I’ve been talking about why late penalties are not only not useful but they don’t work, yet I keep talking about getting work in on time and tying it to realistic resource allocation. Does this mean I’m really using late penalties?
No, but let me explain why, starting from the underlying principle of fairness that is an aesthetic pillar of good education. One part of this is that the actions of one student should not unduly affect the learning journey of another student. That includes evaluation (and associated marks).
This is the same principle that makes me reject curve grading. It makes no sense to me that someone else’s work is judged in the context of another, when we have so little real information with which we could establish any form of equivalence of human experience and available capacity.
I don’t want to create a market economy for knowledge, where we devaluate successful demonstrations of knowledge and skill for reasons that have nothing to do with learning. Curve grading devalues knowledge. Time penalties devalue knowledge.
I do have to deal with resource constraints, in that I often have (some) deadlines that are administrative necessities, such as degree awards and things like this. I have limited human resources, both personally and professionally.
Given that I do not have unconstrained resources, the fairness principle naturally extends to say that individual students should not consume resources to the detriment of others. I know that I have a limited amount of human evaluation time, therefore I have to treat this as a constrained resource. My E1 and E2 evaluations resources must be, to a degree at least, protected to ensure the best outcome for the most students. (We can factor equity into this, and should, but this stops this from being a simple linear equivalence and makes the terms more complex than they need to be for explanation, so I’ll continue this discussion as if we’re discussing equality.)
You’ve noticed that the E3 and E4 evaluation systems are pretty much always available to students. That’s deliberate. If we can automate something, we can scale it. No student is depriving another of timely evaluation and so there’s no limitation of access to E3 and E4, unless it’s too late for it to be of use.
If we ask students to get their work in at time X, it should be on the expectation that we are ready to leap into action at second X+(prep time), or that the students should be engaged in some other worthwhile activity from X+1, because otherwise we have made up a nonsense figure. In order to be fair, we should release all of our evaluations back at the same time, to avoid accidental advantages because of the order in which things were marked. (We may wish to vary this for time banking but we’ll come back to this later.) As many things are marked in surname or student number order, the only way to ensure that we don’t accidentally keep granting an advantage is to release everything at the same time.
Remember, our whole scheme is predicated on the assumption that we have designed and planned for how long it will take to go through the work and provide feedback in time for modification before another submission. When X+(prep time) comes, we should know, roughly to the hour or day, at worst, when this will be done.
If a student hands up fifteen minutes late, they have most likely missed the preparation phase. If we delay our process to include this student, then we will delay feedback to everyone. Here is a genuine motivation for students to submit on time: they will receive rich and detailed feedback as soon as it is ready. Students who hand up late will be assessed in the next round.
That’s how the real world actually works. No-one gives you half marks for something that you do a day late. It’s either accepted or not and, often, you go to the back of the queue. When you miss the bus, you don’t get 50% of the bus. You just have to wait for the next opportunity and, most of the time, there is another bus. Being late once rarely leaves you stranded without apparent hope – unlucky Martian visitors aside.
But there’s more to this. When we have finished with the first group, we can immediately release detailed feedback on what we were expecting to see, providing the best results to students and, from that point on, anyone who submits would have the benefit of information that the first group didn’t have before their initial submission. Rather than make the first group think that they should have waited (and we know students do), we give them the best possible outcome for organising their time.
The next submission deadline is done by everyone with the knowledge gained from the first pass but people who didn’t contribute to it can’t immediately use it for their own benefit. So there’s no free-riding.
There is, of course, a tricky period between the submission deadline and the release, where we could say “Well, they didn’t see the feedback” and accept the work but that’s when we think about the message we want to send. We would prefer students to improve their time management and one part of this is to have genuine outcomes from necessary deadlines.
If we let students keep handing in later and later, we will eventually end up having these late submissions running into our requirement to give feedback. But, more importantly, we will say “You shouldn’t have bothered” to those students who did hand up on time. When you say something like this, students will learn and they will change their behaviour. We should never reinforce behaviour that is the opposite of what we consider to be valuable.
Fairness is a core aesthetic of education. Authentic time management needs to reflect the reality of lost opportunity, rather than diminished recognition of good work in some numerical reduction. Our beauty argument is clear: we can be firm on certain deadlines and remove certain tasks from consideration and it will be a better approach and be more likely to have positive outcomes than an arbitrary reduction scheme already in use.
In my earlier post, I wrote:
Even where we are using mechanical or scripted human [evaluators], the hand of the designer is still firmly on the tiller and it is that control that allows us to take a less active role in direct evaluation, while still achieving our goals.
and I said I’d discuss how we could scale up the evaluation scheme to a large first year class. Finally, thank you for your patience, here it is.
