You don’t know like I know (which is why I set the exams for you to fail)

Last week, I ended with a rhetorical question about the 2,000 word essay and its hold on the HE imagination. You may recall that my question concerned the use of an assessment of 144 characters. In effect, what I was arguing for was the bringing in to our World the world of social media. Rather than thinking of social media as an evil presence lurking on the periphery of HE it is time to embrace it.
So, you’d think I’d be delighted this week to attend a meeting on a new module at my own institution that proposed to replace the current Level One first assignment of 750 words with one of just 250 words. However, I found myself feeling that this shift down was a retrograde step.
On reflection I have to ask myself whether I am just being a big old hypocrite. It has been known to happen. Or, am I just miffed that it was not my idea? That’s been known to happen too!
In my defence, then, when I argue for the abandonment of the 2,000 word essay as the sole form of assessment it is because I have a view that students are capable of so much more. Most students arrive at university with stories of their own to tell. Many have highly relevant experiences which underpin their decision to study. More importantly, in my area social science, all the students are members of the society we are studying. It is right, and inevitable, that given that they have spent a few years in that society that they have opinions about it.
In arguing for more imaginative forms of assessment, I am keen that students should have the opportunity to express themselves in different, but also culturally relevant ways. Students use Facebook and Twitter already – often more confidently than their tutors. It would shift the power balance to them if we allowed them to use their existing skills as some part of their studies.
By contrast, those promoting the 250 word essay made great use of the term “weaker students”. The decision to reduce the word count is not motivated by a desire to harness the experiences and imagination of students, but rather a functional imperative linked by a concern that not enough students were passing the course.
I do not like to impute motives to my colleagues as I am sure that they think that what they are doing is ‘helping’ students. But, the emphasis on weaker students does worry me a little bit. Whilst I would not dispute that any cohort of students will have a range of abilities, it concerns me that we begin to devise assessment with the stated aim of ensuring, so-called, weaker students will pass.
I am not convinced that weaker students problems are actually helped by reducing the assessment to 250 words, when the things many students struggle with, grammar, spelling, sentence construction, presenting a coherent argument etc do not disappear because they have to do these things in less words. I rather feel that to present a coherent argument, in good prose, in so few words will be harder, especially for students who are struggling anyway.
More worryingly, is a tendency to continue to negate the experience and opinions of students. Many students tell me that the reason they are studying is that they have an interest in some aspect of society and what they want to do is find out how to understand things more effectively.
What they find when they arrive at university is that they are discouraged from drawing on their own experiences. They are discouraged from using their imagination, in favour of being filled with often abstract theories by academics who like to tell them things. Moreover, we like to tell them things in a language which is often deliberately obtuse. I do wonder whether this is part of the process of professionalisation where a specialist language is invented to create an elitist illusion.
I like to believe that students and lecturing staff are in a partnership. That sometimes I have knowledge that I am able to pass on, but that my students have knowledge of their own which can, and should, shape mine. Assessment, seen through this prism is not a way of simply testing whether students have listened to what I have said but a dialogue between partners.


The revolution will not be televised but it will be on social media

With apologies to Gil Scott-Heron, but I had to start somewhere.
I have a few colleagues who proudly declare that they ‘would never use PowerPoint’, or that you would never find them on Twitter or Facebook. It’s fine by me if people don’t want to play, but what strikes me is that the people who make these pronouncements do so “proudly”. For them, it seems, ignoring technology is a badge of honour to be shown at every opportunity.
I don’t quite understand this antipathy. These same people use mobile phones (‘but only for making phone calls, oh and the occasional photie’), and drive cars (‘but only if they come with a starting handle’). Alright, I might have made some of that up. My point is that even those who claim to be technophobes make daily use of technology and even accept that their car might need to go to the garage occasionally, or their subscription to a favourite channel might not work everytime.
But, when it comes to educational technology, they are having none of it. No ipad (only some of the most technophobic people I know do have ipads), no Twitter or Facebook accounts to contact their students and no PowerPoint in their lecture rooms.
I am not a technology evangelist, I am happy for people to stick their heads in the sand if that is their wont (provides somewhere to park your bike at least), but if something is likely to make you better at doing your job, why would you refuse to use it? I am puzzled, not so much by people’s refusal to use specific social media (after all it can be pretty daunting keeping up with it all even for those of us who are relatively enthusiastic), but their refusal to use all social media as if it, and by extension technology itself, was evil personified (or robotised, I suppose).
It’s my view that the time for asking whether we should use technology is gone, the only questions worth asking now are which technologies and how best to make use of them?

PS This is my first blog on WordPress, I quite like it, and, learning from past errors I am committing to blogging often, but in fewer words.