The Unassessors

Radcliffe Camera, OxfordFollowing a small group discussion at the 8th EDEN (European Distance and E-learning Network) Research Workshop in Oxford earlier in the week, I accepted the task of standing up to represent our group in saying that our radical change would be to do away with assessment. It was, of course, somewhat tongue in cheek, and we didn’t really mean that we would do away with assessment entirely, rather that we would radically alter its current form. Assessment is so often seen as “the problem” in education, “the tail wagging the dog” and we spend a huge amount of money and time on it, so a radical appraisal is perhaps overdue; as others who are wiser than me have said before. We should, at the very least, stop and think what we really want from our assessment; despite the longstanding assessment for learning/assessment of learning debate, I still don’t think we really know.

You’ll note that I am using the word “we” in the previous paragraph. That’s deliberate, because I am including the whole assessment community in this (researchers and practitioners); I am certainly not just talking about my own University. I feel the need to explain that point because the rapporteur at the EDEN Research Workshop managed to rather misunderstand my paper and so to criticise the Open University’s current assessment practice as being the same as it was 25 years ago. It is my fault entirely for not making it clearer who I am and what I was trying to say; because I am basically a practitioner, and proud of it, I suffer quite a lot from people not appreciating the amount of reading and thinking that I have done.  The rapporteur was absolutely right to be critical; that’s what the role is about and I am very grateful to him for making me review my standpoint. It is also true – as I say frequently – that we all, including those of us at the Open University, should learn from others. However, I’d ask whether any distance learning provider does much better.

There is a related point, relating to the extent to which change should be evolutionary or revolutionary. It is simply not true that Open University assessment practice is the same as it was 25 years ago: 25 years ago, our tuition was all face to face (we now make extensive use of synchronous and asynchronous online tools); our tutor-marked assignments were submitted through the post; our use of computer-marked assessment was limited to multiple-choice questions with responses recorded with a pencil on machine-readable forms (no instantaneous, graduated and targeted feedback; no constructed response questions and certaintly no short-answer free text questions); we made considerably less use of end-of-module assignments, oral assessment, assessment of collaborative activity, peer assessment. Things have changed quite a lot! However, the fundamental structures and many of the policies remain the same. Our students seem happy with what we do, but nevertheless perhaps it is time for change. Perhaps that’s true of other universities too!

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