Monday, June 23, 2014

The case for universal undergraduate exams

My wife's brother-in-law recently introduced me to the idea of the Iron triangle of higher education: at the vertices are the competing demands of access, cost, and quality. Pulling on one corner produces tensions in the other. Furthermore, different stake holders [students, parents, faculty, administrators, politicians] will prioritise one vertex over the others.

Aside: the triangle is also discussed in other contexts such as health care.

There is a nice essay
Breaking Higher Education's Iron Triangle: Access, Cost, and Quality 
by John Daniel, Asha Kanwar, and Stamenka Uvalic-Trumbic

It partly focusses on the important and complex issue of the massive expansion and aspirations of university education in the majority world. But many of the issues apply to all countries.

One of the concrete proposals for evaluating/ensuring quality is separating examinations from teaching institutions. Common exams would be administered by independent authorities/companies [think GRE, Cambridge A-levels, TOEFL, ...]. I think the advantages of this are considerable
The low standards of some institutions would be quickly revealed. These advantages greatly outweigh some of the weaknesses [lack of institutional autonomy and flexibility, difficulty of assessing experimental work, teaching to the exam, ...].

The first author Sir John Daniel, was head of Open University in the UK for a decade. It pioneered distance learning. Hence, he is qualified to talk about the recent fashion in MOOC's [Massive Online Courses]. A recent paper is reviewed here and contains the following wisdom:
We need a climate in which colleges and universities are less imitative, taking pride in their uniqueness. It’s time to end the suffocating practice in which colleges and universities measure themselves far too frequently by external status rather than by values determined by their own distinctive mission.
With regard to institutional measures of teaching quality he warns:
Institutions must distinguish between quality assurance procedures, which can easily become compliance focused, and real efforts to enhance quality. For example, evaluating a course, though required, is not sufficient. Quality enhancement will only take place when the lessons from evaluation are reflected in the next offering of the course. Institutional quality assurance structures and processes are important, but beware of making them an exercise in compliance or accountability, rather than process of learning and self-improvement that really improves quality.

No comments:

Post a Comment