Monday, 16 July 2007

Essays and plagiarism

I have often questioned the prejudice a lot of academics have in favor of essays, and against a lot of other means to assess learners. Perhaps this is a matter of how they were taught and assessed themselves. One the other hand I have often thought that this is a matter of a lack of training. After all, most lecturers do not get that much training in how assessment should be done properly. In addition most lecturers don't have much time to spend on the assessment either. The result is an assignment that is easy to develop (although a lot harder to mark). Either way, this prejudice is one of the major barriers to the uptake of e-assessment. It is also a serious cause for concern about the validity of our degrees.

So it was with some curiosity and expectations that I started reading It’s not plagiarism, it’s an easy essay on the Learn Online blog, where an interview was posted with a provider of an online essay writing service. I thought it was rather appalling.

As mentioned, I'm no fan of essays. They are certainly overrated, overused and usually very poorly delivered. However I do not think they are useless. Someone's critical thinking is rather wasted if it isn't combined with the ability to express that thinking. If the learner has any sort of ambition to climb the corporate (or other) ladder, writing reports and proposals will be something they do regularly. So as long as essay assignments are given some sort of relevant subject and format, I think they are a very valid form of assessment.

The limited value of essays however does not validate the existence of services like this however. I don't care how the service providers attempt to rationalize this, as is done in this article. It is just morally wrong to provide a service that is obviously designed to let people cheat. The audacity to claim that the objective here is to transform education baffles me. If you really want to change education, I could think of a million other and better ways of doing it then by making money out of helping people cheat. I have no respect for anyone in this line of business whatsoever.

Friday, 13 July 2007

CAA Conference, Loughborough

I just returned from our annual visit to Lougborough for the CAA conference. It was good to catch up again with colleagues from the UK and abroad. It's always interesting to see themes emerging from amongst the vast number of interesting papers and sessions. It however also worrying how some things seem to change very little over time. I think it was Denise Whitelock from the OU who rightfully pleaded for the education sector to grab control of e-assessment. Because there still aren't any good assessment systems. The commercial systems in general are pedagogically poor, and the HE sector seems to have a very difficult time producing anything beyond prototypes, or very discipline specific an narrow innovations. Nevertheless, there are lots of interesting things happening.

CAA and language

There has been a lot of activity in the use of advanced technology to support languages. We have briefly looked at the use of speech recognition and text to speech technology to support ESOL this year, and so I was very happy to see similar interests and developments in various other places. Xin Yu and John Lowe from the University of Bath are investigation the use of recorded audio and video in the assessment of spoken English in several Universities in China, where apparently a basic mastery of English is a mandatory part of the curriculum for all degree programs. Cambridge Examinations presented their new online assessment environment, but I must say that pedagogically I found little of interest there. The solutions main focus is to cope with the almost industrial scale on which they assess students. What did sound interesting was the research done by the University of East Anglia, the SQA and the RNID to use avatar signing in assessment. The avatars used are quite advanced, in order to accommodate for the rich set of expressions they need to properly convey sign language. I would be really interesting to see if we can use these avatars in our own developments in the ESOL domain.

Facilitation of marking and reflection

Another interesting development is the increased use of technology in support of reflective processes, such as evaluation and peer review. I think e-assessment has suffered greatly by the association with MCQ quizzes, and so it is good to see that there are a lot of people waking up to the realisation that the value of technology is not (necessarily) automation. In fact I would say that these types of facilitation are usually more innovative and transformative then the common automation of existing practice. This was also confirmed by Bobby Elliot from the SQA, who referred to this practice as assessment 1.5 (as opposed to assessment 2.0 .. and we all want everything to be 2.0 these days of course).