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Evaluation & assessment… in pandemic times?
Denise Leite is Latin America and Caribbean Regional Office Secretary for GUNi/UNESCO International. She was invited professor at Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS) and researcher of National Research Council (CNPq) of Brazil; member founder of the Research Study Group Innovation & Evaluation (CNPq-UFRGS). Her main research themes are Higher Education, Evaluation, Participatory evaluation, Research collaboration networks.
Businesspeople talk we shall have a ‘new normal’ after the Covid-19, and we will live with it. The new normal will mean a radical change in the economy – businesses will disappear, others will be emerging, and post-crisis opportunities will be construed. People will have to reinvent themselves. Will university have a new normal? Will reinvent itself in post-pandemic future? As much as everybody knows, universities seem to move like a pachyderm: slowly.
Yet never was the university so demanded to spill over its installed capacity. The university, with its hospitals and laboratories, yielded the most prepared medical personnel and the pharmacists who tested the virus. It also yielded epidemiologists and statisticians who modelled the pandemics’ progression. It yielded, as well, the public managers and planners who organized lockdowns. In the last months, over 7,000 scholarly articles were published on the theme.
At the same time, a huge movement of solidarity took place and is still going on. It involves the repair of broken medical respirators, fundraising to feed poor people, online psychological care, telemedicine, among other opportunities made available for communities from their vast existing laboratorial and human resources.
Meanwhile, though, teachers and researchers went on with their activities as members of collegiate bodies and research groups. They updated their research, completed reports, submitted papers that were postponed before Covid-19. That is, teachers and researchers, living full or partial lockdown, remained extremely busy in their home offices.
Students, however, seem appalled, with no idea if they will resume going to the campus, attending classes, continue their studies for this term, or if any modality of remote teaching will be offered so that they would not be left behind in their curricula.
They saw themselves neglected and struggling to survive day by day, avoid contagion, provide for food and medicine, connect to their social networks, until… they realized they would lose the possibility to fulfill their semester’s coursework. The grievous consequences include losing scholarships, being unable to complete courses required to progress in their programs, postponing their entrance in the job market. These worries have been aggravated by the angst about which space, if any, they will find in the future for their occupational choices. At UFRGS, female Physics students interrogated rectors and councils in an Open Letter (2020), recognizing the exceptional situation. They consider any proposal – postponing a decision, cancelling the academic semester, shifting face-to-face classes to e-learning. Therefore, they say “one must consider not only the material conditions such as internet access and socioeconomic factors in general, but also the familial and psychological conditions of those who are in social isolation amidst the pandemics”.
In South Africa, Zimbabwe and Ghana, students protest the elitism of online classes – considering their living conditions, they cannot afford internet, however on mobile devices, in the necessary speed to follow classes, download files, upload assignments or remain online (UWN, 2020).
In community universities, such as Unesc, managers dealt first with teachers, under the leadership of distance learning personnel. They held meetings and trained for remote classes, emphasizing the need to keep the connection to students through the courses. Shifting the classes to online learning allowed Unesc to keep on collecting tuition without which it would not be possible to preserve the campus or the payroll. The same strategies took place at private schools, from early childhood to upper secondary education. Regular classes in a regular schedule connected the students through simple available videoconferencing technologies. At UFRGS, non-teaching staff used VPN to connect to the Institution’s system from their homes. The fact is: universities and schools extended their connectivity.
However, what about teaching? And learning? And assessment-evaluations? These are central tasks of universities, and, nevertheless, there were curious claims for their discontinuation. They were common in all institutions and in all countries – to wait for the social isolation period to end; to resume the semester afterwards, as if this was only a fleeting period. The Rector of UERJ, for example, clarified in a note: the university would not adopt online education during the pandemic crisis. Yet, the crisis stretches… another week, another month… eventually, the academic semester will not be fulfilled.
In a first moment, teachers saw themselves unprepared for the workload required by online or remote classes. They say they have no command of ICTs, they cannot prepare classes beyond traditional oral expositions or lab practices. So far, it was not common for higher education institutions to train teachers to continue their classes as Unesc did.
