CBSE Open Text Based Assessments – Lip Service or Silver Bullet

The Open Text-based Assessment or OTBA was also notified on May 31, 2013 by the Central Board of Secondary Education. Applicable to select subjects in Class IX and XI, this was made a mandatory component of the Summative exams at the end of the year. Experts hired by CBSE have now made essays/case studies etc. based around the key concepts covered through the second term in that subject and told teachers to hold group discussions, facilitate exploration and to engage students in “discussion, analysis, self-reflection and critical thinking”. They want to discourage “mugging” and encourage active learning. As the circular states:

The main objective of introducing this element is to provide opportunities to students to apply theoretical concepts to a real life scenario by encouraging active and group learning in the Class.

In a later circular, it is reiterated that:

the main objective of introducing OTBA is to relieve the students from the burden of mugging up of content and provide opportunities in effective use of memory and acquiring skills of information processing.

And the board has actually supplied the content for the OTBA complete with sample questions and assessment “rubrics” (which are nothing but itemized phrases or key points, that if they appear in the answer to the question, may be considered worthy of being awarded the right score). The teacher is expected then to create questions based on a revised Bloom’s taxonomy, assign a marking scheme and keep an “open mind” setting aside own biases while grading an answer.

While the concept is laudable – in fact, this is greatly desirable as a technique – the implementation is and will continue to be a great challenge. It assumes and implies several things.

It assumes that teachers will be able to execute if oriented and trained. While this is a good “upward” aspiration, it is unlikely to be true on a significant scale as pointed out by the NCFTE 2009 report itself. The report bemoans that:

Teacher education programmes provide little scope for student teachers to reflect on their experiences…There is no opportunity for teachers to examine their own biases and beliefs and reflect on their own experiences as part of classroom discourse and enquiry.

Teachers who have not experienced or practiced lateral and critical thinking themselves are not going to be able to do so basis an orientation program or workshop conducted by the CBSE per se. For them to be able to do this, they will need extensive on-going coaching and mentoring.

The other thing is the format itself. The beauty of an open assessment like this is that it needs time in the classroom and beyond it to appreciate the text and its interdisciplinary nature. But if the text itself becomes a chapter-like construct, because the same text that is given in advance becomes the one upon which assessment is conducted, it has already negated the technique. In the end, publishers are incentivized to come up with yet another textbook around the passages and the child ends up resorting to cramming it, defeating the very purpose of the assessment.

Not just that, there is no evidence gathering mechanism to demonstrate what the in-class and beyond-class exploration and thinking around the text has really resulted in. This means that teachers have no compulsion to treat this as any different from what they normally do. Even if they  were able and willing, they have little prior experience in negotiating loosely structured learning processes.

Then again, the beauty of any such technique lies in the open interpretation of the text in the context of all the learning that the child goes through. However text based assessments are divided subject wise, automatically constraining the extent of interpretation and analysis to the chapter of the subject being taught. So it is not even a true case based approach. If it were, it would place even a greater load on teachers who would be expected to have that holistic approach and knowledge.

The other important thing is the naming of the assessment itself. The use of “open” as a qualifier to “text based” is contradictory in terms because it restricts the learning context to the text itself (and some supplied references, many of which are dead-ends for discovery and exploration of the theme). The text could be one starting point, but not the only one. And it must be clear of political overtones (like the preoccupation with the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan).

In fact, if it was called open learning assessment, it would be much more appropriate. For these type of assessments, we cannot apply the same context as that for closed learning assessments. The concept is not new and even a cursory examination of the research on the web reveals practices, techniques and critical opinions (see also Can students also learn…) about open “authentic” assessments vs. traditional closed assessments. Of course, one cannot ignore other “get-around-it” methods such as plagiarization and cheating, which must be combated in these kind of assessments if they are truly open, but there are methods to handle these anomalies as well.

The question is how deeply are we thinking about these assessments and learning processes? Are we playing lip service or do we really think this can be a silver bullet? We need to think deeply about the ecosystem we want to foster for deep authentic learning – are our designs going to further learning or are they going to serve entrenched interests?

If we do really intend OTBA type assessments to result in something significant for our students and teachers, we need to address some deeper issues.

  1. How can we first engage our teachers (and teacher educators) in ways through which they truly begin to understand and appreciate “open-ness”? How do they start practicing open-ness? What practices and tools are they most comfortable with? How do we ensure that they are given a conducive environment to fill their own learning gaps?
  2. How can we start encouraging our students to learn new practices, especially the social and digital ones, to aid authentic learning?
  3. How can we plan this in a way that we have the ecosystem in place before we scale it to students and their parents? It is tiring to see students being guinea pigs of every new brainwave.
  4. What should the ecosystem contain? This should involve skills development in various areas (student, teacher, parent, school administration), community development for learning and practice, social online literacies, tools and platforms, audit and measurement leading to analytics and actionable insights, and other elements such as linkages with real-life scenarios, experts and data.
  5. Perhaps the greatest contribution in these can be made through cMOOCs, because they are truly fit for authentic learning. If platforms such as SWAYAM could be adapted to become the cornerstone of this approach, especially for technology enabled communities, this could really be the platform that would make this kind of learning and assessment possible. Why can’t every OTBA be a MOOC? For those who do not have access to technology or the Internet in a reliable fashion, what are the other ways of dissemination and collaboration (inter/intra-school debates, mock discussions, paper-writing and many other activities could be conducted)?

Is this plain lip service to open-ness and authentic learning? Or is it being thought of as this incredible silver bullet that at some point will transform Indian education. Either way, we need to think deeper urgently.

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