Online Assessments: Opportunity or Headache?

“If you do what you have always done, you will end up where you have always been.”

Online Classes are happening – like it or not. While the debate about their efficacy rages on, we will soon be faced with a new ‘headache’: Many schools are talking about holding online assessments in the coming few months if they are unable to bring their students back on campus. While the stakeholders, viz., students, teachers, parents, and school leaders, have yet to figure out the efficacy of this new form of learning engagement, they are being asked to now understand how student performance can be assessed in a reliable and credible manner.

However, within every adversity lies an opportunity. As cliched as it may sound, I have come to realise the truth behind this adage over the years as I incubated various ventures, until I discovered my love for education, and even within education, my passion for career counselling and college guidance. In the current situation too, we must try to move forward. I have heard people say this crisis will change the future: I, however, believe it has only accelerated what would have happened anyways – 10 years may have become 2 years now.

Our school systems and curriculum were created first for an agrarian society, slowly transitioning into the needs of an industrial one. However, we have moved into a knowledge society now and it is imperative we redesign our schools to keep pace with the changes around us. Let us use this opportunity to bring about some reform in our schools, in the areas where we have some influence. Systemic changes that depend upon the powers-that-be may take more time; however, we can lead and implement change within our sphere of control.

Coming back to the question of online assessments, I genuinely believe it to be an opportunity for us to reinvent the way we approach teaching and learning. Our education system (at least in the middle and high school) has become a race for higher marks and percentiles. Performance in examinations and competitive exams is linked to obtaining admission into prestigious universities, leading to many generations of students who have been trained and coached to do well in examinations without understanding the import of what they have studied. Training companies, and whole towns, have flourished by claiming to possess the golden key, despite being cognizant of the fact that they can never get everyone they enrol into their dream destination. But why blame them – such has been our system and they are only taking advantage of a business opportunity.

So let us ensure we make the most of this one. Can we, as educators, go into these assessments with a more open mind. You would have heard of the term ‘Assessment for Learning’ – well, now is the time to practice it. Put into place an assessment system that does not reward students just because they score high marks for answering questions they have memorised answers for. Remove the lure for cheating by not even asking such questions. Instead, evaluate their understanding, force them to analyse and reflect, and apply what they have understood in a variety of contexts that are not even mentioned in their textbooks. Make your assessments such that they are allowed to refer to their textbooks, but are nevertheless forced to apply their learning to answer.

If you want to take it further, you could inform your students you would award only pass-fail grades, sending out a strong signal that it is not a race for academic supremacy but a test that will be used for learning, and that it is in their interest to ensure they understand the material. Make assessments to allow students to process their knowledge and to do it collectively – you could put a group of students of varying abilities together and ask them to come up with a group project. They will help each other to learn, understand, and imbibe the skill sets that our collaborative knowledge society needs and values.

Yes, I understand we will all probably go back to the world of examination and performance-based rewards soon after the current situation subsides. I am only hoping that some of the lessons will remain with us as we plan our curriculum and learning goals in the future. Let us make our teaching learning oriented and not examination driven. Let us start seeing our schools like a knowledge organisation and implement leadership akin to that practised by corporate knowledge-work leaders. This top-down approach may be instrumental in ensuring we educate our learners for the current society and future of work.

Maybe I am thinking of a utopian world, but I am not one to stop dreaming!

Nirmal Agarwal

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