1 | The Big Picture
A Framework for Assessment in Online Learning
Writing a book about assessment is tricky business for a number of reasons. Assessment has been described as “the heart of the student experience” and is “probably the single biggest influence on how students approach their learning” (Rust, O’Donovan, & Price, 2005, p. 231). Assessment is also highly emotional; students describe it as a process that evokes fear, anxiety, and stress (Vaughan, Cleveland-Innes, & Garrison, 2013, p. 81). It is fair to say that “nowhere are the stakes and student interest more focused than on assessment” (Campbell & Schwier, 2014, p. 360). A book on assessment goes to the heart of the complex dynamics of teaching and learning. As authors, we choose to wrangle with all the assumptions and ideologies of postsecondary education. Assessment in technologically mediated contexts adds another level of complexity to an already emotionally charged topic.
As such, a book on online assessment theory and practice, in particular, has never been more needed. In the annual Sloan Online Survey (Allen & Seaman, 2016), the proportion of chief academic leaders who report that online education is a critical component of their long-term strategy stood at 63.3% in 2015 (p. 5), with 2.8 million students taking all of their higher education instruction at a distance in the fall of 2014 (p. 10) and more than one in four students (28%) taking some of their courses at a distance, an all-time high in the United States. Distance courses “seem to have become a common part of the course delivery modality for many students” (p. 12). The growth of online education could see the migration of the worst aspects of traditional assessment into a new medium. Or, it could provide the opportunity to take an entirely fresh look, keeping the best of the traditional approaches while improving and innovating, supported by advances in technology.
Assessment is also connected to emerging perceptions of quality and the evolving nature of quality assurance processes within postsecondary education. Key trends in higher education have heightened focus on student assessment, especially in terms of online learning contexts, accountability, and the increasing scrutiny of the ability of colleges and universities to report performance outcomes (Newman, 2015).
Openo et al. (2017) contend that, at present, there is little connection between quality assurance indicators and quality teaching in provincial quality assurance frameworks, and that quality assurance reporting mechanisms are ill-defined. These gaps represent an important deficiency in provincial oversight of postsecondary education, where, increasingly, accreditation processes require detailed curriculum maps linking core competencies with assessment measures.
The need for robust quality assurance processes responds both to the still-lingering perception that online learning is ineffective or not as effective and the precipitous increase in online learning, which is becoming recognized as a crucial 21st-century skill, not just a mode of delivery. Online learning, according to Latchem (2014), “ceases to be mere delivery of digital learning products for the students’ consumption and becomes a platform whereupon knowledge and learning are created by students through interaction, collaboration and inquiry” (p. 311).
The increasing demographic of adult learners (many of whom will study online) who want to gain competencies desired by employers has also led to a heightened awareness of the challenges and opportunities in assessment. A 2015 study from Colleges Ontario shows that 44% of current Canadian college students already possess postsecondary experience and return to college for the purposes of finding “that extra piece that makes them employable” or to “upgrade skills in a particular area” (Ginsberg, 2015, para. 4).
Any discussion of assessment must confront one of the great current debates in higher education. Educational goals once centred on individualization and personal development (what does it mean to be alive and human?), cultivating informed and active citizens, developing intrinsically valuable knowledge, and serving society through the public interest have narrowed. The perceived purpose of educational attainment has since narrowed to serving society through economic development. Wall, Hursh, and Rodgers (2014) define assessment as “a set of activities that seeks to gather systematic evidence to determine the worth and value of things in higher education” (p. 6), including the examination of student learning. They assert that assessment “serves an emerging market-focused university” (p. 6).
This narrower focus has led some to suggest that students “come into play only as potential bearers of skills producing economic value rather than as human beings in their own right” (Barnett & Coate, 2005, p. 24). Carnevale (2016) would both agree and disagree with this statement. He notes the irreconcilable ideas of democratic citizenship and markets, and yet he also recognizes that (like it or not) postsecondary education has become the United States and Canada’s primary workforce development system. The focus on postsecondary education as a process of skills development to increase wages and one’s social position leads to a double-edged sword. As “both a fountain of opportunity and a bastion of privilege” (Carnevale, 2016, p. 16), education becomes both equalizer and source of inequality. While we do not take a position on related issues of social justice and citizenship in this book, we do recognize that learning, assessment, and tangible outcomes are inextricably linked, and that “one of the most telling indicators of the quality of educational outcomes is the work students submit for assessment” (Gibbs, 2010, p. 7).
