Rethinking teaching and assessment in a (post) digital world

Richard Walker, Head of Programme Design and Learning Technology, University of York

Richard Walker, Head of Programme Design and Learning Technology, University of York

Are we entering a (post) digital world – one in which traditional approaches to the use of technology have been disrupted? The Covid crisis has accelerated changes in teaching and assessment practice – not least in terms of the scale of digital activity and the wider exposure that instructors have had to the use of collaboration and assessment tools.

Change has certainly come in discernible phases at the University of York (United Kingdom) this year in response to Covid, with an initial focus on ensuring continuity of provision during the lockdown period (aka ‘the pivot to online’). In practice, this means transferring the tutorial and supervision sessions, which were scheduled for on-campus delivery, to a form of online provision. Whilst blended approaches to teaching were already well established across the institution, instructors faced challenges in managing synchronous sessions effectively - ensuring equitable access and participation for all students connecting to our online provision from different time zones across the world. For some staff, this involved an immersion experience in synchronous teaching techniques and a rapid digital upskilling in the use of tools such as Blackboard Collaborate and Zoom. The associated workload issues for instructors were huge, but in a positive sense, this has led to developments in both digital capability – the technical skills involved in delivering online teaching – and digital fluency - the pedagogical skills needed to design in and facilitate technology-mediated learning effectively. Arguably, this rapid continuous professional development and learning for instructors has laid the foundations for lasting change in teaching practices, opening up opportunities for innovations with educational technology to take root and to be scaled up quickly across the university.

Indeed, turning our attention to the start of the new 2020-21 academic year, we have seen the second phase in digital practice taking shape - focusing on pedagogical redesign for teaching approaches enabled through the use of content authoring (e.g., video) and communication tools. This has involved a review of contact time with students, with an emphasis on greater flexibility and choice in how our students participate in teaching and assessment activities. Born out of necessity in supporting both on-campus and remote learners at the University of York(aka ‘dual delivery’), this redesign approach promises to bring about enduring change in how staff thinks about student participation and the need for flexibility in learning, teaching, and assessment activities. This represents a shift in mindset, from replicating campus-based teaching online delivery (e.g., by offering timetabled Zoom seminars) to drawing on the affordances of technology to do things differently. In practical terms, this could mean a transition from using learning management systems as a content repository of lecture notes and supplementary resources as a back-up to the ‘live’ lecture to designing structured learning pathways with built-in opportunities for flexible participation by students, with greater attention to inclusive learning considerations.

Some of the biggest changes that we have seen in technology usage relate to assessment practices. Inclusive learning considerations in the current Covid context have drawn attention to the ethical and practical shortcomings of closed exams and their online variants – particularly those delivered through proctored software. 

Indeed, there are good arguments for abandoning short answer and multiple-choice questions all together in favour of more open assessments that encourage the demonstration of problem-solving, creative thinking, and higher-order learning. This latter ‘assessment as learning’ approach places an emphasis instead on the development of students’ self-regulation skills and capabilities for future learning as much as the end product – and opens up opportunities for the use of digital tools in supporting authentic, real world activities in contact and student work contexts. Arguably these types of activities are more relevant in meeting the assessment needs of this century, going beyond the mastery of conceptual information – as evidenced through knowledge recall under timed, invigilated conditions - to target deeper learning and the development of transferable skills for future study and the workplace.

One such example of how this can be done is reflected in a first-year undergraduate Heritage Practice module within our archaeology department. The module leader remodelled the assessment tasks so that they would encourage students to demonstrate and disseminate their learning and convey this to a public audience. This has been achieved by developing storytelling and creative media skills as part of an integrated group-based assessment designed. Students are encouraged to work collaboratively to develop specific competencies in audio technology (through podcasting), video development, and other digital publication modes, with the aim of developing meaningful interpretative resources for real-world heritage sites, contributing directly to their official communication strategies and public engagement goals. This case example demonstrates the potential that exists for new models of assessment to be developed - drawing on the affordances of collaborative technologies and social media - which address both the mastery of conceptual knowledge and the development of metacognitive and digital skills through the performance of authentic tasks. We hope to see more examples of innovative assessment approaches  emerging from the current Covid era, which employ technology to support more searching assessment and learning activities for our students.

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