The first thing we need to acknowledge is that most first-year/freshman classes are not overly complex nor heavily abstract. We know that we want to work concrete to abstract, simple to complex, as we build knowledge, taking into account how students learn, their developmental stages and the mechanics of human cognition. We want to focus on difficult concepts that students struggle with, to ensure that they really understand something before we go on.
In many courses and disciplines, the skills and knowledge we wish to impart are fundamental and transformative, but really quite straight-forward to evaluate. What this means, based on what I’ve already laid out, is that my role as a designer is going to be crucial in identifying how we teach and evaluate the learning of concepts, but the assessment or evaluation probably doesn’t require my depth of expert knowledge.
The model I put up previously now looks like this:
My role (as the notional E1) has moved entirely to design and oversight, which includes developing the E3 and E4 tests and training the next tier down, if they aren’t me.
As an example, I’ve put in two feedback points, suitable for some sort of worked output in response to an assignment. Remember that the E2 evaluation is scripted (or based on rubrics) yet provides human nuance and insight, with personalised feedback. That initial feedback point could be peer-based evaluation, group discussion and demonstration, or whatever you like. The key here is that the evaluation clearly indicates to the student how they are travelling; it’s never just “8/10 Good”. If this is a first year course then we can capture much of the required feedback with trained casuals and the underlying automated systems, or by training our students on exemplars to be able to evaluate each other’s work, at least to a degree.
The same pattern as before lies underneath: meaningful timing with real implications. To get access to human evaluation, that work has to go in by a certain date, to allow everyone involved to allow enough time to perform the task. Let’s say the first feedback is a peer-assessment. Students can be trained on exemplars, with immediate feedback through many on-line and electronic systems, and then look at each other’s submissions. But, at time X, they know exactly how much work they have to do and are not delayed because another student handed up late. After this pass, they rework and perhaps the next point is a trained casual tutor, looking over the work again to see how well they’ve handled the evaluation.
There could be more rework and review points. There could be less. The key here is that any submission deadline is only required because I need to allocate enough people to the task and keep the number of tasks to allocate, per person, at a sensible threshold.
Beautiful evaluation is symmetrically beautiful. I don’t overload the students or lie to them about the necessity of deadlines but, at the same time, I don’t overload my human evaluators by forcing them to do things when they don’t have enough time to do it properly.
As for them, so for us.
Throughout this process, the E1 (supervising evaluator) is seeing all of the information on what’s happening and can choose to intervene. At this scale, if E1 was also involved in evaluation, intervention would be likely last-minute and only in dire emergency. Early intervention depends upon early identification of problems and sufficient resources to be able to act. Your best agent of intervention is probably the person who has the whole vision of the course, assisted by other human evaluators. This scheme gives the designer the freedom to have that vision and allows you to plan for how many other people you need to help you.
In terms of peer assessment, we know that we can build student communities and that students can appreciate each other’s value in a way that enhances their perceptions of the course and keeps them around for longer. This can be part of our design. For example, we can ask the E2 evaluators to carry out simple community-focused activities in classes as part of the overall learning preparation and, once students are talking, get them used to the idea of discussing ideas rather than having dualist confrontations. This then leads into support for peer evaluation, with the likelihood of better results.
Some of you will be saying “But this is unrealistic, I’ll never get those resources.” Then, in all likelihood, you are going to have to sacrifice something: number of evaluations, depth of feedback, overall design or speed of intervention.
You are a finite resource. Killing you with work is not beautiful. I’m writing all of this to speak to everyone in the community, to get them thinking about the ugliness of overwork, the evil nature of demanding someone have no other life, the inherent deceit in pretending that this is, in any way, a good system.
We start by changing our minds, then we change the world.
In yesterday’s post, I laid out an evaluation scheme that allocated the work of evaluation based on the way that we tend to teach and the availability, and expertise, of those who will be evaluating the work. My “top” (arbitrary word) tier of evaluators, the E1s, were the teaching staff who had the subject matter expertise and the pedagogical knowledge to create all of the other evaluation materials. Despite the production of all of these materials and designs already being time-consuming, in many cases we push all evaluation to this person as well. Teachers around the world know exactly what I’m talking about here.
Our problem is time. We move through it, tick after tick, in one direction and we can neither go backwards nor decrease the number of seconds it takes to perform what has to take a minute. If we ask educators to undertake good learning design, have engaging and interesting assignments, work on assessment levels well up in the taxonomies and we then ask them to spend day after day standing in front of a class and add marking on top?
