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How to crack the system

Richard Wallace looks at how imaginative online tools can help teachers manage the change from the assessment of learning to a fairer assessment for learning

"Now I understand," said a teacher after a session on the use of the assessment tools in a typical virtual learning environment (VLE).

The ability to change from "assessment of learning" to "assessment for learning" (or formative assessment) is not an easy task for any teacher and yet it should be possible to exploit the online tools that are available to get the process started. The review of research into classroom assessment (Black and Wiliam, 1998) points out that "assessment for learning is one of the most powerful ways of improving learning and raising standards" and yet little has been written to show how this can be done by an already busy teacher - and none at all about how to do it in an online environment.

For many, online assessment means death by multiple choice and writing a summative quiz. Yet a longer look at any of the growing number of VLEs shows the variety of questioning techniques in the right hands can change the way classroom assessment is managed to influence learning and teaching.

Expect to find multiple answers, fill in the gap, ordering items, true or false, matching items along with free-response questions and more.

Almost all existing questions can be used in these categories, but the fact that a VLE is being used means that multimedia or web-based facilities can be incorporated into the stems of the questions and also be used for scaffolding in the online feedback. Well-designed responses for both correct and incorrect answers mean that pupils can always learn in this environment since they are being assessed using the same medium. The real added value in using a VLE, like Blackboard or Learnwise, is that the test scores or results which are automatically stored and made available in the online gradebook, are instantly available to both learner and teacher.

These can then be combined with tracking facilities - these follow which resources the learner has looked at in the online environment to ensure planning of the next stage in teaching addresses the needs of the learners.

While some might argue that the tracking facilities merely record the number of page clicks, it is possible to chart how often documents and other resources have actually been visited or used. We all know, however, that you can take a child to a computer but you cannot make him learn. But at least if he has been there, we are in a better position to judge than we might be in a non-technological classroom.

The 10 principles of the Assessment Reform Group highlight that assessment for learning is part of effective planning, is central to classroom practice, helps learners know how to improve and is a key professional skill. Black and Wiliam, however, identify that "teachers do not generally review the assessment questions that they use and do not discuss them critically with peers, so there is little reflection on what is being assessed".

Online assessment, in the context of a well-designed course in a VLE, helps exemplify all of these principles. It can, additionally, go some way towards solving the problem of reviewing and sharing good practice among teachers, particularly where courses are being facilitated by more than one person. It is now possible for whole departments in schools and colleges to create and share a range of quality-assured questions and to supplement these with others from educational publishers.

The discussion area or bulletin board of a VLE can also be used effectively for the assessment of topics that have required research, collaboration and sharing among the students. Real issues can be debated and used as the basis for formative, ipsative (judging pupils against their own previous performance) and summative assessment.

At the click of a button, learners can be given access to all kinds of external international experts in areas of study. Cancer experts can join biology classes, space scientists can communicate with physicists and town planners give opinions to geographers. Learners soon become teachers, and teachers end up as learners! Add to that the possibility of using archived text from a discussion board and a digital video from a classroom activity to an electronic portfolio that already contains a selection of non-technological classwork, and you can see how ordinary teachers are beginning to change the focus of assessment from "of" to "for" learning in the online 247 world.

If that is not enough, Qwizdom's Interactive Learning System is one of a number of proprietary devices that use two-way IR or RF communication to provide instant assessment and feedback to every participant in a classroom setting. I have seen this used to motivate (another of the 10 principles) school-aged learners in a number of ways. The teacher can simply use selections of the hundreds of questions that are already supplied or they can create their own for use in a variety of novel ways with classes. A more innovative approach is to hand control over to the pupils. Working in groups, they can set questions for their peers and, at the same time, learn the subtleties of question-setting. This gives everyone a feeling of learning together. When the process is over it is possible for class and individual response data to be printed out and exported for use in the VLE.

Paperless, high-stakes exams are only just around the corner, as a glimpse at the report of the joint venture between CCEA and Edexcel shows, so it is incumbent on teachers to prepare all learners for this change.

Exploiting the potential of a VLE in a well-designed course greatly enhances the educational experience and does begin to ensure that assessment in the online classroom is really used "for" learning.



Qwizdom's Interactive Learning System


Ten principles for assessment


Find the report of the joint venture between CCEA and Edexcel here

* www.swapac.uklearning glossary.asp?initial=All A glossary of teaching and learning terms Richard Wallace is vice principal of Ballyclare High School but is currently seconded to the Northern Ireland eLearning Partnership as its e-learning associate.

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