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The New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) is considering how to implement online assessments for external examinations in the senior secondary school (years 11 - 13, 15 - 18 year olds) by the year 2015. Although the tertiary sector leads the way in this regard, including development of copyright and plagiarism-detecting software, the school sector has been slow to adapt to the world of e-learning and online engagement most of our students are increasingly engaged in. Note, I say MOST and not ALL, as in NZ we have a considerable digital divide as we very slowly roll out ultra fast broadband, face underfunding for ICT maintenance and development in schools, and have families who cannot afford BYDs for their children to take to school. High speed Internet access is therefore often unreliable, unaffordable, or unsustainable. 

This interview on Radio NZ, May 2nd, summarises the key discussions we are having here in NZ around online assessments - the first interviewee is the head of the NZQA and the second a university professor. Is there a danger of simply planting old assessment methods in online environments? How will online assessment impact on teaching and learning and vice versa?

Changes to the way students  are assessed  (20′07″)

Download: Ogg Vorbis  MP3

As an international community here on Ethos, I'd be interested in your thoughts and experiences in relation to the points raised in the interviews. 



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Comment by Madelyn Griffith-Haynie on May 29, 2013 at 17:15

I couldn't stand it - I had to shuffle my to-dos so I could listen. I'm back with my initial reactions.

Good interviewer -- interesting points brought up by the discussion with both guests, especially in the second interview - reframing the task, essentially, in the question, "What do we have schools FOR?"

I agree with looking at the issue through that particular lens. We need to focus on understanding all of the purposes they currently serve, and make sure those components remain covered in ANY new learning environment that might be created and sanctioned officially.

We're still trapped in our thinking by the DETAILS of what will soon become "what was" - asking questions intended to solve problems at a level that remains, for all our hopes of avoiding same, little more than porting old systems to new technology - as if figuring out HOW to integrate emerging technologies were our biggest challenge.

There are also a couple of issues that I didn't hear being brought up that I believe are vital to add to the conversation:

#1 - the realities of delayed pre-frontal cortex development (the "Executive Centers" necessary for higher order thinking skills).

The PFC is not fully on board (for most) until the teen years are behind us. Even as adults, with our formative, developmental years well behind us, most of us who read have experienced more than a few new insights that come from picking up an old book and rereading it in light of new learning and a a gunney-sack of experience.

I know I have reread a number of "High School Classics" that seemed to be completely different books read again in my 40's and beyond -- simply because my ability to fully integrate certain concepts and ideas was limited by my years here on earth at the time I first read them. And I was a smart kid, developmentally well above average.

Some students may be ready from an IQ standpoint to "fast track" through a set of curriculum landmarks, but will we be doing them a disservice, ultimately, by allowing them to do so? Will that, ultimately, serve society at large?

We're not programming worker robots, after all - we're developing neural networks intendied to serve them for the rest of their lives - i.e., teaching brains HOW to think and encouraging the use of the skill-set -- as well as building the thinking "habit."

Likewise, certain comments made by some of my former teachers resonate in quite a different manner, now that I am older and more experienced.

I wonder at the impact on the world when mentors are no longer vetted in any manner. How and where will our brave new learners develop the discrimination skills to allow them to avoid the lure, metaphorically, of cult leadership? The 21st century equivalent of internet chat rooms? Blogging communities? Tweet/text relays? 

We might as well drop them all off at the local shopping mall and leave them to educate each other! At least they'd develop some social skills acumen.

Which brings me to point two . . .

#2 - How will the "soft skills" be transferred in this brave new world -- the socialization component that has traditionally been handled as part and parcel of the dynamic that students step, as a group, through a similar process for the bulk of their early lives?

I can imagine that home-schoolers might point to the success of their kids educationally, including their abilities to integrate into university environments socially, as indicative of the fact that "going" to school is not, in fact, so important. And yet, the environment these former school system outsiders are integrating INTO currently consists of a majority that has stepped through the educational process in a more "conventional" manner (i.e., what we are discussing the need to move away from).

How will that change when the majority has NOT been socialized in the current manner?

We humans have evolved as social creatures - evolutionary development doesn't change at the pace of technology. We need "face time" to develop a great many social skills we now take for granted because we did NOT spend much of the first two decades of our lives in isolated pursuits. How might a sea change where most learners learn in relative isolation "going at their own intellectual pace" impact abilities to interact cooperatively in an increasingly globalized co-venture?

There are only so many "play dates" that the parent of an online learner has TIME to organize. Currently, there is a relatively easy way to locate groups of similar aged children and to find ways to engage with them in activities organized, to a great degree, by and through school affiliation. Does "community" become little more than a series of Meetups for the teens of the future?

I hyperbolize simply to point out that, when the manner in which we educate our populace evolves, there are more changes coming than we are currently allowing ourselves to consider, eclipsed by our focus on scholastic logistics.

I'm not saying to stick with the old - FAR from it - simply reminding us all that it won't serve to throw the babies out with the bathwater as we endeavor to midwife the future we have no choice but to embrace. We are on the cusp of global change as world-shattering as the Industrial Revolution.

I, for one, am grateful that there are educational communities like the ones you all represent with the wisdom to be discussing this issue NOW.



Comment by Madelyn Griffith-Haynie on May 29, 2013 at 14:52

I haven't had time to listen - and won't for a bit more time - but I did read Hazel's brief synopsis in the most recent newsletter and wanted to take a moment to see how the conversation was developing -- and to add my voice.  Forgive me if I jump around as I think extempore.