Assessment, then, provides evidence of the outcome in any outcomes-based approach to education. In Ontario, for example, “postsecondary learning outcomes are rapidly replacing credit hours as the preferred unit of measurement for learning,” but “the expanded presence of learning outcomes at the postsecondary level has outstripped our abilities to validate those outcomes through assessment” (Deller, Brumwell, & MacFarlane, 2015, p. 2). Assessment practices are also increasingly focused on demonstrating acquisition of learning outcomes for the “purposes of accountability and quality measurement,” because such measurement aligns with market-oriented aims, including closing the Canadian “skills gap,” which causes Canada to lose as much as $24.3 billion dollars per year in economic activity (Bountrogianni, 2015). The perspective of students as potential bearers of skills to support economic development drives the move toward authentic assessment, where students can provide direct evidence of having meaningfully applied their learning (Goff et al., 2015). Using skills, knowledge, values, and attitudes they have learned in “the performance context of the intended discipline” (Goff et al., p. 13), learners simulate real-world problems in their discipline or profession. The purpose of this book is to support a move toward a new era of assessment and away from the current era, where “the field of educational assessment is currently divided and in disarray” (Hill & Barber, 2014, p. 24).
Aspects of Online Learning
The move to online learning in recent decades has raised questions about the nature of assessment with courses and programs. Is it the same? Is it different? How best to do it? This shift in assessment has moved like a glacier, slowly and yet with dramatic effect. The “traditional view of assessment defines its primary role as evaluating a student’s comprehension of factual knowledge,” whereas a more contemporary definition “sees assessment as activities designed primarily to foster student learning” (Webber, 2012, p. 202). Examples of learner-centred assessment activities include “multiple drafts of written work in which faculty provide constructive and progressive feedback, oral presentations by students, student evaluations of other’s work, group and team projects that produce a joint product related to specified learning outcomes, and service learning assignments that require interactions with individuals, the community or business/industry” (Webber, 2012, p. 203). As Webber points out, there is a growing body of evidence from multiple disciplines (Dexter, 2007; Candela et. al., 2006; Gerdy, 2002) illustrating the benefits of learner-centred assessment, but these examples “do not provide convincing evidence that reform has actually occurred” (Webber, 2012, p. 203). The Appendix to this book includes examples from “reformers” who are gradually transforming the assessment landscape by innovating and incorporating new assessment approaches in online learning contexts.
We begin this discussion by first considering online learning, what it is, and how it serves learners. Now referred to as the fifth or sixth generation of distance education, online learning could be defined in terms of a spectrum of percentages (i.e., of time spent online). Some have defined it as learning done entirely online (Allen & Seaman, 2015), where most or all the content is delivered online with typically no face-to-face meetings. Others see online learning as an alternative access mode for the non-traditional and disenfranchised (Conrad, 2002), including both “busy professionals who travel extensively and unskilled labourers employed in jobs with inflexible hours that make a traditional school schedule unworkable” (Benson, 2002, p. 443). Some see online learning as a “new and improved” version of distance learning, where the affordances of online learning and the introduction of blended learning will surpass, in quality, what we have expected and accepted from the face-to-face classroom (Hiltz & Turoff, 2005). As Prinsloo (2017) observes: “We are trying to describe a very dynamic and fast-changing phenomenon, and the terminology often struggles to keep up with the reality of what’s happening” (slide 41).
All of these definitions of online and blended learning can seem confusing or limiting, especially when “many distance education institutions, particularly the large-scale distance teaching universities, do not yet employ the electronic media as their main delivery medium, and most of the online education takes place at mainstream campus universities” (Guri-Rosenblit, 2014, p. 109). The questions of space and place become not just definitional but philosophical and ultimately pedagogical, as will be discussed in Chapter 3.
