Testing in education

This a subject I feel strongly about because when I look back, I see the the various exams and tests I did or might have done gave a very poor indication of how I actually did. More recently my reading indicates that this is not just me, but that no selection process, exams, test or interview, works at all well.

Clearly it is unfair for a persons chances in life to hinge on unreliable tests.

But then there are people who are unsuited to particular courses and it is wasteful for them to take a place on such a course, particularly if it is run on a class of students.

It seemed to me that selection matters less in the case of distance learning. Indeed that marvellous institution, The Open University, is far more relaxed about entrance qualifications than ordinary universities.

I see that distance learning courses are available for sixth form level and seem to be in regular use by smaller independent schools. We can take for granted that there will be a continuous development of computer aided learning.

Let’s suppose we had some sort of Open Sixth Form which would account for a significant amount of learning, perhaps more than 10%.

The courses would be designed for use in schools, who would provide space, time and internet access plus a degree of supervision.

Disruptive behaviour in the study room would be not be tolerated and students finding it difficult to concentrate would be encouraged to take a break. However they would always be welcomed back to pick up where they left off. School staff would have a role in providing encouragement and counselling.

I believe that an important part of distance learning at this level would be regular tutorials, where students at the same level on a particular course meet their tutor in person. Individual schools would provide the meeting rooms and students would be transported to the tutorial.

Any student would be allowed to do the introductory module for any subject and the necessary space, time and access would be provided. If they complete any module satisfactorily, they would be allowed to continue with further modules which follow on. Effectively they select themselves and if they don’t complete a module it should not a big deal. The student can ask to try again when the are a bit older.

Clearly this will only work with motivated students but they only have to be motivated to do a particular course and they can find that motivation at any age. Indeed some students could start sixth form courses before they reach sixth form age.

The courses would progress seamlessly through to university level, so that particularly bright students would be able to progress beyond the normal school syllabus. It would be plausible, for example, for a student with a particular ability in maths, at an ordinary comprehensive school, without needing any special arrangements, to leave school with a degree.

I am told that there is a system that runs in the US called AP which stands for advanced placement which allows high school students take a college level course which gains them a “credit” which counts towards a degree. Quite a few of pupils do AP courses online as a supplementary course in addition to their day to day studies.

However these Open Sixth Form courses are for ordinary school students. There would probably a need for a development of distance learning techniques to make them work for less mature students. I think the schools would have to be an integral part of the process.

There will be staffing, cost and timetable issues. New distance tutors will be needed but there there would be a corresponding reduction in the amount of classroom teaching. The total number of teaching staff would probably not change that much. The idea is that students would normally do the courses as part of their school activity, so the cost of the course would probably be similar to the cost of classroom teaching. Because students can do distance learning at any time, timetable issues should, if anything, be eased.

This regime could be better for teachers. They would be allowed to divide their teaching time between classroom teaching and distance tutoring. Classroom teaching is demanding and there must be otherwise able teachers who are burnt out or do not have the right personality. Rather than loosing their talents, they could opt to do more distance tutoring or to develop distance learning courses.

It can only be a good thing for tutors to be located in the school environment even though the students they are tutoring will be at other schools.

I think there is a cultural shift for people of all classes towards not following orders without question. In some ways this might be seen as progress, but I gather it makes classroom teaching a lot more difficult. Wider use of non-classroom teaching methods would seem to be a better response than trying to reverse a cultural trend.

When we get to the situation where students do a significant number of distance learning modules this will create a rich dataset which could be analysed and correlated with the subsequent progress of individual students and eventually provide an evidence-based method for assessing suitability of candidates for specific posts, which is better than existing examination systems.

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