What Online Education Has Forced Us to Do

It is difficult to see what is good with regard to having education confined to an online setting. My son was watching some sort of an orientation from his high school two nights ago and it was painful. The presentation was simply a transplant from what schools in our area normally had done in-person. In-person was not as mind numbing since one could always smile and socialize with other parents and for students, with their friends. Without the opportunity to mingle with other parents and students, there was nothing really "live" in that synchronous session. Yet, there must be something good about the learning platform that the pandemic had forced on all of us. Alfie Kohn talked about three things on his blog, all of which concerned grades. Fall semester had not started yet for me, but we had to give qualifying exams to our PhD students. So I had to write my own exam and in an online test, a multiple choice format was the easiest to compose.

Assessment is of course required in any learning setting. What Alfie Kohn is hoping that we learn during this pandemic is how we regard tests and grades. We assess to find out where our students are. It is very difficult to ensure honesty in an online exam. In my case, I required all students to join me in a Zoom meeting with their cameras turned on so that I could see them throughout the exam. I deliberately made the exam under time pressure so that students would not have the time to "google". 

Making these exams high stakes only increases the motivation to cheat. The gist therefore lies on how we use these exams. Alfie Kohn writes:

In short, we need to demonstrate that doing without testing and grading isn’t just possible but preferable, that alternatives to them work well, and, most important for ensuring lasting change, that the primary argument for halting these practices is neither new nor situational: We’ve always been able to do better. This is an actionable as well as a teachable moment — a chance to turn a epidemiological crisis into an educational opportunity.

Assessment is necessary so that we know where our students are. It can inform our teaching and that should be its only purpose.