Monday, August 27, 2012

New Forms of Assessment: measuring what you contribute rather than what you collect

Once again, as we do at the start of every school year, we are hearing about the rampant cheating that goes on, especially online, but in fact, everywhere, and without remorse or regret.

As Nikhil Hoyal writes, "Cheating is an epidemic in schools across the nation. A 2010 survey of 2,000 Stuyvesant students revealed that more than 72 percent of students copied their homework from others and about 90 percent of seniors cheated on tests."

In the past I've commented on the likelihood that students will emulate their role models, and so if there is a cheating epidemic in schools, it is likely the result of a cheating epidemic in society in general.

So I've linked to articles with titles like "'Cheating culture' finds corruption everywhere in U.S. society." It reads: "Enron. WorldCom. Halliburton. These names are indelibly associated with ethics violations that have shaken the American economy and captured headlines in the past few years."

The cheating hasn't stopped with this 2005 article, and it's not limited to the U.S. Indeed, in the wake of the 2008 crash and findings of widespread manipulation of things like the stock market and key interest rates, it appears that cheating has become mainstream. No wonder our students find cheating to be the most reasonable response to assessment and evaluation.

I have often wondered what society would look like if we took wealth out of the equation. What would it look like, say, if we limited salaries to a million dollars a year, corporate incomes to $100 million, and set corresponding limits on the accumulation of wealth (to reduce the hoarding that is wrecking our economy)?

Perhaps we can get some sense of this by taking the traditional incentives out of education. Typically, students perform tests, write essays, or complete projects for grades from instructors. Cheating occurs when they perform something other than the intended task in order to produce the result - copying answers, for example, in order to achieve higher grades than they would have earned on their own.

Even when the incentive is minimal, when we set up learning based on grades accumulated in the traditional way, it leads to cheating. Thus we see recent lamentations in Forbes, the Chronicle and others "concerning recent articles on cheating and skepticism of online learning," according to Dick Lipton.

The response from companies like Coursera and Udacity was predictable: an honour code prohibiting multiple identities (and authentication if that doesn't work), the long-standing idea of mastery learning, or creating in-person testing centres. And if none of that works, "the online exams are regarded as “practice” insofar as not counting toward a certificate of value."

To me, this is a failure of imagination. Surely, both in schools and society, we can do better than the dog-eat-dog accumulation of numbers representing real or fictional value for power and profit. Surely we can reflect the achievement of individuals in some way that does not resemble a big stack of stuff.

The first thing that both the financial system and the grading system devalue is the worth of assistance and generosity to others. Oh, sure, there is a token 'charitable donations' check-box in your income tax form. But imagine your income went up if you gave time, money or resources to charity, even if you were living on social assistance!

In the schools, too, there is no reward for helping others (indeed, it is heavily penalized). Suppose educational achievement was measured at least partially according to how much (and how well) you helped others. The value of the achievement would increase if the person is a stranger (and conversely, decrease to zero if it's just a small clique helping each other) and would be in proportion to the timeliness and utility of the assistance (both of which can be measured).

The financial system also values mass. That is to say, it favours the creation of consolidated institutions that act as a single entity. There is limited incentive to work with others - indeed, it is often more worth your while to go to court against long-standing business partners. A limit on corporate size, by contrast, would create an incentive to cooperate with others. Changes in patent and trade law would make costly lawsuits counterproductive. 

But all this is for naught if people have been educated since birth to engage in cutthroat competition with each other. Sure, we hear about fair play, but it is so rare that organizations like the Olympics issue special awards when it happens. Far more often students see cheating, doping, and plain bad manners. Indeed, they learn it doesn't even matter.

Suppose instead students were rewarded for cooperation. Not collaboration; this is just the school-level emulation of the creation of cliques and corporations. Cooperation, which is a common and ad hoc creation of interactions and exchanges for mutual value.  Cooperative behaviours include exchanges of goods and services, agreement on open standards and protocols, sharing of resources in common (and open) pools, and similar behaviours.

Imagine receiving academic credit for contributing well-received resources into open source repositories, whether as software, art, photography, or educational resources. Imagine receiving credit for long-lasting additions to Wikipedia or similar online resources (we would have to fix Wikipedia, as it is now run by a gang of thugs known as 'Wikipedia editors'). We can have wide-ranging and nuanced evaluations of such contributions, not simple grades, but something based on how the content contributed is used and reused across the net (this would have the interesting result that your assessment could continue to go up over time).

Society does not in general reward contributions to the public good. Indeed, quite the opposite - in order to earn profit, corporations and individuals bribe governments to act against the public interest. Companies are more interested in seeing services privatized, instituting user fees, or other measures designed to wring wealth out of what might otherwise be a universal program. As for long range public good, such as environmental protection, or society-wide public good, such as energy and information access, more money is to be made ignoring the public good than supporting it.

Imagine it was the opposite. Imagine private enterprise and individuals were rewarded for supporting the public interest - suppose, for example, they were rewarded according to the actual good they produced, after they made the investment, rather than through some contract or billing system. Imagine a phone company made money, not from privatizing the telephone system, but by adding value to the existing public system. Imagine rewarding energy companies for producing the more environmentally sound energy, not the cheapest.

There is, again, no reason why public service cannot be incorporated into individual assessment. Adding value to fire and police services by means of monitoring and reporting (not the piece-work model of something like CrimeStoppers, but actual prevention), supporting environment by counting birds, sampling water, servicing sports events by acting as a timer or umpire - all these can add to a person's assessment.

I'm not thinking of the simple sort of tasks grade school students can perform. Indeed, a person hoping to attain a higher level qualification would need to contribute to the public good in a substantial and tangible way. Offering open online courses (that are well-subscribed and positively reviewed by the community) should be a requirement for any graduate-level recognition. The PhD used to be about offering a unique research contribution to the field; now it's about paying tuition and being exploited as a TA.

These three things - helping others, being cooperative, contributing to the public good - are obviously not easy to assess. To be sure, it's far easier to ask students simple questions and grade the number of correct responses. But asking students simple questions, far from measuring putative 'content knowledge', is really an exercise in counting without any real interest in what is being counted. It acts as an invitation to cheat, as it places self-interest ahead of the values it is actually trying to measure.

This list of three types of assessment is intended only to stimulate thought. No doubt there are many other forms of assessment along similar lines, all based on measuring what you contribute rather than what you collect. And until we begin measuring achievement - and wealth - in this way, we cannot expect better than dysfunctional students and a dysfunctional society.