Among these many complex notions, a solid place to start a discussion of online learning and its affordances is at its technological ground zero, all the while keeping foremost in mind Salmon’s adage: “Don’t ask what the technology can do for you, rather [ask] what the pedagogy needs” (cited in JISC, 2010). What does the enhancement of learning by technology offer assessment practices? The 2010 JISC report names these eight advantages:
- Greater variety and authenticity in the design of assessments;
- Improved learner engagement, for example through interactive formative assessments with adaptive feedback;
- Choice in the timing and location of assessments;
- Capture of wider skills and attributes not easily assessed by other means, for example through simulations, e-portfolios and interactive games;
- Efficient submission, marking, moderation and data storage processes;
- Consistent, accurate results with opportunities to combine human and computer marking;
- Increased opportunities for learners to act on feedback, for example by reflection in e-portfolios;
- Innovative approaches based around use of creative media and online peer and self-assessment; Accurate, timely and accessible evidence on the effectiveness of curriculum design and delivery. (p. 9)
Online learning is also referred to, more or less synonymously, as e-learning. We will use the term online learning in this book and consider it a subset of the broader term open and distributed learning (ODL). The authors do not suggest that it is possible to offer a conclusive definition of “online learning,” but we acknowledge key components of all offered definitions, such as the use of a personal computer or other mobile device connected to the World Wide Web using either a cable or wireless protocol, and the ability to make use of text-based, audio, and audio-visual communications that afford instructors the opportunity to create multifaceted and multidimensional instructional delivery systems. Or, as Dron (2014) has described it, “emerging systems” of instruction capable of being assembled and integrated “at a depth of sophistication that we have never seen before” (p. 260).
Online learning has exploded in recent years, as mentioned above. Once the purview of ODL single-mode institutions, online courses are now offered by most bi-modal and traditional higher education institutions. Online learning and ODL are subsets of the broader term “distance education,” which itself was nurtured by tenets of adult education. (See Chapter 2 for this discussion.) Given this long developmental history, it is not surprising that the nature and shape of online learning has grown and benefited from the work of many theorists along the way. While it’s not our intention to provide a comprehensive history of the field, a few major contributors should be acknowledged.
The foundational definition of distance education revolves around the separation of teacher from learner. “Separation” is most easily understood as a geographical separation, but in online learning, it can also be a separation in time. The term asynchronous refers to communication and interaction within online courses that occur at different times—times of the learners’ and teachers’ choice. In this work, we would like to turn away from the notion of “separation”—as it connotes some form of deficit—to one of “transcendence.” When usefully applied, we maintain, technology can transcend the separation of space and time as a limiting factor due to the interactivity of Internet-based communications technology. Keegan (2005) has argued that teaching and learning is essentially composed of interaction and intersubjectivity where teacher and learner are united in a common purpoose.
Michael Moore famously addressed the notion of distance, which he referred to as independent study distance, in 1973 in what became the Theory of Transactional Distance. In it, he related studying at a distance to issues of structure, autonomy and control, and dialogue. His theory holds that a distance measured psychologically and physically between learner and teacher presents potential misunderstanding in communication; therefore, that space needs to be minimized. The level of dialogue, the structure of the learning, and the degree of autonomy of learners are the factors that must work together to reduce transactional distance and ensure meaningful learning (Moore, 1993).
Even earlier, Charles Wedemeyer had outlined his vision for independent study in higher education in 1981. He too saw potential for undue separation of teacher from learner in the name of choice and flexibility. His Theory of Independent Study gave more freedom to the learner while also placing more responsibility on the learner; but he also emphasized the need for good communication and a relationship between teacher and learner (Simonson et al., 2012, p. 43). In this, Wedemeyer is the predecessor to Anderson’s observation that there is a tension between giving a student the full freedom of independent study and the instructional and learning benefits derived from participation in a learning community.
