The Grumpy Giraffe

Critiques on social and education issues

The Epitome of Testing: UW’s online “courses”

To accommodate to the increasing number of natives of the digital age, colleges and universities have incorporated online courses into their course calendars. These included blended courses, where the face-to-face component was still required in addition to doing the assignments online; and also strictly online courses, where you wouldn’t even know what hair colour your professor has.

University of Wisconsin is willing to take it even further by offering test-based Bachelor degrees. This means that no class time is required, and there also will not be any assignments. Students would only need to complete competency-based tests to earn their degree. That means a degree could literally be obtained within a week.

University spokesperson David Giroux claims that this type of program will “strengthen the state workforce”, but how? Is everyone an individualistic learner? Many students already have difficulty retaining content from a lecture. Students go to university (hopefully) for an opportunity to obtain higher learning through the guidance of an expert in their respective field. The expert does not solely lecture for 3 hours and go home: they facilitate discussion to promote higher thinking among their students. Tests do not always do a good job of providing thinking questions, let alone discussion. What discussion is there between a person and their computer?

And I don’t mean Moodle forums; this is completely solitary “learning”.

Moreover, learning is not solely comprised of tests and exams. Assessment tools are important, but they are not the centrepiece of education and learning. I am a firm believer of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). The student needs to be within an arm’s length of their comfort zone while being led into the more difficult parts of a topic via the assistance of a teacher. Do tests lead students into the unknown and guide them in the direction of solving a problem? Do tests help push students out of their comfort zone?

I suppose they do. Most of us have experienced test anxiety at some point in our lives. But is this type of stress worth it?

Although the original purpose of a test was to assess a student’s learning and comprehension, then review topics a student isn’t sure of, this facet of testing has been out of fashion for decades. Teachers from all levels (elementary, secondary, PSE) have used tests as the end-all goal of the learning done in the classroom. This is particularly evident in university professors: the motivator for students to come to class is so that they know what will be on the test, and not so much for higher learning.

What has happened to learning?

Another argument that I will propose against UW’s program is the saturation of degrees and diplomas already in the market today. University students and graduates are painfully aware that degrees and diplomas are going down in value rapidly, even faster than the stock price of RIM. I don’t need a PhD in Economics to see that if there is too much supply, there will be low demand.

This is easy money, though. Tuition would not be as expensive as courses that require class time due to the removal of venue expenses. The downside is that all degrees and diplomas will eventually reach a point where they will be worthless.

This is already happening to some industries and sectors, such as the education sector. A B. Ed. is worth very little, and its value rests only in the fact that the graduate has the academic qualification to teach. However, to teach in Ontario, B. Ed. graduates need to register with the Ontario College of Teachers through a rigorous application process, which includes providing the original copy of Criminal Record Checks, reference letters, etc. It is only after obtaining the B. Ed. and the OCT certification that the B. Ed. graduate can teach in Ontario.

Despite this agonizing application process, there is still the overabundance of B. Ed. graduates in Ontario. Due to this phenomenon, student teachers are encouraged to obtain workshop qualifications (such as Tribes and Smart Board training) and to do Additional Qualification (AQ) courses, such as Special Education, ESL, Reading (for Reading Recovery and Literacy specialists), etc. A B. Ed. almost has no value in the education sector: the AQs are what defines a teacher candidate.

This pay-for-test degree program is merely the epitome of capitalism. UW continues to make money off of these programs, and continues to produce graduates with a B. A., B. Sc., or any other type of Bachelor’s.

Some people can work well in online courses due to the concept of working at your own pace. This is not entirely true: there are still deadlines and assignments. However, this is beyond an online course. This is a “course” in which the completion of a test will guarantee you a Bachelor’s degree. Not only will there be no assignments for professors to provide feedback, this ensures that there will no face-to-face interaction.

In Tribes, a 4-day workshop that teaches teacher candidates how to build a community within their classroom, we learned about the effects of cooperative learning, and the 5 basic elements of cooperative learning:

  • positive interdependence
  • face-to-face interaction
  • individual and group accountability
  • interpersonal (small group) skills
  • group processing

Notice that “face-to-face interaction” is bold and italicized. Cooperative learning is not solely about building self-esteem and other human elements that society deems as “fluff”. Below are some benefits of Collaborative Learning (another name for cooperative learning) from the list of 44 benefits provided by the GDRC Learning Lab:

  • develop higher level thinking skills
  • increases student retention
  • creates an environment of active, involved, exploratory learning
  • uses a team approach to problem solving while maintaining individual accountability
  • encourages diversity understanding
  • involves students in developing curriculum and class procedures
  • stimulates critical thinking and helps students clarify ideas through discussion and debate

There are many more that hint at more (accurate) retention and development of comprehension and critical skills.