Forget it. We know that we are going to sacrifice the number of tasks, the quality of the tasks or our own quality of life. (I’ve written a lot about time before, you can search my blog for time or read this, which is a good summary.) If our design was good, then sacrificing the number of tasks or their quality is going to compromise our design. If we stop getting sleep or seeing our families, our work is going to suffer and now our design is compromised by our inability to perform to our actual level of expertise!
When Henry Ford refused to work his assembly line workers beyond 40 hours because of the increased costs of mistakes in what were simple, mechanical, tasks, why do we keep insisting that complex, delicate, fragile and overwhelmingly cognitive activities benefit from us being tired, caffeine-propped, short-tempered zombies?
We’re not being honest. And thus we are not meeting our requirement for truth. A design that gets mangled for operational reasons without good redesign won’t achieve our outcomes. That’s not going to achieve our results – so that’s not good. But what of beauty?
What are the aesthetics of good work? In Petts’ essay on the Arts and Crafts movement, he speaks of William Morris, Dewey and Marx (it’s a delightful essay) and ties the notion of good work to work that is authentic, where such work has aesthetic consequences (unsurprisingly given that we were aiming for beauty), and that good (beautiful) work can be the result of human design if not directly the human hand. Petts makes an interesting statement, which I’m not sure Morris would let pass un-challenged. (But, of course, I like it.)
It is not only the work of the human hand that is visible in art but of human design. In beautiful machine-made objects we still can see the work of the “abstract artist”: such an individual controls his labor and tools as much as the handicraftsman beloved of Ruskin.
Jeffrey Petts, Good Work and Aesthetic Education: William Morris, the Arts and Crafts Movement, and Beyond, The Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Spring, 2008), page 36
Petts notes that it is interesting that Dewey’s own reflection on art does not acknowledge Morris especially when the Arts and Crafts’ focus on authenticity, necessary work and a dedication to vision seems to be a very suitable framework. As well, the Arts and Crafts movement focused on the rejection of the industrial and a return to traditional crafting techniques, including social reform, which should have resonated deeply with Dewey and his peers in the Pragmatists. However, Morris’ contribution as a Pragmatist aesthetic philosopher does not seem to be recognised and, to me, this speaks volumes of the unnecessary separation between cloister and loom, when theory can live in the pragmatic world and forms of practice can be well integrated into the notional abstract. (Through an Arts and Crafts lens, I would argue that there is are large differences between industrialised education and the provision, support and development of education using the advantages of technology but that is, very much, another long series of posts, involving both David Bowie and Gary Numan.)
But here is beauty. The educational designer who carries out good design and manages to hold on to enough of her time resources to execute the design well is more aesthetically pleasing in terms of any notion of creative good works. By going through a development process to stage evaluations, based on our assessment and learning environment plans, we have created “made objects” that reflect our intention and, if authentic, then they must be beautiful.
We now have a strong motivating factor to consider both the often over-looked design role of the educator as well as the (easier to perceive) roles of evaluation and intervention.
I’ve revisited the diagram from yesterday’s post to show the different roles during the execution of the course. Now you can clearly see that the course lecturer maintains involvement and, from our discussion above, is still actively contributing to the overall beauty of the course and, we would hope, it’s success as a learning activity. What I haven’t shown is the role of the E1 as designer prior to the course itself – but that’s another post.
Even where we are using mechanical or scripted human markers, the hand of the designer is still firmly on the tiller and it is that control that allows us to take a less active role in direct evaluation, while still achieving our goals.
Do I need to personally look at each of the many works all of my first years produce? In our biggest years, we had over 400 students! It is beyond the scale of one person and, much as I’d love to have 40 expert academics for that course, a surplus of E1 teaching staff is unlikely anytime soon. However, if I design the course correctly and I continue to monitor and evaluate the course, then the monster of scale that I have can be defeated, if I can make a successful argument that the E2 to E4 marker tiers are going to provide the levels of feedback, encouragement and detailed evaluation that are required at these large-scale years.
Tomorrow, we look at the details of this as it applies to a first-year programming course in the Processing language, using a media computation approach.
This is a great TED talk. Joi Ito, director of the MIT media lab, talks about the changes that technological innovation have made to the ways that we can work on problems and work together.
I don’t agree with everything, especially the pejorative cast on education, but I totally agree that the way that we construct learning environments has to take into the way that our students will work, rather than trying to prepare them for the world that we (or our parents) worked in. Pretending that many of our students will have to construct simple things by hand, when that is what we were doing fifty years ago, takes up time that we could be using for more authentic and advanced approaches that cover the same material. Some foundations are necessary. Some are tradition. Being a now-ist forces us to question which is which and then act on that knowledge.
Your students will be able to run enterprises from their back rooms that used to require the resources of multinational companies. It’s time to work out what they actually need to get from us and, once we know that, deliver it. There is a place for higher education but it may not be the one that we currently have.
