Dumb poll illustrates flaws in objective tests

Given its appearance in Huffpost Weird News, this is a surprisingly acute, perceptive and level-headed analysis of the much-headlined claim that 10% of US college graduates believe Judge Judy serves on the US Supreme Court. As the article rightly shows, this is palpable and scurrilous nonsense. It does show that a few American college graduates don’t know who serves on the Supreme Court (which is not exactly a critical life skill) but, given that over 60% got the answer correct and over 20% picked someone who did formerly serve, the results seem quite encouraging. The article makes the point that Judge Judy is referred to on the poll simply as Judith Sheindlin,  that is not the name she is popularly known by, so there is no evidence at all that anyone actually believed her to be a supreme court judge. It was just a wrong and pretty random guess that no one would have got wrong if she had been referred to as ‘Judge Judy’. I’d go further. Most people would only know Judge Judy’s real name if they happened to be fans, in which case they would instantly recognize this as a misdirection and so be able to pick between the three remaining alternatives, one of which even I (with no interest in or knowledge of parochial US trivia) recognize as wrong. So it is quite possible that a large proportion of correct or nearly correct answers were actually due to people watching too much mind-numbing daytime TV. Great.

What it does show in quite sharp relief is how dumb multiple choice questions tend to be.  If this were given as a quiz question in a course (not improbable – most are very much like it, and quite a few are worse) it would provide no evidence whatsoever that any given individual actually knew the answer. This is not even a test of recall, let alone higher order knowledge. A wrong answer does not indicate belief that it is true, but a correct answer does not reliably indicate a true belief either. Individually, multiple choice questions are completely useless as indicators of knowledge, in aggregate they are not much better.

As long as they are not used to judge performance or grade students, objective quizzes can be useful formative learning tools. Treated as fun interactive tools, they can encourage reflection, provide a sense of control over the process, and support confidence. They can also, in aggregate, provide oblique clues to teachers about where issues in teaching might lie. In a very small subset of subject matter (e.g. some sub-areas of math problem solving), given enough of them, they might coarsely differentiate between total incompetence and minimal competence. There are also a few ways to improve their reliability – adding a confidence weighting, for example, can help better distinguish between pure guesses and actual semi-recollection, and adaptive quizzes can focus in a bit more on misconceptions, if they are very carefully designed. But, if we are honest, the only reason they are ever used summatively in education or other fields of learning is because they are easy to mark, not because they are reliable indicators of knowledge or performance, and not because they help students to learn: in fact, when given as graded tests, they do exactly the opposite. I guess a secondary driver might be that it is easy to generate meaningful-looking (but largely meaningless) statistics from them. Neither reason seems compelling.

Apart from their uselessness at performing the task they are meant to perform, there are countless other reasons that graded objective tests are a bad idea, from the terrible systemic effects of teaching to the test, to the extrinsic motivation they rely on that kills the love of learning in most learners, to their total lack of authenticity. It is not hard to understand why they are so popular, but it is very hard to understand why teachers and others that see their job as to inspire, motivate and support would do this to students to whom they owe a duty of care.

Address of the bookmark: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/polls-judge-judy-supreme-court_us_569e98b3e4b04c813761bbe8

Brain Based Learning and Neuroscience – What the Research Says!

Will Thalheimer provides a refreshing look at the over-hyping of (and quite pernicious lies about) neuroscience and brain-based learning. As he observes, neuroscience is barely out of diapers yet in terms of actual usable results for educators, and those actually researching in the field have no illusions that it is anywhere close yet (though they are very hopeful). What the research says is pretty close to nothing, when it comes to learning practice.

I am a little sceptical about whether neuroscience will ever be really valuable in education. This is not to say it is valueless – far from it. We have already had some useful insights into memory and have a better idea of some of the things that reduce or increase the effectiveness of brain functioning (sleep, exercise, etc), as well as a clearer notion of the mechanisms behind learning. Such things are good to know and can lead to some improvements in learning. The trouble is, though, that most researchers in the area are doing reductive science – seeking repeatable mechanisms and processes that underlie phenomena we see. This is of very little value when dealing with complex adaptive systems and emergence. Stuart Kauffman demonstrates that there are two main reasons reductive explanations fail to give us any help at all with understanding emergent systems: epistemological emergence and ontological emergence. Epistemological emergence means that it is impossible in principle to predict emergent features from constituent parts. Ontological emergence means that completely different kinds of causality occur in and between emergent phenomena than in and between their constituent parts, so knowledge of how the constituent parts work has no bearing at all on higher levels of causality in emergent phenomena. It’s a totally different kind of knowledge.