Despite being a native to the digital world, I definitely believe that there needs to be a significant face-to-face component in all courses. This doesn’t only mean being in the same room as the professor or facilitator: there needs to be critical discussion of the topic matter.

Teaching to the test is not teaching. It doesn’t stimulate reflection, and that is considered malpractice. Anyone can ace a test. The defining factor of a university graduate is not so that they are factory workers or blind sheep; it is that they are able to advance society to a brighter and more equitable  future.

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7 comments on “The Epitome of Testing: UW’s online “courses”

  1. BenRL
    February 3, 2013

    I understand your concern but I think that perhaps you’re operating only with reference to the Anglo-American model where university is about becoming a well-rounded person educated in the modern approximation of the classical tradition (we all had general education requirements outside our major field, even if that didn’t include greek, latin and rhetoric). I can only speak to the German-Austrian system, but this sort of experience-based education is not universal. Austria’s university system, which is exceptional, is entirely exam based with little to no required class time and no assignments for the most part. While this might not produce great thinkers in the general sense, there’s no reason why a bachelors in history needs to include any knowledge of math or anything other than the ability to perform the basic functions of a historian, which an exam can test reasonably well.

    • The Grumpy Giraffe
      February 3, 2013

      I beg to differ. There isn’t a subject where it can be standalone. History may seem isolated from other subjects, but it isn’t. We /do/ need math in history, particularly to analyze the human geographies of the time. For example, what was the amount of unemployment in the 40s? Why was it so? How does it compare with other economies? History is not solely about memorizing dates or knowing who died for what cause (although this is important too). If someone studies history solely to know trivia, I believe that this defeats the purpose of, and sullies, the field of history.

      In our universities in Ontario, Canada, history is used to analyze the trends that have happened in human history. What has caused this war? What were the number of deaths? Why? History, like most other fields, have a fair portion of statistics and graphs, and math would certainly be helpful, even university-level stats, which go under maths.

      Moreover, I don’t believe many people go to university solely to have “basic functions” of anything. As I am working towards my B. Ed., I am certainly aiming for higher than “basic functions” of being a teacher. People go to university to excel at their field, whether it is to make more money, or to better oneself, is another story. University is for advancement, and if someone was not looking for future advancement (of one’s knowledge or growth), they would most likely be already working in the field to gain experience and another set of knowledge.

      • BenRL
        February 7, 2013

        I understand, and that’s fine. Obviously one would not be somehow exempt from studying whatever interdisciplinary input was necessary to be a well-rounded student of history, and nowhere did I suggest that that was the case. I was merely positing that there isn’t much reason why one’s progress (and competence) within that field or any other isn’t demonstrable on an examination, which was, after all, the topic of your post. I love your blog by the way.

      • BenRL
        February 7, 2013

        And of course, I’m not arguing that this is necessarily the most effective means by which to transmit information to students, only that, if they are capable of learning the information in sufficient depth to perform the functions required on a well-written exam and pass, that seems sufficient to me.

  2. Jarvis Emerald
    February 3, 2013

    Holding someone’s attention takes…energy, commitment, and go ahead and name a few more. Working together Face -to- Face, requires timing and has a wholesome out come. I guess the chance of perceived failure or social anxiety is lessened with online studies though. Are we getting lazy or is this just a transient learning curve?

    • The Grumpy Giraffe
      February 3, 2013

      I think instead of “lazy”, they call this “convenience”. Nothing can replace face-to-face interaction for me.

      • Jarvis Emerald
        February 4, 2013

        hmm…well, Convenience gave us an excuse to be lazy at tackling the face to face REAL experience. We have become knowledge hungry…and have it easily at our disposal via the internet. Also, there are very shy, socially awkward people just now recently forming social meet-ups to ADD a Face to Face element to their learning experience, and I see this as a positive reaction to the situation. It would be nice if this leads to more people stepping out of their comfort zone and Teaching Workshops.

        There is nothing like Group work though. Much different than personal work. Accountability…and “holding the egg on a spoon and walking…slowly with balance” brings PRESENCE to the equation. I like that.

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This entry was posted on February 3, 2013 by in education, school, society, teaching and tagged , , , , , , , , .

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