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  • Writer's pictureKane Murdoch

I have a cunning plan

Evening all,

This plan is as cunning as a fox that's just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University.

We all know that, despite the valiant attempts of our colleagues in marketing, things are a bit shit in higher ed. Staff feel abused and overused, wages being thieved, cheating rampant and barely checked. And then comes the game changer of generative AI. And those who are busy scoffing and think it's hype, you'll work it out soon enough.

All I see since the release of ChatGPT is variations on panic, and business as usual. And now the workload involved in policing generative AI is becoming clear. As predicted, academics are 'seeing' AI written work everywhere, not least with the assistance of the Turnitin random number generator. And unless you're prepared to "prosecute" solely on that number, get ready to be slugged with more work. Aside from everything else, asking for more blood from this particular stone seems totally untenable.

What I'm not seeing a lot of is leadership. It's obvious, to me at least, that as we continue as we are, forever in doubt about our students, the public will begin to share our doubts. And every doubt is another shard of sandstone flying off the Quadrangle. Does anyone think higher ed can continue like this forever? Not me.

So let me make a few, hopefully logical, suggestions. Our basic problem, as discussed in the winners and losers post here, we have a current tension between research and teaching. No bucks=bad 😞.

So we either have to earn more, or save some. As I'm currently lacking the ability to influence or bully governments into solving our problems with the flap of a chequebook, let me think out loud 📢 and make suggestions.

When I think about some of the underlying factors with assessment, one of them is that there's too much of it! Students taking four subjects in a semester can do up to sixty assessments. None of those 4 subjects truly coordinates with any of the other three, and a student is subject to an unremitting grinder of pressure for 3 months. Meanwhile, we solemnly assure ourselves that the learning our governance tells us is happening is happening. Bullshit. Putting aside the sea of cheating where learning is objectively not happening, do we think that an ordinary student gains a love of learning from uni, or develops a growing desire for it to be over? Yeah that's what I thought. For more, take a look at the tweet below, and the Reddit thread linked. Scoffing and continuing with the "terrible students tsk tsk" mindset is getting us nowhere. Bearing in mind that students can also be self-serving (perish the thought!), they also have truth bombs to drop. We should catch them.

Considering that what we are currently doing might be robbing students of a love of learning, as well as turning staff into human roadkill, I reckon there's more than enough reason to move to something better. So while I'm going with this, let's go utopian, let's go hog wild.

Consider this. No marked assessments in the first year of a degree. Feedback only. Then a suite of integrated assessments that tests students in things they've learned during the past year. No more discrete chunks- think about how what is taught in one subject relates to another. Assessments designed to cater to the diversity and variety of our students, allowing-nay- encouraging them to show us their best self. A competence standard rather than an utterly pointless mark and grade. Automatic resit if a fail, with feedback. If fail again, come back around, learn again. Learn better. Of course that's simple as written, but as far as I can tell, the basic fact is that we're doing is not only failing, but has actually failed. Just as a cherry on the cake, take a look at this from Tricia Bertram Gallant of the University of California (quoting friend of the blog Guy Curtis of Uni of Western Australia). Nothing in my experience tells me those numbers are false.

So, I'm suggesting that we need to start making short, medium and long term plans to move to a radically different form of learning and teaching. Pretend and extend will only go on so long.

So, I hear the screams, how do you pay for this you dingbat? Let me give you one example of something we do that is both pretty stupid, but also very expensive. Although in your neck of woods it may be called something else, extensions and resits for assignments, exams and other assessments are known here as "special consideration." That is, every student is expected to submit at the same deadline, and special consideration is the process for formally extending that deadline. Students have to navigate an often-Kafka-esque bureaucracy in order to be awarded with these extensions. Every time I ask why do we have that system, I usually get back "because it wouldn't be fair, they will gain an advantage." That is, the student next to them doesn't get the extra day or whatever, and might therefore get two marks less. But do we assess "advantage" in any other way? Do we give poorer students a boost in marks because they have to work 40 hours a week to be at uni? Of course we don't. Do we penalise students with rich parents who don't have to work at all? Don't be stupid, Kane. So, when pressed, no one seems to be able to come up with a rationale for special consideration. And such systems cost a ton of money- staff, systems, energies. All so we can deny a student an extra day to show us their best. Don't get me started on appeals of these decisions, there's more time, money, and energy pouring down the drain. There are lots of examples of things we do which could change in the near term, providing a better student experience and making our own lives easier that, if properly deployed, could begin the remaking of a new assessment system while continuing to teach students in the near term.

Brief edit: I came across this thread after posting and thought it would be fair to acknowledge. I still think there's a fair trade to be had in the short term, but also wanted voice the "Please don't smash us some more" point of view.

Till next time,



Stairs Concrete Construction - Free photo on Pixabay

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