Knowing how the brain works in education is useful in much the same way that knowing about movements of water molecules in clouds is useful in meteorology. There are insights to be gained, explanations even, but they are of relatively little practical value in predicting the weather, let alone in predicting the precise shape of a specific cloud. Worse, in education, we don’t have a very precise idea of what kind of cloud shape we are seeking, most of the time. In fact, when we act like we do (learning objectives and associated assessment) we usually miss a great deal of the important stuff.

But it is worse than that. Those of us concerned with education are not just predicting or explaining phenomena, but orchestrating them. You can no more extrapolate how to teach from knowing how the brain works than you can extrapolate how to paint a masterpiece from knowing what paint is composed of. They are not even in the same family of phenomena. This doesn’t mean that a painter cannot learn useful things about paint that can assist the process – how fast it dries, its colour fastness, its viscosity, etc, and it does open up potential avenues for designing new kinds of paint. But we still need to know what to do with it once we know that. So, yes, brain science has value in education. Just not that much.

Address of the bookmark: http://www.willatworklearning.com/2016/01/brain-based-learning-and-neuroscience-what-the-research-says.html

Reimagining Online Education ~ Stephen Downes

Stephen Downes provides a typically wise critique of another of those really dumb ‘reimagining education’ pieces that does not reimagine education at all – it just reinforces what is already wrong with it. His points are all sound and worth reflecting on. Though a little strained, I quite like Stephen’s metaphor:

“Education doesn’t more features. It needs authentic propulsion and sound aerodynamic design. Sadly, most educational professionals don’t study aerodynamics, they study ornithology.”

I could extend the metaphor a little further. While many educators are stuck on ornithology (and some stopped looking any further than the archeopteryx), I think many educational researchers, at least in e-learning, are looking at more ways to tweak propellor-driven biplanes or trying to make airport check-ins more efficient. Some are looking at jet planes and rocket ships. Some are exploring helicopters and hovercraft. Perhaps a few are wondering how to build personal teleporters.

What education actually needs, though, is a thorough critical reconsideration of the entire transport system, taking into consideration what people want from it, why they choose to travel in the first place, their levels of comfort, their levels of risk, what the constraints are, what effects it has on the broader ecosystem, how it affects people’s psyches, how it stimulates them, and how it changes social patterns, amongst many other things. There’s a really important place for bicycles, buses, trains, ships, boats, footpaths, skateboards, snowmobiles, gliders, skis, horse-drawn buggies, hoverboards and all the rich diversity of transportation devices and infrastructure we have invented and will invent. It’s not one science: it’s a host of technologies and, above all, it’s a system invented by and for humans.

Bearing that in mind, education really needs a better metaphor than travel from A to B. At the very least, there is an indefinitely large range of more important and interesting stuff happening between A and B than ever happens at the destination, there’s a great deal of important stuff to say about the comfort and stimulation of the passengers in transit, and, often, ‘B’ is not where they want or need to be anyway.

Address of the bookmark: http://www.downes.ca/post/64800

Virtual Canuck | Teaching and Learning in a Net-Centric World

Terry Anderson has, after many years, moved his much-loved Virtual Canuck site to a shiny new system with its own domain, and it’s looking very good.

There’s masses of stuff here for anyone with an interest in distance and online education, and quite a few other things that relate to Terry’s diverse interests, from music to Unitarianism. Don’t miss his latest post on the new IRRODL special issue on MOOCs – some great commentary on and summaries of articles.

Address of the bookmark: http://virtualcanuck.ca/

Some thoughts on the future of universities (interview with me in The Voice Magazine)

Part 2 of a longer interview with me, the largest part of which is concerned with my thoughts on the future of universities. Because there has been a small stir lately around an Educause Review article on a similar topic (worth reading – a useful perspective that might make some conversations easier), I thought it might be worth sharing. There are some broadly similar ideas, albeit from a somewhat different angle, as well as a couple that are not there in the Educause article (notably related to the fact that institutions and teacher controlled activities are not the only fruit, and what that implies for universities), and my summary is much shorter!

The editor, Karl, disagreed with me in his editorial, I think because he misunderstood what I was calling for, and so I wrote a brief follow-up, again published by the Voice Magazine, on the letters page of the current issue, which presents it using a slightly different set of metaphors.