Contrary to popular belief, the major motivation for enrolment in distance education is not physical access, but rather, temporal freedom to move through a course of studies at a pace of the student’s choice. Participation in a community of learners almost inevitably places constraints on this independence, even when the pressure of synchronous connection is eliminated by use of asynchronous communications tools. The demands of a learning-centered context might at times force us to modify the prescriptive participation in communities of learning, even though we might have evidence that such participation will further advance knowledge creation and attention. (Anderson, 2004, para. 3, emphasis added)
In 1988, Otto Peters’s Theory of Industrialization of Teaching looked into the future using theories of economics and industry to emphasize the need for mechanization, economies of scale, standardization, and careful planning and organization. Harsh as Peters’s conceptualization of learning at a distance may sound, Saba (2014) outlines how Peters’s thinking may have presaged the ongoing evolution of online learning, given the advent of new social media technologies:
As personal technologies of communication, such as social media, became ubiquitous and faculty will be able to present mass personalized instruction to the learners with some level of standardization, it will be interesting to see how the dynamic between faculty and administrators change in the postmodern era.
From Sweden, Börje Holmberg introduced his Theory of Interaction and Communication in 1985. Although Moore (1993) categorized Holmberg’s theory as a “smaller” theory than Peters’s, it could be argued that interaction and communication is the more relevant theory in our discussion of teaching, learning, and assessment. Holmberg’s seven assumptions underlying teaching and learning effectiveness include issues of emotional involvement, personal relationships, motivation, interaction, and this: “The effectiveness of teaching is demonstrated by students’ learning of what has been taught” (Simonson et al., 2012, p. 48).
In 1995, Holmberg expanded his theory considerably, incorporating many aspects of distance education that had become characteristic of distance pedagogy; he wrote about “deep learning,” about empathy, about “liberal” study and the benefits to society, and about the flexibility offered to a heterogeneous group of learners. He pronounced distance education an “instrument for recurrent and lifelong learning and for free access to learning opportunities and equity” (Simonson et al., p. 49). And while “free access” is, in many cases, wishful thinking, it is important to note here the parallel of adult educators, further discussed in Chapter 2 of this text.
Referring to Malcolm Knowles’s Theory of Andragogy, Simonson et al. (2012) cemented the connection of distance education to adult education in this way: “Most now consider Knowles’s work to be a theory of distance education; it is relevant because most often adults are involved in distance education, and andragogy deals with frameworks for programs designed for the adult learner” (p. 50).
To recap, then, pioneer distance educators stipulated conditions for which teaching and learning at a distance, with teacher separated from learners, could occur. Over the years and with advancements in Internet computer technology, online learning evolved as the preferred delivery mode. The capacity of Internet computer technology to provide online learners with deep and meaningful learning opportunities fostered a huge body of new literature that addressed technical affordances and pedagogy. While foundational theories contributing to online learning were well understood, deconstructing online learning itself has led mainly to discussions of teaching-learning theory and to the presentation of guidelines, strategies, models, and best practices. Online educators have no shortage of sources and materials to instruct them on “how” to engage with their learners. Learners have no shortage of resources to help them acclimate to the online medium or develop an online educational presence. Anderson (2008), in discussing the movement toward theory development, presented several models outlining the online process, but concluded that “the models presented . . . do not yet constitute a theory of online learning per se, but hopefully they will help us to deepen our understanding of this complex educational context” (p. 68).
From Technology to Interaction, Community, and Learner-Centred Pedagogy
Along the trail of developments in technology that both initiated and hallmarked online learning, there was an interest-shift from what technology could do to what learners could do, to how they would enable their learning through the technology available to them—in other words, a shift from a technology-orientation to a pedagogical orientation (Blanton, Moorman, & Trathan, 1998). We examine this shift here in terms of two central topics, which are not mutually exclusive: interaction and the Community of Inquiry (CoI). The related themes could be described as: (a) communication and its resultant interaction are key to online learning success; and (b) healthy learning communities engender appropriate and relevant levels of interaction.
Moore (1989), Wagner (1997), and Anderson and Garrison (1998) provided important early insights into the nature of interaction in computer-enhanced learning. Moore’s initial categorization of three types of interaction—learner-learner, learner-content, and learner-instructor—was expanded into six possible types of interaction by Anderson and Garrison, who first broached the possibility of content interacting with content, foreshadowing semantic Web developments (1998). These discussions eventually included domains of interactions (cognitive, affective), frequencies of interaction, gender-specific interactions, and cultural-specific interactions (Conrad, 2009; Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000; Jeong, 2007; McLoughlin & Oliver, 2000).
