Give grades at the start of the semester and not at the end?

Just to try and liven things up a bit and as an experiment, I thought of starting the semester with one of my university classes by giving all students an 85/100 High Distinction right of the bat. I am eternally worried and unimpressed with grading at university level. Is there a way around it?  They then have to defend it and have to sign a learning contract saying how they will make up missed work to maintain their 85. The mark could go up or down from 85. Is this feasible? We are supposed to be concentrating on the learning process and not grades, so I have no particular attachment to grades per se. I had previously discussed the idea with students last semester and they were intrigued,but unsure, as I was. While I was meditating on this, I read one of Susan Brookhart’s books on assessment:

Thoroughly impressed, I dashed off an email to her seeking her opinion on my idea. She replied that there are no shortcuts around this. The best way to manage grades is to make sure assignments/assessments are properly matched to intended learning outcomes and make sure that you have clearly specified criteria for good quality work and expected performance levels, and then grade. Giving students a high mark from the start which they must defend, while nicely utopian, assumes too much: they may know a lot of stuff already, but giving them a high mark right from the start, which they must defend, is not a valid measure of where they are out. In addition, students will be at different stages of knowledge. High Distinction is okay as a statement of where you want them to be at the end of the semester, but the best way to achieve that is to provide opportunities for them to learn and assessments that reflect that. Making up for missing work doesn’t test for quality, it’s just making up for missing work – it misconstrues the process.

Susan went on to say that some university professors use learning contracts linked to level of achievement students want to attain. This can build in student responsibility and commitment: “for example, to get an A you might need to do a complex, advanced task at an acceptable level, while to get a B you might do a less complex task at an acceptable level, but it still should be about work quality that indicates learning quality. Not about contracting for points and for turning in work”.

Oh well, back to the drawing board. Still, it’s good to test these ideas with experts like Susan. Thanks Sue!

Words of caution – Laura Czerniewicz on MOOCs

In this Slideshare critique of MOOCs, Laura Czerniewicz, who works in the South African public university system, draws attention to what is driving the development of MOOCs and what the dangers are. She also points out how they might be usefully employed. She raises important ethical issues around monetisation (investment costs and returns), access (equity), quality (assurance of), the ethics of big data collection in relation to student privacy, and a new academic division of labour. MOOCs create an ethical dilemma/tension between the production and dissemination of knowledge as public and social goods, versus venture capitalists who have invested in MOOC production via private companies like Coursera and who are seeking an eventual payoff.

While Czerniewicz sees MOOCS as currently the solution to a problem – providing free university teaching to already highly qualified professionals (85% of MOOC students already have a degree), the MOOC end game is usually high enrolments and ways to monetise that, given their high production costs. MOOCs also raise the spectre of another form of neocolonialism: their production and consumption is predominantly in OECD countries and may lead to a new form of unidirectional knowledge flow and financial tribute.

Czerniewicz highlights the manoeuvres of MOOC developers to overcome the issues of quality and validation for their product: the development of emerging forms of certification, such as digital badges, certificates of achievement (verified and non-verified), and “statements of attainment” issued by some universities themselves. One of the marketing ploys is the promise of “rock-star” presenters/teachers, while tuition labour costs are outsourced.

Online education has provided a much larger share (now 37%) of the education market for private providers. The advantages of MOOCs for these private providers is that they relieve them of potential conflict with academics around labour and union issues and massively reduce the costs of physical infrastructure. It’s not hard to see their attraction for cash-strapped universities.

However, in spite her concerns, and to be balanced, Czerniewicz does acknowledge the potential for local (country, regional) MOOC initiatives in education, such as providing “gateway skills” (introduction to or bridging pathways to higher education for high school students, for example), or “graduate literacies” for UG students (something provided, for example, by Stanford in collaboration with Coursera), or even professional development for people not seeking or needing the credentialism of institutions of higher education like universities.

For further reading, see:
Czerniewicz, L; Deacon, A; Small, J and Walji, S (2014) Developing world MOOCs: A curriculum view of the MOOC landscape, in Journal of Global Literacies, Technologies, and Emerging Pedagogies (JOGLTEP) Vol. 2, Issue 3, July 2014, Michigan State, available at

“Meet the New, Self-Appointed MOOC Accreditors: Google and Instagram”

This blog from The Chronicle of Higher Education is a fascinating development: private MOOC providers get private companies to help design courses whose qualifications they will then recognise. Innovative or just sneaky and hard-nosed business thinking? So far they are talking about just free courses, but you know where this is going, right?