Your blogpost raises some vitally important questions, Merryn - as does Hazel in her comment below.  I continue to be amazed at how much more forward thinking you seem to be in your part of the planet than the U.S. educators whom I come across.  By that I mean to say that you seem to be actually organizing to DO something about what you see as you look at the goals and challenges of educating the next generation.   

The educators in the US are highly frustrated, of course, but our "No Child Left Behind" well-intended but LOUSY legislation has tied the hands of many who feel that their only option is to go along or lose their jobs. Those who don't leave teaching altogether report pressure to "teach the test."

School funding is tied to metrics that are supposed to mean something about what the students are learning, pitting school against school, teacher against teacher in a dysfunctional dynamic where the students become little more than game markers in some kind of a contest between those tasked with providing EDUCATION.

The metrics DO mean something, actually.  They mean that we now have teachers who "cheat."  Preparing their students to answer test questions to improve scores is little different than the antics of student cheaters who steal the test to make sure they do well, at basis.  

More to the point - it sucks the development of the love of learning itself right out of the equation.  That will surely will have a negative effect on the number of students who are inspired to train to become educators themselves, as well as decimating the numbers of the life-long learners that keep societies vital and pogressive.

Standardized quantification - whether online or "paper-driven" is my elephant in the room.  I understand the problems that any assessment system attempts to handle with metrics, and I have no real solutions to propose that might work system-wide, but until the problem is presented as THE problem, I fear we have no hope of addressing it to the point of solutions implementation.

Kudos to you (all) for your leadership in this endeavor.


Slight side note - possible benefit

What caught MY eye in the newsletter was "[exams]  may be taken online thus enabling ' sit school assessments...when they are ready'"

Since I am in the middle of writing a blog Series on Sleep Dysregulations and Disorders, focused on disordered circadian rhythms, I must warn you that I have sleep on the brain currently.  But my first reaction was that online exams might be a solution to help to level the playing field for those who have long been disadvantaged cognitively by the reality that they are not awake and alert for learning. Standard school hours are brutal to the healthy sleep architecture of any but the larks.  See Owls, Larks and Camels for some expansion on that last statement.


@ HAZEL  I recently listened to an older, but interesting, offering from Dr. Ginger Campbell's excellent Brain Science Podcast - an overview of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.  

The first part of the book contains an overview of the of the development of writing and its impact on neuro-development that might add to your thinking about typing/pen and paper.  

There is also a podcast interview with the author, Maryann Wolf, Director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University and the editor of Dyslexia, Fluency and the Brain -- who has also "written/designed three empirically proven instructional programs on thinking skills for middle school students, on reading and writing for elementary school students, and on linguistic awareness for emergent readers."

She shares her concerns about how reliance on the internet could influence reading skills.

Gotta run - I'll be back!

Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CMC, SCAC, MCC
- ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder -
(blogs: ADDandSoMuchMore, ADDerWorld & ethosconsultancynz - dot com)
"It takes a village to transform a world!"
Comment by Nigel Bailey on May 29, 2013 at 10:34

Am currently listening to the podcast and after hearing just the first part I am inclined to post. Not a common thing for me to do, but it just so affirmed what I am already doing in the classroom with my students. They work at their pace, choosing what they study of the curriculum etc. Hoorah for the enlightened ones at the Ministry

Comment by Hazel Owen on May 10, 2013 at 22:15
I am typing these first words wondering where to start! It was good to hear the digital natives assertion debunked. And the point made that very little progress (if any) is being made if, instead of a room full of papers and desks, there is a room full of computers and desks, where students take assessments.

As a bit of an aside, while there is research that indicates typing can impede expression and disadvantage students, there are emerging results that those students who have grown up typing assignments and assessments are now disadvantaged by the use of pen and paper. (I did mention that I didn't know where to start, so this is a bit all over the place!)

And finally on to something I feel really strongly about. The elephant in the room isn't necessarily access, advances in learning and technology, or whether a student has plagiarised. I would strongly argue that the way we an entire system...badly needs to be overhauled.

Standardised testing, I feel, quashes slowly but surely, the love of learning in students. Those students who aren't great test takers, or who are disadvantaged due to the cultural biases, for example, within some assessments, are set up to be seen as 'failing'. Once this happens, the students performance often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy...something that is supported by both cognitive developmental theory and neuroscience.

Assessments themselves need to be designed to have flexibility and choice for the students, and be designed such that they ask students to work on authentic tasks where it is almost impossible to 'cheat'. These assessments should recognise and reward a range of competences and skills rather than a prodigious memory or exam-taking techniques. These types of assessments are likely to be more tricky to grade...but, as Mark said on the podcast, if assessment is seen as part of the learning process, then approaches such as peer and self-grading can be used, and the assessment becomes the disucussion afterwards around the grades, and the student's next steps in their learning. Yes, it would be far less simple to benchmark student performance. But, surely, if the resulting assessments are re-framed as a positive part of learning - by the students in particular - and students who don't fit the mould can still succeed, then isn't it worth it?
Comment by Merryn Dunmill on May 9, 2013 at 8:29

Just keeping this alive with colleagues, I shared my thoughts with Barry who has given me permission to post his responses and thoughts here:

 "heard RadioNZ discussion on the future of assessment and my first thought was...... authenticity.
In my other unmentioned class 'Skills Pathway' - readiness for work Year 12 class. These 16 & 17 year olds still hold the view that it is OK for someone else (Mum, Aunty, big sister) to type up a CV for instance.
The problem of authenticity then occurs when the student e-mails in the CV - did they actually do the work.
I have had a number of phone calls home. Some establishing that the student infact did very little work.
I wonder the same if NZQA relies on 'when you are ready - online assessments'. Does an authenticity statement cover this adequately? I don't think it does."

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