rather used scoring of all postings provided by the researchers using the same rubric the students and instructor used. This was done to “provide a better indication of the changing quality of the responses,” to “ensure consistency in scoring student’s online postings” and to address the incompleteness of the student dataset due to the design of the class (Ertmer et al, 2007, 418). While these are all valid reasons for doing this, some data analysis of the actual peer feedback scoring would have been helpful to support the need for an alternative measurement of quality than what students received and based posting improvement on during the class duration.

11. Critique the appropriateness and quality (e.g., reliability, validity) of the measures used.

As Drost (2011) indicated “reliability is the extent to which measurements are repeatable” (p 106).  The research team protocols for addressing interobserver biases in scoring student postings as well as in standardizing the interview protocol and coding of interview data were evidence of their effort to provide reliability of their measurements.  According to Drost (2011), “validity is concerned with the meaningfulness of research components” and “whether they are measuring what they intended to measure” (p.114). One way to address validity is to use measurement tools which have been validated in their use by prior studies.  As Ertmer et al. noted, the use of Bloom’s taxonomy “provided a relatively high degree of face validity” as it was familiar to the participants and researchers (p. 421) and “had been successfully implemented by the researchers in a similar graduate course” (p 417). Validity was also addressed by the authors triangulation between the sources of data such as the survey results and the individual interviews.

12. skipped per faculty instructions

13. Critique the author’s discussion of the methodological and/or conceptual limitations of the results.

Ertmer et al. (2007) properly acknowledged several issues within their study that were linked to their methodology. Some issues were addressed within the limitations and suggestions for further work area. These included the small sample, the short duration of the study, and evaluation scale. However, Ertmer et al (2007) noted several specific issues which likely impacted the study outcomes only within the analysis discussion session. These included:

  • Use of discussion questions that were not of the caliber to be conducive to “higher-level responses,” (p.426)
  • Time delay in receiving peer feedback due to faculty moderation and review
  • Inclusion of general interpersonal and motivational postings in the analysis even though they were not likely to ever reach the upper levels of the scoring taxonomy.

These highlight three critical issues within the study design that, as the authors rightly noted, likely had an impact on the results.  First, given that this study was designed to evaluate quality changes in postings when given peer feedback, it is concerning that there was not significant effort to evaluate the questions prior to the study start to confirm they would elicit the desired level of student response. A follow-up analysis to see if the results vary when question design is directed toward high-order thinking would be useful. Secondly, since their own literature research stressed the importance of timeliness in student perceptions of feedback, it was concerning that they selected a class to study wherein peer feedback was intentionally delayed. A follow-up analysis to see if students who received timelier peer feedback perceived of this differently than those who did not would also be useful. Finally, the inclusion of motivational and interpersonal postings was likely affecting their dataset since they were using averaging scores between the two feedback periods. The authors indicated that they did not remove this from the dataset as they did not know which ones post-hoc the students intended to be counted and that if they had removed these there would have only been 160 postings to analyze rather than 778 which they felt “would limit our ability to measure change in posting quality” (Ertmer et al., 2007, p. 426). The first reasoning is a non-issue. Since the authors were not using the actual scores the students were providing to one another but their own scoring, the intention of the student is irrelevant. Since these non-content postings accounted for 79% of the total volume of student postings scored to evaluate for quality change, inclusion of them likely impacted their data since they acknowledged that these likely would not have likely scored high. Given that they knew of the actual number of these non-content postings (618), the authors could have considered one analysis with these included and one with these excluded to see if this impacts the quality change observed.  It is worth noting that these three issues are addressed only within the analysis discussion section and not in the latter limitations and suggested future work, even though at several points the authors indicate need to address these “in the future” (Ertmer et al., 2007, p. 426). Therefore, some reiteration of these issues within that later section – perhaps as a commentary on considerations for future study design – is warranted.

