BY DR DAVID CL LIM (david@oum.edu.my)


Dr David Lim (DL): In this May 2017 semester, new assessment formats and structures are being introduced to new learners. Please could you clarify what this entails?

YBhg Prof Dato’ Dr Mansor Fadzil (DM): Thank you, Dr David, for the opportunity to share with our learners, academics and stakeholders the various teaching-learning enhancements we are rolling out in stages.

In this May 2017 semester, we are piloting a new way of assessing learning. The pilot project involves a set of eighteen courses which new learners will be taking in their very first semester with us. Here’s the premise for the move.

Research done in the context of open and distance learning [ODL] institutions such as OUM shows that learners stand to benefit tremendously from a more pastoral approach to assessment. This is true for all ODL learners but especially for those who have just entered their first semester of study and require scaffolding measures to ease them back into formal education. Here we need to bear in mind that a majority of our ODL learners are working adults for whom the academic culture of learning is new.

One way of providing this pastoral care is through the provision of specially-tuned assessment formats and structures that are likely to produce positive washback effects. In their first-semester, if not in their first-year, new learners should rightly be given the kind of assessment that helps orientate them to the university culture of knowledge and learning. The assessment employed should also help them to engage more closely with what they have to learn, and to learn such self-regulatory behaviours as seeking help to learn and learning alongside peers.

With this end in mind, it simply would not do to expect learners to complete, for each course they are taking, the conventional written assignment to be submitted late in the semester, topped by a final summative sit-down exam. In this scenario, the formative and collaborative aspect is entirely eclipsed by the summative. Feedback on written assignments comes rather belatedly, near or after the final exams, which is a bit too late to meaningfully help learners learn and improve.

Based on ODL research, as well as feedback from consultation with our learners and academics, we are piloting a new way of assessing learning. In place of the one conventional essay-type assignment to be submitted towards the semester’s end, we are introducing a series of smaller tasks to be completed entirely online, phased at regular intervals over a semester, and given immediate feedback. This will go a long way in helping learners to check and take charge of their learning progress.

DL: Does this mean that the conventional essay-type assignment is being phased out? Also, what kind of new smaller online tasks are being introduced?

DM: There is still a place for the essay-type assignment, especially for the more advanced courses that require it. Generally, where appropriate, in place of the essay-type assignment, we are introducing, firstly, a series of short-response questions for each topic in the courses involved in the pilot project.

Subject-matter related, these short-response questions are accessible online, enabling learners to respond to them online, too, within a set time-window. Not only will this type of assessment help learners pace their learning consistently, week after week over a semester, it will also provide them with invaluable feedback on whether they are on-track – instantly, at that. Responses to the online questions accrue marks and cumulatively contribute to the learner’s overall grades for the courses involved.

Of course, the short-response question type of assessment may not be suitable for some courses. For these exceptions, exercises in various appropriate forms will be introduced instead. One example of an exercise is the actual speaking test required for a course like OUMH 1303 [English for Oral Communication].

DL: The change from having one big chunk of written assignment due at the end of the semester to micro tasks with instant feedback phased over a semester sounds much more learner-friendly. Aside from short-response questions and exercises as you explained them, what new assessment formats are being introduced?

DM: The other new component under continuous assessment is the problem-based learning activity with follow-up assessment that we are introducing simultaneously in this May semester.

The thing to highlight about this component, firstly, is that it builds on what learners have mastered and gauged via the aforementioned short-response questions. Secondly, it is effectively an exercise in collaborative online learning.

Generally, a problem-based learning activity begins with a content-related ‘problem’ formulated by the academic course leader and posed online by the system administrators of myINSPIRE, OUM’s learning platform. The ‘problem’ serves to trigger learners’ intellectual curiosity, prompting them to share and compare responses and experiences, and to untangle the knots, so to speak, by way of negotiating and co-constructing knowledge. The social and cognitive online activities that take place here are facilitated by the teaching presence of the tutor.

Once the educational transaction of collaborative online learning reaches a sufficiently rich level, learners will proceed to assess their mastery individually. This will be done in online mode through a set of high-level multiple-choice questions [MCQs] revolving around the ‘problem’ previously discussed.

As with the component comprising short-response questions, the online MCQ component flowing from the problem-based activity has an embedded instant-feedback mechanism.

DL: Will the MCQs flowing from the problem-based learning activity for the involved courses contribute marks towards the learner’s overall grade?

DM: Yes. Generally, the MCQ component of continuous assessment for the courses in question will contribute thirty percent to the overall grade. The same weighting is given to the previously-mentioned series of short-response questions. What this means is that, structurally, we are now giving the continuous assessment portion a heavier weighting than before. Now it stands at sixty percent, while the final examination will carry forty percent.

DL: I understand that these enhancements you have just shared is part of your larger vision for OUM which borrows something from the educational model of ‘community of inquiry’ conceived by Garrison, Anderson and Archer. Please could you tell us more about that?

DM: The ‘community of inquiry’ model is certainly something we are keenly pursuing at OUM. I have sought the support of our Vice President (Academic), Prof Dr Sha’ari Abd Hamid, to systematise its introduction to our teaching-learning process. We draw from the model for good reasons. It provides a sensible, if not prudently informed way of conceiving successful learning in higher education. And it points to how we could get there.

As premise, the model conceives of learning as a cognitive act undertaken by the individual learner. But it does not reduce learning to being dependent entirely on the learner alone. The learner still needs to study the given learning materials on his or her own for a significant number of hours over a semester. Studying on one’s own is certainly essential and rewarding. But it has its limitations.

This is where Garrison et al. come in. They acknowledge the importance of self-study but they also recognise that successful learning is invariably collaborative; it takes place socially, within a ‘community of inquiry’, through sustained communication. This is especially relevant to the ODL setting. Why? Because the social aspect or presence of learning is precisely that which supports learning, otherwise known as ‘cognitive presence’ in the parlance of Garrison et al. Conceptually, ‘cognitive presence’ is “a vital element in critical thinking, a process and outcome” that we want our learners to realise.

The other element in the model which supports cognitive presence is ‘teaching presence’. Contrary to conventional wisdom, teaching presence in the Garrison et al. model refers not simply to the designated teacher but rather to any participant in the community of inquiry. It could be the learner’s peer or peers, as the case may be, although the primary responsibility of teaching rests on the shoulders of the teacher or the tutor in our case. In this scheme of things, the functions of the teacher or tutor are to design and develop learning activities, and to facilitate higher-order learning through the exercise of leadership.

In a nutshell, then, the three core elements or presences – social, teaching and cognitive – need to interact within a community of inquiry in order to yield for the learner a worthwhile educational experience.

DL: The ‘community of inquiry’ model as you’ve explained it is very explicit about the precise roles it assigns to each stakeholder. Aspects of the model seem familiar and appear to me have been long been embedded in our existing teaching-learning process, no?

DM: The Garrison et al. model and our long-standing practice do overlap to a degree. Both conceive of successful learning not as an unpredictable outcome of chance but as a series of planned activities designed to encourage information exchange, focused discussion, peer collaboration, community building, and so on – all with the ultimate aim of promoting higher-order learning.

With the ‘community of inquiry’ model coming to the forefront of our practice, our operational challenge now is to entrench the culture of learning conceived by the model. In the coming semesters, OUM will be conducting extensive briefings and training, as well as disseminating information on the ‘community of inquiry’ approach we are taking. It is crucial that all the stakeholders are kept abreast of these developments which I’ve spoken about and are made fully aware of the roles they ought to play and the support we will be providing to help them achieve the desired educational experience.

DL: Thank you, Dato’, for taking the time to share your thoughts with the readers of inspired.