fredag 27 maj 2011

The folly of our Education Assessment Exercises (EAE)

I took part in an Education Assessment Exercise (EAE) a week ago. I can't say that it was "traumatic" or anything like that, but it did point out several things I find strange (e.g. stupid) about the individually easy, but in total overbearing administrative duties of a university teacher.

The EAE exercise itself took less than two hours - no big deal - but it still felt like a relatively futile attempt to "capture" important things about the courses I and other teachers teach at our program. I had a large sheet (A3-sized) with 11 high-level goals for our education. These goals were an amalgam of a variety of different (worthy) goals, but the results were cumbersome to say the least. Here are three examples of these 11 goals. Our students should:

- "demonstrate broad knowledge and understanding in scientifically based proven experience in the chosen area of technology (the main area), including expertise in math and science, significantly advanced knowledge in some parts of the area, and deepened insights into current research and development. Students should also demonstrate deepened methodological knowledge in their chosen technical area."

- "demonstrate an ability to holistically, critically, independently and creatively identify, formulate and manage complex problems and demonstrate the skills required to participate in research and development, or to perform independent work in other advanced contexts and thus contribute to the development of new knowledge."

- "demonstrate an understanding of capabilities and limitations in science and technology, its role in society and our responsibility concerning their use, including social and economic aspects as well as environmental and work safety aspects."

Do you get it? These goals are very "fluffy" and imprecise, or alternatively all-encompassing. Furthermore they overlap (to figure out how much they overlap is in itself an advanced task). A third of the text/terms were marked in bold, signifying that they were extra important and there were a lot of "extra important" terms in these texts... There were a not insignificant amount of spelling errors in these texts - implying that they had not been prepared with a lot of care (much like this text, with the difference being that I don't force my colleagues to read it :-).
For each of the courses that I teach, I then had to specify if any of these goals were covered by 1) the (stated) goals for the course in question, and if so 2) what "learning activities" they corresponded to in the course, and if so 3) how these goals and activities played a part in the examination (and grading) of that course. Phew!

To fill out this form to me felt like a cross between a jig-saw puzzle and a big waste of time. My tiny act of rebellion was to ask/comment out loud that it didn't feel like this exercise and the relatively carefully crafted snippets of text that I produced really captured what was important about the courses in question. The answer I got was not very enlightening and had something to do with the fact that "we all had to do it anyway".

Now, I can understand that the one person who is responsible for our education in Media Technology (Björn) might have some use of these artifacts (the filled-in sheets), but I'm sure he could have gained much better information by performing short "interviews" me and other teachers. I'm also very not convinced that the effort or performing this exercise (including Björn's effort to try to interpret and act on the information that teachers provide) will stands in parity with the potentially positive results of the exercise.

My constructive suggestion would have been for Björn to himself have done the intellectually taxing/deadening work of trying to make sense out of these wonderfully-sounding but overlapping, slightly overbearing and potentially vacuous goals, and then used his interpretation as a starting point for conversations with the teachers. Instead, all teachers individually and redundantly had to do the work of trying to understand what all these (fluffy, overlapping) goals meant (and implied), what was wanted of us by this exercise (and by the person(s) who will interpret our scribblings), and then do our best of fudging up answers that sounded maximally impressive and convincing. If different teachers interpret the goals in different ways, we will provide information and answers that in subtle ways will answer not the same, but different questions. The impression I wanted to convey when I filled out the EAE sheets was that my courses turn every student into a Leonardo da Vinci (or at least tries to...).

I want to make clear that I have only the highest of respect for Björn and what he does. Perhaps he would say that he doesn't have the time to perform individual interviews with teachers about their courses. His answer is valid, but implies that this task might then not be so important after all. That's fine, but if it's not worth doing well, then it might not be worth doing it at all. Also, although Björn is the person who is best suited for this task, it does not necessarily have to be him personally who does it. The task could be outsourced to someone else (although I would personally decline).

This exercise was as much a test of my personal ability to interpret and act on complex texts and to make (a perhaps sometimes rather bleak) reality sound like heaven on earth, as it was to convey some sort of "objective" or useful information to someone higher up in the chain of command. I do agree that this exercise can emphasize that the goals of a course are not (any longer) in line with the activities in the course, but finding this out could be done in many other ways of which basically all are much simpler and easier than performing this exercise...

What I especially object to in this case is the fact that the quality of the information I provide is so low that I have little confidence that it is of use to anyone who will look at it, and that the results of any actions or recommendations that comes out of this exercise will be so out of touch of the realities of teaching that they might hinder as much as they might help. It is basically a lottery. One unfortunate possible outcome could be that teachers will be ordered to provide more informations about the courses they give in order to... well, something. For example to keep other people (newly hired exclusively for this purpose?) somewhere in the organization "in the loop"? Would this help to improve the quality of the education? Of course not.

This blog post just scratches on the surface of uncovering the errors in thinking that this exercise is just a symptom of. I hope to write a follow-up post about the folly of using precious resources (including my time) to try to improve education in this "top-down" manner.

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