14. How consistent and comprehensive are the author’s conclusions with the reported results?

Overall Ertmer et al. (2007) offer a clear, consistent and comprehensive set of conclusions that are well supported by the data.  In addressing RQ1, the authors concluded that there was no quantitative change in the quality of postings during the peer feedback period (it did not increase or decrease). While the authors appropriately addressed several reasons why this may be, the results suggested to Ertmer et al. (2007) that once a level has been reached, peer feedback “may be effective in maintaining quality of postings” (p 422-422) and that “peer feedback is a viable alternative to instructor feedback” since there was no negative impact (p. 428).  In evaluating RQ2/RQ3, the authors found that student perceptions of the importance of feedback rose over the term and that there was perceived value in both giving and receiving peer feedback as based on survey and interview data.  This is consistent with the results of the study. In specifically comparing perceptions of peer and instructor feedback in RQ2, students perceived more value from instructor feedback than peer feedback. This was counter to what they thought would occur. While the authors reflected on several factors which could be impacting this, they also acknowledged that is consistent to what other studies had indicated.

15. How well did the author relate the results to the study’s theoretical base?

In reflecting on their results, Ertmer et al. (2007), connected and compared their results to the Ertmer and Stepich (2004) study. Overall, the authors found their results ran counter to what was seen in the prior study. In analyzing their results, Ertmer et al (2007) returned to several of the studies which formed the foundation of their original literature discussion at the start of the article including Black (2005), Ko and Rossen (2001), Palloff and Pratt (1999) and Topping (1998). This offered a well-developed connection between their theoretical basis and their results and demonstrated their interest in the continued development of this already existing body of knowledge.

16. In your view, what is the significance of the study, and what are its primary implications for theory, future research, and practice?

In this reviewer’s opinion, Ertmer et. al. (2007) provided the reader with good research on why giving and receiving peer feedback may impact student performance. Their analysis of how peer feedback benefits and challenges the learner and the perceptions that students then have of peer feedback relative to faculty feedback indicates there is more to building effective feedback systems into online courses then just creating a discussion board. In particular, the need to develop the student into providing effective peer feedback and the considerations that need to be made in how to structure that feedback are of critical importance. This requires faculty to take into consideration not only the relative newness students have in providing peer feedback but the need to acknowledge that there are issues of anxiety and responsibility which some students are unprepared to do, particularly within the asynchronous nature of an online class. The onus is on the faculty member wishing to use peer feedback to reflect on and scaffold peer feedback as a viable source of learning input for online students. This may not result in the work load decrease, Ertmer et al. (2007) hinted to, but this would provide a skill set that could serve the student well throughout their educational experience and beyond.

REFERENCES

Black, “The use of asynchronous discussion: creating a text of talk,” Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education 5 (1), 2005, pp. 5-24

Drost, E. (2011). Validity and Reliability in Social Science Research. Education Research and Perspectives, 38(1), 105 – 123.

Ertmer, P., Richardson, J., Belland, B., Camin, D., Connolly, P., Coulthard, G., Lei, K., and Mong, C. (2007). Using Peer Feedback to Enhance the Quality of Student Online Postings: An Exploratory Study. Journal of Computer‐Mediated Communication,12(2), 412-433

Hoepfl, M. C. (1997). Choosing qualitative research: A primer for technology education researchers. Journal of Technology Education, 9, 47–63.

Cobb, P., Confrey, J., Lehrer, R., & Schauble, L. (2003). Design experiments in educational research. Educational Researcher, 32(1), 9-13.

Maxwell, J. A. (2013). Qualitative research design: An interactive approach (3rd Ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications

Patton, M. (1990). Designing qualitative studies In Qualitative evaluation and research methods (pp. 169-186). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage

Roehler, L. R., & Cantlon, D. J. (1997). Scaffolding: A powerful tool in social constructivist classrooms. In K. Hogan & M. Pressley (Eds.), Scaffolding student learning: instructional approaches and issues (pp. 6–42). Cambridge, MA: Brookline

Yin, R. K. (2009). Case study research: design and methods (4th Ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Yin, R.K. (2012) A (very) brief refresher on the case study method In Applications of case study research (pp 3-20) Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications

 

The Importance of Peer Feedback in Online Education

Ertmer, P. A., Richardson, J. C., Belland, B., Camin, D., Connolly, P., Coulthard, G., et al. (2007). Using peer feedback to enhance the quality of student online postings: An exploratory study. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 12(2), 412-433.