A lot of what I talk about on this blog looks as if I’m being progressive but, really, I’m telling you what we already know to be true right now. And what we have known to be true for decades, if not centuries. I’m not a futurist, at all. I’m a now-ist with a good knowledge of history who sees a very bleak future if we don’t get better at education.
(Side note: yes, this is over twelve minutes long. Watch our around the three minute mark for someone reading documents on an iPad up the back, rather than watching him talk. I think this is a little long and staged, when it could have been tighter, but that’s the TED format for you. You know what you’re getting into and, because it’s not being formally evaluated, it doesn’t matter as much if you recall high-level rather than detail.)
We know that we can, and do, assess different levels of skill and knowledge. We know that we can, and do, often resort to testing memorisation, simple understanding and, sometimes, the application of the knowledge that we teach. We also know that the best evaluation of work tends to come from the teachers who know the most about the course and have the most experience, but we also know that these teachers have many demands on their time.
The principles of good assessment can be argued but we can probably agree upon a set much like this:
- Valid, based on the content. We should be evaluating things that we’ve taught.
- Reliable, in that our evaluations are consistent and return similar results for different evaluators, that re-evaluating would give the same result, that we’re not unintentionally raising or lowering difficulty.
- Motivating, in that we know how much influence feedback and encouragement have on students, so we should be maximising the motivation and, we hope, this should drive engagement.
- Finally, we want our assessment to be as relevant to us, in terms of being able to use the knowledge gained to improve or modify our courses, as it is to our student. Better things should come from having run this assessment.
Notice that nothing here says “We have to mark or give a grade”, yet we can all agree on these principles, and any scheme that adheres to them, as being a good set of characteristics to build upon. Let me label these as aesthetics of assessment, now let’s see if I can make something beautiful. Let me put together my shopping list.
- Feedback is essential. We can see that. Let’s have lots of feedback and let’s put it in places where it can be the most help.
- Contextual relevance is essential. We’re going to need good design and work out what we want to evaluate and then make sure we locate our assessment in the right place.
- We want to encourage students. This means focusing on intrinsics and support, as well as well-articulated pathways to improvement.
- We want to be fair and honest.
- We don’t want to overload either the students or ourselves.
- We want to allow enough time for reliable and fair evaluation of the work.
What are the resources we have?
- Course syllabus
- Course timetable
- The teacher’s available time
- TA or casual evaluation time, if available
- Student time (for group work or individual work, including peer review)
- Rubrics for evaluation.
- Computerised/automated evaluation systems, to varying degree.
Wait, am I suggesting automated marking belongs in a beautiful marking system? Why, yes, I think it has a place, if we are going to look at those things we can measure mechanistically. Checking to see if someone has ticked the right box for a Bloom’s “remembering” level activity? Machine task. Checking to see if an essay has a lot of syntax or grammatical errors? Machine task. But we can build on that. We can use human markers and machine markers, in conjunction, to the best of their strengths and to overcome each other’s weaknesses.
If we think about it, we really have four separate tiers of evaluators to draw upon, who have different levels of ability. These are:
- E1: The course designers and subject matter experts who have a deep understanding of the course and could, possibly with training, evaluate work and provide rich feedback.
- E2: Human evaluators who have received training or are following a rubric provided by the E1 evaluators. They are still human-level reasoners but are constrained in terms of breadth of interpretation. (It’s worth noting that peer assessment could fit in here, as well.)
- E3: High-level machine evaluation includes machine-based evaluation of work, which could include structural, sentiment or topic analysis, as well as running complicated acceptance tests that look for specific results, coverage of topics or, in the case of programming tasks, certain output in response to given input. The E3 evaluation mechanisms will require some work to set up but can provide evaluation of large classes in hours, rather than days.
- E4: Low-level machine evaluation, checking for conformity in terms of length of assignment, names, type of work submitted, plagiarism detection. In the case of programming assignments, E4 would check that the filenames were correct, that the code compiled and also may run some very basic acceptance tests. E4 evaluation mechanisms should be quick to set up and very quick to execute.
This separation clearly shows us a graded increase of expertise that corresponds to an increase of time spent and, unfortunately, a decrease in time available. E4 evaluation is very easy to set up and carry out but it’s not fantastic for detailed feedback or higher Bloom’s level. Yet we have an almost infinite amount of this marking time available. E1 markers will (we hope) give the best feedback but they take a long time and this immediately reduces the amount of time to be spent on other things. How do we handle this and select the best mix?
While we’re thinking about that, let’s see if we are meeting the aesthetics.
- Valid? Yes. We’ve looked at our design (we appear to have a design!) and we’ve specifically set up evaluation into different areas while thinking about outcomes, levels and areas that we care about.
