Risiera di San Sabba, an italian lager #2 by Chiara Marra

Risiera di San Sabba, an italian lager #2 by Chiara Marra

Brian Lamb considers the question of flexible assessment:

Essentially, how might it be possible to make assignment deadlines more flexible for distance students? If deadlines for ongoing assignments are simply extended deeper through to the end of the course, wouldn’t there be a natural tendency on the part of most students to hand in their assignments at the latest possible moment, to the detriment of their learning? My own experience as both student and teacher (as well as the virtual learner data that the UOC has analyzed) confirms this fear…

Yep, that’s been my experience too… but I am learning that its not a bad thing necessarily.

I have been running 2 online courses (inspired by David Wiley’s initial wiki courses) with flexible assessment:

  1. Flexible Learning
  2. Facilitating Online

Both of them have very similar assessments in that they have 3 assignments, one of which is blogging into which the other 2 assignments are posted.

The thing is, these 3 assignments can be completed at any time. We do set up a course schedule, with a start and end date, but we do this to encourage a cohort of people through at the same time so that they can bounce off each other and feel that group learning atmosphere that many expect to be there. Inevitably, many do not finish by the time the course officially finishes. That’s fine, we encourage them to take their time and do it right. All the course end date signifies is that the facilitators are no longer on call and keeping the course moving along as one big cohort. After the “end date” participants are “on their own”. In reality, they are not on their own at all. By the time that date comes, the course blogging network has been established – or they have become more comfortable with self paced online learning. When they are ready to be assessed, they simply contact the facilitator who engages an assessor. There is no extra work on the assessor or facilitator, in fact the intensity of the assessment period is now spread out and so is done better.

Administrating this is a hassle, because to run the course we normally enrol people up front, and the enrolment lasts for a specified period of time. If they don’t finish, we would have to mark them as “not yet complete” and then re enrol them for the next course – messy and time consuming. What is better is if people do not enrol! They just start the course. They enrol when they are ready for assessment. This way we get 100% completion rates and not so much wasted energy chasing down people who were never going to complete anyway, and so make your books look bad! We call this form of participation, “informal enrolment”.

What we are working out now is managing the increased numbers of informal enrolments so that they are not an unreasonable drain on facilitator resources that are not yet paid for. For this we have found it acceptable to have both formal and informal participants starting and moving through at the same time. So far we have not noticed a drop in formal enrolments. There are still those who prefer to enrol formally and up front, and who want to be paced by the facilitators and be sure they complete and get assessed by a definate date. They know who they are. Everyone in the course, whether informal or formal knows that the facilitators energies are focused on the formally enrolled and making sure they understand what they are to do and are on task, that is what the fee is for. If any of that facilitation effort is able to be shared with the informal group, then great! so long as the people who pay are getting what they pay for, including assessment. Being able to manage this is where a skilled and experienced facilitator comes in. It doesn’t take long before the whole group is supporting each other regardless of their enrolment status, people are the greatest learning resource in these courses.

Getting people over the line is still a challenge. But with patience, they get there. Everyone remains in the communication channels whether they have completed or not, and to some degree it is the people in that channel that motivate completion. It is up to the individual participants to turn off the channel if they wish. Quite a few opt to stay in actually, just to watch how the next course goes and to see if they can pick up on a few things they missed. Naturally the ones who have not completed stay, and the next course becomes their new motivation to advance through the tasks.

I think we have the first runs on the board for a new model that promises a considerable amount of flexibility for the participants, including the facilitators and assessors, and could even improve outcomes for everyone. It is all based around open educational resources and practices. It is the facilitation that is the key. Knowing how to do it without working yourself to an early grave, and in such a way so that everyone feels equal and not over or under whelmed.