The importance of feedback to students in education is a known factor, yet the research of how feedback impacts the online learner is something Ertmer and colleagues (2007) find little studied. In their article, Using Peer Feedback to Enhance the Quality of Student Online Postings: An Exploratory Study, Ertmer et. al (2007) sought to investigate the impact peer feedback has on both the overall quality of student posts and on their perceptions of the value of both giving and receiving feedback as part of an online class.

To frame their need for a study, Ertmer et. al (2007) presented a literature review. Feedback, they note, serves to help the learner evaluate their knowledge and can assist them in altering their viewpoints when presented new information. To do this, good feedback, according to the authors,  should help to “clarify what a good performance is” for the learner, assist the learner in developing their ability for “self-reflection and assessment,” help the learner gain “high quality information” about their learning, focus faculty-student interactions towards learning, increase motivation and self-esteem for the learner, help the learner “close the gap” between current performance and their final performance goals, and assist the educator in accessing information towards improving the quality of teaching (Ertmer et. al. 2007, 413-414). When it comes to online education, Ertmer and colleagues (2007) emphasized how instructor feedback can act “as a catalyst for student learning” and argue that, to be most effective, studies showed that online feedback should be timely, specific and consistent and can extend from formative to summative formats (p. 414). However, good feedback can overload the time and effort abilities of  the faculty member. To offset the increased workload good online feedback requires, Ertner and colleagues (2007) proposed investigating utilizing peer feedback as part of their instructional design. The advantages to this, they argued, is that it could increase the timeliness of feedback while helping the student to be part of the community of learners.  Studies summarized by Ertmer et. al (2007) indicate that the giving and receiving of feedback helps to increase collaborative meaning construction, increases the overall quality of discussions, and can give the learner greater “understanding and appreciation for their peers’ experiences and perspectives” (Ertmer et. al., 2007,p. 415). This, Ertmer et. al. (2007) can increase student motivation and satisfaction with a course and can increase learner autonomy. However, the authors also outlined that the literature indicates several drawbacks in using peer feedback. These included increasing student anxiety about participating in peer feedback, inexperience of students in providing quality peer feedback, and general negative perceptions about the overall quality of peer feedback.

Based on this information,  Ertmer et. al (2007) developed three research questions.These questions were (p. 416):

  1. What is the impact of peer feedback on the quality of students’ postings in an online environment? Can the quality of discourse/earning be maintained and/or increased through the use of peer feedback?
  2. What are students’ perceptions of the value of receiving peer feedback? how do these perceptions compare to the perceived value of receiving instructor feedback?
  3. What are students’ perceptions of the value of giving peer feedback?

To answer these which they utilized a case study of peer-feedback in a graduate level course. Within this course which ran a single semester, 15 students were required to post to weekly discussion questions and comment on the post of one classmate. For the first 6 weeks, only the course instructors provided feedback to each student. This feedback on their posts consisted of a numerical score relative to what level of Bloom’s taxonomy they demonstrated on their post, and overall comments regarding the quality of the posts made. After week six, students then were asked to provide feedback on two peers postings for each discussion using the same system as demonstrated by the faculty member earlier in the class. This feedback was moderated and collected by the faculty member, anonymized, and given to the posting student usually within two weeks of the original post deadline. The authors gathered qualitative and quantitative data from interviews with participants, scored ratings of the students’ weekly discussions, and the students’ pre- and post surveys.  The pre-surveys occurred at the end of the faculty feedback period and the post-survey following the end of the peer feedback perio. It is also worth noting that the authors opted not to use the students’ peer feedback scoring for their analysis as they felt there were inconsistency in scoring and instead two of the project researchers scored all the student posts and these were used to assess the first research question.

