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OU academic awarded Commonwealth of Learning Chair

Denise Whitelock, with blonde hair and a blue blouse, looking at the camera

An OU academic has received one of five Commonwealth of Learning (COL) Chairs; a prestigious honorary appointment aimed at developing technology-enhanced education.

Professor Denise Whitelock, Director of the OU’s Institute of Educational Technology (IET), was awarded a Chair for a three-year term, for her research into digital assessment and automatic feedback, which the panel said has become more important since the outbreak of COVID-19.

Professor Whitelock said: “I am very honoured and humbled to receive this recognition from the Commonwealth of Learning. I am delighted with this most recent contribution to the academic excellence of The Open University.”

The Commonwealth of Learning appoints distinguished experts as COL Chairs to advance research, innovation and thought leadership in COL’s fields of competence.

Track record in automatic assessment

Professor Whitelock’s impressive credentials qualified her for this appointment. As well as being Director of IET, she continues her research and builds automatic assessment systems and has led bids that have secured £4M of funding.

One of these is the European funded TeSLA project (€400,000) which developed an adaptive trust-based e-assessment system to ensure learner authentication and authorship in online and blended learning environments. This system aimed to avoid the time and space limitations of place-based examinations and has important implications for the Higher Education sector as a whole. TeSLA allows students, including those declaring disabilities, to sit examinations in their own home without invigilation. As part of this project, she chaired an Assessment and Feedback Special Interest Group (SIG) bringing experts and practitioners together to address the problem of student plagiarism and to bid for further funds to address this challenge.

Professor Whitelock has also led another automatic assessment project, namely the Supportive Automated Feedback for Short Essays research funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council with Oxford University, providing students with automatic feedback on electronic drafts of their assignments supplementing tutor support, which generated two prize-winning publications. The Spanish Government also funded her research to understand the role of automatic feedback systems to support students with chronic illness. Findings demonstrated how multi-disciplinary support for children hospitalised with chronic conditions could be assisted with new technologies.

Towards a global network of Digital Assessment Pioneers

The proposal that Professor Whitelock submitted for the COL Chair builds upon the work she started as an Assessment and Feedback Special Interest Group (SIG) within the European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction (EARLI) and more recently in the OpenTEL research group at the OU.

Her recent work on the Skills for Prosperity Project, based in Kenya, which developed a training solution for Kenyan university staff to bring their training online, has highlighted the need for a more global network of Digital Assessment Pioneers, which would include both developers, educators and educational technologists embracing a multidisciplinary approach to supporting distance students’ learning.

“This is important, firstly because personalised, timely feedback can support both retention and progression for learning online at a distance,” she said. “Secondly, there is a growing need to address the problems of plagiarism, especially with the launch by OpenAI of ChatGPT a language-generation model, which can write student assignments for them.”

The COL Chair is an ideal role for Professor Whitelock to combine this and her vast networks, to establish a larger community of Digital Assessment Pioneers.

Read more about the new COL Chairs

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