- Reliable? Looks like it. E3 and E4 are automated and E2 has a defined marking rubric. E1 should also have guidelines but, if we’ve done our work properly in design, the majority of marks, if not all of them, are going to be assigned reliably.
- Fair? We’ve got multiple stages of evaluation but we haven’t yet said how we’re going to use this so we don’t have this one yet.
- Motivating? Hmm, we have the potential for a lot of feedback but we haven’t said how we’re using that, either. Don’t have this one either.
- Relevant to us and the students. No, for the same reasons as 3 and 4, we haven’t yet shown how this can be useful to us.
It looks like we’re half-way there. Tomorrow, we finish the job.
How we can create a better assessment system, without penalties, that works in a grade-free environment? Let’s provide a foundation for this discussion by looking at assessment today.
We have many different ways of understanding exactly how we are assessing knowledge. Bloom’s taxonomy allows us to classify the objectives that we set for students, in that we can determine if we’re just asking them to remember something, explain it, apply it, analyse it, evaluate it or, having mastered all of those other aspects, create a new example of it. We’ve also got Bigg’s SOLO taxonomy to classify levels of increasing complexity in a student’s understanding of subjects. Now let’s add in threshold concepts, learning edge momentum, neo-Piagetian theory and …
Let’s summarise and just say that we know that students take a while to learn things, can demonstrate some convincing illusions of progress that quickly fall apart, and that we can design our activities and assessment in a way that acknowledges this.
I attended a talk by Eric Mazur, of Peer Instruction fame, and he said a lot of what I’ve already said about assessment not working with how we know we should be teaching. His belief is that we rarely rise above remembering and understanding, when it comes to testing, and he’s at Harvard, where everyone would easily accept their practices as, in theory, being top notch. Eric proposed a number of approaches but his focus on outcomes was one that I really liked. He wanted to keep the coaching role he could provide separate from his evaluator role: another thing I think we should be doing more.
Eric is in Physics but all of these ideas have been extensively explored in my own field, especially where we start to look at which of the levels we teach students to and then what we assess. We do a lot of work on this in Australia and here is some work by our groups and others I have learned from:
- Szabo, C., Falkner, K. & Falkner, N. 2014, ‘Experiences in Course Design using Neo-Piagetian Theory’
- Falkner, K., Vivian, R., Falkner, N., 2013, ‘Neo-piagetian Forms of Reasoning in Software Development Process Construction’
- Whalley, J., Lister, R.F., Thompson, E., Clear, T., Robbins, P., Kumar, P. & Prasad, C. 2006, ‘An Australasian study of reading and comprehension skills in novice programmers, using Bloom and SOLO taxonomies’
- Gluga, R., Kay, J., Lister, R.F. & Teague, D. 2012, ‘On the reliability of classifying programming tasks using a neo-piagetian theory of cognitive development’
I would be remiss to not mention Anna Eckerdal’s work, and collaborations, in the area of threshold concepts. You can find her many papers on determining which concepts are going to challenge students the most, and how we could deal with this, here.
Let me summarise all of this:
- There are different levels at which students will perform as they learn.
- It needs careful evaluation to separate students who appear to have learned something from students who have actually learned something.
- We often focus too much on memorisation and simple explanation, without going to more advanced levels.
- If we want to assess advanced levels, we may have to give up the idea of trying to grade these additional steps as objectivity is almost impossible as is task equivalence.
- We should teach in a way that supports the assessment we wish to carry out. The assessment we wish to carry out is the right choice to demonstrate true mastery of knowledge and skills.
If we are not designing for our learning outcomes, we’re unlikely to create courses to achieve those outcomes. If we don’t take into account the realities of student behaviour, we will also fail.
We can break our assessment tasks down by one of the taxonomies or learning theories and, from my own work and that of others, we know that we will get better results if we provide a learning environment that supports assessment at the desired taxonomic level.
But, there is a problem. The most descriptive, authentic and open-ended assessments incur the most load in terms of expert human marking. We don’t have a lot of expert human markers. Overloading them is not good. Pretending that we can mark an infinite number of assignments is not true. Our evaluation aesthetics are objectivity, fairness, effectiveness, timeliness and depth of feedback. Assignment evaluation should be useful to the students, to show progress, and useful to us, to show the health of the learning environment. Overloading the marker will compromise the aesthetics.
Our beauty lens tells us very clearly that we need to be careful about how we deal with our finite resources. As Eric notes, and we all know, if we were to test simpler aspects of student learning, we can throw machines at it and we have a near infinite supply of machines. I cannot produce more experts like me, easily. (Snickers from the audience) I can recruit human evaluators from my casual pool and train them to mark to something like my standard, using a rubric or using an approximation of my approach.