In evaluating the impact of peer feedback on the quality of student postings. Ertmer et. al (2007) compared the average scores on postings during the instructor feedback period (M=1.31) to that during the peer feedback period (M=1.33).  The data showed no significance difference in the quality of postings . Quality did not improve or decrease when compared between the forms suggesting that “peer feedback may be effective in maintaining quality…once a particular level of quality has been reached” (Ertmer et. al , 2007, p 421-422). These results were then compared to qualitative data from interviews conducted during the peer feedback period. Student interview responses, the authors argue, showed that students felt they used the peer feedback to improve their writing. In their discussion of their paper, the authors present that the lack of change in quality may be attributed to several factors including the variability in posting quality between required and optional posts (all of which were included in the tabulations), use of a limited post scoring system (two levels only), and discussion questions which were not designed intentionally to elicit higher-level analyses.

In evaluating the perception of the value of receiving peer versus instructor feedback as well the value of giving feedback, came from data of the pre- and post surveys as well as the interview responses. Overall the authors noted that students surveys showed a significant increase in the perceived importance of feedback from the start of the course to the end. But that overall feedback from the instructor was perceived as being more important than peer feedback at both the beginning and end of the course. Interview responses indicated to the authors that this may stem from student perceptions of the overall quality peer feedback and the belief that bias may be present in peer feedback. however despite this, students within the study did feel as if peer feedback was valued. This is reflected also in the fact that students valued giving and receiving feedback as part of their learning process. In discussing the greater perceived value for instructor feedback,  the authors noted that this was what was seen in other studies but that factors such as the up to two week delay in getting peer feedback (due to instructor intermediate processing) may have contributed to students perceiving this as being less timely and therefore of less value. In addition, concern about impact on grades (since peer feedback was incorporated into peer grades for the boards) may have also increased the anxiety associated with providing and receiving peer feedback.

In reflecting on the limitations of their study, the authors acknowledge the issues presented by a small study of relatively short duration and consider that future work should include more training for students on both the benefit of peer feedback and how to effectively rate peers feedback.  From this the authors conclude that feedback in general is of value in online courses and that, based on interview, students valued and learned from peer feedback even if their perceived of instructor feedback as being more important. They wrapped up their paper, by providing some general recommendations faculty could consider when trying to implement peer feedback in their online courses.

In examining this work, the use of both qualitative and quantitative data to reflect on three specific research questions was well situated.  The fact that this is an exploratory study suggests the authors are seeking to improve upon the general development of assessing feedback. Given this, there were several aspects of the study which were problematic which I think could be better addressed in future studies. In considering the impact of feedback, the fact that feedback was delayed in reaching the recipient (for up to two weeks) makes one question how much was the actual scoring of posts a measurement of the impact of the feedback the student received from peers (since these were delayed) versus the general progress of the student in developing their own self-regulating abilities after having received faculty feedback for the first five weeks of the term. Secondly, in reflecting on the discussion question design, the author’s noted that issues of construction may have limited how much students were prompted to approach the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy in their responses since many of the questions “were not particularly conducive to high-level responses” Ertmer et. al , 2007, p 426).  I would have liked to have seen a breakdown data between the differing discussions to see if perhaps there is a pattern that is being lost due to some underperforming questions. In addition, when reflecting on use of feedback and the scoring system, the authors assumed familiarity with using Bloom’s taxonomy  given their study population but, given that several indicated problems in using the system to score posts, there may be underlying population variations which could perhaps be impacting their data. Overall I would be interested in seeing if a expanded version of this study addressing the limitations noted by the authors and above could be applied to a larger population of undergraduates to see if these patterns hold true to lower level students.

