Making that “insurmountable” problem crystal clear…

Too many comments... we have been dealing with all sorts of recursion glitches lately but these have been resolved, leaving more fundamental problems.

Pat and I had another quick meeting last week to discuss how we take the development of the Feedback widget further in the short time we have left for development. In my last post, I mentioned that there might be fundamental problem with the widget that proves insurmountable. In this post, I’m going to lay out what the problem is and explain some of the work-arounds Pat and I thought might be appropriate.


The problem is really two-fold and has to do with the selection of the text a user makes when leaving a comment on a portfolio. Suppose that on one an imaginary user’s portfolio pages we find a note on a meeting the user attended:

At this personal tutor meeting, it was agreed that I would aim to reflect on why I received the grades I did and how I can work to improve and get one grade higher for my next assignment. I will work to improve all my grades in this way.

Then suppose that an imaginary tutor wants to use the widget to select the phrase “work to improve” and leave a comment on it. He or she might, for example, leave a comment asking what the student means by this phrase and requesting more details. Here are the two facets of the problem with the widget at the moment:

  1. As we can see the phrase “work to improve” appears twice in the text. How does our widget know, when we come back to this page, which one it should target? Or should the widget leave the tutor’s comment by both/all instances of the phrase?
  2. What happens when the user alters the page? This is especially likely given tutors are likely to use the widget suggest changes or improvements. Here, for example, the tutor’s comment could easily be interpreted as a request to remove the phrase “work to improve” and replace it with more specific information. If the student then follows this interpretation of the feedback, the widget will no longer be able attach the comment to the original phrase since it will no longer exist.


And when we combine those two facets we come to the “gem” of the problem:

  • The two facets should make the problem "crystal clear" (Credit: NASA / Marshall; click on image for web-source.)

    Worse still, if a page is altered by the e-portfolio, comments that were attached to phrases that are subsequently removed, might be attached to other instances of the phrase. The tutor may have had no qualms with these instances of the phrase, leaving their feedback (now erroneously attached to another part of the page) open to serious misinterpretation!



Finding some hooks will be the next problem... (Click on image to see attributions.)

In short, we could say that the problem is about “hooks” — we need specific hooks on the page that we can hang comments from. The widget cannot change the page in the e-portfolio; it can only hang things from it. So we are dependent on whatever is already there and whatever is already there may not be clearly marked (facet 1) and may be subject to change by the e-portfolio’s author (facet 2).

In the next post or two, I hope to be able to present a solution or workaround to this problem.

About Guy

I am currently Enhancement Officer (for Education Technologies) at the University of Reading. I am also studying for a Masters in Research at the University's School of Systems Engineering.
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