Thus I have a framework of assignments, divide by level, and I appear to have assignment evaluation resources. And the more expert and human the marker, the more … for want of a better word … valuable the resource. The better feedback it can produce. Yet the more valuable the resource, the less of it I have because it takes time to develop evaluation skills in humans.
Tune in tomorrow for the penalty free evaluation and feedback that ties all of this together.
How does one actually turn everything I’ve been saying into a course that can be taught? We already have examples of this working, whether in the performance/competency based models found in medical schools around the world or whether in mastery learning based approaches where do not measure anything except whether a student has demonstrated sufficient knowledge or skill to show an appropriate level of mastery.
An absence of grades, or student control over their grades, is not as uncommon as many people think. MIT in the United States give students their entire first semester with no grades more specific than pass or fail. This is a deliberate decision to ease the transition of students who have gone from being leaders at their own schools to the compressed scale of MIT. Why compressed? If we were to assess all school students then we would need a scale that could measure all levels of ability, from ‘not making any progress at school’ to ‘transcendent’. The tertiary entry band is somewhere between ‘passing school studies’ to ‘transcendent’ and, depending upon the college that you enter, can shift higher and higher as your target institution becomes more exclusive. If you look at the MIT entry requirements, they are a little coy for ‘per student’ adjustments, but when the 75th percentile for the SAT components is 800, 790, 790, and 800,800,800 would be perfect, we can see that any arguments on how demotivating simple pass/fail grades must be for excellent students have not just withered, they have caught fire and the ash has blown away. When the target is MIT, it appears the freshmen get their head around a system that is even simpler than Rapaport’s.
Other universities, such as Brown, deliberately allow students to choose how their marks are presented, as they wish to deemphasise the numbers in order to focus on education. It is not a cakewalk to get into Brown, as these figures attest, and yet Brown have made a clear statement that they have changed their grading system in order to change student behaviour – and the world is just going to have to deal with that. It doesn’t seem to be hurting their graduates, from quotes on the website such as “Our 85% admission rate to medical school and 89% admission rate to law school are both far above the national average.”
And, returning to medical schools themselves, my own University runs a medical program where the usual guidelines for grading do not hold. The medical school is running on a performance/competency scheme, where students who wish to practise medicine must demonstrate that they are knowledgable, skilful and safe to practice. Medical schools have identified the core problem in my thought experiment where two students could have the opposite set of knowledge or skills and they have come to the same logical conclusion: decide what is important and set up a scheme that works for it.
When I was a solider, I was responsible for much of the Officer Training in my home state for the Reserve. We had any number of things to report on for our candidates, across knowledge and skills, but one of them was “Demonstrate the qualities of an officer” and this single item could fail an otherwise suitable candidate. If a candidate could not be trusted to one day be in command of troops on the battlefield, based on problems we saw in peacetime, then they would be counselled to see if it could be addressed and, if not, let go. (I can assure you that this was not used often and it required a large number of observations and discussion before we would pull that handle. The power of such a thing forced us to be responsible.)
We know that limited scale, mastery-based approaches are not just working in the vocational sector but in allied sectors (such as the military), in the Ivy league (Brown) and in highly prestigious non-Ivy league institutions such as MIT. But we also know of examples such as Harvey Mudd, who proudly state that only seven students since 1955 have earned a 4.0 GPA and have a post on the career blog devoted to “explaining why your GPA is so low” And, be in no doubt, Harvey Mudd is an excellent school, especially for my discipline. I’m not criticising their program, I’ve only heard great things about them, but when you have to put up a page like that? You’re admitting that there’s a problem but you are pushing it on to the student to fix it. But contrast that with Brown, who say to employers “look at our students, not their grades” (at least on the website).
Feedback to the students on their progress is essential. Being able to see what your students are up to is essential for the teacher. Being able to see what your staff and schools are doing is important for the University. Employers want to know who to hire. Which of these is the most important?
The students. It has to be the students. Doesn’t it? (Arguments for the existence of Universities as a self-sustaining bureaucracy system in the comments, if you think that’s a thing you want to do.)
This is not an easy problem but, as we can see, we have pieces of the solution all over the place. Tomorrow, I’m going to put in a place a cornerstone of beautiful assessment that I haven’t seen provided elsewhere or explained in this way. (Then all of you can tell me which papers I should have read to get it from, I can publish the citation, and we can all go forward.)
There are many lessons to be learned from what is going on in the MOOC sector. The first is that we have a lot to learn, even for those of us who are committed to doing it ‘properly’ whatever that means. I’m not trying to convince you of “MOOC yes” or “MOOC no”. We can have that argument some other time. I’m talking about we already know from using these tools.
