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Separating exams and learning.

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The UN has recently launched an online university named University of the people which aims to provide quality education at low (at least not too high) prices to anyone in the world who wishes to study. It is basically a university dealing with long distance education, with the difference being in the use of technology to make the learning completely internet based and more peer-to-peer rather than simply reading material based and completely internet based.

Such internet based universities are good news because they make access to education easier and cheaper, thereby increasing the number of people who can benefit from it. The structure of the university though prompts one to think that it is merely a translation of a bricks-and-mortar university into a virtual world and that maybe they could have done a tad bit more to improve their reach.

Whether one likes it or not, it is a fact of the world that in education, exams are more valued than the actual learning process. Consider a highly reputed university which we will call “A”. A student who gets admitted into university “A”, he really benefits from that attendance only if he manages to pass the exams and get the piece of paper that is his degree. If he had not passed the exams, then he might as well not have got admitted in the first place. For an external observer judging the student’s capabilities, it does not matter whether the student attended classes or completed assignments as long as he cleared the exams necessary for the degree. Therefore the exams are valued more than the learning process.

Similarly, for an external observer, there is no difference between a student who actually attended university “A” and got a degree and another who did not attend university “A” but nevertheless has the ability to pass the exams involved (maybe with a reasonable score). Restricting the exams to only those students admitted to Univ. “A” therefore forces some people to take great pains to attend that university or forces others to forego that opportunity and lose out on a great qualification just because circumstances do not permit them to attend.

That may be OK for traditional universities since their priority is to educate people from a certain country/state/region first and do it well. A university aimed at a global audience, with the aim of making access to education more democratic can benefit from a slightly different game plan, namely that of separating the teaching and the exams.

Consider University “A” again. If the people in charge of University “A” syllabus and exams sit down and think about it, they will probably be able to quantify some skills that each exams will test, such as “the student will be able to add two numbers” or “the student will be able to calculate permitted energy levels in a quantum well”. Suppose they released this information to the world and decided that for a fee, they will allow anyone who thinks they are capable to take the exams for that particular course/degree. The student can choose to attend “A”, or pay for long distance study material from University “A”, or decide to study at their local university and then answer the exams with the knowledge/skills gained.

There are many advantages of decoupling the learning and exams in this way. Firstly the financial commitment is reduced from having to pay for the whole course to just paying for the exams. Secondly, there is no need for anyone to immigrate to a new country/city/region as they can just as well study close to home and maybe travel simply to give the exams. Finally, it allows people to translate non-classroom based knowledge to a qualification which could benefit their careers.

The teaching part can easily be taken care of public/private institutions who will give it all they have to improve the quality of their lessons and exercises because their survival depends on it. The actual university on the other hand will be freed of some of its teaching load which would allow it to focus on designing good quality exams/assignments and syllabi.

This model is not really a new invention and has been running quite successfully in the arena of computer software certifications. The method works, so anybody interested in democratising education should not ignore it.


Written by clueso

June 17, 2009 at 11:43 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with ,

3 Responses

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  1. I noticed a couple of things

    — Online universities require you to have an internet connection, still an unaffordable entity to many of the third world countries desperately in need of education. Thus the iniative is great, but the means again is one afforded to the higher class (who don’t really need free-education).

    — How is it possible that one can judge someone who has taken the exams to be the same as one who hasn’t? In potential ability (capability..) it’d be possible, but to say that I could be as good as Roger Federer if I did what he did on the tennis court is massive assumption. I think sports and academics each have a set of talents/requirements to be good at, and to say it’s easier to solve math than to play tennis is assuming a lot.

    — I think your idea for separating the two is really good, but I see only a problem with logistics and handling. How does one tie up with universities, how do you recognise them and certify them to be capable of partnership, how do you get the papers tested properly. But the idea’s good.


    August 29, 2009 at 6:08 am

  2. Been a while, but a late reply is better than none šŸ™‚

    1. I agree that an internet connection is still a luxury in many parts of the world, not to mention the other equipment required to use the internet(PC, electricty etc). However, the hurdle is significant only for personal ownership and the benefits of having something like having an internet cafe where students can access the learning material far outweigh the costs of providing internet access. During most of my school life, I remember our teacher spent hours writing things down on the board, which the students spent hours writing down. In terms of man-hours spent, it was (and still is) an massively inefficient system. Now if the teacher could write it once and put it on a site, then the students could either study it on their own and clarify their doubts or the teacher can spend more time explaining the content of the lecture. The reach of the teacher is also dramatically increased. In theory, a video lecture by one teacher on any topic, say differentiation, would be enough to teach that topic to each and every student in the world, as long that each student has access to the internet somewhere, either at home, or in their relatives homes, or in a library or internet cafe. All it takes is a few buildings in a place to have electricity and moderately fast internet connections and the returns in increased reach of education would be massive.

    2. I did not really understand your point here, but if you clarify then I can give my opinion(?)

    3. The whole point of my idea is that there should be no logistics in terms of tie ups and accreditation of universities. The logistics would be the same as conducting a few large, nationwide exams (as in IIT-JEE or CAT) or much smaller exams many times in year (as in computer certifications). The basic premise is that as an examiner whose word will be taken seriously by any employer/anyone else, I don’t care where and how you learnt your stuff as long as you know it and are able to demonstrate fluency. So if I am testing kids for arithmetic, I will give them 100 questions like “2+3=?” and “10/5=?” etc. If they solve more than a certain percentage correctly, I will say that I deem so and so kid to be fluent in arithmetic. The democratisation in this process is that I don’t care whether the kid studied in the fanciest school in the city or by himself under a streetlight. At the end of the day both will have similar qualifications and consequently similar opportunities. The current system may be slightly skewed because employers may favour candidates from a “reputed” school/college over a not-so-reputed one, even if the two candidates are otherwise similar. Quality control in the teaching institutions may not be necessary as well, considering that finally, it is every student for himself. The teaching institutes will try to find their niche(in terms of price/quality etc) and the best will survive and flourish, the mediocre will probably just survive, while the bad will die out.

    I agree that online education still has a long way to go, but I would like to see it as the predominant mechanism for education in the next 40-50 years šŸ™‚


    September 30, 2009 at 11:08 pm

  3. […] time ago, I blogged about my idea of an education system that separated exams from learning and thereby allowed students to have more liberty in choosing how to get the classroom component of […]

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