Disclaimer: this is far from my final, complete and considered view on the topic. It’s just a brief and spontaneous answer to a question that I might answer at least slightly differently on any given day of the week. There will be a chapter by me and Terry Anderson coming out in the forthcoming second edtion of the SAGE Handbook of E-learning Research that provides a more rigorous and careful prediction of the future of online learning, in which we attempt to explore not so much the digital wonders to come (though there is a bit of that) but the pedagogical character and organizational form it will possess. One of the central points we make in this is that a central characteristic of that future will be diversity. There are not only many possible futures. There will be many actual futures.

Address of the bookmark: https://www.voicemagazine.org/archives/articledisplay.php?ART=10944&issue=2342

When School Feels Like Jail

Thanks to Ben Werdmüller for drawing my attention to this.

This is a harrowing article, describing widespread Institutionalized child abuse, notably (but not exclusively) in a few Southern US states. It describes a brutal, broken, obscene system of education with consequences that are, as Ben puts it, jaw-dropping. I felt sick to my bones reading this. How could any society tolerate what is being done to these children? What kind of society will these children create?

The kids would be better off on the streets than imprisoned in these barbaric monstrosities. This is worse than no education at all – much, much worse. Worst of all, I can think of no more sure and certain way to cause a system like this than a system like this, so it is hard to see an end in sight for this blighted population.

It is worth noting that, though this is a very extreme abberation, it results from a set of attitudes and principles that drive most schools the world over. When teachers see it as their job to keep control, when they measure success through standardized tests and imposed targets, when control (of schools, teachers and students) is accomplished through punishment and reward, this is where it can ultimately lead. Loathsome in the extreme.

Address of the bookmark: https://www.themarshallproject.org/2015/11/11/when-school-feels-like-jail

A multi-institutional study of the impact of open textbook adoption on the learning outcomes of post-secondary students

To complement a bookmark to an article about this paper I posted yesterday, here’s a link to the paper itself, by Lane Fischer, John Hilton III, T. Jared Robinson, and David A. Wiley. I don’t have much to add to the comments I made previously, save that a very large amount of the focus and discussion of the paper itself is on the merits of the low (typically neglible) cost of OERs and consequent effects on access. The authors speculate that the occasional relative benefits seen for courses with OERs may relate to the fact that all students actually used those OERs, whereas some of those on courses with expensive textbooks may not have been willing or able to get hold of them. For somewhere like Athabasca, where textbooks are provided whether they are free or not, this would not be an issue (though it sure costs the university a lot of money to avoid OERs).

I’d really like to see a study of instances where OERs are not simple substitutes for textbooks but where the really big advantage – the ability to make changes – is made full use of. It is possible that there may be a systemic advantage in that which would mean OERs are generally better than paid-for textbooks. Of course, it would still not tell us very much, because textbooks are usually only a small part (and, in a fair number of courses, including all of my own, a non-existent part) of what makes for a good learning experience. In fact, I find it a bit worrying that, according to this study, they appear to matter as much as they do. It makes me wonder what all those expensive teachers are doing and worry about what kind of course design relies so heavily on textbooks that it should make such a significant difference.

Address of the bookmark: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12528-015-9101-x/fulltext.html

Major Study Finds OER Students Do Just as Well — or Better

Like most such studies, this begs more questions than it asks, and the answers must always be ‘it depends on how you do it’, so it is more than a bit odd that the question even arises.  Of course some OERs are at least as good as some for-profit textbooks under some circumstances, and the converse is almost certainly true too. I have never heard a less-than-stupid argument that OERs are necessarily worse than paid-for resources, nor vice versa. It’s a ridiculous idea. The point about OERs is not that they are better or worse as educational resources per se but that they are open. This does make them much cheaper, which is no bad thing. The big advantage, though, is that they can be adapted more easily and freely for different contexts, without constraint. In principle, as a result, they can evolve to become better: though not all are used that way and only a few will improve in the process, that’s ultimately the most compelling advantage.

It is, though, good to see that OERs, as used at the moment, are at least as good as closed educational resources across a wide range of subject areas, and are sometimes better. I guess there might be someone somewhere who believes otherwise. If so, we can now give them a bit of empirical proof that they are wrong.

Address of the bookmark: https://campustechnology.com/articles/2015/11/10/major-study-finds-oer-students-do-just-as-well-or-better.aspx?m