Monthly Archives: November 2010

Electronic Marking using a Tablet Input Device

As part of a pilot I marked a bunch of assignments recently using a tablet input device.

The technology used was a Wacom Bamboo Tablet and Pen along with Xournal note taking software. I used Ubuntu 10.04 as the operating system, the Bamboo tablet worked out of the box. The Xournal software is cross platform so I don’t expect the experience to be any different on other platforms.

In order to provide students with a single document at the end I concatenated the marking matrix with the student’s submission using pdftk and marked up both using the pen in Xournal and exported the output in PDF format.

Good points:

  • The novelty of a new input form makes the process more fun.
  • Doing the task on screen means that you don’t have to fiddle with envelopes (This is perhaps only an issue at my employer but some time ago there was an edict that student’s work had to be contained in brown envelopes in case someone unauthorised could see it and cause lasting and irreversible psychological damage so a significant amount of marking time is used in taking things in and out of envelopes…)
  • You can type comments on the work as well as doing this freehand which means you don’t have to write the same thing out again and again.
  • Rubbing out your writing is easy.
  • The output looks quite professional.
  • With the appropriate software the administrative processes could be automated.
  • The student’s diagrams appear in colour, quite often they forget that colour scales don’t make any sense in black and white and end up producing rubbish that gets marked down.

Bad points:

  • The writing area on the pen/tablet is small and represents the whole screen, small movements are required and writing in the margins is tricky.  I found I had to zoom the document to one paragraph per screen to get good quality handwriting and this makes getting an overview of the work harder without lots of zooming and scrolling.
  • The quality of my handwriting is much poorer than with an ordinary pen, but people complain about my ordinary pen handwriting as well.
  • At present there is a great deal of electronic fiddling: concatenating the marking matrix, naming the PDF files correctly, converting from Word format for students who don’t follow instructions and so on.
  • The marking time is comparable to doing it with an ink pen, I found it took a little longer but I probably wrote more on the page.  Students complain about a lack of feedback in higher education so I like to cover every page with red ink so they get value.

Overall I am quite enthusiastic about the approach largely because of the lack of envelopes and paper to cart around, reduction in admin time and the potential to use colour diagrams. I also like the way the marked up PDF looks.

How to prepend a PDF to a bunch of other PDFs

Dear Reader,

Imagine that you are entering a brave new world where marking is being doing using PDF submissions, Xournal and one of those tablet input pens.  In order to give out only one document to the students you think it is a good idea to prepend the marking and feedback matrix to your student’s PDF submissions.

Using the excellent pdftk software and some bash scripting this can be done easily.  Observe:

# puts marking matrix in front of PDF for all PDFs in a directory

if [ -z “$1” ]; then
echo usage: $0 markingmatrix.pdf


for FILENAME in $( ls *.pdf)
pdftk $MATRIX $FILENAME cat output matrix_$FILENAME
rm matrix_$MATRIX

This doesn’t of course solve the problem of your feedback looking like it was written by a three year old since the tablet is the size of a postcard and your screen is considerably bigger…. however it does make the electronic marking process a bit easier.