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Moderate, monitor or leave well alone?

by Ross Galloway
University of Edinburgh

Talking point: When you're using a PeerWise activity in your course, what do you do in terms of intervening in the students' questions, answers and discussions?

When I tell someone about PeerWise for the first time, more often than not their first question is "But what if the students submit something that's wrong?" My answer? "I don't worry about it."

As instructors, it seems to me that there are broadly three approaches we can take to administering our PeerWise repositories: you can moderate them, checking every question for correctness; you can monitor them, not explicitly checking everything but keeping a close eye out and intervening if you spot something egregiously incorrect; or you can leave well alone, and let the students look after themselves. My personal preference is for the last of these options, but plenty of people seem to recoil in horror when I tell them that. However, I would contend that not only can we legitimately not intervene at all, we definitely shouldn't. Here's why:

An instructor-free PeerWise space explicitly belongs to the students, and they have full responsibility for its contents. If they do spot an error, it's up to them to resolve it: the teacher isn't going to come along and fix it for them. I think this gives a much greater sense of ownership to the students, with corresponding greater commitment. Plus, deciding whether something really is an error or not, and why, can spawn some great, in-depth discussions in the comments threads, which I would argue are some of the most potent learning opportunities offered by PeerWise. This would be lost if we swept in, helicopter-like, to rescue the students all the time.

My experience in courses I have run is that less than a tenth of the submitted material has obvious errors, and from what has been reported this ratio seems to be broadly similar in other courses elsewhere. A good number of these problems do get identified and fixed by the students. "But not all," I hear you say. True, not all. A small proportion of incorrect content does persist. But I've made my peace with that: students are smart people, and they understand the context very well - they know it's a student-generated resource, and not everything in it is guaranteed to be correct. Besides, it's not like PeerWise is the only place students might come across incorrect ideas: informal study groups in the library, the cafe or on Wikipedia are widespread, and no-one is moderating those...

I believe that as instructors we should be more relaxed about this sort of thing: any potential disadvantages of student mistakes are outweighed by the intellectual challenges of self and peer assessment, and taking responsibility for their own learning. PeerWise is a great space for students to make their own contributions to their course, and some of them really push the boundaries of creativity and sophistication. Don't inhibit them by peering over their shoulder, virtual 'red pen' at the ready.

So...what do you do in your courses? Have you changed what you do as a result of something that has happened? Would you prefer to do something different but have concerns or reservations? Join the debate!

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