Pedagogy before technology: A mission to be educators’ sidekick
FeedbackFruits is an ed-tech company, founded in 2012 at the Technical University of Delft, in the Netherlands. Deep inside a small room of the Physics department, the now-CEO and co-founder Ewoud de Kok started redesigning his master’s curriculum in Sustainability Technology with a clear goal in mind: “In education, communication should not be a one-way only system!” With this goal, FeedbackFruits was born. Since then, the company has become one of the most important drivers towards the transformation towards digital and active learning at the best universities worldwide.
FeedbackFruits Tool Suite: An innovative pedagogical solution
The FeedbackFruits tool suite is a uniform suite of pedagogical solutions that can be seamlessly incorporated and displayed within Canvas through LTI and API integrations. By supporting a vast range of learning designs, FeedbackFruits is able to help educators enhance their courses with teaching tools that are innovative, easy to use, and adaptable to many different teaching styles. However, driving digital transformation has not always been easy; for a long time, online learning was seen as an adjacent educational component that could never match the experience of a classroom. 
Then, the pandemic hit, forcing educators to re-evaluate the shape and the future of education. Suddenly, with online learning becoming the norm, digital transformation appeared closer and closer, providing the opportunity to act and help as many educators as possible adjust to the new conditions. While the pandemic cast a dark cloud of insecurity, hardship, and uncertainty, it also brought hope for the higher education sector to bring progressive, inclusive, student-centered education to fruition. With the shift to online learning, educators discovered new ways of teaching and engaging their students.
Ideas for innovative education were flowing, and educational institutions were eager to make them a reality, and we were just as eager to help them reach their goals. For us, it has always been crucial that the practices we aim to cultivate reflect the lived experience of the higher education community and respond to the most pressing needs faced by the sector. Educational technology should not be created in a vacuum. That is why we continuously collaborate and connect with the higher education community to learn about their insights as part of our DoTank framework.
During our collaboration with industry professionals and faculties over the past 18 months, we were able to identify some of the main shifts and challenges the sector faces, and present evidence-based solutions.
1. Targeting lifelong skills through collaboration
During the past 18 months, our collaboration with members of the higher education community revealed that course design and learning outcomes are increasingly focused on lifelong skill development compared to the years before. This shift is very much in line with the opinion of numerous experts [2; 3; 4] according to whom, honing lifelong skills should hold as much importance in the curriculum as discipline-specific content. Lifelong skills such as critical thinking, collaboration, or communication, while not directly related to the core learning content, have an overwhelmingly positive impact on students’ performance and are deemed essential to future professional success.
While we are pleased to see the tide turning, we notice that many educators still find it difficult to reconcile the discipline-specific elements of the curriculum with more ambiguous, higher-order thinking skills, especially when access to offline interactions remains limited. This is where technology might offer a helping, if non-corporeal, hand. By providing both teachers and students with a platform that facilitates collaboration, digital tools can aid students in developing their communication skills, thus getting them ready for the world of work and greatly enhancing the overall learning process.
At FeedbackFruits, we are committed to enabling meaningful online collaboration. In 2019, following our collaboration with MITx instructors, we developed our Discussion Assignment Tool. Using the tool’s platform for online discussion, instructors at MITx scaled collaboration for their 12-month MOOC. As a result, the students not only engaged more actively with the core course material but also developed those lifelong skills that would ensure their success outside the classroom.
2. Emphasizing feedback
While collaboration remains essential to securing student success, its successful implementation requires a few core elements. One of the most crucial components of meaningful collaboration — peer feedback — has in the recent period become more recognized by experts and practitioners alike for the benefits it carries.  Peer feedback can not only “reduce the gap between the current performance and the desired outcomes” , but has also been proven to enhance understanding and motivation . Bearing all this in mind, we were highly impressed by the rapid incorporation of innovative, feedback-focused learning designs we had observed during our collaboration with higher education institutions, primarily in North America. However, we found that the educators who execute peer assessment activities are hesitant to actually show students the feedback they received for fear of lowering their self-esteem. Issues like these could be solved by conducting an in-depth explanation of the feedback values and best practices. In our experience, the amount of work that is required to ensure quality feedback often results in instructors’ unwillingness to adopt feedback-focused learning solutions. It becomes increasingly clear that in order to cultivate quality peer feedback, the teachers and the students need to be ready to change their mindset as well as be provided with the right tools.
