I’m an academic with more than 15 years experience in higher education; my partner works in a state-run nursery school. The age gap between our students is, at the very least, 14 years. Nevertheless, there is one word that unites us: metrics. The desire to measure attainment, progress and calculate “added value” is becoming increasingly pervasive in both of our sectors.
My partner has to track pupils’ progress within the endemic reporting culture of primary schools – to find the baseline, then monitor the gap between target and attainment on a half-termly basis. Pre-schoolers are no longer allowed to develop at their own pace; they are on an educational metric track for the rest of their school lives. Less creative little human beings; more lines on a spreadsheet.
We, in universities, are a bit behind when it comes to continuously monitoring progress, but we are undoubtedly on the way. “Learning gain” is the new buzz term, meaning that students (and their future employers) will be able to chart the leaps made during the university years. Studying for a degree is not enough; young people need transferable skills, evidence of extracurricular activity and graduate “attributes”. Whether this is because these are good things in and of themselves, or because they improve our employability data, has never been quite clear to me.
I’ve also yet to determine whether learning gain is confined to the curriculum or can include extracurricular activity. If so, what to include and what to omit? How to measure the skill of being netball club secretary, or a barman at the students’ union? If learning gain is limited to programme-level outcomes (which are at least quantifiable), then what? Will this tell us anything that we don’t already know? Or is it it just another way to review the same data through a slightly different lens?
More significantly, do the students actually care? Let me be clear; I’m not suggesting that students are passive in their learning, or should not be at the core of what we do. Nor am I suggesting that we shouldn’t be concerned with helping them to develop a wide skill set before they leave our institutions. But will endless measuring turn them into better, more engaged, students, or simply more cynical ones?
In universities, as in primary schools, metrics have less to do with individual attainment and more to do with capturing data for management, invariably to be aggregated and standardised beyond what is meaningful for most academics to use or rely upon.
Of course, the ultimate debate on metrics is around the Teaching Excellence Framework (Tef), but this seems about as far removed from individual student attainment and achievement as one is likely to find.
There will be much hand-wringing from vice-chancellors over what the various data tables show, of course. What they won’t reveal – and are not intended to show – is the satisfaction of individual students. Why not? Are we only interested in averages? The National Student Survey (NSS) contains qualitative data, but this is generally regarded as secondary to the numbers. You can’t make a league table out of qualitative data.
It seems that the Tef is taking us to a new level of abstraction, combining various elements of the NSS to provide a state-sanctioned view of teaching “excellence”. Alice is through the metric looking glass.
Let’s not kid ourselves. Metrics are not about the individual student, or teacher. They are about making educators accountable. Supporters say that only with metrics can poor practice be identified and rooted out. And who wants to be associated with poor teaching?
But there is the rub. The risk is that so much time will be given over to metrics that we will lose sight of what we are here to do; those ephemeral – yet life-changing – moments when students acquire the spark of self-learning. Creativity, love of knowledge and thirst for discovery are things we should teach, incentivise and promulgate. But they are not easily measured.
Source: The Guardian