Thursday, 29 May 2008

New podcast on assessment

I've been toying around with the idea of doing something useful online, in stead of just venting my unsollicited rants here. I've come up with the idea to start a podcast around assessment practice, as I think there aren't nearly enough easilly available resources on the topic. The podcast, and the first test episode, can be found here. Please feel free to have a look and give me some feedbacks or tips, I could really do with some good advice and practical tips.

Saturday, 17 May 2008

SAT troubles

There's been a lot of upheaval this week about SAT tests. After a report published by the Children, Schools and Family committee of the House of Commons, MPs warn that national Sats tests distort education, which then lead to the schools minister defending the Sats, followed by technical difficulties with the tests. Personally I am not convinced the tests are really the problem.

One of the keynotes at the Blackboard Europe 2008 conference was given by Andreas Schleicher, the director of the PISA program for the OECD. He presented a very compelling set of ideas around successful (secondary) educations. Some of the conditions he identified (and all of these are based on the data gathered by the programme over the past years) are:

  • No stratification. Education systems that have separate streams, schools and or qualifications for learners based on their performance tend to do poorly. An example of this is the Dutch system, where secondary education is stratified over VMBO, HAVO and VWO based on a learners performance in primary school. The British system actually comes out quite well here (if we ignore the stratification that takes place because of the divide between private and public schools that is).
  • Standards. It is important to work to common standards. Central examinations are one way of enforcing common standards, and so the SAT tests do satisfy this condition.
  • Autonomy. It is crucial for schools and teachers to have a high degree of autonomy as long as their performance raises no concerns. Here we obviously fail completely as the British system dictates how schools teach and assess to a very high degree.
  • High Expectations, challenge and support. Both for teachers and learners, education should provide challenge, the expectation of high performance, but also plenty of support (staff development for instance). I think this is another area in which we fail to deliver.

Our main problem lies in the area of autonomy. We no longer trust our teachers and schools do do what they do best based on their professional judgments. In stead there is this weird notion that education is better served by central generic judgments made by policymakers. The problem with SATs isn't that they provide a common high stakes benchmark for learners. The problem is that this information is abused for public league tables and the like, which inevitably leads to pressures on learners that have nothing to do with their personal learning. It's the same pressures that lead to Universities coercing students into filling out the national student survey more favorably.

In Finland schools have no idea about their performance related to their neighbors. Funny enough in Finland it doesn't really make a difference. Only 4% of the variance in scores on the PISA tests can be assigned to the difference in quality between schools. Finnish schools have around 9 applicants for every position offered, and this is not because of higher salaries or anything like that. It is because the system in Finland provides a challenging environment in which people are valued, can grow and develop and actually make a difference.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Blackboard world Europe 2008 (2): Assignment submission

Right then, some more from the past Blackboard conference, as promised...

I attended 2 very interesting talks around a building block developed for Sheffield Hallam University called: 'The Assignment Handler'. It is basically an extention of the gradebook functionallity that already exists within Blackboard.

Sheffield Hallam have decided on a policy that all grades should be fed back to students in a central place, together with feedback. The central place they chose was the Blackboard gradebook. To do that they implemented the following features:
  • A transparent and consistent handling of online exams, online submitted exams and exams submitted through the assignment handling office. All these can be set on Bb, submission is logged on Bb, and results and feedback are published through bb. this creates a central place where student process can be comprehensively managed (by staff and students)
  • Some bulk-upload and download functionality. Assignments are renamed using module codes and student numbers. Feedback and marks can be uploaded in a single archive, which is useful with larger cohorts.
  • The option to withold a mark until the student has reflected on, and responded to, the feedback provided. The University is now researching to what extend this actually motivates students to engage genuinely with their feedback.
  • Generation of confirmation e-mails as receipts of submission
  • Support for group assignments
As we have just started to look into a structural sollution around online submission ourselves, this presentation was brilliantly timed. There was a lot of mumbling in the audience on the non-responsiveness from Blackboard on this issue, as many institutions have requested functionality like this before. and in all fairness, most of it is pretty generic and sensible and should probably have been part of the core product for years. In stead it is now a buildingblock that Blackboard will most likely charge us a nice extra fee for.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Blackboard Europe conference 2008

As we use Blackboard at the University of Derby, I attended the European Blackboard conference in Manchester this week. The conference was of to a bit of a poor start. No wireless available for conference go-ers, just the crappy connection for which the hotel charged £15 a day. I decided that was a bit ridiculous, hence the late submission of this post. The keynote and my first workshops on Tuesday were really poor, and I started to loose heart. Luckily some little gems did manage to arise from the rubble of disappointment.

Blackboard NG (next generation)
I was very please to see assessment high on the agenda for the next generation(s) of Blackboard. Tools supporting peer and self assessment, a new and expanded Grade centre (replacing the somewhat limited Gradebook) and the integration and expansion of the existing WebCT and Blackboard quiz tools will certainly add a bit of meat on the meager bones of the platform's support for assessment. What actually surprised me (and I would still like to actually see this before I truly believe it) is the announcement that Blackboard will be working towards interoperability with other CMS-es such as Moodle and Sakai. We saw a demonstration of a learner portal page that listed courses and notifications from courses in various platforms transparently, which was very promising. This would allow for an institution to grant much wider freedoms to faculty intheir choice of platform without loosing the integration that only a single platform can currently offer. Watch this space.

More tomorrow, it's time to spend some time with my family now...