Sunday, April 25, 2021

Escaping from the exam hall

Traditions are so hard to break and one of the most entrenched is the proctored written examination. Writing for hours in a silent hall with only your memory to help you has been a rite of passage for generations of students all over the world; my own student years were dominated by these stressful events. The exam halls have been empty for over a year now but the problem of how to examine large groups of students online has lead to much stress and debate. Many have questioned the value of high-stakes summative examination; what valuable career skills are we actually testing in the exam hall? The problem is finding an alternative that will work with large student cohorts and can minimise the risk of cheating.

Interest is growing in more authentic assessment methods such as projects, case studies and portfolios, but these all involve major shifts in course design and teaching practice. Teachers who have always used proctored exams need training and time to reorganise their courses around alternative assessment methods and students will also need to be convinced of the benefits. In a recent article, a teacher here in Sweden described how he carries out one-to-one interviews with all students as an examination method, even with classes of over 200 (read article in Swedish). Each interview takes 15-20 minutes and if that seems like a lot he claimed that correcting written papers took roughly the same time per student. An interview is more personal and makes cheating extremely difficult and an experienced teacher gets a good picture of the student's ability in that time. 

This however is an exceptional option and most teachers have chosen solutions that try to emulate the exam hall. A common makeshift solution is where all students log into Zoom and are then monitored via their webcams and microphones. There are plenty of digital examination tools that will lock down the student's computer for the duration of the exam but the most controversial solution has been to use the remote proctoring solutions offered by companies like Proctorio, ProctorU and ExamSoft. These solutions involve remote monitoring of students, AI analysis of facial expressions, keystrokes, mouse clicks and registration of any suspicious activities in the student's room (someone entering the room). The integrity and privacy issues of this kind of surveillance and the question of what the companies do with all that data has been well covered in the past year.

However, it is tempting for a university to opt into remote proctoring since it fits in so well with traditional examination. Remote proctoring allows teachers to continue using their summative examinations and the alternatives all seem to demand extra work and retraining, something most already over-worked teachers will object to. A good example of an institution that was brave enough to avoid remote proctoring and help teachers make the transition to authentic examination is described in  an article by a group from the University of Michigan–DearbornWhat Happens When You Close the Door on Remote Proctoring? Moving Toward Authentic Assessments with a People-Centered Approach. Despite pressure to implement remote proctoring they decided to focus on changing their approach to assessment and examination by supporting teachers in their transition. The article explains their rationale for this move and describes the support process that included weekly practical workshops to work through new methods. To lessen the teachers' workload they hired a numbered of specially trained graders to help with the more time-consuming assessment of the new examination methods. The initiative is not complete and they have not completed a transition to authentic assessment but the new approach is gaining acceptance. In conclusion they offer the following advice.

In our experience, leaders such as educational developers, instructional designers, academic technologists, department chairs, and deans will need to be prepared to extensively support faculty during the transition. Many instructors have been using proctored exams for their entire careers and see them as essential to the teaching and learning process. Even as teaching and learning professionals may be eager to see instructors drop high-stakes exams all together, it is important to recognize that changing a long-held teaching practice can feel destabilizing and will likely bring some unforeseen challenges and resistance from instructors (Smith, 2020). Monetary resources saved from the refusal of remote proctoring services can be redirected to invest in ongoing faculty development on assessment and other teaching-related topics. We believe our investment in people, rather than remote proctoring services, will be more robust to the inevitable changes in learning formats and technology that are to come.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Great expectations and how to manage them

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash

Isn't amazing that some people always misunderstand your most carefully planned and explained activities? What seems crystal clear in your head seems unclear and messy to others. Often it boils down to assumptions and expectations that are not clearly defined. Each student and teacher enters a course with their own preconceptions and assumptions of what they can expect and what is expected of them. It is so easy to think of students as a collective instead of a diverse group of individuals thrown together by chance in your particular course. Their expectations have been formed by previous courses and teachers and it is natural that they expect your course to be similar to the course they took last term. Much has been written about the difficulties of getting students to turn on their cameras in meetings or of students dropping out when group work starts but often it is because they don't see the activity as meaningful. Why is the group work important and why do they need to turn on their cameras? Too often we simply assume that this is obvious. The start of each course is therefore a renegotiation of how we approach the challenges ahead of us. The more explicit this negotiation the greater the likelihood of success. 

This is one of the themes in an article in E-learn magazine by Tom LangstonEngaging Students: An Approach to Solving the Zoom Conundrum. He describes the importance of each class negotiating a code of conduct that isn't simply a case of the students agreeing to the teachers expectations but reaching a mutually acceptable framework. It's also about addressing students' expectations of each other.

When you start teaching a class, it can be easy to highlight who you are and what you might intend to cover over the course of the module. It might also be less often that you explicitly tell the students what you are expecting from them. Even if you do, do they explicitly agree to your “demands” on them? This is where a conversation can help shape what is to come throughout the entire teaching block. If you are explicit about your standards and why you approach things the way you do, there can be no recourse from the students about why they have not held up their part of the agreement. Or you to yours.

Managing expectations is just as relevant on campus as online, though the mismatches are more pronounced in online courses. Another dimension that adds to the expectation mismatch is the increasing diversity of students from traditional young campus students to older lifelong learners with work and families to deal with. Mix in cultural diversity and you have a myriad of expectations and potential for misunderstanding. In today's multi-layered university it is unwise to assume. There is no one magic formula but a constant dialogue and negotiation, offering students a variety of spaces for interaction and collaboration.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Teaching without video meetings

Photo by Joyce McCown on Unsplash

Synchronous meetings in Zoom/Teams/Google Meet have become the default teaching method over the past year but fatigue is setting in and many wonder if we really need to meet this way so often. Lecture sessions can be pre-recorded and discussions can often become more reflective in asynchronous forums or other discussion tools where everyone has time to consider their opinion and not simply react spontaneously as in a synchronous meeting. Could the frequency of video meetings be due to the feeling that that is what we are expected to do? Lots of meetings make everyone feel like they are working hard, but could learning take place just as well, if not better, without them?  

Some answers to these questions are discussed in an interesting article by Lucy Biederman in Inside Higher Ed, Goodbye, Zoom Fatigue. She teaches several classes very successfully without the use of video meetings and gives the following examples:

  • An advanced poetry seminar where students work together during the scheduled course times each week, communicating on Google chat as they do, to create a website that features a deep dive into one significant American poem each week. They collaborated to provide background, context, close readings, writing prompts based on the poem and more.
  • A business and professional writing course taught entirely on Slack, providing students experience with a new-to-them workplace application. Students communicated with me and one another on channels devoted to course topics and through direct messages.
  • An introductory creative writing course where students maintain individual blogs in which they explore course texts and their own writing processes throughout the semester. A page on the learning management system shares every students' blog address. Students create a community of writers by reading and commenting on each other's blogs.
In these examples the students are very active, learning together and interacting. These methods are also more inclusive in that they do not make high demands on bandwidth, devices or time constraints. The process is visible to all and the teacher is able to offer feedback at all stages. It also mirrors how virtual teamwork is conducted in professional life. This approach may not be valid for all subjects and levels but it raises questions around why we are so dependent on synchronous meetings even when many people feel that they are repetitive and uninspiring.

This does not mean that we should stop having video meetings but that we should always consider if they are essential and whether other methods would be more effective. Video lessons, like classroom time, can sometimes give us a sense of activity without really contributing to learning. We need to match each learning outcome to an appropriate method and space and be ready to challenge comfortable traditions.