Donald Clark Plan B: Faceless schools?

Very nice article from one of my favourite bloggers on education, Donald Clark, covering a multitude of issues including a scary story of a positively evil self-serving, exam-result-drive school, the benefits of mobile technologies, outsourcing, home tutoring and more. I was particularly struck by his comments applying to the Learndirect call centre in Leicester, UK, that could (or should) equally apply to Athabasca University:


The learners are pleased not to be attending a class, college or school, as that, for them, is associated with past failure in their own lives. They are learning in the comfort and safe environment of their own home, free from the tyranny of time and location. 

The association between institutional learning and past failure is one that we at Athabasca should be doing everything we can to break. In the the admissions process, our distance-learning approach, and, to an extent, many of our pedagogies and other processes we are successful in doing this. However, there are a few areas where we could do more, most notable of which is in how we assess.

First to go should be written exams at exam centres. It astonishes me that we choose to bow to ignorance and prejudice in still allowing, let alone promoting or condoning, sit-down written examinations. I have particular loathing for those taken unseen, especially when the rest of our course may be entirely online. Aside from being anti-pedagogic, de-motivational, inauthentic and guilty of many other atrocities and crimes against learners, there is nothing more certain to be associated with past failure in a student’s mind than a sit-down exam when coming to an open university such as ours. If anyone feels that a written exam is necessary they should be forced to make a case to a jury of peers and get special approval, explaining how it shows ability in an authentic setting. If the subject being learned typically requires a person to sit down in a strange place, with a pen and paper, and produce (typically reproduce) knowledge under enormous pressure, in silence, without the assistance of other people or machines, then I am fine with it. If not, it should be scrapped.

I think we also have a tendency to over-assess, often for the best of reasons: assessment can be a very powerful formative tool, helping to correct misapprehensions, offer guidance, subject-knowledge support, motivational support and more but, maybe more importantly, in our unpaced courses it enforces a process of dialogue and communication between learner and tutor. However, when linked with marks and turned into something summative, it can become a major source of stress, not to mention a recipe for the worst kind of externally regulated extrinsic motivation and consequent destruction of intrinsic motivation. I don’t see the point of giving a summative assessment of a course until very near to its end apart from to make a tutor’s life easier. Formative assessment is wonderful, and there is no harm in loosely enforcing a process. Structure and scaffolding can help to maintain motivation, and ability to work to deadlines within a formal or semi-formal structure is a valid and authentic learning outcome in many cases (though, if that is the skill to be learned, should not be assessed till students have had a chance to learn it in the context of the subject being taught). It is also perfectly acceptable to use the outputs and process artefacts of the formative process as evidence in a summative assessment. However, in assigning final grades directly to outputs, we transfer the target of that motivation from mastery of the subject being learned to the passing of the assessment. Formative assessment should allow students to improve and fill in the gaps so that they can pass the summative assessment more easily and, only when they are ready, should they submit something to us in our role as judge and jury.

If we assume that our job is to teach, if we do our jobs well (enthusing, motivating, providing subject knowledge, supporting and managing the process of learning) then there should never be any students with less than 100% on the final summative assessment. Period. I realise that is, in our current system, unrealistic, especially as we play the dual role of educators and sorters of abilities. It is also, for some few students, too hard: whether through wilful efforts to avoid work, lack of interest in the subject and/or a rare innate lack of ability, the effort involved in bringing some students to a level of mastery is not economically viable for them or us to achieve. It’s not that it couldn’t be done: there is no human-created subject that cannot, with enough assistance, time, effort and patience, be learned by any able-minded human being. It’s just that, sometimes, that time can be very long indeed, and the care, effort and patience might be better spent on other things. Be that as it may, I think 100% pass-rates with 100% achievement is a worthwhile goal to aim for and maybe, if we see every lost percentage mark as a failure on our part, we might try a little harder to teach and spend a little less time trying to pick holes and seek out weaknesses.



Address of the bookmark:

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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