Thursday, July 9, 2009

Participatory Assessment for Bridging the Void between Content and Participation.

Here at Re-Mediating Assessment, we share our ideas about educational practices, mostly as they relate to innovative assessment practices and mostly then as they relate to new media and technology. In this post, I respond to an email from a colleague about developing on-line versions of required courses in graduate-level teacher education courses.

My colleague and I are discussing how we ensure coverage of “content” in proposed courses that focuses more directly on “participation” in the actual educational practices. This void between participation (in meaningful practices) and content (as represented in textbooks, standards, and exams) is a central motivation behind Re-Mediating Assessment. So it seems worthwhile to expand my explanation of how participatory assessment can bridge this void and post it here.

To give a bit of context, note that the course requirements of teacher education programs are constantly debated and adjusted. From my perspective it is reasonable to assume that someone with a Master’s degree in Ed should have taken a course on educational assessment. But it also seems reasonable to have also had a course on, say, Child Development. But it simply may not be possible to require students to take both classes. Because both undergraduate and graduate teacher educator majors have numerous required content area courses (i.e., math, English, etc.), there are few slots left for other courses that most agree they need. So the departments that offer these other required courses have an obvious obligation to maintain accountability over the courses that they offer.

I have resisted teaching online because previous courseware tools were not designed to foster participation in the meaningful discourse that is what I think is so important to a good course. Without a classroom context for discourse (even conversations around a traditional lecture), students have few cues for what matters. Without those cues, assessment practices become paramount in communicating the instructor values. And this is a lot to ask of an assessment.

This is why, in my observation, online instruction heretofore has mostly consisted of two equally problematic alternatives. The first is the familiar on-line tools for pushing content out to students: “Here is the text, here are some resources, and here is a forum where you can post questions, and here is the exam schedule.” The instructors log on to the forums regularly and answer any questions, students take exams, and that is it. Sometimes these courses are augmented with papers and projects and perhaps with collaborative projects; hopefully students get feedback, and they might even use that feedback to learn more. But many many on-line course are essentially fancy test prep. My perceptions are certainly biased by my experiences back in the 90s in the early days of on-line instruction. The Econ faculty where I was working could not figure out why the students who took the online version of Econ 101 always got higher exam scores than the face-to-face (FTF) students, but almost always did far worse in the FTF Econ 201. This illustrates the problem with instruction that directly preparing students to pass formal exams. Formal exams are just proxies for prior learning, and framing course content entirely around tests (especially multiple choice ones) is just a terrible idea. Guessing which of four associations is least wrong is still an efficient way of reliably comparing what people know about a curriculum or a topic. But re-mediating course content to fit into this format makes it nearly useful for teaching.

The other extreme of on-line instruction is “project based” classes that focus almost entirely on developing a portfolio of course-related projects. These approaches seem particularly popular in teacher education programs. The problem with on-line portfolios is that the lack of FTF contact requires the specifications for the portfolios to be excruciatingly detailed. Much of the learning that occurs tends to be figuring out what the instructor wants in order to get a good grade. The most salient discourse in these classes often surrounds the question “Is this what you want?” These classes are usually extremely time-consuming to teach because the accountability associated with the artifacts leads students to demand, and instructors to provide, tons of detailed feedback on each iteration of the artifacts. So much so that the most qualified faculty can’t really afford to teach many of these courses. As such, these courses are often taught by graduate students and part-time faculty who may not be ideal for communicating the “Relevant Big Ideas” (RBIs, or what a learning scientist might call “formalisms") behind the assignments, and instead just focus on helping students create the highest quality artifacts. This creates a very real risk that students in these classes may or may not actually learn the underlying concepts, or may learn them in a way that they are so bound to the project that they can’t be used in other contexts. In my observation, such classes seldom feature formal examinations. Without careful attention, lots of really good feedback, and student use of feedback, students may come away from the class with a lovely portfolio and little else. Given the massive investment in e-Portfolios in e-learning platforms like Sakai, this issue demand careful attention. (I will ask my friend Larry Mikulecky in Indiana’s Department of Culture, Communication, and Language Education who I understand has been teaching non-exam online courses for years and has reportedly develops considerable evidence of student’s enduring understanding.)

A Practical Alternative
I am teaching on-line for the first time this summer. The course is P540, Cognition and Learning, a required course for many M. Ed programs. I am working like crazy to take full advantage of the new on-line resources for social networking that are now available in OnCourse, IU’s version of Sakai (an open-source collaborative learning environment designed for higher education). In doing so I am working hard to put into place an on-line alternative that balances participation and content. I also plan to use some of the lessons I am learning in my Educational Assessment course this Fall—which is partly what prompted that aforementioned conversation with my colleague. I want to put some of my ideas as they are unfolding in that class out there and seek input and feedback, including from my current students who are (so far) patiently hanging with me as I refine these practices as I go.

In particular I am working hard to incorporate the ideas about participatory culture that I have gained from working with Henry Jenkins and his team at Project New Media Literacies over the last year. Participatory assessment assumes that you can teach more "content" and gather more evidence that students “understand” that content by focusing more directly on participation and less directly on content. Theoretically, these ideas are framed by situative theories of cognition that say participation in social discourse is the most important thing to think about, and that individual cognition and individual behavior are “secondary” phenomena. These ideas come to me from three Jims: Greeno (whose theorizing has long shaped my work) Gee (who also deeply influences my thinking about cognition and assessment and whose MacArthur grant funded the aforementioned collaboration and indirectly supports this blog) and Pellegrino (with whom I did my doctoral studies of assessment, transfer, and validity with but who maintains an individual differences approach to cognition).

