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E-assessment: a new dawn or a dead end?

  • 23 June 2020
  • By Nicholas Freestone

This blog was kindly contributed by Nicholas Freestone, Associate Professor in Physiology and Pharmacology and the Higher Education Academy’s / Royal Society of Biology’s UK HE Bioscience Teacher of the Year in 2014/15. This year, Nicholas is in the running for a Guardian University Award as Course Director of a Pharmaceutical Science course.

Like many jobbing lecturers in UK higher education, I have been torn between the many competing demands of the profession. Teaching, research, administration (often labelled now non-ironically apparently, Leadership and Management) have competed for my precious time and limited attention span.

I always envied those colleagues who seemed to have the time to immerse themselves into new e-ways of working, which promised the sunlit uplands of better processes, more efficient time management and better student outcomes related to both learning and assessment.

I yearned for the intellectual space and freedom to learn how to use these magical processes that would finally set my world to rights, free up my time and increase student learning gains. I could only gaze in hapless admiration at my go-getting e-literate colleagues as they made purposeful forays into this new world, bringing back tales of great derring do, streamlined marking of assessments and use of ‘rubrics’ – a magical concept they uttered in breathless tones as invoking some pedagogical deity and worshipping at its smartboard shrine.

Is online our Nirvana?

Then came Covid-19 … and virtually everyone in the sector was catapulted precipitously and headlong into this new world of online learning and assessment. Learning quickly on the hoof to set up online multiple-choice question-type (MCQ) quizzes and collusion-proof longer answer questions, we felt we had been ordained into some secret priesthood in our worship of the great ‘e’.

This might be thought of as akin to Yorke’s invocation of pedagogy in higher education as being a ‘cloistered virtue’ (2000). By this it is meant that previously the concentration on e-whizzbangery was conducted in the shadows by adherents to that form of pedagogy, just as Yorke had held that pedagogical studies in higher education generally were only conducted by enthusiasts with no hope or expectation of academic fame or glory.

Now emboldened to come out into the light, we whipped out our virtual marking tools and tracked changes, inserted comments we had previously saved and used them repeatedly across a whole cohort (time-saving heaven no?), and churned out automatic marks for painstakingly constructed MCQ quizzes. Is this nirvana? The pedagogical holy grail? Are our unceasing labours at an end; the Sisyphean task of rolling that assessment boulder up a hill, releasing it down the other side to enlighten and improve students before running down the hill to start pushing up the next assessment boulder, a thing of the past?

Is it heaven or is it hell?

But is all well (Orwell?) in this new paradise? Imagine my surprise to find that the online marking of one cohort’s assessment took four maybe five times as long as I would normally have taken. I thought it was just me, so I tackled a colleague who has used the technological jiggery pokery for a number of years to ask him about his experience: ‘Always takes me much much longer too’, he blithely retorted.

Apparently, this is a commonly held view. So let’s trawl for evidence shall we? On doing this, I was amazed to find that there is scant literature to prove that e-assessment leads to markedly better learning outcomes for students. Most comparisons of online and traditional methods emphasise the fact that e-learning provides similar outcomes to traditional methods. Great strides are apparently being made in the automatic marking of free text using computational methods but are only currently envisaged to enhance the reliability of human marking methods.

If the e-tools are not genuinely superior to traditional methods, soak up huge amounts of academic time, not just in the learning of the new methods and techniques but in their routine application, what is the point? Another huge caveat is that the field is moving so quickly that today’s shiny new ‘greatest thing since sliced bread’ is quickly yesterday’s food for the birds.

I once had a colleague who became our institution’s keenest exponent of Second Life (a virtual world in which lecturers and students could use avatars to populate virtual learning spaces). This took up massive amounts of her time in its mastery and deployment. Anyone using Second Life now? All that time and effort … for what?

What is very evidently needed are more specialists in each institution expert in and attuned to the changing world of online learning who are equally adept at translating this foreign discipline in very simple terms to hard-working academic staff. Such teams would be well placed to evaluate and filter suitable e-teaching innovations in a well-informed and efficient manner to less knowledgeable and time-poor colleagues.

While educational developers in this area probably already exist in many higher education institutions their input into day-to-day teaching has, up to now, been fragmentary and sporadic. It needs to be repurposed and professionalised so that each institution has its own manual of tried and tested (and future-proofed?) software applications in online teaching and assessment.

Online assessment – impacts on health and wellbeing

What finally drives the stake into the heart of online assessment for me is the very serious consideration of the negative impacts on health that sitting marking for hours on an unsuitable laptop computer at home will surely bring for colleagues in lockdown.

Did you know for example, that EU law effectively bans the use of laptops for home working for durations of longer than two hours? Wrong screen sizes, awkward and strain-inducing angles to view and handle material, keyboards that are permanently fixed to the screen (that shouldn’t be) etc. But what of the student view? My students tell me that while they hate online learning they love online assessment. One wonders if the concentration in the literature on ensuring the ‘integrity’ of online assessment has anything to do with this…?

It is a legal as well as a moral duty on employers to ensure the health and safety of their employees at their place of work – i.e. in this period, at home. It is evident to this observer, at least, that this obligation is only being patchily met across the sector. Very few institutions seem willing to grasp the nettle of the fact that they need to provide adequate resources to their employees while they are working from home. That means office-style chairs and desks, large screens deployable at requisite heights and distances, ergonomic keyboards and electronic scribes that don’t necessitate holding the hand at awkward angles for long periods as a minimum. This might involve however, significant deployment of scarce financial resources at a very inopportune time.

However, if universities really are planning to teach online in September, en masse, such considerations as the health and wellbeing of their staff should certainly be at the forefront of their minds. Universities will need, now more than ever, to rely on the professionalism and goodwill of their employees to deliver learning material in new ways and this will come at a cost. Ho hum. Now I’m looking for a boulder … anyone seen it?

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