 

Designing Effective Qualitative Research

Hoepfl, M. C. (1997) Choosing qualitative research: A primer for technology education researchers. Journal of Technology Education, 9, 47–63

According to Hoepfl (1997), research in technology education has largely relied on quantitative research, possibly due to its own limitations in knowledge and skill on qualitative research design. Desiring to increase the implementation of qualitatively designed research, Hoepfl offers a “primer” on the purpose, processes and practice of qualitative research. Presenting qualitative research as expanding knowledge beyond what quantitative can achieve, Hoepfl (1997) sees it as having three critical purposes. First it can help understand issues about which little is known. Secondly it can offer new insight on what we already know. Thirdly, qualitative research can more easily convey the depth of data beyond what quantitative can. In addition, since qualitative data is often presented in ways which are similar to how people experience their world, he offers that it finds greater resonance with the reader. With regard to the processes of qualitative research, Hoepfl (1997) denotes that due to its nature, qualitative research design requires different consideration  as the “particular design of a qualitative study depends on the purpose of the inquiry, what information will be most useful, and what information will have the most credibility” (p.50). This leads to a flexibility – not finality – of research strategy before data collection and a de-emphasis on the confidence of data being a result solely of random sampling strategies and numbers. This flexibility in design strategy means a great deal of thought must be made on how to best situate data collection with recognition that actions in field may require adjustments of design as some questions fail or if new patterns emerge. In terms of strategies, the author offers up purposeful sampling options and discusses how maximum variation sampling may lead to both depth of description and sensitivity for emergent pattern recognition. He also outlines some of the various forms of data available in qualitative research and the stages of data analysis. In doing this, Hoepfl (1997) recognizes that qualitative data is much more difficult to collect and analyze than quantitative data and that often the research may require numerous cyclical movements through the various stages of collection and analysis. Importantly he addresses the practices of the researcher and reviewer in considering authority and trustworthiness in qualitative research by examining issues of credibility, transferability, dependability and confirmability.

In examining Hoepfl’s work, he offers a quality start to understanding the strengths and struggles of qualitative research. He correctly argues that the ability for qualitative research to have increasing acceptance within technology education rests on the ability of the researcher to address the questions of authority and trustworthiness which are more easily (albeit possibly erroneous) accepted in quantitative research. However  there were other aspects which are inherent in qualitative research which he gives almost no treatment to at all. These include consideration of  how relationships become built and defined between subjects and researcher and the impacts these can have on subject behavior. Hoepfl (1997) makes mention of these relationships and the risk of altering participant behavior denoting that “the researcher must be aware of, and work to minimize.” (p.  53) but  he offers no process for either recognizing when this occurs within the data nor how to actually go about minimizing this.  When it comes to the ethics of human subject interaction, Hoepfl (1997)  denotes that “the researcher must consider the legal and ethical responsibilities associated with naturalistic observation” (p. 53) but earlier offered that limiting the knowledge of the researcher’s identity and purpose or even hiding them may be appropriate. This is a problematic statement given informed consent guidelines and outlines a key aspect of information missing in this primer – that of how to consider human subject research ethics within qualitative research design. Since Hoepfl is offering a general guide to qualitative research and since the existence of IRB’s and the primacy guidelines of informed consent were established in 1974 by the National Research Act,  one would have expected at least some consideration of those guidelines, a mentioning of informed consent, or at least a discussion of how to handle the sensitive data that may come with qualitative data collection.

In reflecting on the applicability of Hoepfl’s work to my research interests, the emphasis on what qualitative research can bring to the educational technology table is enlightening as I did not recognize how much of a new approach this was to education as it was something of a staple to my anthropological education. Of particular interest was Hoepfl discussion of maximum variation sampling. He cites Patton in saying

“The maximum variation sampling strategy turns that apparent weakness into a strength by applying the following logic: Any common patterns that emerge from great variation are of particular interest and value in capturing the core experiences and central, shared aspects or impacts of a program” (Hoepfl, 1997 p.52)

This statement and his discussion of trustworthiness connected to a recent article I read on generalizing in educational research written by Ercikan and Roth’s (2014). In particular, the authors discuss the reliance on quantitative research for its supposed ability to be generalized but then break down this assumption to argue that qualitative data actually has more applicability since, if properly designed, can create essentialist generalizations. These are:

“the result of a systematic interrogation of “the particular case by constituting it as a ‘particular instance of the possible’… in order to extract general or invariant properties….In this approach, every case is taken as expressing the underlying law or laws; the approach intends to identify invariants in phenomena that, on the surface, look like they have little or nothing in common”(p. 10).

