The essential lens through which education is viewed is assessments. An appropriate and effective method for assessment must be chosen to get an accurate view of a student’s learning style, prior knowledge and even to determine the mastery of current content information. These lenses can be fatally darkened to obscure what the educator needs to discover through the inappropriate application of an assessment method in an educational environment such as online higher education. These methods must be evaluated to determine its advantages and disadvantages in addition to how it may be altered to be used in this educational environment.
Pennsylvania State University (1998) created a guide to direct their assessment efforts in their newly formed online education program. These principles focused on evaluating the students’ mastery of information as it related to the goals and objectives of the course. They emphasized that instruction must be integrated with the assessment methods. These same methods need to be part of the learning process which helps learners to assess their progress and recognize their weaknesses. Assessment needs to be both summative and formative in nature. Assessments also need to accommodate learners who have special needs. Following the course, learners need to be given the opportunity to provide feedback on the course, instructional design and instructor contribution.
Despite the creation of fundamental principles of assessment in online higher education, many educators and researchers continue to debate the ability to accurately implement quality assessments. This issue has led to a hindering of many institutions to participate in the online environment (Downes, 2007). In contrast, there are supporters who continue to adhere to traditional education. They have concluded that assessments are best when delivered in a face to face educational environment (Kim & Bonk, 2006).
Educators and administrators who support online higher education claim that there really is no difference between the application of assessments online and on-campus. In many instances the assessment techniques already being utilized on campuses of higher education only need to be adapted to fit the needs of the online environment (Arend, 2007). On such example of this is the use of portfolios in educational assessment.
Portfolios has rapidly become a popular means of assessment within education. Nebraska has even utilized portfolio assessment as means of standardized compliance for the NCLB (Neill, 2005). This popularity is consistent with the fundamental documentation of the reliability of this assessment method. It has the potential to demonstrate the growth of a student over a period of time as it highlights their best works. The greatest asset to the option is the participation involved by the student and the ability it offers in building a community among peers as they work together on assembling the pieces.
However, there are limitations and cautions when using portfolio assessment. The greatest drawback noted revolves around the amount of time required by the teacher to grade the pieces as well as the amount of time for both the teacher and student in clustering and collecting the needed pieces. Some critics question the ability of the grader to provide accurate discrimination due to the variation of compiled works. Other critics admit the portfolio is a valuable assessment and potentially beneficial since it gives an overall picture of student development but this benefit can also be listed as a disadvantage. Since it gives educators a look at the overall picture, the snapshots of progression over time are lost (Cohen, 1995).
Portfolio assessment can easily be manipulated to function in an online learning environment. Gulbahar and Tinmaz (2006) implemented portfolio assessment in an online environment. Using an undergraduate course, they proved that portfolio assessment, also called netfolio in the online environment, was a valuable tool in demonstrating student learning. Additionally, students report the success of electronic portfolios to be a valuable learning tool. It can be essential in the self-assessment as they evaluate their learning progress (Lopez-Fernandez & Rodriguez-Illera, 2009).
Smits (2008) further demonstrates the value of electronic assessment who proposes that not only does there not need to be any difference in assessment between online environments and face to face instruction but that online environments may even be more efficient in assessment. Web based programs have the ability to give immediate feedback to student in comparison to the more traditional paper and pencil assessment methods on campuses. Additionally, the immediate feedback of the online environment fosters better learning outcomes and successes for weaker students.
Rovai (2000) suggests some online assessment practices which are easily adapted from their traditional counterparts, stating that assessments in the online environment can also be learning experiences for the student which is no different than their traditional counterparts. Suggested assessment methods which are easily adaptable to the online environment are proctored exams and discussions. The greatest benefit of proctored exams is the capability to ensure identity security and academic honesty. Yet, for less consequential exams, a web-based version which offers immediate results is a valuable tool to promote learning ownership within the student, especially through the use of pre-assessment tools.
