Assessing Student Learning with Technology.

Collaborate, Engage, Create, Learn . . .

Striving to integrate technology so it works for you.

The typical teenager today has a smart phone with countless apps for just about anything.  Her life revolves around social media.  WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat are all tools to boost her social presence, get the latest news, share her thoughts and beliefs and network.  The typical teenager can unfriend you within seconds without an argument, and can get her opinions out to a wide audience with a touch or a click.   The typical teenager is the student in our classrooms.  Her world is an open one, where ideas are validated by every, and anyone because everyone is an authority, a producer of knowledge.  In this world ICT is not simply a tool, but a way of life.  It has not only permeated every element of our lives, but has indeed become a culture that is a direct challenge to traditional views of social conventions, of interactions, and undoubtedly, learning.  Our typical teenager is no longer simply a consumer of information as we were years ago.  She participates at both spectrums – consumer and producer (prosumer).

Undoubtedly, the way our students see the world is very much different from the way we do. Their lens is an open one in which everything has validity.  It is one dictated by a sense of immediacy, one through which they can judge others and themselves; one of endless choices – from music to friends to paths.  Since our students see the world through these lenses and interact with it on ICT mediated platforms, we, as teachers, must acknowledge that these ICTs will undoubtedly impact the way we think about teaching and learning, the way we teach,  our roles and the roles of our students.

ICTs as integrated elements of our classroom will also change the meaning of assessment and the way it is administered.  Too often teachers use ICTs as part of instructional processes, but do not include them in the assessment of learning, and quite often, when used, teachers do not take time to evaluate the effectiveness of the processes and technologies used.  And often too, the use of ICTs in assessment is misguided.  Teachers often use computers to replicate traditional assessment tools, and not to measure learning in new ways.  An example of this is the use of computer-based quizzes which simply replicate the traditional multiple choice test.

As a response to this I will firstly explore the major theoretical paradigms informing ICT integration and the implications for the classroom.  I will then compare traditional assessment practices and ICT-based assessment practices in the context of the aforementioned theoretical paradigms. 

 

Changing view of learning

Effective use of ICT in the classroom is based on constructivists’ ideas about teaching and learning.  Constructivism calls for a re-fashioning of teaching and learning, and a radical revision of the curriculum.  Constructivists envisage changing roles of the teacher and student, and propose new ideas about what constitutes knowledge and how knowledge is created and transmitted.  In the contexts of this theory of learning the teacher is no longer knowledge expert, but has now become a designer, manager and facilitator of learning processes.  The student is now a researcher who gathers information from multiple perspectives in order to solve problems.  He/she is now a critical thinker who is constantly involved in decision making processes.  He/she is also a collaborator who works with others to construct knowledge.  And he/she is most importantly a producer of knowledge and not simply a consumer.  The student now creates knowledge to solve real world problems, and that knowledge is transmitted to, shared with and validated by authentic audiences.  Knowledge is not seen as abstract, but as experienced.  Learning is no longer a solitary act, but is collaborative, interactive and takes place in authentic settings.

A more specific branch of constructivism, social constructivism, places much emphasis on collaboration and interaction in the learning process.  This theory of learning is essential to understanding the role of social media, video sharing and other Web 2.0 tools in the instructional process.  Social constructivists emphasize the importance of culture and context in knowledge construction.  For these theorists knowledge is a human product that is socially and culturally constructed.  Meanings are created through interactions with others and the environments we live in.  Therefore, learning is a social process.  Lev Vygotsky’s contribution to constructivism is crucial to this discussion on the impact of ICT on assessment.  Maddux, Johnson, and Willis (1997) delineate four principles posited by Vygotsky which inform how ICT is used in the classroom.

Vygotsky explained that learning and development is a social, collaborative activity.  Consequently, the interaction children have with adults and other children is critical. ICTs can be used to enhance communication and interaction that does not simply focus on information delivery, but on fostering the kind of collaboration that would help students construct understandings and knowledge of their worlds. Social networking sites, media sharing, email, blogs and wikis can be very effective in this context.  These provide a platform for effective communication and collaboration, and broaden the scope of this collaborative process by expanding the possibilities of who can take part in this process.

Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) can also serve as a guide for curricular planning in ICT integration. The ZPD is the distance between a student’s ability to perform a task under adult guidance and/or with peer collaboration and the student’s ability solving the problem independently. According to Vygotsky, learning occurred in this zone. Modern ICTs possess the tools with which teachers can develop environments and resources that help students learn new things or in other words, that provide scaffolding for students. Scaffolding is changing the level of support to suit the cognitive potential of the learner. Teachers can design presentations, websites, and webquests which organize resources to support learners’ understanding of concepts.  Furthermore, they can use the Web 2.0 tools available to create and provide platforms for collaboration between students and teachers, students and students, and students and professionals in the field to help support learners.