Thus by looking at “central, shared aspects” denoted by Hoepfl through maximum variation sampling and discerning the essential aspects which underlie the patterns, qualitative research could “identify the work and processes that produce phenomena.” Once this is established, the testability of the generalization is done by examining it to any other case study. If issues of population heterogeneity are also considered within the design of the qualitative data collection, the authors then argue that the ability to generalize from data is potentially greater with qualitative research.

Additional References

Ercikan, K. and Roth W-M (2014) Limits of Generalizing in Education Research: Why Criteria for Research Generalization Should Include Population Heterogeneity and Uses of Knowledge Claims. Teachers College Record Volume 116 (5): 1-28

Using A Learning Ecology Perspective

Barron, B. (2006). Interest and self-sustained learning as catalysts of development: A learning ecology perspective. Human Development, 49, 193-224.

Not all learning is done in school. While such a statement may seem obvious, Barron (2006) denotes that studies of learning often focus specifically on formal atmospheres of learning (schools and labs) and in doing so miss the big picture of how a learner will co-op and connect various resources, social networks, activities and interactions together to create a landscape where their learning takes place.  Using a learning ecology framework, the author desires to understand how exactly a learner may go about learning by examining the multiple contexts and resources they have available to them.  Learning ecology is “the set of contexts found in physical and virtual spaces that provide opportunities for learning.” (Barron, 2006)  By understanding how the learner negotiates this landscapes for learning that surround them, the author believes educators can think more broadly about ways to connect in-class and outside learning together. Using qualitative interviews with students and their families as the focal point of her research, Barron (2006) focuses on creating “portraits of learning about technology” (p 202) to better understand how interest is found and then self-sustained through several contexts. Through this work she demonstrates that there is not one means by which a student may develop interest and maintain learning but that common themes are prevalent. Among her case studies, Barron (2006) outlines five modes of self-initiated learning. These include finding text-based resources to gain knowledge, building knowledge networks for mentoring and gaining opportunities, creating interactive activities to promote self-learning, seeking out structured learning through classes and workshops, and exploring media to learn and find examples of interests.  By examining the interplay of these various strategies, the Barron (2006) demonstrates how the learner was an active participant in constructing their own learning landscape such that “learning was distributed across activities and resources” (p. 218). Because of this Barron (2006) argues that researchers should consider “the interconnections and complex relations between formal learning experiences provided by schools and the informal learning experienced that students encounter in contexts outside of school” (p 217).

To me, the strengths in Barron’s work come from three areas. First, by using the foundation of learning ecology as “a dynamic entity,” which is shaped by a variety of interconnected interactions and interfaces, she is centering the discussion of learning on the learner and how they are an active agent using interest to seek out new sources and applications for knowledge. Secondly, by emphasizing that what a student accesses outside of school may be as, if not more, critical to fostering their own learning, Barron suggests that the science of learning needs to consider how to take in and study these other contexts along side what is done in formal educational settings. Thirdly, by approaching this from a interview perspective, Barron demonstrates how qualitative data enables a deeper understanding of the how and why learning can occur. Such a methodology is time and analysis intensive and does limit the researcher in what they can accomplish. In Barron’s case, she only presents three case studies for analysis and it would be interesting and beneficial to see how these same five factors of self-initiated learning are present throughout the larger in-depth interviews she conducted and if specific variations are present based on different population demographics.

For me, this work is extremely interesting for how it connects to what I understand as I enter the field of education from the field of anthropology.  In anthropology, the marrying of qualitative and quantitative data has always been considered necessary to better understand human endeavors – including that how we learn and what impacts that learning.  In anthropology, the human is not only a receptor of culture but actively participates in the transformation of that culture and thus their agency is a given. Finally, the examination of the interconnections of contexts and the interplay between them mirrors the integrative nature by which humans operate in their world.  Thus the learning ecology perspective married to a qualitative data collection technique seems to hold great potential for deeper exploration of how learning occurs and what impacts technology can have in that process.