Monday, January 27, 2014

Virtual Education: A Question of Online Assessment: Part I

One of the most obvious questions and perhaps a dilemma is how do we assess the achievement of the online learner. A first inclination might be to say that we assess the online learner the same way as we would in a brick and mortar school. However, there are two caveats here:
  1. Assessment must stem from a guiding vision for where the learning of students should take them. If we say simplistically that it should enable them to get gainful employment in the every day world then what we are really talking about is training. This is best accomplished through institutions such as colleges whose mission is that very purpose. If we say that assessment, such as assessment for learning is to give students feedback so that they improve their learning skills which enables them to reach higher levels of learning and thus provides them more choices and more control over the direction that their life takes, them we are speaking of something much grander in scale and it is something that not only benefits the student but benefits the society which they will live their future in. The malaise that many global societies find themselves in is the fact that many people in many countries are born into debt and their children also see no hope and only debt ridden future for themselves. So, what is a solution for this? How can we break this cycle of despair that seems to be so pervasive, especially in the countries comprising the EU? Part of the answer lies in the education of our children. We need to stop treating children as widgets on an assembly line who undergo numerous quality control measures to see who measures up and who needs to be discarded to the lower levels of our societies. This negative approach to education serves only one purpose that being to create workers and consumers. This is the industrial model of education at its worst. This model needs to be replaced with one that sees students as real people and not just student numbers. It needs to be replaced with a model that fosters innovation, cherishes student creativity and sees the students as people who believe that they can change the future and that their efforts are valued in using their skills for the common good of all people in their particular society. Is assessment important in a new model with such a vision? Absolutely! The problem has never been about doing assessment of the achievement of students. The problem has been and continues to be what our motives for doing the assessment are? For example, one of the more heated debates in education has been the use of standardized testing. In the United States, educators are well aware of the NCLB (No Child Left Behind) philosophy that the Department of Education has pushed on the education system. Although the visible motive seems like a noble one, is it really the true motive for the policy? In a country such as Canada, many educational initiatives are politically motivated with such motives as improving the election prospects of a governing party, breaking teacher federations' power over educators and even to determine how resources will be distributed thus creating have and have not schools. The other questions concerning standardized tests are: (a) Who has access to the data from the tests, (b) Who interprets the results, and (c) how will the results be used? Our motives for assessment impact all of our decisions in regards to it. It is naive to believe that objectivity, as the testing establishment would have you believe, has any part in this.
  2. The second caveat in regards to assessment is that in an online environment,assessment must change to take into account the type of environment  that assessment is done in. Very often, some very probing and valid questions are leveled at the online education system. For example: (a) If the student is in an online course, how can you be sure that the unit quiz in the course that he or she is enrolled in is being done by that student and not by his or her mother, father, older genius brother or sister?, (b) How can you be sure that the student who takes the final exam didn't purchase the final exam questions from another student? and (c) How can you be sure that the position paper being submitted for assessment of learning was not the efforts of someone else? The nature of these questions imply a disturbing perspective which is moral in nature. Moral relativism has created this scenario that suggests that there is no standard set  of "rights" and "wrongs" in dealing with others. This has led to moral confusion in which you can meet a student who sees absolutely nothing wrong is copying something word for word from the internet and then asking for it to be assessed. They will even defend their decision as a right since we must respect their moral perspective on this and not punishing them for acting according to their conviction. Sounds absurd doesn't it? Yet this is the environment we have created in many societies and our politicians, our leaders set these examples daily.
Okay, what are some ideas that an educator can use to counter these attitudes in an online education environment? These are just some ideas and are not perfect by far but have worked:
  1. With respect to the design of a unit quiz, always aim for the higher cognitive skills for assessment. It is not what you know that is important but rather how you use what you know to interpret or analyze a scenario. Many people dislike the use of multiple choice quizzes and often refer to them as "multiple guess" but that says more about the inadequacy of the quiz designer than it does of the idea of using multiple choice questions. In using the Internet, there is a multitude of videos, pictures, animations, simulations...etc. that can be used as a basis for questions dealing with analysis, interpretation, synthesis..etc. The important point is to challenge the student to effectively demonstrate that they understand what they have learned.
  2. Always make the quizzes timed events and only one chance to complete. Have a process in place if a student wishes to appeal.
  3. No student should get the same quiz. The use of question databanks that will randomize the creation of quizzes eliminates the problem of one student obtaining the questions from a student who has already completed the unit quiz.
  4. Compare quiz results in the various categories with previous student work. Unusual discrepancies should lead to the decision to gather further information from the student to determine whether or not the results are valid.
More later.....

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