Post-Secondary Assessment in the Digital Age

It's always been a challenge for educators to get a clear picture of how their students are doing from moment to moment.  Meaty curriculum, time constraints, and large class sizes make it tricky to know exactly who's doing what and when they're doing it.  Figuring out how much and how well students are learning is an even bigger task. In a college or university setting, instructors sometimes only see their students once a week, and they see a lot of them at once.  In some courses, there are only a handful of evaluation pieces, and by the time an instructor figures out that a student is struggling, the bulk of the semester has passed.

Generally speaking, assessment standards have always included stipulations like:

  • Assessment has to be about more than just attendance.  Being a warm body in a seat on a regular basis doesn't speak to one's comprehension or participation.
  • Assessment has to be more than just how many times they raise their hands and speak.  Participation does provide greater insight into a student's progress than just being present, but it still doesn't always tell an educator that their learners are moving beyond basic understanding.  Moreover, there are quiet students who still process and synthesize information quite well without any outward indication of it.
  • Assessment has to be more than just what students accomplish as a group.  Short of assigning each student a specific part of a group project, it's difficult to ascertain who is doing what.  Collaboration is key in 21st century learning, but it's rarely the case that every group member does an equal share of the work.

Enter the digital age, with exponential increases in the amount of information available to learners, and an endless source of distraction.  Has educational technology made it more difficult to keep students tuned in, or does it present new opportunities to assess students on a more regular and meaningful basis?

We think the latter:

  • On a superficial level, new learning systems make it fairly easy and straightforward to perform metrics on attendance and some form of participation.  It takes little effort to determine who's logged in and how long they've spent in the system.
  • The same technology that can be distracting can make it easier for students to assess themselves on a regular basis.  Instructors can program push notifications, small quizzes, and feedback forms into a learning system, and can even make it impossible to proceed with an assignment until they've completed them.
  • This technology can also function as a tool for peer assessment, in much the same way as it can help individuals assess their own work.  This can be done for both individual and group assignments, as well as online forums.
  • Used properly, educational technology can also serve as a sort of virtual notebook or learning journal.  Students can capture their thoughts, progress and questions using a variety of media, and instructors can review this information in real time.

There may never be a perfect world in which post-secondary educators have the time or resources to assess each student individually on a regular basis.  However, with the right learning system, they can establish a better relationship with their learners that goes beyond occasional evaluation pieces.

Amy Leask is VP of Enable Education and Communications Manager of Infinite Octopus