Thursday, June 16, 2005

assessment in online education

Today I'm thinking about assessment approaches in online education. As soon as I start talking about assessment, I'm often brought back to the notion that's ones underlying philosophy of education is the ultimate influence in design, teaching, and assessment of online education. So I'll take these in two parts: first, assessment; second, educational philosophy.

At the current time, I'm not too impressed by the assessment tools included in most LMSs (learning management systems). Why? They all emphasize traditional forms of student assessment--multiple choice, quiz, essay exams, etc. I suppose these types of tools have their place in learning, and indeed some students report enjoying the ability to take these types of tests and get immediate feedback. Often, these tools can be combined with links to additional reading, materials, etc. if the student gets the answer wrong. I admit that when I taught elementary school, I definitely used these forms of assessment. However, since I started teaching in higher education 13 years ago, I have yet to assign a traditional assessment to my students. Yes, you've guessed it. I'm one of those folks who enthusiastically believes in authentic assessment approaches, especially for adult learners in graduate school.

As a supporter of authentic assessment, I design curriculum that uses multi-levels of assesment: self-assessment, peer assessment, as well as instructor assessment. Each of these levels of assessment serves a different, but important purpose, in the learning cycle. I've written a slideshow on this topic, so I won't go into a lot of additional depth here on that topic. I will say that I use such assessment strategies as online portfolios, project-based learning, problem-based learning, self-reflective journals, peer feedback using rubrics, etc. I'd like to see LMS software companies begin to design their systems to provide tools that allow me to assess in alternative ways. Many new online educators, who can be confused by the structure of the online environment, will automatically use whatever assessment tools are provided in their design of instruction. Thus, the tool mandates the teaching approach--not a great idea, especially when those tools have their limitations and are based in an educational philosophy that one might not support.

So, Part 2: educational philosophy. I could go on for days on this topic, so I'm going to try my darndest to be brief. Here's the big idea, don't miss it: A teacher's underlying educational philosophy determines the design, instruction and evaluation used in his or her classroom. Period.
  • Thus, if I'm a behaviorist teacher, I'm probably going to lecture and then quiz my students on the mastery of material. Why? Because I believe that learning is about obtaining knowledge from others.
  • Now, if I'm a social constructivist teacher, I'm probably going to have my students work in small groups to investigate and answer some problem that they've been given. They will present their findings to me and other students in the class as a form of evaluation. Why? Because I believe that learning is a social process, and that the purpose of teaching is to assist students in their own knowledge construction process.
  • Let's say I'm a cognitivist teacher. I'm probably going to illicit my student's prior understandings on the topics, and then provide them some graphic organizers, visuals, and othe reading material so they can continue to build their schema on a given topic. They might then develop a slideshow illustrating key points on a given topic area that they've learned about. Why? Because I believe that there is declarative and procedural forms of knowledge that I can assist my students in developing by relating materials to concepts they already know.
  • Finally, let's say I'm a critical theorist, and I emphasize the importance of understanding cultural differences as part of the learning process. If my students are studying Columbus, I'm probably going to ask them to investigate the causes of the downfall of the native American people around the time of the Spanish infiltration. They will investigate the differences in cultures, and the impact that the cultures had one another, including such things as disease, warfare, etc. I might then have my students create an online report about the consequences of the Spanish infiltration on native Americans, and share that report through online news channels. Why? Because I believe that learning is about empowering students to understand the role of race, gender, sexual preference, etc. as a major influence in our culture.

OK enough of this soapbox for today. You get the idea. WebCT, Blackboard, eCollege hear my plea. Give me some tools that allow me to provide some alternative forms of assessment! Become leaders in education by providing structures that support emergent trends in education, instead of dusty, old-school types who force online learning into a mold where we no longer need to be.