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Accurate student assessment can reinforce inequality

Omar Al-Ubaydli

Published: Updated:

COVID-19 has ensured that educational institutions can continue to offer hybrid learning after the pandemic’s conclusion. Among the benefits are greater inclusion, as geographical remoteness and physical challenges no longer prevent prospective students from learning. However, the importance of assessment poses a risk to these gains, as the best assessment methods are inherently exclusionary.

While online education has existed for over two decades, many of the courses taught in the world’s elite institutions have been inaccessible to remote learners due to a lack of investment: the classrooms do not have adequate video conferencing hardware, the supporting software is sub-par, and the professors themselves lack the skills to teach a combination of in-person and remote students.

The pandemic forced educational institutions to make the requisite investments as a matter of financial primacy, as it was the only way to secure sufficient enrollment. Consequently, even the most technophobic white-haired professors can operate a Zoom meeting.

Hybrid teaching is not just convenient for the preexisting study body who can now join class even if they feel ill or have to travel during the semester. It allows a wide range of people who were previously unable to participate to now enter the virtual classroom. People who are themselves infirm or who tend to the infirm; those with young children; those who live far away from a suitable educational institution, and many other previously excluded groups now have the opportunity to learn alongside their intellectual peers without feeling as though they are getting a second-rate degree.

The sensation of liberation faces a hard reality check, however, when it comes to the issue of assessment. Evaluating what a student has learned serves two important purposes. First, it is part of the learning process for the student: having to synthesize material when preparing for an exam is an excellent pedagogical tool for holistically absorbing the curriculum.

Second, external stakeholders, such as parents, employers, and teachers of more advanced courses, need objective confirmation of a student’s abilities.

 Hybrid teaching allows a wide range of people who were previously unable to participate in curricula to now enter the virtual classroom. (File photo: Unsplash)
Hybrid teaching allows a wide range of people who were previously unable to participate in curricula to now enter the virtual classroom. (File photo: Unsplash)

The issue with assessment in a hybrid environment is that there appears to be a genuine tradeoff between inclusivity and accuracy. Loosely speaking, there are three broad strategies for assessment in a hybrid teaching environment. The first is assigning people take-home tasks, such as writing a paper. The second is requiring students to come to a test center to take a proctored exam. The third is to let people take an exam in their homes via artificial intelligence software that uses a camera and computer to proctor them, known as a lockdown browser.

These tradeoffs were revealed when my colleagues and I surveyed 3,000 students in Bahrain, the UK, and the US regarding their views about the effectiveness and fairness of these three options. The most inclusive choice is take-home assignments, but such tasks open the door for flagrant cheating, especially by enlisting the assistance of ghost writers who know how to evade anti-plagiarism software such as Turnitin.

Lockdown browsers are fairer in the sense that it is harder to cheat than in a take-home exam, but they can be highly intrusive and have been shown to have some inadvertently racist algorithms, such as face-detection software that performs poorly for non-whites. Moreover, those with means can invest in sophisticated gadgetry that circumvents the largely rudimentary security features of lockdown browsers, and they are far more likely than low-income students to have access to a stable, high-speed internet connection that will ensure that they don’t suffer a soul-crushing disconnection during an exam.

The students we surveyed generally agreed that test centers were the most effective and fair option for assessment, but using them considerably undermines the inclusivity advantages of hybrid teaching. Those who are housebound due to an ailing parent or who can’t afford transportation may find themselves incapable of certifying their learning.

Zealous proponents of inclusivity have made the radical proposal of simply doing away with assessment, but this is a naïve strategy that ultimately represents killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. While the aristocrats of 15th century England may have perceived an Oxford University education as an enjoyable intellectual voyage worth doing for its own sake, the primary reason that modern education is so popular is that it helps people get skills that are valued in the labor market.

Getting rid of assessment destroys that link thereby devaluing students’ educational investments. Moreover, it would actually exacerbate discrimination, as employers would no longer be able to use objective educational credentials as a way of overcoming bigoted hiring practices. In a world with no grades, the boss looking to hire their imbecilic offspring instead of the underrepresented minority applying for the same position will receive no pushback, since the latter cannot advertise their superior educational attainment.

Educators must realize that there are no one-size-fits-all assessment options, and should continue to exhibit the flexibility they showed during the pandemic to extract the maximum value from hybrid learning. However, the integrity of assessment must always be the priority, as inclusive assessments that allow for rampant cheating will create nothing more than worthless pieces of papers called degrees.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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