A third Vygotskian principle helpful to understanding the role of ICTs in instruction is the idea that school learning should occur in a meaningful context. Several movements in education, including authentic instruction, situated learning, anchored instruction and Papert's dirty teaching[1] emphasize the need to provide learning experiences within a meaningful context -- often the context in which what is learned is to be applied. ICTs can facilitate this in many ways. Simulation software can be very useful in this process.  These software can simulate a myriad of processes from geographic phenomena, biological processes to electronic circuits. Additionally, teachers can create and/or access virtual field trips that will allow learners to experience other cultures, and allow them use desktop publishing software to present their experiences to other learners.  Teachers can also encourage learners to use social networking software to collaborate with other students from those cultures, to share experiences through text, graphics and video.  In this way, learners also get opportunities to relate out of school experiences with their in school learning.  This is essentially the fourth Vygotskian principle.

Assessing Learning through ICTs

Changes in the practice of instruction must be accompanied by changes in assessment.  This means that teachers need to move away from the tendency to limit our assessment practices to traditional methods, primarily because they are easier, and because they have been the tried and tested way of doing things.(A very knowledgeable colleague once told me that the reason tradition is still around is because it works!)  Tradition undoubtedly has its place, but as teachers, we need to start considering ways of assessing learning that are aligned to the ways learning takes place in the twenty-first century.

The major issues with traditional assessment are that it is often summative, reproductive and it discourages creativity.  Teachers usually carry out assessment in closely monitored physical environments and within time boundaries, as in the case of a test.  Sadly, even when homework is assigned we find ways of controlling when and how it is done.  Furthermore, these assessments usually treat all learners as the same.  No room is made for individual differences, learning styles and preferences, and students with special needs.  Too often, this form of assessment limits interaction between learners.  Because teachers focus so much on memorization, rote learning and essentially the reproduction of knowledge, attempts at interaction are seen as a direct contravention.  If knowledge is not individually constructed then it is not valued.  These assessments are usually pen and paper based assessments.  Very little (if any) attempt at getting learners to use new authoring tools is made.  These assessments are submitted, graded and most often returned to the students and archived.  “Archiving” means that the assessment products find themselves in a burial ground somewhere.  Their only impact was to help the teacher determine what the learner knows.

ICTs challenge this traditional assessment paradigm in a number of ways.

Authentic Audiences Mean Creative Products

ICTs can firstly broaden the audience for student products, in a sense making them more consumer-oriented.  Essentially, the student becomes a producer aware of the intricacies involved in getting his/her product to a wide audience.  In this case teachers can allow students to use Web 2.0 tools like blogs, wikis, websites, and social media to conceptualize, design, develop and publish their products.  So a writing assignment can include publishing a blog in which learners share their views on real world issues.  What does this mean for assessment? 

In such a case the teacher is no longer the main evaluator of the students’ work.  Other parties participate in that process.  They may be other students, other teachers, or authentic audiences who have a genuine interest in the issues presented by the students.  Because of this new audience students get opportunities to assess and develop their own work through the comments that they may receive or through statistics on viewership.  More importantly, in the process of development the student is constantly aware that he/she is not writing for the teacher, but for a global audience.  This will undoubtedly change their approach.  Working on projects in such an open domain challenges the learner to constantly validate information.  Additionally, word choice, tone and other structural elements of writing become crucial as he/she attempts to communicate ideas in a clear and unambiguous manner.  The product is only as good as audience response, and therefore the student must make sure that it is aesthetically pleasing.  This means that he/she will use video, graphics and other media to support texts.  The student will be conscious of colour, font and other visual elements critical to creating the kind of appeal that he or she wishes.  The student will be aware of the inter-textual elements that help attract readers and help get the message out.

Collaboratively Authored Products

ICTs support the philosophy of collaboratively authored products in the assessment process. If we believe that learning is not a solitary act and that it is a social activity then the nature of our assessment practices will change from a focus on reproduction of teacher-centred ideas to the construction of shared knowledge based on multiple perspectives. Web 2.0 tools like discussion forums, wikis, Google Suite for Education and cloud storage such as Dropbox, Evernote and Google Drive provide excellent platforms for open collaboration on assignments, as well as excellent tools for publishing and sharing the final product. Those tools provide users with the opportunity to have real-time discussions on the development of the resource, to see what others are doing as concerns the resource, and to track changes to the resource. Google Suite for Education also provides communication tools such as Gmail, Hangouts and Google Chat which support asynchronous and synchronous communication between parties. Google Hangouts provides video conferencing as well as live chat technologies that support collaborative work.

Assessments can be Transformative

Using ICTs in the authoring and submission of assignments means that the products of student learning are no longer doomed to some dusty cupboard or box in some dingy room. Assignments need not suffer the dreadful fate of archiving, but can exist and re-exist in a world in which they can undergo constant revision and modification as the student grows from his/her experiences. Since the products of assessment are hosted online, there are always authentic audiences and always the opportunity for revisiting the product based on comments from the viewership. This means that the student gets an opportunity to see the impact of his/her work in a real setting, and not the abstract one usually generated by tradition, teacher-centred assessments. Blogs, wikis, websites and other Web 2.0 authoring platforms are emergent and have a very long self-life. Who knows? A student’s assessment product might one day change the world. Archiving works against this philosophy.