“Nothing that we do to, or for, our students is more important than our assessment of their work and the feedback we give them on it. The results of our assessment influence our students for the rest of their lives and careers – fine if we get it right, but unthinkable if we get it wrong.”  Race, Brown and Smith (2005), 500 Tips on Assessment quoted in JISC, 2009

The assessment of learning ranges in relation to the size and type of the educational setting in which learners are being assessed.  In apprenticeship, (perhaps the best possible model for learning?) the student can be assessed directly by the mentor and given corrective guidance as they go.  In small classrooms students may have the opportunity to gain “talk time” (Hardman, 2009) which enables the teacher to asses what each student knows.  In larger classrooms we rely on the creation of student artefacts which allows a student to demonstrate their understanding.  Student artefacts often include things like research papers, presentations and examinations.

The methods for assessment in e-learning environments tend to also rely on the creation of traditional student artefacts but new forms of assessment which make use of modern technologies are also being explored.  For example, students interacting in an online forum have a discussion which often results in new perceptions and understanding as the conversation plays out.  Comments on a blog posting, picture, video or other electronic artefacts can ignite new conversations and lead to new understandings, connections and ways of thinking.  Testing systems which apply conditional feedback can correct misconceptions.  Student interactions with content can be tracked to identify when, how long, and what resources they have engaged with.  Fascinating conversations on learning analytics are emerging in this Google group.

Supporting learning or testing achievement?

Often mentioned in the literature is the distinction between formative and summative assessment.  I consider formative evaluation to be ‘developmental’ as it usually leads to feedback and gives a learner an opportunity to improve on what they have done.  Good examples of formative evaluation include feedback, critique, and scaffolding which support learning by enabling a student to re-align and correct themselves.  In contrast summative evaluation is a ’judgemental‘ evaluation which most typically results in a grade.  Summative evaluation includes things like examination results which test a student’s achievement at a given moment.

“When the cook tastes the soup, that’s formative; when the guests taste the soup, that’s summative“   Robert Stake (2003)

The exciting thing about e-learning in an open environment is the opportunity to gain feedback from not only a teacher, but other students, and other people on the web.  Doing my masters coursework, I often considered how interesting it would be to read the work of my peers, since we had engaged with similar issues and were relating these to our various contexts.  The conversations which we might have had as a result of reading each others work could have led to great debates.

ICT enabled environments increase the potential for summative evaluation by both the teacher and the student community.  New technologies afford the potential to extend the classroom and create a virtual space for assisted performance by enabling communication between people regardless of time and space.  Whereas most assessment models at universities are designed to measure a student’s state of performance at a given time, new technologies have the potential to allow us to track changes in performance.  Conceptually, this may present us with an opportunity to support and propel movement through the zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978) through appropriate and responsive levels of guided assistance.  Since the PLE is constantly changing, growing and adapting as a student develops, formative evaluation techniques should be the focus of assessment in evaluating learning in PLE’s.

What else can we evaluate in online learning?

“Because online interactions can be tracked, it is possible to examine group processes from a network perspective, using the techniques of network analysis, and to apply these analyses to the class.” (Philip, 2005)  Learning analytics enable us to examine the interactions in social networks and other collaborative environments, levels of influence, and how often content is being accessed.  This may lead to predictive analytics which may help us to better support students learning.

For example, what if we could quickly determine that a student was absent from a debate happening in an online forum? (social network analysis)  Or that a student had not accessed a key reading from a course module?  (content analytics) Or that a student’s online blog had been picked up by social networks such as Twitter and was being re-tweeted around the world? (levels of influence)

Learning analytics is likely to be the next wave of ICT supporting learning.  Learning management systems are already capturing masses of data.  We have just not begun looking at how that data can be used to predict and help drive student learning.  Business intelligence systems which utilize massive databases of data are already informing many leading companies in the business world.

Personal learning environments; assessable artefact or resource?

I tend to think of the PLE/PLN as something that serves more of a resource for students rather than something that should be assessed.  The PLN is a collection of resources, links, people, and artefacts which a student interacts with to support their learning.  It seems to me that as long as institutions are in the business of providing certifications, the need for assessments in various forms will continue.  I believe there is great potential in exploring the possibility of formative feedback on aspects of the PLE/PLN.  This may in turn lead to better results on summative evaluations such as examinations.



Effective Assessment in a Digital Age: A guide to technology-enhanced assessment and feedback.  Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), 2009. Available online http://www.jisc.ac.uk/whatwedo/programmes/elearning/assessment/digiassess.aspx

Hardman, J. (2010). The Developmental Impact of Communicative Interaction.  In Communication, Culture and Social Change: The Social Psychological Perspective. Hook, D., Franks, B., Bauer, M. Eds. Palgrave.

Philip, D.N. (2005) Online learning and the evaluation of group processes.   QWERTY 1, 2006

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978) Mind In Society: The Development Of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Assessing learning in online learning environments

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