We’ve learned (again) that producing a broadcast video set of boring people reading the book at you in a monotone is, amazingly, not effective, no matter how fancy the platform. We know that MOOCs are predominantly taken by people who have already ‘succeeded’ at learning, often despite our educational system, and are thus not as likely to have an impact in traditionally disadvantaged areas, especially without an existing learning community and culture. (No references, you can Google all of this easily.)
We know that online communities can and do form. Ok, it’s not the same as twenty people in a room with you but our own work in this space confirms that you can have students experiencing a genuine feeling of belonging, facilitated through course design and forum interaction.
“Really?” you ask.
In a MOOC we ran with over 25,000 students, a student wrote a thank you note to us at the top of his code, for the final assignment. He had moved from non-coder to coder with us and had created some beautiful things. He left a note in his code because he thought that someone would read it. And we did. There is evidence of this everywhere in the forums and their code. No, we don’t have a face-to-face relationship. But we made them feel something and, from what we’ve seen so far, it doesn’t appear to be a bad something.
But we, as in the wider on-line community, have learned something else that is very important. Students in MOOCs often set their own expectations of achievement. They come in, find what they’re after, and leave, much like they are asking a question on Quora or StackExchange. Much like you check out reviews on-line before you start watching a show or you download one or two episodes to check it out. You know, 21st Century life.
Once you see that self-defined achievement and engagement, a lot of things about MOOCs, including drop rates and strange progression, suddenly make sense. As does the realisation that this is a total change from what we have accepted for centuries as desirable behaviour. This is something that we are going to have a lot of trouble fitting into our existing system. It also indicates how much work we’re going to have to do in order to bring in traditionally disadvantaged communities, first-in-family and any other under-represented group. Because they may still believe that we’re offering Perry’s nightmare in on-line form: serried ranks with computers screaming facts at you.
We offer our students a lot of choice but, as Universities, we mostly work on the idea of ‘follow this program to achieve this qualification’. Despite notionally being in the business of knowledge for the sake of knowledge, our non-award and ‘not for credit’ courses are dwarfed in enrolments by the ‘follow the track, get a prize’ streams. And that, of course, is where the diminishing bags of dollars come from. That’s why retention is such a hot-button issue at Universities because even 1% more retained students is worth millions to most Universities. A hunt and peck community? We don’t even know what retention looks like in that context.
Pretending that this isn’t happening is ignoring evidence. It’s self-deceptive, disingenuous, hypocritical (for we are supposed to be the evidence junkies) and, once again, we have a failure of educational aesthetics. Giving people what they don’t want isn’t good. Pretending that they just don’t know what’s good for them is really not being truthful. That’s three Socratic strikes: you’re out.
We have a message from our learning community. They want some control. We have to be aware that, if we really want them to do something, they have to feel that it’s necessary. (So much research supports this.) By letting them run around in the MOOC space, artificial and heavily instrumented, we can finally see what they’re up to without having to follow them around with clipboards. We see them on the massive scale, individuals and aggregates. Remember, on average these are graduates; these are students who have already been through our machine and come out. These are the last people, if we’ve convinced them of the rightness of our structure, who should be rocking the boat and wanting to try something different. Unless, of course, we haven’t quite been meeting their true needs all these years.
I often say that the problem we have with MOOC enrolments is that we can see all of them. There is no ‘peeking around the door’ in a MOOC. You’re in or you’re out, in order to be signed up for access or updates.
If we were collaborating with all of our students to produce learning materials and structures, not just the subset who go into MOOC, I wonder what we would end up turning out? We still need to apply our knowledge of pedagogy and psychology, of course, to temper desire with what works but I suspect that we should be collaborating with our learner community in a far more open way. Everywhere else, technology is changing the relationship between supplier and consumer. Name any other industry and we can probably find a new model where consumers get more choice, more knowledge and more power.
No-one (sensible) is saying we should raze the Universities overnight. I keep being told that allowing more student control is going to lead to terrible things but, frankly, I don’t believe it and I don’t think we have enough evidence to stop us from at least exploring this path. I think it’s scary, yes. I think it’s going to challenge how we think about tertiary education, absolutely. I also think that we need to work out how we can bring together the best of face-to-face with the best of on-line, for the most people, in the most educationally beautiful way. Because anything else just isn’t that beautiful.
I was recently at a conference-like event where someone stood up and talked about video lectures. And these lectures were about 40 minutes long.
Over several million viewing sessions, EdX have clearly shown that watchable video length tops out at just over 6 minutes. And that’s the same for certificate-earning students and the people who have enrolled for fun. At 9 minutes, students are watching for fewer than 6 minutes. At the 40 minute mark, it’s 3-4 minutes.