In 1998, Wenger’s seminal work on communities of practice in the workplace laid the current foundation for the consideration of community-based interaction and communication. At about the same time, Garrison, Anderson, Archer, and Rourke’s research on online presence (1998–2001) built on the concept of community and presented a new schema for understanding online learning in terms of cognitive, instructional, and social domains (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000). From that research evolved the equally important theory of CoI, defined as “a process of creating a deep and meaningful (collaborative-constructivist) learning experience through the development of three interdependent elements—social, cognitive and teaching presence” (CoI website). The CoI model has subsequently launched another stream of investigative research into the effects and relationships of its respective parts (Akyol & Garrison, 2008; Cleveland-Innis, Shea, & Swan, 2007).
A parallel and not-unrelated research stream was also dependent on Wenger (1998), Wilson, Ludwig-Hardman, Thornam, and Dunlap (2004), Stacey (1999), Bullen (1998) and Wegerif (1998), and some of the early work from Gundawardena and her colleagues (1995; 1997). It drew at the same time on adult education and learning theory literature to discuss community not as a learning laboratory per se but as an affective, social landscape. Tied most closely with Garrison, Anderson, and Archer’s social presence literature (2000), this understanding of community focused on relationship-based interaction where “like-minded groups of people share[d] goals or special occasions” (Conrad, 2002). This understanding of community, taken from schools of social learning theory (Bandura, 1986; Vygotsky, 1978), moved the communication and interaction discourse closer to Garton, Haythornthwaite, and Wellman’s (1997) prescient work on online social networking and also capitalized on adult learning theories from the works of adult educators K. Patricia Cross (1981), Dewey (1938), Knowles (1970), and Wlodkowski (1999).
The evolution from online learning’s early technology-based curiosity to a more pedagogically based concern with learners and their learning has benefited from two recent theoretical centres—constructivism and blended learning. Building on those foundational pieces, scholars from around the world have contributed to our current understanding of online learning (Akyol & Garrison, 2008; Dron, 2007; Kirschner, Strijbos, & Kreijns, 2004; Mayes, 2006; Shih & Swan, 2005; Swan, 2002; Wilson et al., 2004).
The Community of Inquiry and Assessment
While it is not within the scope of this book to give CoI thorough and comprehensive coverage, we present it here as a very useful model of online learning and note that the CoI’s approach to assessment very much falls in line with the spirit of a new era of assessment. Within the CoI framework, assessment is part of “teaching presence,” the unifying force that “brings together the social and cognitive processes directed to personally meaningful and educationally worthwhile outcomes” (Vaughan, Garrison, & Cleveland-Innes, 2013, p. 12). Teaching presence consists of design, facilitation, and direction of a community of inquiry, and design includes assessment, along with organization and delivery. “Assessment very much shapes the quality of learning and the quality of teaching. In short, students do what is rewarded. For this reason, one must be sure to reward activities that encourage deep and meaningful approaches to learning” (Vaughan et al., 2013, p. 42).
Figure 1.1. Creating an Educational Experience. The framework for a Community of Inquiry. Source: Garrison, R., Cleveland-Innes, M., & Vaughan, N. (n. d.).
In designing assessment through the CoI lens, it is essential to plan and design for the maximum amount of student feedback. “The research literature is clear that feedback is arguably the most important part in its potential to affect future learning and student achievement” (Rust et al., 2005, p. 234). Good feedback helps clarify what good performance is, facilitates self-assessment and reflection, encourages teacher and peer dialogue around learning, encourages positive motivational beliefs and self-esteem, provides opportunities to close the gap between current and desired performance, and can be used by instructors to help shape teaching (Vaughan et al., 2013).