In other countries, from Exeter to Aveiro, to Ghana or Santa Maria, teachers are mobilizing themselves online, and campus activity is limited to maintenance and security. The shock caused by the unexpected and afflictive situation is seen by many under the perspective that university will never be the same, and that teachers will change their classes in the dAC – the day After Covid-19.
Some teachers know the preparation of remote classes differ from that of face-to-face ones. They do not follow the established routine of classrooms, as they demand more planning, more practicality adapted to each technological platform. These teachers know the rich resources available online aids them with examples, texts, virtual labs, virtual museums. There are plenty of sources, among them included GUNI, to prepare good classes and to stimulate students in each discipline to find best alternatives to make learning possible. Of course, teachers also have an intuitive knowledge that assessment and exams will not be the same. Using well known resources, teachers can create quality surveys, but, in current virtual classrooms, general and final exams must be postponed. The same holds true for educational systems: national and international large-scale assessment exercises. In this specific topic, governmental authorities charged with educational decisions must face the postponed decisions and set national exams to further dates to avoid harm to students.
The theme of assessment and evaluation, however, has more to say to us teachers who believe in innovative classes, marked by connectivity. It is worth remembering the basics:
1) In order to conduct valid assessment in remote practice, the national law or educational norms must be observed to ensure reliability and usability of the results. For safety reasons, countries have abolished differential degrees, using only the labels “approved” and “not approved”. In Brazil, the National Council of Education legislated about it. For all educational level, including higher education, remote classes will be considered equivalent to the traditional ones as a part of each student’s curriculum (BRASIL, CNE,2020).
2) One must remember a tenet of every good teacher: every class needs feedback – whether the teacher is a beginner or a veteran in online classes, and whatever resources they are using, they need feedback from their students, and they must constantly adjust their teaching to what the students are understanding and learning.
3) Changing didactic practices is not about adapting lectures into webinars and lives or conference in virtual rooms. It is about devising proposals to teach disciplinary themes that fascinate students, making them participants in the creation of knowledge. More endowed institutions can use dashboards and design factory resources in equipment connected from home offices. But what about students with limited internet access who can connect only through their mobiles? No doubt, they can also be involved in innovative proposals. Podcasts can be useful in these cases, as the radio was an important resource for our ancestors.
4) Once there are decisions on the technology to be used, knowledge on the students’ access to class content, channels for feedback, legal bases for teaching and learning procedures, the crucial point of assessment is met. First, central category of the process is not content devolution, it is not repeating what the teacher said and taught. The central category of assessment in pandemic times is the engagement of students with their own learning, their participation and importance in remote activities. What they study and understand leads to how they express their understandings with ICTs aid. What they say or can express by themselves can be as much more meaningful as what they write. It is a new exercise. Can students establish alliances, to study in a collaborative manner?
5) Responsiveness and collaboration can be accompanied by flexible metrics agreed with students. By the way, the qualitative evaluation of research networks (RNPE), which we have employed in academic research, may prove a useful resource. After all, although the practice of measuring students’ abilities has been inescapable since Imperial China, it could well be put aside with other aspects of the old teaching methods, the one’s bC, Before Covid-19!
In pandemic times, accompanied by creative processes of online learning, the valid assessment will be defined by the meaning of the word “evaluation” and by its link to knowledge. By its meaning as a coming together of relations, facts and data and their interpretation through fostered syntheses and analyses produced with the concourse of technological possibilities.
After all, evaluation and assessment include, simply, to give value, to valorize the student!
BRASIL. MEC. (2020). Parecer CNE/CP Nº: 5/2020. Brasilia, DF, 28/4/2020.
UFRGS. CEENF. DAEF. (2020). Carta aberta das estudantes do Instituto de Física da UFRGS sobre a continuidade do semestre e as atividades EaD. Porto Alegre, Ufrgs, InstFísica, abril, 2020.
University World News. (2020). Student bodies say e-learning is unaffordable and elitist. https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=20200422075107312 ... Access: 02/05/2020
UERJ - Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro
UFRGS - Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul
UNESC - Universidade do Extremo Sul Catarinense