I raised this point to the speaker because I like the idea that, if we do on-line it should be good on-line, and I got a response that was basically “Yes, I know that but I think the students should be watching these anyway.” Um. Six minutes is the limit but, hey, students, sit there for this time anyway.
We have never been able to unobtrusively measure certain student activities as well as we can today. I admit that it’s hard to measure actual attention by looking at video activity time but it’s also hard to measure activity by watching students in a lecture theatre. When we add clickers to measure lecture activity, we change the activity and, unsurprisingly, clicker-based assessment of lecture attentiveness gives us different numbers to observation of note-taking. We can monitor video activity by watching what the student actually does and pausing/stopping a video is a very clear signal of “I’m done”. The fact that students are less likely to watch as far on longer videos is a pretty interesting one because it implies that students will hold on for a while if the end is in sight.
In a lecture, we think students fade after about 15-20 minutes but, because of physical implications, peer pressure, politeness and inertia, we don’t know how many students have silently switched off before that because very few will just get up and leave. That 6 minute figure may be the true measure of how long a human will remain engaged in this kind of task when there is no active component and we are asking them to process or retain complex cognitive content. (Speculation, here, as I’m still reading into one of these areas but you see where I’m going.) We know that cognitive load is a complicated thing and that identifying subgoals of learning makes a difference in cognitive load (Morrison, Margulieux, Guzdial) but, in so many cases, this isn’t what is happening in those long videos, they’re just someone talking with loose scaffolding. Having designed courses with short videos I can tell you that it forces you, as the designer and teacher, to focus on exactly what you want to say and it really helps in making your points, clearly. Implicit sub-goal labelling, anyone? (I can hear Briana and Mark warming up their keyboards!)
If you want to make your videos 40 minutes long, I can’t stop you. But I can tell you that everything I know tells me that you have set your materials up for another hominid species because you’re not providing something that’s likely to be effective for current humans.
I was inspired to write this by a comment about using late penalties but dealing slightly differently with students when they owned up to being late. I have used late penalties extensively (it’s school policy) and so I have a lot of experience with the many ways students try to get around them.
Like everyone, I have had students who have tried to use honesty where every other possible way of getting the assignment in on time (starting early, working on it before the day before, miraculous good luck) has failed. Sometimes students are puzzled that “Oh, I was doing another assignment from another lecturer” isn’t a good enough excuse. (Genuine reasons for interrupted work, medical or compassionate, are different and I’m talking about the ambit extension or ‘dog ate my homework’ level of bargaining.)
My reasoning is simple. In education, owning up to something that you did knowing that it would have punitive consequences of some sort should not immediately cause things to become magically better. Plea bargaining (and this is an interesting article of why that’s not a good idea anywhere) is you agreeing to your guilt in order to reduce your sentence. But this is, once again, horse-trading knowledge on the market. Suddenly, we don’t just have a temporal currency, we have a conformal currency, where getting a better deal involves finding the ‘kindest judge’ among the group who will give you the ‘lightest sentence’. Students optimise their behaviour to what works or, if they’re lucky, they have a behaviour set that’s enough to get them to a degree without changing much. The second group aren’t mostly who we’re talking about and I don’t want to encourage the first group to become bargain-hunting mark-hagglers.
I believe that ‘finding Mr Nice Lecturer’ behaviour is why some students feel free to tell me that they thought someone else’s course was more important than mine, because I’m a pretty nice person and have a good rapport with my students, and many of my colleagues can be seen (fairly or not) as less approachable or less open.
We are not doing ourselves or our students any favours. At the very least, we risk accusations of unfairness if we extend benefits to one group who are bold enough to speak to us (and we know that impostor syndrome and lack of confidence are rife in under-represented groups). At worst, we turn our students into cynical mark shoppers, looking for the easiest touch and planning their work strategy based on what they think they can get away with instead of focusing back on the learning. The message is important and the message must be clearly communicated so that students try to do the work for when it’s required. (And I note that this may or may not coincide with any deadlines.)
We wouldn’t give credit to someone who wrote ‘True’ and then said ‘Oh, but I really meant False’. The work is important or it is not. The deadline is important or it is not. Consequences, in a learning sense, do not have to mean punishments and we do not need to construct a Star Chamber in our offices.
Yes, I do feel strongly about this. I completely understand why people do this and I have also done this before. But after thinking about it at length, I changed my practice so that being honest about something that shouldn’t have happened was appreciated but it didn’t change what occurred unless there was a specific procedural difference in handling. I am not a judge. I am not a jury. I want to change the system so that not only do I not have to be but I’m not tempted to be.