February 10th, 2012

"Open Network" Tests

I just recently ran across Jonathan Martin’s posts regarding the “Open Internet” tests that he’s piloting with some teachers at St. Gregory School in Arizona, and I’m just loving the thinking. In November of 2010, he first asked:

We know that content memorization must no longer [be] the goal of our learning programs; what our goal must be is that students can make the most sense of the voluminous and fast-accelerating quantity of information which will forever be at their fingertips, and about which they must be able to think critically, to select, to evaluate, to apply, and to amend as they tackle challenging problems. So why shouldn’t our school-tests evaluate our students ability to do exactly this?  Why not structure tests appropriately, and then invite and welcome (and require) our students to use their computers on their tests? Isn’t this real world, and real life, preparation?

A couple of months ago, Jonathan wrote about a chemistry teacher at his school who was letting students use the Internet to take tests, (check out the embedded annotated example test) and he added this piece of reasoning:

Our students are preparing to work in professional environments where they must tackle and resolve complex problems, and we know that in nearly every envisionable such environment, they will have laptops or other mobile, web-connected, digital tools to address those problems.   Let’s assess their  understanding in situations parallel to those for which we are preparing them.

Then, this week, Jonathan added a third post that documents the experiences of a Theater History teacher, and he refined his pitch for “Open Internet” tests even more:

I think this assessment approach is a highly valuable one for promoting deeper learning, information literacy, and analytic and organizational skill development over memorization and regurgitation.  I think that many tests in most subjects can be, with the right intentional design, “open internet” and that they will be the better for it.  Some argue against tests altogether, but I still love a good test, and taking the time to think through as a teacher what kind of questions can we ask which will continue to be meaningful assessments when Google and Wolfram Alpha are available is, I think, a highly productive exercise, and, of course, will generate a more authentic assessment experience far more well aligned with the real world of professionals for which we are preparing our students.

The student feedback about the test structure included in the post is instructive. For instance:

I liked this test because it allowed me to show what I know. With multiple choice tests, that’s not always obvious (it could just be a lucky guess or limited knowledge of something).  Short answer takes too much time and also isn’t the best option for full explanations. I also liked how we had some input on the test, because not only were the suggested questions helpful for studying, but it also forced me to think about the test long before the morning of.

Read the rest.

Now a couple of quick points and then a push. First, as both teachers that are featured in the posts point out, the thinking is a bit different when creating tests like these. For instance:

In his Chemistry class, Dr. Morris recognizes how radically the questions he asks must change if he knows his test-takers have access to the internet, Wolfram-Alpha, and a myriad of other sources on chemical information.   His questions must require his students to genuinely sort out what information they require, get that information, evaluate it, and then apply it to solve his now much more complex and rich questions. This is assessment for genuine understanding, not assessment of recall and regurgitation. It is far [more] likely to be assessment of lasting understanding and future applicability than typical memorization based testing.

Second, while the idea of going online to find answers may strike some as “cheating” and/or making things too easy, many of our students will find this more difficult:

This test does not have multiple choice or terms that we had to define. This is more about testing your ability to find resources that you need, write a quality essay under pressure. I find I like the multiple choice and defining terms better.

And now the push. What if we didn’t just make it about giving kids access to Google and Wolfram Alpha for test taking? What if we invited them to use their networks of peer learners and teachers as well? 

Awesome.

I know that this goes back to the “what do we really need to make sure kids are carrying around in their heads?” debate, and it speaks to the fact that not every child is going to have access to the Web at every moment (at least not in the near term.) But just think of all of the new ways we would be able to prepare kids to answer the questions that they will be asked in their real lives if we gave them a handful of “Open Network” tests before they graduated. I mean, why wouldn’t we be doing this?

And if you really want to go there, why wouldn’t we let kids access their networks for the Common Core assessments that are coming down the pike? 

Curious to hear your thoughts. Anyone else out there moving in this direction? Why or why not?

(Note: Jonathan will be presenting on these ideas at the NAIS conference next month in Seattle.) 

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