This may be the most descriptive post title I've ever written and it likely clues you in right from the beginning as to what this post is all about. I'll state up front that I am that student that dislikes working in groups. I am a bit of a control freak and while I am very social and enjoy dialogue, when push comes to shove I prefer to oversee my own work and know that I will be evaluated on what I did, not what someone else did. I know it is an antiquated perspective and I am an enormous proponent of social learning as a pedagogy, but this is one case where I can't stand the taste of my own medicine. Having said that, I can divide my emotional feelings from my rationality (to some degree at least) and offer some perspective on collaboration. I will warn you though, I rant quite a bit in this post. It's a topic I feel passionate about and I think I vent here as much as inform.
How should participation in a collaborative learning community be assessed?
Frankly, I am not sure it should. I subscribe to the belief that all knowledge and all learning are social. Thus, collaboration is a necessity. It can either occur incidentally (social, cheating, etc.) or deliberately (collaborative projects, discussion, dialogue) but it is how learning occurs. We interact with one another during our courses, either directly through discussion threads, or indirectly by reading one another's work. We interact with our instructor and with a variety of experts in a similar fashion. That interaction is collaboration in the purest sense, although I realize that in this context we are talking about a very specific type of collaboration vis`-a-vis´ some type of project that requires contributions from each member of a team. Still, I do not believe that assessing the collaboration is the correct methodology here. Assessment incites competition, which is counter to the goals collaboration strives to achieve. If we begin to treat collaboration as a vehicle through which we learn, rather than some behavior we want to measure, then we can begin to see it for what it is, a way of "being" and learning. In my opinion, collaboration should not be assessed in a formal way.
Does that mean that an instructor should not informally evaluate how well a group is interacting or how much an individual is contributing? Certainly not. To do so would be to assume skill where it may not exist. In this context, however, assessment is used the way it was philosophically intended, as a means to guide, correct, mediate, and teach. It should not be used as a means to segregate the wheat from the chaff. It should not be used to judge one's worthiness. It should be used as a way to help students understand and improve.
George Siemens (2008a) discusses a number of different models whereby collaboration might be assessed; I found one of the models he discussed particularly troubling. Siemens mentions how the Internet, with its vast array of tools and services, can be used to offload some of the assessment of students to other students. He equates this with the automated rating systems you see on retail websites (rate this product) or discussion threads (Was this helpful?) and after listening to this I was very dismayed at the idea that we could "rate" one's collaborative contributions in such an inane way. Honestly, can we reduce assessment of something as complex as psychology, social interaction, metacognition, and self expression to something as simple as this? Can my efforts really be summarized through some web application where other students debate how many stars to give me out of five? To paraphrase the title of a great book, "I am not a gadget" and I refuse to have my essence boiled down to a 4-digit pin number or some Amazon.com-esque rating system. Collaboration is not a construct that should be measured the same way recall of facts is. Collaboration is a way of being and thus, it should be a way of instructing and teaching. Should we assess students on how much oxygen they consume in a single breath? Of course not, and in my opinion, this is no different.
Will Richardson (you might remember him as the author of Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Tools for Classrooms) summarizes it best in a post he made back in October (See it here). Will takes the scenic route in getting to his point, but it is a valid one. The emphasis on assessment in our educational system has replaced an emphasis on the learner. In using assessment as a high-stakes way to differentiate students, we are ignoring our primary mission to serve students. Collaboration is one of the skills we need to value, but we won't get there by assessing it the way we assess other things. We have to embrace it and make it part of what we do. If it becomes like the air we breathe, students will learn it. If we assess it, they probably won't.
How do the varying levels of skill and knowledge students bring to a course affect the instructor's "fair and equitable assessment" of learning?
I think I have already answered this question, but in case it wasn't evident, I will restate. We are overly concerned with grades and assessment as indicators of worthiness. We should use assessment as a means to an end, as a way to help students grow and improve. If we approach this issue from this perspective, the varying level of knowledge and skill students bring to a course represents nothing more than the place you begin.
There are two primary types of assessment, norm-referenced and criterion-referenced. A norm-referenced evaluation system rates students relative to other students. For example, an instructor might grade "on a curve" meaning that he or she expects a normal distribution of scores and awards grades based on that assumption. A criterion-referenced evaluation system establishes the benchmark for success and holds all students to those expectations. When done correctly, criterion-referenced evaluation is fair and equitable and treats every student as an individual. Unfortunately, we (as an educational system) usually fall short in helping every student achieve the end state. When the assessment is over, we move onto the next content topic and accept that some students have failed to meet the criteria for success. I am not blaming instructors or teachers, at least not completely. I recognize that there are logistical limits to coordinating the education of an entire classroom of students. Still, one cannot help but be depressed knowing that we do this.
If a student does not want to network or collaborate in a learning community for an online course, what should the other members of the learning community do? What role should the instructor play? What impact would this have on his or her assessment plan?
There are a variety of reasons a person may not engage in a learning community (Siemens, 2008b). When this happens, nothing productive will come from trying to force them to do so. Instead, the other members of the learning community simply have to make it safe for everyone to contribute should they chose to do so. This can be accomplished in a myriad of ways, but most important is making sure everyone's opinions are respected, that no one person dominates, and that all ideas are given due attention and consideration. If some type of assessment grade is riding on the project and a team member is not contributing, it would be necessary to make the instructor aware of the situation, but here again, if the collaboration itself is being assessed then we are missing the point in the first place.
The instructor's role in this scenario is first to ask him or herself if they have created an environment in contradiction to the goals. If the collaboration is contrived or inauthentic then it should not be surprising that at least one defiant soul decided it wasn't worthwhile. Deeper investigation might uncover that other students felt the same way but were more willing to play the game to get the grade.
Assuming that the design is not the issue, then the instructor's role shifts to the student who chooses not to participate. It might be appropriate to have a discussion to determine why he or she has chosen not to participate. If the student is forthcoming about their reasons, the instructor can use his or her best judgment as to how to proceed, but at no point should the student be forced to participate.
Politically-correct Trend or Substanitive Pedagogy?
So, where does that leave us? Is collaboration a real pedagogy with important implications for education or is it simply another politically-correct trend that will come and go? It is both. Collaboration is real and has real value. We are just beginning to realize how collaborative and social learning really is. But, collaboration is also a bandwagon that institutions, organizations, governments, and individuals are all stammering to get on board. I suppose I should end this way: there is no more tragic a death for a good idea than its adoption as a standard. So long as our educational milieu chooses to use assessment as a means to differentiate and discriminate, the benefits of collaboration will never be fully met. But, if individual instructors and course designers embrace it for what it really is, we could make a serious impact.
Richardson, W. (2006). Blogs, Wikis, Podcast, and Other Powerful Tools for Classrooms. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Siemens, G. (2008a) “Assessment of Collaborative Learning” Laureate Education.
Siemens, G. (2008b) “Learning Communities” Laureate Education.