Testing times for Unisa

(Picture: Twitter)
(Picture: Twitter)

This is a certificate in mediocrity

Is allowing struggling students to pass a short cut to success?

When students struggle, for whatever reason, the least sensible response from an institution, least of all an academic one, is to not caucus about how to get them to actually pass their exams. The amulets of this so called intervention by the country’s biggest university, Unisa (which announced its take-home exams), were nothing less than a smoke screen to let these failed – not struggling – students pass exams they actually failed. It is curious how descriptions are so diplomatically crafted to call students “struggling”.

The dangerous message goes further in Unisa’s phrase: “These intervention methods [are intended] … to pass some [failed] modules.” This lifeline is concocted as an “intervention method” when it stands out starkly as an inducement to students to explore their “resourcefulness” to pass their failed modules in a supposed 24-hour miracle.

What happens to an electrical engineering student who fails his “core subjects” but passes his other “secondary” subjects? According to Unisa, the failed student is “required to research some subjects and consult in others” in the take-home exam in order to pass. The catch here is in “consulting others”. The popular TV quiz show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? comes to mind, where a contestant is given three lifelines when encountering difficult questions, including “phone a friend”. Unisa’s so-called interventions may be nothing more than a phone-a-friend façade.

For sure, I would not want such an electrical engineer to wire my house, let alone see him elevated to building and managing a national electrical grid, least of all one for troubled power utility Eskom. In our increasing culture of fraud and plagiarism, the notion of “research in 24 hours” and “consulting others” in exams in a world of rampant academic fraud and plagiarism is simply irresponsible.

It may appear condescending to dare challenge an institution as long established, if not necessarily leading, as Unisa on “student success”. That said, if an institution cares to address the shortcomings of a student, the first intervention is not to drop bona fide approaches in favour of dubious ones. A caring institution would instead consider, among other things, establishing a host of strategies to equip students to pass their exams and acquire credentials with integrity. For instance, supplemental exams and repeating modules already exist as options.

To be more direct, unleashing half-baked doctors, engineers, planners, nurses and teachers on society crosses a threshold of recklessness. It is why professional bodies must independently and vigorously exercise their roles as gatekeepers in an increasingly loose world of academic callousness and duplicity.

Diploma mills vs diploma grinders

We live in a world of diploma mills. Even more so, we live in a country with individuals endowed with the audacity to take institutions to court when they are outed for their plagiarised credentials. The power of public opinion seems to have been tempered to such an extent that fraudsters roam around publicly¬and unashamedly.

The take-home exam concept, as conceived by Unisa, may be described as an act of “diploma grinding”. Even worse, the demons of diploma mills may be exorcised with less effort than those of diploma grinders.

Unleashing mediocrity

Unisa takes pride in enrolling more than 300 000 students from South Africa, the rest of the continent and beyond – with a regional office, for instance, in Addis Ababa.

There is thus a considerable need to confront this emerging and distracting menace in the interest of not only South Africa, but the continent and beyond.

Unisa’s take-home exam is a bad joke in the academic marketplace that should not be ignored – but forcefully euthanised. Unisa must be persuaded it is unleashing mediocrity not only on South Africa, but on others beyond its borders. Furthermore, this academic folly may have direct reputational implications for South African institutions as a whole.

In an ideal world of high integrity, a sense of duty and affluence, take-home exams are often used in a limited way – but not to circumvent the valley of failure. In a country such as South Africa, where as much as 60% of students are food insecure, experience hunger and do whatever it takes to get food – even turning to prostitution – expecting that level of integrity may be way too unrealistic. This inherent South African – more so African – reality dictates the immediate abandonment of self-serving but disastrous academic malfeasance.

Teferra is professor of higher education, and leader of higher education training and development at the University of KwaZulu-Natal

This is academic innovation

Over the past few weeks, the so-called Unisa take-home exams have elicited considerable debate. The discussion generally ignores the wider context of the issue, namely a Unisa Council-approved policy to assist students who, after their summative assessments, have only one or two modules outstanding to complete their qualifications.

These students are involved in a specific teaching and learning intervention, after which they are assessed again. The policy specifically provides that the students may not simply be referred to another venue-based assessment, but should be given an alternative assessment deemed appropriate by the academic department.

The practice embodies a student-centred approach and allows them to qualify before the next formal assessment period. For some reason, the debate focused only on take-home examinations, which is only one example of a range of alternative assessments. Other examples widely used in higher education institutions include oral examinations or portfolios.

Given the academic context of the debate, it is surprising that theories of assessment were never raised. Summative assessments through venue-based examinations are still the norm, so one should perhaps not be surprised that concepts such as “assessment for learning” in contrast with “assessment of learning” were not mentioned.

Renowned scholar David Carless provides some insight into developments in this field. He discusses many of the issues raised in the assessment debates, for example, fairness, cheating and plagiarism, and assessment across disciplines in an insightful and rational manner. The references to literature in his 2015 book Excellence in University Assessment attest to the depth of scholarship in assessment.

Carless presents a case for “learning-oriented assessment”, which is defined as “assessment which places a primary focus on improving student learning, including summative assessment, which stimulates appropriate student engagement”. The basic premise is that all assessment should advance student learning. Learning-oriented assessment identifies appropriate tasks, develops evaluative expertise and gives particular attention to student engagement, with feedback.

Therefore, take-home examinations must be evaluated in the context of a scholarship dealing with assessment. The first point that has to be made is that this is not something new. John Richardson did a literature review of research over the past 40 years on coursework assessments – another term used for take-home exams.

He ventures the opinion that the increased use of assessment by coursework has generally been seen as uncontentious, with only isolated voices expressing concerns regarding possible risks to academic standards.

The exaggerated response to the notion of take-home exams has failed to evaluate this type of assessment in the broader context of the scholarship of assessment and ignores other pertinent matters, some of which are highlighted below.

There is a dire need to bring innovation in assessment practices to our institutions to ensure that the scholarship of teaching and learning advances. In this regard, the Unisa project aimed at reviewing and reconfiguring Unisa assessment systems and practices is ground-breaking. It acknowledges that there is a need to engage academics on assessment practices and create an environment where innovation in assessment can flourish. It is recognised that there will be some initial opposition to change, but curriculum transformation cannot happen in an environment where we refuse to engage with new developments and simply accept that (sometimes bad) past practices always chart the way forward.

One of the most important issues in an assessment context, and especially in the context of summative assessment, is that of quality assurance, dealing with issues of reliability and distribution of grades and academic integrity. In a system where there is a preoccupation with assessing learning, the perception is created that any assessment that is not summative in nature and invigilated is invalid.

Such an approach ignores the importance of a learning-oriented one and, according to Carless, also often implies a lack of trust in academic staff. If it is accepted that academics are in the final instance responsible for quality, they must be trusted to see that this is done.

This is also why it is accepted that the decision about whether a take-home exam is an appropriate form of assessment in a particular discipline remains an academic one. In instances where take-home assessments are used, appropriate quality-assurance measures are vital.

It must be acknowledged that transformation in the South African higher education sector has been on the agenda for some time. We sometimes forget that academic transformation is integral to this process. A subjective accusation of a reputable institution acting in bad faith, being a diploma grinder and unleashing mediocrity is both uninformed and offensive.

It shows a preoccupation with assessment of, and not for, learning, and a lack of understanding of the developing scholarship of assessment. It ignores the urgent need for learning-oriented assessment and does not contribute to a scholarship of teaching and learning. It is time to move on.

Havenga is the executive director in the office of the vice-chancellor at Unisa

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