Per the curriculum committee that mandated a cognition and learning course for most masters degrees for teachers, my students are just completing ten tough chapters on memory, cognition, motivation, etc. I use Roger Bruning’s text because he make is quite clear and puts 5-7 “implications for teaching” at the end of each chapter. But it is a LOT of content for these students to learn, especially if I just have them read the chapters.

I break students up into domain groups (math science, etc.) and in those groups they go through the 5-7 implications for teaching. Each group must use the forum to generate a specific example of that implication, and then rank order the implications in terms of relevance and warrant those rankings and post them to the OnCourse wiki. The level of discourse in the student-generated forums around the content is tremendous. Then the lead group each week synthesizes the postings of all five groups to come up with a single list. I also have now asked them to do the same with “things worth being familiar with” in the chapter (essentially the bolded items and any highlighted research studies). What I particularly like about the discussions is the way that the discourse around agreeing that an implication or topic is less relevant actually leads to a pretty deep understanding of that implication or idea. This builds on ideas I have learned from my colleague Melissa Gresalfi about “consequential engagement.” By struggling to conclude that the implication is least likely to impact practice makes it more likely that they will remember that implication if they find themselves is a situation that makes it more relevant.

This participatory approach to content is complemented by four other aspects of my class. Illustrating my commitment to content, I include three formal exams that are timed and use traditional MC and short answer items. But I prioritize the content that the class has deemed most important, and don't even include the content they deem least important.

The second complement is the e-Portfolios each student has to post each week in OnCourse. Students have to select the one implication they think is most relevant, warrant the selection, exemplify and critique it, and then seek feedback on that post from their classmates. Again following Melissa’s lead, the e-Portfolio asks students for increasingly sophisticated engagement with the implication relative to their own teaching practice: procedural engagement (Basically explain the implication in your own words), conceptual engagement (give an example that illustrates what this implication means), consequential engagement (what are the consequence of this implication for your teaching practice, what should you do differently now that you understand this aspect of cognition?) and critical engagement (why might someone disagree with you and what would happen if you took this implication too far?). I require them to request feedback from their classmates. While this aspect of the new on-Course e-Portfolio tools is still quite buggy, I am persevering because the mere act of knowing that a peer audience is going to read it pushes them to engage more deeply. Going back to my earlier point, it is hard for me to find time to review and provide detailed feedback on 220 indivdiual submissions across the semester. When I do review them (students submit them for formal review after five submissions), I can just look at the feedback from other students and the students' own reflection on what they have learned for pretty clear evidence of consequential and critical engagement.

The third complement is the e-Portfolio that each student completes during the last five weeks of class. While each of the groups leads the class in the chapter associated with their domain (literacy, comprehension, writing, science and math), students will be building an e-portfolio in which they critique and refine at least two web-based instructional resources (educational videogames, webquests, the kind of stuff teachers increasingly are searching out and using in their classes). They select two or more of the implications from that chapter to critique the activities and provide suggestions for how it should be used (or if it should be avoided), along with one of the implications from the chapter on instructional technology, and one of the implications from the other chapters on memory and learning. If I have done my job right, I don’t need to prompt them to the consequential and critical engagement at this stage. This is because they should have developed what Melissa calls a “disposition” towards these important forms of engagement. All I have to do is include the requirement that they justify why each implication was selected, the feedback from their classmates, and their reflection on what they learned from feedback. It turns out the consequential and critical engagement is remarkably easy to recognize in discourse. That seems partly because it is so much more interesting and worthwhile to read than the more typical class discourse that is limited to procedural and conceptual engagement. Ultimately, that is the point.


  1. Dan,

    Thanks for this insightful post! It certainly addresses some of the concerns I myself have faced in teaching an online course. I was wondering, though, what your thoughts were in terms of how the community you established in your forums did, did not, or did not need to match the discussions elsewhere in your blog around creating sustainable educational communities? Thanks again!


  2. the community around the forums is still closely bound to the class and unlikely to sustain itself in any substantial way. But I do get the sense that affinity groups are forming within the domain groups that will sustain, as I found in my previous FTF classes.

    I am fascinated by the potential of using the stable resources of regular classes to initiated and maintain an enduring professional development network. With required courses, you have a regular influx of new members with overlapping challenges, and faculty with a good reason to keep the network useful. I was just award some pilot funding to get that underway in two required teacher education classes. Over the longer term our Learning Sciences program has funding to take four course on-line in an effort to build such a community as well. I think we have some pretty good ideas right now for getting started; a year from now we should know what they actually mean and whether they actually work.

    Speaking of forums, that is the one part of this class where I think I have the most room for improvement (and should have done more homework). While the forums I set up for the groups to rank the implications and ideas in the text quickly had lots of sophisticated engagement, the forums I set up for each chapter started with really closed-end questions where students would just explain concept one after another. Even where I asked students to generate examples, there was little consequential and critical engagement in those forums. [I did learn that you could see a clear distinction between the more routine conceptual engagement and the more desirable consequential and critical engagement. The former is simply so boring to read! Conceptual level discourse turns out to not support any sort of conversational thread. This is probably not news to many readers who are actually trained to do this kind of work]

    As I got my feet under me, I started re-writing the questions to prompt more consequential and critical discourse around the same issues. The posts were much longer and more detailed, and are quite fascinating to read. I am trying to align these forums with the exams by using the original closed-ended question as exam items. My goal is that any student who participates in a forum sufficiently to make a meaningful contribution that contributes to the thread should come away from that experience with the conceptual knowledge needed to answer typical objective exam questions. Performance on my second mid-term this week suggests that the strategy worked.
    But we still need to work on getting consequential and critical discussion going around the curricular practices that the students themselves are selecting to focus on, rather than the ideas in the textbook. That seems like a prerequisite for building the community. Do you know of any examples of folks who have accomplished that in on-line foundational teacher education courses?