«Οὐ γὰρ ὡς ἀγγεῖον ὁ νοῦς ἀποπληρώσεως,
ἀλλ´ ὑπεκκαύματος μόνον ὥσπερ ὕλη δεῖται,
ὁρμὴν ἐμποιοῦντος εὑρετικὴν καὶ ὄρεξιν ἐπὶ τὴν ἀλήθειαν.»
– Πλούταρχος (Περὶ τοῦ ἀκούειν, 18γ)
“The mind is not like a vessel that needs filling,
but rather like wood it only requires kindling,
motivating one towards searching and the desire for truth.”
– Plutarch (On Listening, 18c)
In the book “The Rhythm of Life” (Kelly 2004, p. 80), the author mentions a quote, allegedly by Albert Einstein, saying: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid“. Regardless of who made this statement, it remains a humorous remark relevant to a large number of modern day teachers and assessments which consider fairness as a synonym of uniformity.
I work and teach in a field where computers are part of our everyday life. Computer Science students are expected to either own a computer themselves, or use the computers offered by the university instead. One might expect that all CS students are either extremely fond of, or accustomed to, using computers – but that is not always the case.
Although in modern times technology is all around us and almost everyone carries a mini-computer hidden inside their mobile phones, I have found that a significant number of students do not enjoy spending a lot of time in front of a computer screen unless they have to. I constantly preach ergonomically-correct computer use to my students, asking them to take small breaks away from the monitor every hour. However, when they are outside the classroom it is up to them to practise proper time management, so that they can have enough time to complete their coursework while avoiding straining themselves. The modern definition of the word “classroom”, though, keeps changing every day.
When teaching Computer Science, all the learning material you create for the students is, by default, digital. Be it visual presentations, source codes, or application screenshots and software examples, everything I ever had to give to my students could be easily uploaded onto a networked computer system and shared with them immediately. This may not apply to all professions out there but even the ones that are less technology-oriented can still digitise a video recording of each lecture and share it with anyone interested in learning at least the general concepts. Since hands-on practice is extremely important for some of the more practical professions, local workshops may be organised for people to practise and apply their understanding of the theoretical knowledge they acquired online.
It is my belief that when educating students we have to focus on the needs of each learner, rather than try to find the “golden mean” for a diverse crowd, otherwise some are always bound to be left out and eventually fail or give up because their specific personal needs were not addressed. I try to tackle this issue through my own work by providing students with personalised feedback comments and by offering additional references whenever necessary, but since I am part of the current educational system I occasionally feel like I am not doing enough to fully achieve a truly personalised approach.
This opinion of personalised learning is further supported by the work of Michael Fullan. He suggests we must first focus on building what he calls a “collective capacity”, which is when groups get better via interaction, by creating professional learning communities and then using the available technology in a strategic way in order to address many of the challenges that may arise. He also affirms that technology can help us ensure more effective data collection, facilitate user communication, provide content diversity and also help institutions meet the specific needs and preferences of their students.
Jennifer Waldeck researched what students perceive as “personalised learning” (Waldeck 2007, Waldeck 2006), but mainly focused on the teacher figure as a central point (Verpoorten et al. 2009). In contrary to this, it has been argued that true personalised learning is focused on what the student wants, not what the instructor suggests, as opposed to what the U.S. Department of Education stated in its National Education Technology Plan.
Even if the semantic definitions of the exact terms are still to be decided upon (e.g. personalisation, individualisation, differentiation), it is gradually becoming obvious that we need a more personalised educational approach for each student in order to achieve close to 100% successful knowledge communication. This can be accomplished by using high-tech means like video tutorials, podcasts or even online peer-collaboration.
By recording many different teachers explaining the same concept and then letting the student decide which explanation fits his/her understanding best, we can offer humanity a broader spectrum of available processed information. This can lead not only to an improved understanding of the cosmos, but also to the merging of all this personalised – therefore simplified – knowledge, thus providing students with the combined wisdom of all their teachers.
In order for all this to happen, students must first realise how broad (or narrow) their understanding of the taught material is up to that point in time; and that is where “tests” come in the picture. Be it mini or major tests, quizzes and examinations have been used for centuries by various educational systems not only as proof to the teacher that a student understands the taught material, but also as a “reality check” mechanism for students to realise the gaps in their own personal knowledge base.
Tests in Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) systems like, for example, Coursera, edX and Udacity, generally last longer than usually needed, in order for students to overcome any technical issues like Internet disconnections or hardware failures. This extra time also helps students with specific learning disabilities, like dyslexia, to overcome any problems they may have with the overall testing experience. As I mentioned in the beginning, however, there are certain students who are not fond of focusing on a computer screen for too long, which makes computer-based testing for them quite difficult
Unfortunately, not all modern testing systems still support an “offline” (i.e. handwritten) version. Computer-based exams have proven to be especially convenient for many universities, colleges or other teaching and testing organisations, so a large majority of those no longer offer a paper version of tests (under typical circumstances), usually pleading technological or ecological reasons. This can affect the performance of students who may know the correct answers but fail to submit them on time due to slow typing skills or eye fatigue from constantly staring at the screen (Brown and Augustine 2001).
Alternative versions of tests still exist for students with documented disabilities and quite a few methods have been thoroughly researched in the past decade (Dolan et al. 2005) like pen tablets, text-to-speech, interfacing with refreshable Braille displays, etc. The problem I have noticed, however, is that students who are not considered to have a disability may still experience issues with computer-based testing but, instead of pursuing a disability claim and requesting a different version of the test, they just suffer in silence, blaming themselves for failing.
It is my opinion that, until all students in the world learn how to type (like they learn how to write) and all the screens in the world become as relaxing as modern white-screen e-book readers, when it comes to time-critical assessments, paper-based testing should be available as an alternative for anyone to use – with or without a registered disability. In this way, tests will assure fairness and equality by appreciating diversity, thus recognising that we can all be equal without having to be exactly the same.
Brown, P. J. and Augustine, A. (2001) ‘Screen Reading Software as an Assessment Accommodation: Implications for Instruction and Student Performance’.
Dolan, R., Hall, T. E., Banerjee, M., Chun, E. and Strangman, N. (2005) ‘Applying principles of universal design to test delivery: The effect of computer-based read-aloud on test performance of high school students with learning disabilities’, The Journal of Technology, Learning and Assessment, 3(7).
Kelly, M. (2004) The rhythm of life: Living every day with passion and purpose, Fireside.
Verpoorten, D., Glahn, C., Kravcik, M., Ternier, S. and Specht, M. (2009) ‘Personalisation of learning in virtual learning environments’, Learning in the Synergy of Multiple Disciplines, 52-66.
Waldeck, J. H. (2006) ‘What Does “Personalized Education” Mean for Faculty, and How Should It Serve Our Students?’, Communication Education, 55(3), 345-352.
Waldeck, J. H. (2007) ‘Answering the question: Student perceptions of personalized education and the construct’s relationship to learning outcomes’, Communication Education, 56(4), 409-432.