Our Peer Review tool, which enables students to provide feedback to their peers on deliverables, has been used by educators at the University of Adelaide to stimulate rich and reflective feedback on written assignments. Upon evaluation, the tool was noted to have inspired students to generate constructive, detailed, and actionable feedback, while having reduced the teacher’s workload at the same time. As a result, not only did the students’ work improve, but their feedback quality and communication skills as well.
3. Adopting a more student-centered approach to assessment
There are numerous effective ways of ensuring meaningful online collaboration among students, but centering lifelong skills also comes with its challenges, both in terms of online setup and the restrictions of curriculum design. The ambiguity of lifelong skills and their loose relation with the core course elements exacerbate the challenge of promoting them to official learning objectives. Adding to that challenge are the assessment methods that leave little room for properly grading the more abstract skills. As a result, making time for the students to learn lifelong skills and evaluating their progress seems an impossible feat. Assessing lifelong skills requires a holistic approach to grading, one that includes students’ knowledge, abilities, values, and habits of mind that move beyond classroom performance.  In the era of the global pandemic, when supplying the numeric mark with everyday feedback and face-to-face evaluation is significantly hampered, online assessment cannot be restricted to numbers -- it needs to communicate something meaningful to the student and encourage growth. Effective, continuous evaluation that positively impacts students needs to consist of both summative assessment (assigning a grade after each learning segment) and formative assessment (continuous, interactive evaluation). 
We noticed a need for alternative online assessment methods that prioritize quality over quantity and can seamlessly accommodate different learning types. While implementing progressive practices in digital environments might seem overwhelming, we believe the lack of geographical and physical barriers can be seen as an advantage when it comes to assessment. Educational technology provides ways to conveniently integrate summative and formative assessment in an online setting, thus making grading clearer, more streamlined, and effective.
4. Going HyFlex (& is it now a permanent requirement?)
In order to ensure both equal access to education and the upkeep of the previously mentioned progressive practices, more and more institutions are turning to the HyFlex model this fall.  The HyFlex model, in which the instructor is simultaneously teaching to the students in the classroom and those who are attending remotely, combines the inclusive features of online learning with the longed-for joys of offline learning. This setup is able to accommodate both the students who thrive in the physical classroom and those for whom remote learning is either the preferred or the only way. The HyFlex model gets the best of both worlds, thus making education more flexible, adaptable, and accessible.
However, the enthusiasm surrounding HyFlex is accompanied by a significant dose of anxiety when it comes to hybrid course design. In our conversations, we noted that many teachers expressed their worry about maintaining engagement in the face of ever-shifting formats. Additionally, designing a course that accommodates both synchronous and asynchronous learning requires a potentially more laborious approach than focusing on just one of the teaching setups. In our opinion, the progressively blurring distinction between asynchronous and synchronous learning should make us more hopeful than fearful. The rise of HyFlex is an opportunity for higher education institutions to shift their curriculum design focus from the instructor’s learning goals to the diverse needs of students, thus taking an important step towards accessibility and inclusivity in education. HyFlex is all about releasing the course design from the constraints of a detailed syllabus and adopting a “less is more” approach — one that allows for adaptability, reduces stress, and remains ripe for continuous progress.
Driving pedagogical transformation at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management
The challenges faced by higher education today are by no means easy to combat, but we believe that by sharing a commitment to pedagogical innovation, we are able to drive digital transformation in such a way that it allows the institutions not only to adapt to the world but to continuously progress along with it. In our InstructureCon session, we will be introducing a use case from one of our partner institutions, whose collaboration with FeedbackFruits serves as a perfect example of the innovative education we want to see in the world - the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management (UM-CSM).
Would you like to learn about how an instructor at the Carlson School used our tools to drive digital transformation at his institution? Join us in our InstructureCon 2021 session to hear all about his use case and share your ideas on educational innovation. We hope to see you there!
Join our session on driving digital transformation with Ewoud de Kok (CEO FeedbackFruits) and Tony Leisen (University of Minnesota, Carlson School of Business)
- Beth McMurtrie & Beckie Supiano (2021), The Future of Teaching, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inc.
- Colby, A., Ehrlich, T., Beaumont, E., & Stephens, J. (2003). Educating citizens: Preparing America’s undergraduates for lives of moral and civic responsibility. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
- https://feedbackfruits.com/blog/online-summative-and-formative-assessment-myth s-and-strategies