Assessment and Evaluation
Assessment or evaluation? What is the difference between the two? First, it should be made clear that the two terms are often used interchangeably, perhaps due to carelessness, but perhaps also due to a lack of understanding of their respective meanings and the subsequent scope of application of each term. In her guide to assessment, Walvoord (2010) offers this definition: “Assessment is the systematic collection of information about student learning, using the time, knowledge, expertise, and resources available, in order to inform decisions that affect student learning” (p. 2). Similarly, in their text on evaluation, Fenwick and Parsons (2009) define evaluation as “the systematic collection and analysis of data needed to make decisions” (p. 3). The confusion begins here, with two definitions that are similar. We note also that Fenwick and Parsons point out that “evaluation” has long carried a negative connotation of being tested. We hold that this is one of the reasons that the gentler term “assessment” has become popular. Keeping in mind the constant intermingling of the two terms, we attempt here to pull them apart, beginning with Angelo and Cross’s (1993) seminal work.
Angelo and Cross (1993) define assessment as an interactive process between students and teachers that informs teachers how well their students are learning what they are teaching. They continue, “the information is used by faculty to make changes in the learning environment, and is shared with students to assist them in improving their learning and study habits.” (p. 427)
Angelo and Cross (1993) maintain that assessment is not grading. Evaluation, on the other hand, results in a grade being assigned to student performance—a performance that could include many aspects of studentship such as attendance, effort, or ability to exhibit good citizenship within the learning environment.
Adapted from Angelo and Cross (1993) and Neal (n.d.), Table 1.1 summarizes the key differences between assessment and evaluation:
Table 1.1. Key Differences Between Assessment and Evaluation.
Dimension of Difference
Content: timing, primary purpose
Formative: ongoing, to improve learning
Summative: final, to gauge quality
Orientation: focus of measurement
Process-oriented: how learning is going
Product-oriented: what’s been learned
Findings: uses thereof
Diagnostic: identify areas for improvement
Judgmental: arrive at an overall grade/score
Source: Angelo, T. & Cross, K.P. (1993).
Angelo and Cross’s (1993) explanation, while sensible, has been challenged by others. The following table categorizes assessment in terms of two types, summative and formative. Formative is generally understood as interaction and feedback that is ongoing and that contributes to learning expertise, while summative occurs at critical and designated points in the learning process and is usually attached to a grade. The tension between assessment and evaluation is therefore apparent. Table 1.2 compares formative and summative assessment.
Given this seeming contradiction in terms, educators who speak of assessment are often referring to both assessment and evaluation when they speak of or use a blend of assessment strategies that are intended to improve learning and contribute to learner success as well as provide a means of measuring the observable product of that learning by issuing a grade. Angelo and Cross would say that we are not using the term assessment correctly. In the reverse sense, educators may not use the word evaluation correctly either. Nonetheless, this is often the semantic at play.
Table 1.2. Summative and Formative Assessment and Evaluation.
Usually not graded
Improvement: to give feedback to instructor and learners about how well learners understand specific material
Judgment: to derive a grade, and to allow learners to work intensively with course material
Very focused on whether learners have acquired specific skills or information
Less focused on specific skills or information; instead, allows learners to demonstrate a range of skills and knowledge
Requires little time from instructors or learners; simple; done in class
Requires more time from instructors and learners; complex; done outside of class
Note: Although we chose this document to illustrate, broadly, the differences between formative and summative assessment, it should be noted that there are many such typologies readily available from teaching and learning centres, universities, and individual authors.
Source: Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning (CITL). (2015).
Others have weighed in on this discussion in attempts to clarify the two terms. Noted educator Benjamin Bloom (1969) applied the same terms, formative and summative, to the task of measuring students’ progress. In doing so, he suggested that “we see much more effective use of formative evaluation if it is separated from the grading process and used primarily as an aid to teaching” (Bloom, 1969, p. 48). What is critical here is that Bloom used the term “formative evaluation” while indicating that the same measurement tools could be used either formatively or summatively, depending on the intended use of their results. He agreed, however, that formative evaluation contributes to changes of something in some way. And while Wiliam (2006) states that “an assessment of a student is formative if it shapes that student’s learning” (p. 284), he casts another light on the issue by suggesting that improvements in the development and use of formative assessment really constitute a professional development tool to assist teachers in enhancing their teaching performance.
