“People are just as wonderful as sunsets if you let them be. When I look at a sunset, I don't find myself saying, "Soften the orange a bit on the right hand corner." I don't try to control a sunset. I watch with awe as it unfolds.” (Carl Rogers)

Friday, 4 February 2011

Effective assessment in a digital age

I went to an interesting JISC workshop about assessment yesterday. The workshop started from where the participants were - what are our assessment strengths and what the challenges, going on to a good look at the links between assessment and learning (that we should even do that tells its own story!). In the afternoon, there was a look at two case studies around technology-based approaches - and we were asked in what ways technology can help you rethink your curriculum design in relation to assessment and feedback.

I was expecting to come away with some nifty tech treats to think about and implement on return, the definitive e-feedback tool or something - instead, because I ended up grumpily challenging much of what I was finding, I came away with a more considered global view of some of the 'challenges' of our educational system. JISC state that assessment lies at the heart of the learning experience - I would qualify that by saying it SHOULD lie at the heart of the learning experience, but I'm not convinced that it actually does.

I start from the philosophical position of humanistic education, which puts the student (human being) right at the centre and actually allows teachers to be themselves, to be free and human - which is, I believe, the stated aim of Universities world-wide (facilitated learning, student-centred learning and so on). However, teachers do not seem to have much freedom to develop their assessment in ways that would align more closely with their students' learning (increasing 'standardisation', 'quality' procedures etc). This may be a function of the way our institutions seem to have grown beyond manageable sizes, leaving a space for professional 'managers' to intervene.

And the existence of that very group of managerial professionals points to another issue with our outsized institutions - the presence of numerous interest groups, all vying for control and talking past each other. Many of our exercises were carried out at our workshop tables with colleagues from other institutions (the people on my table were great fun, a real joy - often the 'added value' of these workshops!) - one of which table would approach the exercise as 'students', one as 'teachers/support professionals', the last as 'managers/top brass'. Part way through the last of these exercises I realised that the exercise was futile because it really depended on a dialogue between ALL THREE INTEREST GROUPS TOGETHER. And that is one of the key things I brought away with me from the workshop - Universities pay lip service to dialogue in curriculum and learning development, but until there is a real and transparent meeting of minds from all parties involved in developing the learning environment, very little real and progressive change will take place.

And change really does need to take place - we are making overtures to '21st Century Education' whilst still rolling along with 19th Century models of teaching that are increasingly not fit for purpose. We all need to stop a while and take a good look - together! - at what it is that we're doing and what it is that we'd like to be doing.

And this is the point at which I take some encouragement from technology. So, the workshop was called 'Assessment in the digital age' - and we ask how can technology help with feedback and assessment? By collecting assignments (not to be undervalued in this area of mass HE), marking assignments and giving feedback. I think it's all qualified and dependant on context, but... those are quite small things in the overall system and I think the biggest thing that technology might actually do is become something of a trojan horse for change - if by introducing new technologies for learning, it forces a review of the way we learn and teach and ARE, then it is possible that we can move towards an education system more appropriate to our age (or to the way we humans actually do learn things). And the pre-condition for this (because it cannot be done by 'champions' beavering away in isolated pockets of 'good practice') is an honest joint dialogue at all levels of the system.

So, not what I expected, but a really good day (and peanut butter cakes :-)

Best 'things' I brought away with me:

  1. JISC booklet 'Effective assessment in a digital age' which you can download, print or order a (nice and glossy) printed copy here:

  2. A single A4 sheet put together by Mark Russell of Hertforshire University entitled 'Some Principles relating to effective assessment and feedback' - this collects together some of the key principles, all research-informed, which all of us need to inform our assessment/feedback practise - you can look at this and choose one...

UPDATE: JISC have been kind enough to make all their workshop materials available (the document I refer to in 2 (above) is called 'principles_guidance.docx): http://jiscdesignstudio.pbworks.com/w/page/33596916/Effective-Assessment-in-a-Digital-Age-Workshops


    1. Interesting
      I we like to see the hertz doc pls

    2. Well, so say JISC and I understand what they're saying - assessment, allied with technology, can work as a pivotal mechanism for change - but I agree with you, Oliver. We need to question all of our assumptions in a system that doesn't feel like it's working for human beings, when something like two thirds of UKHE students are extrinsically motivated (hence your dispiriting seminar experience). I take great heart from the recent student protests, where students organised their own schedule of seminars and lectures, provided by sympathetic academics - an example of organic humanistic education right at the heart of the institution. Perhaps we can learn from them!

    3. Hi Jules, it was a paper version and I'm afraid I've no idea where it is now! I'll have more of a look round and if I find it I'll pass it on.
      Cheers, Bill


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