The dangers in ‘dumbing down’ online assessments

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In this rapidly ever-changing digital world, I am often left quite disappointed about the lack of regard given to the online learning environment in this country, particularly regarding the VET sector. Sure, we have some pretty cool Learning Management Systems (LMS’s) that will give you all the bells, coloured lights and progress bars you can handle as you work your way through your course, but what are you actually learning (I mean really, REALLY learning) during your course, and how is that learning being measured?

You don’t need to be an adult education expert to know that you cannot gauge competence without assessment, but it should be equally as evident that you cannot judge competence through a range of spurious and ineffective assessments, even if they are “just formative assessment questions”. Simply because we are living online does not excuse our obligations to the Principles of Assessment (any assessment) and the Rules of Evidence (all evidence).

Of particular concern is the trend to take a physical, real-life, experienced assessor out of the process altogether, relying rather on magical algorithms and other devices to ‘assess’ competence. In other words, if you get, for example, 80% of the proffered multiple choice questions correct, you’re competent. Well done you! You have clearly shown that you can refer back to a select piece of text to find an answer (at least 80% of the time, anyway).

That, in my opinion, is not evidence of ‘learning’ at any AQF level, but most definitely not at Level 4 and beyond. The simple regurgitation of information, or maybe even the oft-cited method of “always picking ‘C’ and/or ‘all of the above’” will never provide enough insight into the learner’s comprehension of the skills and knowledge they are there to acquire. The fact that there is usually zero real feedback using this lazy assessment method only compounds the problem. What about that 20% you got wrong? Let’s just hope it was nothing important, right?


It is through formative assessment that we, as educators, should get a definitive understanding of the learner’s comprehension of the subject matter, including application in a range of situations, together with their preparedness to undertake the more rigorous activities associated with summative assessments.

Quality education needs quality processes, and quality people driving them. We need real, experienced assessors providing real, insightful feedback to students on their individual and unique responses to questions that are open to interpretation, not a formulaic approach as provided in some automated, online rubrics. We need less “From the list below…” or “Which of the following…” and much more “In your own words…” or “Describe a situation where…”.

Yes, it will cost money for the additional resources to meet these assessment demands, and, yes, it will mean that the whole assessment process may be slowed down to accommodate feedback and re-assessment, but to achieve the end goal of ensuring our students are actually getting what they are paying for (real learning through quality training and quality assessment), it is worth the commitment on the part of all genuine VET providers working in an online environment. We owe it to the students, and to the industries relying on VET to produce quality candidates to drive and lead change in our future workforce.

Content – only one piece of the online puzzle

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If you have ever taken an online learning course, in particular one relating to a nationally recognised qualification, you will probably sit in either one of two schools of thought on the subject; it was really worthwhile (possible, but still very hard to find), or it was rubbish (probably the more likely outcome). With the immense range of so-called online learning programs currently available, it is sometimes hard to fathom why the vast majority of them still fall into the latter category.

Online learning is evolving, slowly, but too often the most energy goes into the content of the course. However, it is the overall experience that the learner has whilst undertaking the course that remains woefully neglected. Online learning should be much more than providing students with a stack of PDFs and wishing them good luck with it all. This anachronistic approach continues to give initially highly motivated students a poor experience, quickly leading to disengagement and the inevitable dropouts.

Whilst providing relevant and current content is crucial to achieving the desired learning outcomes for the student, it is how the content is provided that is consistently overlooked. IMHO, online providers should be considering other equally important pieces of the online puzzle, such as:

  • Get creative with how the content is accessed– think less words on pages and more interactive tools that encourage the student to direct their own learning journeys, video presentations by experts in their fields, podcasts by experienced industry consultants and links to relevant websites for networking and subscription opportunities to help develop skills and knowledge. Mixing things up will keep things interesting, as well as catering to the many different learning styles we all have.
  • ‘Online’ does not mean ‘isolated’– online learning gives people the opportunity to work at a rate that suits them, but this should not mean they can’t be connected with like-minded individuals to share ideas and swap war stories if this suits their style of learning. Using virtual classrooms (e.g. webinars) occasionally and online forums provides a sense of collaboration and inclusion often missing in online courses. Why not throw in a one-on-one online or over the phone coaching session, just to make sure they’re on track and enjoying the ride. It is a myth that most people take up online learning because they do not want to study in a group or interact with others in any way.
  • Make sure it truly is ‘online’– the learning content must be accessible any time, anywhere (within reason) and on any device, including mini tablets and smart phones, even if this content is just chunk-sized in the form of videos, iBooks or podcasts (I would not expect anyone to complete an assessment on a mobile phone!). Being able to catch a 10-minute podcast while waiting to catch a bus is becoming very important to today’s time-challenged, tech-savvy students.
  • Offer exceptional student support– there’s a lot more to providing quality support than posting a list of FAQs online and hoping for the best. Support must be real, someone who can listen to concerns and provide solutions, whether the issue be a technical one (“Ugh! I can’t upload my assignment!”), or course-related (“Can I RPL any parts of this course?”).

So, what’s all the fuss about? Providing quality online learning is very achievable provided it is created with the students’ experience as a priority, not just an information dump. Keep it exciting, challenging and relevant and you will have a greater chance of keeping students engaged through to completion.