Thursday, May 28, 2015

Assessment of....?

Image from Flickriver, Brian Hillegas
A few days ago, and totally by stroke of chance, I happened upon a twitter discussion between @HybridPed@otterscotter, @actualham, and a few others.  I am not sure what the original topic was but I came in when they were discussing assessment. Do we assess learning or competency? Some regarded learning as transcending competency and some saw competency as transcending learning. It's hard to to really have a meaningful exchange of ideas in 140 characters, especially when the twitter train grows and grows.

When I jumped into this conversation I took the stance that what we assess is learning, not competency.  Competency, I would argue, is something that develops over a period of time. It is something you hone and improve.  Your skills (i.e. your competency is something) becomes improved the more your practice it. And, by practice, I mean being present while doing it and analyzing your own performance while doing the task, not just going on autopilot.    Learning on the other hand, for me, is learning distinct facts.  That the declaration of independence was signed in 1776. That the Greek War for Independence was in 1821, that many historians think of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand kicked off World War I, that π = 3.14 (and goes on to infinity), and so on.†

From what I gathered, the individuals that saw learning as transcending competency think of competency the way I think of learning - i.e. I can demonstrate that I know how to code an HTML page (got a badge for that, I haz competency), whereas learning is something akin to lifelong learning. It is a skill you acquire to continue learning and it is something that can continue ad infinitum if the learner wants.  Both positions, in my mind, are equally valid because we are defining things differently.

Some types of learning are easy to assess, at least in the short term.  Things that allow the learner to regurgitate discreet pieces of information area easy to implement (short answers, multiple choice test, and so on).  Things that require the learner to demonstrate systems knowledge can be done at the individual class level if you can find microcosms of the system skills that you want to assess and extrapolate from that some broader competency, and it's a bit easier to do near the end of one's studies through a thesis or some sort of comprehensive exam because the learner will have had a broader set of learnings to draw from in order to explain what is going on in that system.

This issue of learning and assessment is big.  It's big in many fields.  It's big money for  companies like Pearson.  It's a big question for accrediting agencies.  It's big in the field of MOOCs.  I've most recently seen it in MOOCs where some claim that watching videos is learning, and some claim it is not.  Videos are just a tool. They can be used for learning, but they can also go merrily on in the background and they can become background noise.  I've had the privilege of being able to see live videos...aka lectures...when I was an undergrad (and a grad student sometimes too!). They were just as interactive as the videos I watch on OCW or various xMOOCs.

Even in courses that were interactive and active learning took place do I still remember everything 10 years down the road?  As part of my BA, focusing on computer science and minoring in Italian (and almost minoring in German, just needed 1 more class), I took courses in Italian literature, in German culture, in world history since 1500, the history of the Weimar Republic and WW II Germany. I learned ANSI C and Java. I learned SQL, and about automata.  Do I remember everything?  Hell no.  Does this mean that my undergraduate education is null and void? I don't think so.  It was just a little building block to get me to where I am now, despite the fact that I don't remember discreet pieces of information.  Even with my most recent MA in Applied Linguistics there are things that I just don't remember any more.  There are some things that are really vivid because I know them, and some that are vivid because they still trouble me today (Processability Theory being one of them).

I agree with Maha, who joined the twitter train on that topic, who says that some types of learning cannot as easily assessed as others. Maybe they'll take my instructional designer practitioner's membership card away for agreeing (LOL), but I don't think everything can be assessed by an ABCD method (Audience, Behavior, Condition, Degree‡). This might be doable in some skills, such as firearm training, but in many topics in education there is just too much fuzziness for ABCD to work without reducing assessment to a caricature.

Maha continued with another comment, which is also quite true, that assessment is no guaranty of lifelong learning.  I am sure I did well in all those classes I mentioned (I got the degrees to prove that I didn't fail anything), but the lifelong journey I am on has little to do with those classes specifically and more with my own curiosity.  I'd expand on Maha's comment and say that assessment is no guaranty of practice in that field either.  I completed my computer science degree, but I opted to not get a job in that field. Something else came up that seemed more interesting, and I haven't coded anything in Java or C since.  The closest I come to coding is HTML and Javascript on my own website.

So, the question is this:  beyond credentialing and certification, does assessment matter?  And if if it does matter, in what ways does it matter?  Take #rhizo15 for instance. This was a course♠, but how does one assess what I "learned" in it?  Does it matter to anyone but me?

† hey, I am channeling Latour with all of these examples!
‡ an example of ABCD is "Learners in INSDSG 601 with a blank chart of the Dick & Carey model will be able to demonstrate knowledge of the names of the phases of the Dick & Carey Model with 80% accuracy"
♠ Rhizo15 was a course, wasn't it? I guess that's a whole other discussion about what makes a course...
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