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Wicked problems: what’s the future of assessment?

Over-emphasis on assessment could limit students’ experience and create the conditions for essay mills to flourish. Claire Taylor and Douglas Blackstock approach the problem from different directions.
This article is more than 4 years old

Claire Taylor is Vice Chancellor and Chief Executive at Plymouth Marjon University

Douglas Blackstock recently retired as the CEO of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education

Fostering learner journeys is more important than fretting about the destination

Claire Taylor, Wrexham Glyndwr University

How do we prepare learners for a life where nothing is certain, nothing is predictable and everything can change?

Whether the context is local, national or global and whether the framework is political, social, economic or cultural we all now operate within environments that are fluid, variable and messy. And yet as educators we often default to systems and approaches that are ordered, linear and somewhat predictable and that rely on planning, alignment and crucially, measurement.

Some of this is of our own making, but some of it is driven by a political obsession with measuring teaching quality and student “achievement” through questionable proxy measures.

But does what we offer, and how we offer it, truly prepare higher education learners for a world where employment types are fluid and where opportunities are often self-created, short-term and need much more than tightly defined, measurable skills? How do we nurture and foster creativity, courage and an unbounded appetite to collaborate across systems, industries, public and third sectors and professions in order to tackle the big issues of our time?

How do we provide learners with the opportunities, space (physical, intellectual and emotional) and permission to be brave, take risks and harness the power of collective wisdom, free from fear of not having to subscribe to a predetermined plan or attain a pre-defined measure?

Decoupling measurement from process is critical in my view. By obsessively measuring we suck the life out of the learning process which should rather be seen as a vibrant lifelong journey, with twists, turns maybe some dead ends and perhaps even a fair amount of “just in time” learning – relevant and in the moment.

A journey that is more adventure and less transaction; a journey that embraces and celebrates difference, uncertainty and risk.

It’s time to end the scourge of essay mills

Douglas Blackstock, QAA

Nearly all of us with an interest in higher education have common cause. We might disagree on the approaches, but we want to give students the best possible higher education experience. I say “nearly all”, as essay mills are different. They certainly have an interest in higher education, but it is purely financial. They don’t care about anything other than profiting through encouraging students to cheat. The risk to them is minimal, but the risk to a student if caught cheating is career threatening.

Essay mills are a threat not just to students but to the sector and wider society. Their marketing is becoming more sophisticated, and their reach is extending. They are a scourge, and they need to be outlawed.

QAA has long called for the criminalisation of essay mills. They have already been made illegal in New Zealand, parts of the USA and Ireland. Armenia and North Macedonia are introducing legislation, as is Australia. The latter is proposing imprisonment and large fines for essay mill owners.  Of course, the criminal law is not a cure all magic bullet that will put essay mills out of business, especially those not based in the UK. It will however make it clear to students that they are buying from criminal enterprises.

It is understandable that the previous government in Westminster said it wanted to see all non-legislative options explored before looking at criminalisation. The extension of criminal law should never be undertaken lightly. QAA has been campaigning against essay mills in the media, we’ve successfully persuaded online platforms to refuse business, and we’ve published guidance to help institutions. However, we can only achieve so much so long as essay mills operate within the law.

Professor Michael Draper at Swansea University has drafted a proposed offence that overcomes issues such as the need to prove intent, overcoming essay mills use of disclaimers. We believe this model works, and this year will redouble our efforts to persuade UK governments that the time for criminalisation has come.

2 responses to “Wicked problems: what’s the future of assessment?

  1. As a member of the Council of Europe’s working group on education fraud, and counter-signatory to Michael Draper’s letter to SoS, along with Lord Storey and others, I fully support the introduction of legislation across the UK. Armenia tacked it through controls on advertising, Montenegro through a specific law on academic integrity: there are different options. I think the more HEIs press their local MPs on this subject, the better

  2. I agree, Claire Taylor. Standardisation in the name of quality assurance is out of control! Why would we expect the number, size and type of assessment to be the same across disciplines? I agree with you that this does not prepare students for life and nor does it make their HE journey enlightening, interesting or captivating.

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