Pre-assessments in both environments, online and on-campus, are a valuable tool for student development. In their diagnostic capacity, they can be used by both the instructor and student. They are typically utilized to gauge prior knowledge, determine skill levels, identify any preconceived misconceptions, profile learner interests or acquire learner style preferences. For the instructor, this assessment tool can assist educators in planning instruction. For the student, it gives a preview of upcoming material, opens the comfort zone and provides for extended time to integrate with existing knowledge which leads to promoting learning (McTighe & O’Connor, 2005).
Discussions in the online environment is an essential element to assessment for online higher education. This form of communication can easily promote text based discussions which focus on the highlighted material for a specified time frame. These discussion formats can support the construction of the students’ knowledge and promote reflection which may not be as easily facilitated in a classroom. Discussion points in the online environment require every student to participate and keep quieter students from disappearing into the educational crowds contained within a classroom. This method also gives students more time to reflect and ponder on the assigned topic in comparison to a classroom with a discussion assigned to a time limit which discourages pondering and reflecting (Rovai, 2000).
Feedback associated with assessment is important to the learning process for the student. In the online environment, some assessment methods do not provide immediate feedback. In proctored exams, the results can take longer than in the traditional classroom. Yet, with exams given in a digital format, the results can be returned immediately to students. The difficulty in this last option is the inability to govern academic honesty. Discussions also have this dilemma in timely feedback. It receives immediate results in the traditional classroom but may not in the online environment unless an instructor is committed to frequent observations of the online classroom. Yet, feedback is the most valuable tool for students to have the chance to use it to modify their thinking while they are on a unit or a project (Kim, Smith & Maeng, 2008).
Despite the innumerable advantages to assessment in online education, there are still drawbacks. One of the disadvantages of this type of educational setting is the difficulty of interaction or collaborative learning. Interaction among students, the collaborative learning process, allows students to learn from and give feedback to each other, as well as learn interpersonal skills. Administrators and educational engineers continue to investigate possibilities to alter this drawback.
Recently, blogs started being explored as a possibility to introduce more collaborative learning into the online learning environment. Researchers claim that blogs have great unused potential in education. They have the ability to engage students in collaborative activities, knowledge sharing, reflection and even debates (Williams & Jacobs, 2004). Their unleashed potential has yet to be utilized in an effective manner for educational consideration.
Other means of integrating collaborative learning into the online classroom are constantly being investigated. Hiltz and Turoff (2008) expound on some of these technologies in addition to the common online discussion groups and proctored exams. A newer technology being used is the virtual office hours. Students have the same access to their educators that students in the traditional learning environment through means of video conferencing or chats. These methods are now being used in collaborative learning as well as students connecting with each other through a video conference to produce an end product or project. Synchronized chats are a valuable asset to the online collaborative learning environment. Researchers admonish educators to never dismiss technology as inapplicable to the online environment. These technologies which may first be used for daily diaries such as blogging or used for gaming may be adapted to use for collaborative learning within the online higher education system.
Online learning is no longer the new process or method by which higher education is delivered to society. Citizens choose online options for continuing education whether seeking an associates degree, bachelors, masters or doctoral. This educational option molds itself to the lives of individuals who may have otherwise been denied the opportunity of higher education. With this increased demand comes the increased responsibility of educators to carefully consider assessment options which promote student learning and transmit essential knowledge content.
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Pennsylvania State University (2002). An emerging set of guiding principles and practices for the design and development of distance education. Retrieved October 3, 2010, from http://www.outreach.psu.edu/DE/IDE/
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By Tracy Atkinson
Tracy Atkinson, mother of six, lives in the Midwest with her husband. She is a teacher, having taught elementary school to higher education, holding degrees in elementary education and a master’s in higher education. Her passion is researching, studying and investigating the attributes related to self-directed learners. She has published several titles, including The Art of Learning Journals, Calais: The Annals of the Hidden, Lemosa: The Annals of the Hidden, Book Two, Rachel’s 8 and Securing Your Tent. She is currently working on a non-fiction text exploring the attributes of self-directed learners: The Five Characteristics of Self-directed Learners.