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It's a blog's life in the classroom

An SQA pilot of innovative assessment in FE colleges is likely to affect schools in the future

IT CAN be tricky to assess individuals while they are working as part of a group - but maybe not as tricky as it used to be. Modern technology supports social learning in ways that were unimaginable a few years ago and it can now be enlisted for the purposes of assessment.

"Blogs and wikis are increasingly used by innovative teachers in the classroom," says Martyn Ware, business manager for computer-assisted assessment at the Scottish Qualifications Authority. "So we felt that it was important to explore, as early as possible, their potential in assessment."

In collaboration with principal assessors, Mr Ware and his colleagues selected a course which contains a large element of assessed groupwork for a pilot study. In the coming session, Health and Safety in Care Settings, Intermediate 2, will be assessed using group wikis and individual blogs at two centres - South Lanarkshire and Adam Smith colleges. The model will then be extended to other FE colleges over the next couple of years, but it is also expected to be very useful to schools in the future.

Candidates for this national qualification are currently expected to demonstrate their attainment in planning and developing a project, and in evaluating their efforts. Each candidate contributes to a presentation on topics such as safety, or diet and infection management in a nursery, hospital or sheltered housing.

Candidates work in groups to prepare and deliver the presentations. Mr Ware says this can make it difficult to assess individual contributions to the project which is worth two thirds of the total marks awarded.

In addition, the assessment is several steps re-moved from the work itself, since it is based on individual reports, and there can be a considerable lapse of time between the writing of these and the events they describe.

But social software offers a solution, says SQA project manager Mhairi McAlpine. "Instead of individual write-ups, there will be a collective assessment in which individual contributions can be easily identified.

"They will be using a wiki - an online piece of writing that anyone in a group can add to or edit."

The platform for this has already been developed by SQA, which has tested it with course tutors. "Using the wiki, we can look at the history of a piece of work," says Ms McAlpine. "We can study individual contributions and see what difference each has made."

The new methods are also expected to improve learning.

"It will give the tutors an insight into the process and not just the outcomes," says Ms McAlpine. "If there's a problem with group dyna-mics, a tutor often can't see the root of the problem."

So as well as the wiki project, each group will also be provided with an online discussion space, where students can talk about the project, its progress and their own contributions to it.

"You can get conflict - especially at the start. You can even get some groups breaking up," says Ms McAlpine. "You get some students who sit back and let others do the work. You get some who try to take over. We are hopeful the discussion space will help resolve all those problems."

Two other components of the course will also be supported by social software. Students will write their project plan, which is assessed, and their project diary, which is not, using individual blogs.

Future plans include an evaluation of the course over the coming session, says Mr Ware. "We then aim to roll it out for the following session to other centres that offer this course, and, after that, to other courses with a large groupwork element, such as digital media and photography.

"In all this, we have A Curriculum for Excellence very much in mind. This model can be used in designing new qualifications and new forms of assessment. There has been great interest from centres, but we've kept the pilot study intentionally small, so we can manage and evaluate it thoroughly. It's not just about trying something new for the sake of it.

"It's about trying something new that will improve the assessment, in terms of reliability and validity, and ultimately the quality of the learner experience."

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