Dunn and Mulvenon (2009) also attempt to explain the confusion: “Although an assessment may be designed and packaged as a formative or summative assessment, it is the actual methodology, data analysis, and use of the results that determine whether an assessment is formative or summative” (p. 2), again pointing to Bloom (1969), who complicated the differentiation between the two terms, in part by using the seemingly contradictory term formative evaluation. In what may be the most pragmatic and useful handling of the terms, Dunn and Mulvenon suggest that “formative or summative assessment data may be evaluated and used for formative or summative purposes” (2009, p. 3). In this text, we will generally use the term “assessment,” but will stipulate “evaluation” when we are specifically referring to the assignment of grades.
Placed as a critical component with the learning cycle, therefore, assessment, defined as a mechanism for effecting changes in the learning process designed, ideally, for more productive performance, could be understood like this:
Figure 1.2. The Learning Cycle. Source: 2004 Teaching and Learning Services, McGill University.
As such, assessment is a core component of pedagogy and must be properly integrated into the learning cycle as a method of teaching that both reflects and contributes to learning. As a part of its contributory nature, assessment offers the opportunity to measure, in various fashions, the performance of both learners and teachers. However, harking back to the distinction drawn by Bloom (1969) and Cross and Angelo (1993), all too often the act of assessment is used instead to “audit” learning rather than “enhance learning and motivation” (Wlodkowski, 2008, p. 314); in other words, the process of assessing learners’ progress in learning is regarded as evaluation. To further support his views on the notion of grades, citing comments by Milton, Pollio, and Eison in 1986, Wlodkowski continues:
A grade is . . . a true salmagundi. Translated, this means a given grade can reflect the level of information, attitudes, procrastination, errors or misconceptions, cheating, and mixtures of all these plus other ingredients; all of this was noted in the literature over 50 years ago as well as today and is well known but ignored. The lone letter symbol is a conglomerate which specifies none of its contents. (pp. 352–353)
Dron (2007) analyzes grades (summative assessment or evaluation) and formative assessment in terms of control, outlining the negative capabilities of both. Of summative assessment, he concludes: “Whereas many aspects of control in education act more or less directly, the threat of summative assessment is latent and its effects are largely felt in the past, before it occurs” (p. 102).
From this misplaced faith in “the grade” flow a number of other academic transgressions, which include grade inflation, competitive actions among both learners and their teachers, performance review issues, and so on. Yet, both evaluation and assessment are a part of institutional life—indeed, ALL life—and will continue to be so. Given this, Wlodkowski suggests, “If we make assessments a partner and part of continuing learning and motivation . . . rather than merely audit by which to assign grades or scores, assessments themselves become important learning activities, worthy of everyone’s time and effort” (2008, p. 329).
We have outlined, above, the concepts of both assessment-confusion and assessment-importance. We have presented an overview of distance education and online learning history that provides contemporary context, educationally, in what we term the “age of open,” or, depending on where one stands on this philosophical divide, “the age of assault upon traditional education constructs.”
Claims of change are rampant, aired in educational journals and at global conferences. Closer to home, Ontario’s distance education network, Contact North, claims that “we are approaching an era in which new thinking about how we assess knowledge, competencies and skills start to bear fruit” (2016). This new era goes far beyond grades and includes badges, verified learning certificates, and micro-credentials, as well as prior learning assessment, designed to facilitate student mobility. In this new era, assessment will become a central component of any definition of quality. Within the Ontario Quality Assurance Framework, for example, “each academic unit is asked: What do you expect your students to be able to do, and to know, when they graduate with a specific degree? How are you assessing students to make sure that these educational goals have been achieved?” (Council of Ontario Universities, 2011, p. 12). Assessment flows directly from learning outcomes, and its importance in the educational transaction has grown. The strengthening focus on quality, accountability, and new opportunities demands a fresh look at assessment.
This book discusses assessment in a modern context where it is said that the “field of educational assessment is currently divided and in disarray” (Hill & Barber, 2014, p. 24). But this is not an entirely new claim. Over a decade ago, Barr and Tagg (1995) declared that a shift had occurred in higher education from an instruction paradigm to a learning paradigm and that learner-centred assessment was a central element in this new paradigm. Even though a growing body of literature exists that asserts that learner-centred assessment is a best practice in higher education pedagogy, Webber (2012) wonders whether faculty have fully embraced it, and her findings show little change in assessment practice from 1993 to 2004. Are we still shifting or have we arrived?