Sustainable assessment

Been asked to reread David Boud’s (2000), Sustainable Assessment: rethinking assessment for the learning society. For me the article dances around problems of performativity and supervision.

Implicit and explicit throughout is the assumption that individuals might become effective at self-assessment.

Assessment involves identifying appropriate standards and criteria and making judgements about quality. This is as necessary to lifelong learning as it is to any formal educational experience, although it may not be represented in formal ways outside the environment of certification. Assessment therefore needs to be seen as an indispensable accompaniment to lifelong learning. This means that it has to move from the exclusive domain of assessors into the hands of learners. A focus on methods and techniques needs to be replaced by a new conception of sustainable assessment required for lifelong learning.

Boud 2000, 151

On reflection I might see that I bring these problems. I often question supervised performance. Supervised performance is linked to real hunger through not lifelong learning but through lifelong employment. Real hunger is where will the next meal come from? For me? For my children? My neighbourhood, city, region. Can I provide my children the lifelong security I have had? There are plenty in the world who cannot, mostly through circumstances brought about by supervision and performance put at the service of, call it what you will: colonisation, surplus value, interest, rent, oligopoly; usurpation of a common wealth.

In abstracting many factors into the term “learning needs” we lose sight of the moral aspect of the question.

Sustainable assessment can similarly be defined as assessment that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of students to meet their own future learning needs.

Boud 2000, 151

Sustainability becomes an empty value unless there is consideration of some substance around what is sustained. Is learning a good in itself without regard to application or outcome? And, what is a “learning task”? Learners “… need also to be prepared to undertake assessment of the learning tasks they face throughout their lives” (152). Could daily activity become a learning task? How much activity should be framed as learning? Who frames the learning task? Who says: this-is-real-life; and: this-is-a-learning-task? When assessment is framed this way, questions of justice are raised.

Maybe this is easier when employed by a university or any educational institution. Boud reserves his comments for “…formal educational experience… within courses” (151). People like me and my colleagues are employed by institutions to assess formal learning activities in courses. If you remove “the domain of these assessors”, have you removed the need for assessment? For whom is the assessment performed, in the end? The assessors? Or, the assessed? Or another? Again I return to justice.

The idea of reciprocity appears to offer a means to retain justice within a framework of assessment for (and of) the other, but can a grand-narrative learning society serve reciprocal justice without doing to others? Boud draws on Frank Coffield’s excellent work. Coffield’s (2006) “Running ever faster down the wrong road”, summarises work undertaken throughout the 1980s and 90s, concluding, “… the government’s programme of reform in the public services, despite significant investments and successes, is now doing more harm than good.” I suggest this is as true today as it was then. There have been some successes in the first two decades of this century as there were in the last two of the previous century but, directionally, the inequities remain. Health and wealth inequalities are starkly illuminated by the coronavirus presence.


Boud, David. 2000. ‘Sustainable Assessment: Rethinking Assessment for the Learning Society’. Studies in Continuing Education 22 (2): 151–67.

Coffield, Frank. 2006. ‘Running Ever Faster Down the Wrong Road: An Alternative Future for Education and Skills. Inaugural Lecture’. Institute of Education.

Our World in Data, Gapminder and Justice

Thumbnail link to original chart and data, is one of those things that makes the Internet a-good-thing. It is one of those things that makes universities worth some of their pennies. “Research and data to make progress against the world’s largest problems… All free: open access and open source.” Strapline and mission, in one. And their data visualisations are the best since Gapminder. Gapminder is another of those things that makes universities and the Internet good things. Truth through numbers made accessible visually, addressing problems that most people will understand. Kind of like Michael Sandel’s Justice course. There are more, but I realise this could become a long post, for which I do not have time this morning. About which, more later.

Social Media and the Harrisburg Experiment

Last week the social media networks and the printed press, too, were buzzing with news that Harrisburg University of Science and Technology was blocking access to all social media sites for the week. There were predictable reactions from all sides. But ultimately interesting questions could be asked and there is probably something worth studying about learning behaviour among the many different groups of people who participate in higher education these days.

For me, I can’t understand why everyone doesn’t bring their laptop to class and use it for note-taking. I have been doing this for more than 10 years. Over the time I have used a range of tools for this purpose. (Currently my favourite is Xmind for mindmapping.) Since the Internet has become widely available through services like Brookes wireless (eduroam) I might indulge in a little fact checking if the lecturer refers to something interesting that I want to pursue. Yes, sometimes I might use Twitter to make a back-channel comments. And, frankly, if the session has lost my attention, I might as well make other notes off the topic.

Demanding attendance and attention as virtues in their own right can only go so far. But, in the classroom such demands can be appropriate at times. If it is an intended outcome that learners learn to pay attention for a stretch of time beyond the usual (contemporary) bite-sized time-slice, then make that explicit, and assess it, and maybe even show that such attention is valued with a (small) mark premium (or penalty). Rhona Sharpe speaks about this in her lecture on lecturing. It is easy enough to do by signalling the intention and designing a quick post-session recall exercise. This was the subject of a PCTHE participant’s sustained inquiry two years ago.

Many teachers assume that if learners have their laptops (or smart phones) open that they are necessarily not paying attention. But, people have doodled for a long time on paper while tuned out of the lecture. That said, there is a lot that students and teachers have to learn. Passing notes in the back of the class is rude, whatever medium the notes may be in. There are genuine questions about attention spans and new bricolic epistemologies. There is a question about Facebook “addiction”.

So, class time is class time. We all have some responsibilities to it. Taking away the internet during a lecture, for me, would impoverish the learning experience. Asking me to close my laptop and “pay attention” would be like telling me, 25 years ago not to take notes in class. But at the same time, it would be rude of me to be somewhere else altogether, and laugh out loud at a private joke just when the lecturer was making a salient point.

So, I guess the question, for me, is how do you build teaching sessions that take account of the increasing social media use by learners in the classroom? And, how do you include everyone, laptop users and non-users alike?

Related to this are questions about what student class-room social media practice really is. Do we know? Or, do we just assume? We should not assume that just because a student has their laptop open that they are not engaged with the topic.

Harrisburg’s Social-ucation site