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Beyond class, beyond grades: a reflection on “assessment”

Okay, we’re off and running and I am writing my first blog post for my edtech/online ed independent study here at the University of Mary Washington.

The first point I would like to make is this: I am more than a little overwhelmed.

I’m essentially taking this semester to give myself a crash-course in emerging pedagogies in edtech, and even reading through the first paper I picked out has confirmed that I’m coming into this as the humblest of padawans. Fortunately my adviser, Dr. Zach Whalen, is a little like really chill Yoda, and continues to remind me that I don’t have to know everything in order to say something.

That said, I would like to add the caveat that I’ve only scratched the surface of these topics and trends. If I say something ignorant, it’s probably because I genuinely don’t know better. Yet. But eventually I will.

The first paper I’m reading for this study is “Open Education in the Liberal Arts: A NITLE Working Paper” by Dr. Lisa Spiro and Dr. Bryan Alexander. It’s serving as a brilliant introduction to edtech/online ed, and specifically the culture of openness that is evolving in those contexts. I’m currently processing how ds106 fits into the definitions of openness they describe in their work (it is certainly an open course, but how does it embody open teaching? Open coursework? Open learners? How does the openness of ds106 challenge, change, and interact with the more “traditional” aspects of UMW’s teaching?) but this section on “open assessment” struck a particular chord with me:

Open assessment: Through badges, portfolios, and other mechanisms, the open education community is developing ways to certify learning that often depends upon open educational resources and approaches. For example, Mozilla’s Open Badges program provides an infrastructure for organizations to recognize skills that people develop outside of traditional educational contexts.

While I recognize the need for open courses to provide some kind of marker for their students to document their progress, I can’t help but wonder how long will it take for anyone outside of academia to recognize the meaning/value of open assessment markers, such as badges. In the mean time, how can open online courses provide students with a way to meaningfully document the work they have done and the skills they have learned? Even if such practices become commonplace and people start listing Mozilla Open Badges on resumes, for example, I feel like that’s just a continuation of the assumption that a degree, the piece of paper/status gained when you graduate, is some kind of guarantee that you are qualified or have a certain skill set. If and when open forms of assessment become accepted as viable proof of academic achievement or skills gained, what’s to keep them from occupying the same space as a degree or a completed class on a college transcript? How could we shift open courses away from that established model and create something even better?

In many ways the evolution of open assessments will be a great thing, especially if (when!) institutions of higher learning become more open and make it easier for students who have taken online courses, such as ds106 or the various MOOCs that are springing up with increasing frequency, to apply those learning experiences towards a degree from an accredited institution (I said before this is an imperfect model in some ways, but degrees do stand for a significant amount of academic work and that probably won’t change anytime soon, so I’ll roll with it for now). Beyond higher ed, the same kind of assessment could apply to secondary education as well, which has some really interesting implications for reaching out to students who have been traditionally overlooked by our current school system, or who don’t have access to certain resources. Such a development would certainly be practical, useful, and would allows students to take greater control over their educational experience (something that I, as a student myself, am a huge proponent of).

That said, what I think is far more valuable is the possibility to create meaningful work that can exist independently of the educational context in which it is created. Beyond simply earning a grade, a badge, a code, a degree, a whatever, signifying that the student has jumped through so many flaming hoops with at least a minimal amount of success. ds106 did a wonderful job of challenging and subverting that idea by constantly encouraging students to use the web space they’d been given to invest in creative acts that would truly showcase their talents, passions and skills. I don’t mean to imply that ds106 is the only class in which this happens, but I will use it as a model for what I’m describing: the undercurrent throughout the semester was “make something that is bigger than this class, that will last longer than this class, that has meaning outside of this class.” Not every student took advantage of that opportunity, because ds106 still operates as part of a university’s curriculum and therefore uses more traditional markers of academic success as well (i.e. “grades”). But I truly believe that open online courses and the educational ideals springing up around edtech have the possibility to foster that same “make ambitiously” mentality, perhaps more so than any other educational model.

I’m aware that such work often occurs in higher ed institutions anyway. Students write papers, pull together portfolios, and conduct research that they carry on to other institutions, or which help launch their careers. The problem is that this is the exception instead of the rule, and takes place most frequently in a student’s last year or two of college. Most of the work a student produces throughout their college career is class specific and has no value outside of said class except to earn a grade; the value of the work is translated directly into a grade, which is accumulated into a degree, which is considered valuable because it signifies an academic accomplishment which may indicate someone’s aptitude to perform a job. The content of the class, the meaning of actual work completed, is not translated, only a numeric representation that the course was completed. While this system is, as I said before, useful, the flexibility and collaborative mentality inherent in the open education model that Alexander and Spiro discuss could significantly enhance it (or circumvent it) by encouraging an educational model that offers context-based assessments on work that thrives in multiple contexts. Books, research projects, poetry collections, thesis papers, video lecture series, websites, tutorials, web design, art installations—the goal would not be completing a set of exercises for a grade, a badge, a check mark, but crafting a fully realized artifact that is valuable in its own right. That would be the indication to institutions, employers, whoever, that a student’s educational experiences have resulted in a set of skills with tangible applications.

This is all very idealistic, of course, and may not be even slightly feasible. Nevertheless, this idea has gripped me and I don’t think I’ll be able to let it go, at least not without some more research and discussion.

Next week I’ll be going more in-depth into Alexander and Spiro’s paper and hopefully producing a bit more analysis, rather than just riffing on their ideas.

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