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John Simkin

GCSE Coursework

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The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has unveiled plans to prevent students from taking GCSE coursework home. The QCA is arguing that in future all coursework should be completed under controlled conditions in the classroom to curb online plagiarism and excessive parental help. This decision will upset middle class parents who rely on coursework to help their children out perform working class kids.

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The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has unveiled plans to prevent students from taking GCSE coursework home.

Heaven forbid that we should encourage children to learn away from school or learn collaboratively:(

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I have never had a very high opinion of coursework, mainly because there is always the possibility that students can get someone else to do the work for them or lift stuff from the Web and paste it in. Over the past 12 years I have worked as an external examiner for four different UK universities. In recent years I have noticed an increasing trend for there to be a mismatch between coursework marks and examination marks, and several students have been caught by JISC's Turnitin plagiarism detection service. Cheating and plagiarism are not new phenomena, of course. The Internet has just made it easier to cheat and plagiarise. In my subject area, modern foreign languages, we rely heavily on oral examinations. GCSE oral examinations used to be face-to-face, but now the oral work is often recorded - not a good way of examining in my opinion.

I am a great believer in the face-to-face interview. When I was a teacher in higher education we used to interview most of our prospective students in the languages that they intended to study. It was worth the effort. I could grade a student's oral performance in German in around 10 minutes maximum. There was often a mismatch between the grades we awarded in the face-to-face interview, schools' projected A-level grades for their students and/or the actual A-level grades achieved. I have also examined many MPhil and PhD students. It is usually clear in the first 10 minutes of the viva whether or not the candidate knows his/her stuff.

The BBC's "Excuse my French" series makes fascinating viewing. Last night's broadcast showed the celebrity students trying to achieve different tasks that had been set for them, namely tasks reflecting their interests and careers. You can tell immediately who is succeeding and who is failing. I guess that what I am saying is that coursework, task-based learning etc is good if the tasks are thought out sensibly and if the possibilities of cheating or plagiarising are minimised. Cheating in a face-to-face oral examination in a foreign language is well nigh impossible. "Parroting" is a possibility, but it's easy to spot.

My wife did an OU degree in the 1970s/80s. Cheating was not unknown but I think it was relatively rare. The OU could, of course, never guarantee 100% that Computer Marked Assignments and Tutor Marked Assignments were the work of their registered students. However, there were also regular group sessions at the local FE college, telephone interviews with tutors, summer schools and traditional examinations - and then mismatches could be spotted. I believe the OU was rather good at this.

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I've faced just this situation in designing both straight on-line courses, like Business Writing, and more conventional distance courses in academic English when 'remote' students have started taking the course from places like Hong Kong. A typical initial question from within the university is 'how many lectures are there?' Now there is a certain amount of factual information that needs to be transmitted, and some kind of oral presentation is sometimes the most appropriate way of transmitting it. There's also a point, especially with academic courses, in preparing students for the kind of lecturing they'd receive if they continued at higher levels, but one of the key concepts any distance student has to grasp and accept is that 'all' I can do is teach - the learning they have to take care of themselves.

In practical terms, the need for lecturing is often taken care of by podcasts, whilst video conferences of various types are occasions for me to try to create environments where students can grasp and develop the idea that learning is both an individual and collaborative process which they have to be in control of.

The exact types of examination arise out of the general organisation of the course. Some aspects lend themselves to 'sit-down' examinations, whilst others require other forms, such as the test of their ability of pronounce English which takes place on the phone (landline, mobile or VoIP).

As you can imagine, this style of course design only works if you are willing to trust the teachers and Internet tutors to rely on their professional judgement in doing the job of teaching and examining - the whole pedagogical environment just doesn't lend itself to the more mechanical, centrally-controlled systems that have been the only permitted norm in the UK for the last 22 or so years. Or, to put it another way, if you try to replace teacher and examiner professionalism with central micro-management, it's no wonder you run into problems with coursework.

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David writes:

As you can imagine, this style of course design only works if you are willing to trust the teachers and Internet tutors to rely on their professional judgement in doing the job of teaching and examining - the whole pedagogical environment just doesn't lend itself to the more mechanical, centrally-controlled systems that have been the only permitted norm in the UK for the last 22 or so years. Or, to put it another way, if you try to replace teacher and examiner professionalism with central micro-management, it's no wonder you run into problems with coursework.

A very good point. And I would home in on the word "trust". Back in the good old days we language teachers were trusted - after the disappearance of the peripatetic oral examiner - to conduct oral examinations ourselves with the students we had taught and to grade them appropriately. On the whole I think this system worked OK. I never gave an unfairly low or high mark, and I know all my colleagues tried to be as fair as possible to the candidates. Now it's all centralised, and there's an alarming trend to try and mechanise the whole teaching and examining process. It won't work...

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I got into trouble with our Business Administration teachers by saying at a conference that questions with answers were too simple for university level - we should only handle questions that don't have answers!

They'd just been spending months and pots of money trying to get students to revise for their exams earlier than the night before the exam. (The idea of taking a long hard look at how they were organising their courses and at what kind of examinations they were running was ruled out of court, since, as we all know, Business Administration lecturers are just, well, perfect in every respect already.)

They came up with the great idea of having regular quizzes … but then realised that these would need to be on-line, or their lecturers would spend all their time marking quizzes. So they spent lots of money writing multiple-choice quizzes which the students would take.

The first problem they ran into was entrepreneurship - a budding captain of industry simply printed out the tests and sold the correct answers to his course colleagues!

Then they tried random tests … and discovered that students were logging on and then logging off a few minutes later without completing the quiz. Guess what! The students had worked out that quiz-writing is actually really difficult, if you're going to do it properly. If you don't (and very few academics have any idea about how to test accurately), you're likely to produce quizzes with very wide variations in the level of difficulty. So the smart students were trying the quizzes out until they found one that was relatively easy.

Still, everyone's happy. The Business Administration department can point to an enormous expenditure on IT development, which shows that they're really cutting-edge, and the students can keep on doing what their subject teachers tell them is rational human behaviour: getting the maximum return for the minimum amount of input. Just goes to show that the market really works!

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