E-scape, was ahead of its time, but now the rest of the world is ready, says Richard Kimbell
e-scapeTypical e-scape classroom: no intrusive technologyCreative coursework projects have always been a source of contention – loved by imaginative teachers and learners but often feared by parents and despised by politicians. Underlying much of the concern lies the difficulty of providing a foolproof method of making accurate assessments of the resulting portfolios. And, as weighty paper portfolios slowly gave way to e-portfolios the problems (of format/readability etc) multiplied.

More recently, web portfolios began to resolve some of the technical difficulties, but politicians had already run out of patience, outlawing coursework in favour of ‘controlled assessments’, and now Mr Gove has effectively abolished the lot.

As a keen observer of this developing story, as a teacher and Oxford ‘A’ level examiner in design in the 1970s, I saw time and again the power of well guided, independent project work. In the 1980s I was involved in the development of GCSE coursework approaches. My book, GCSE – a guide for teachers, published by the Secondary Examinations Council at the launch of GCSE, included a whole chapter on coursework and its assessment.

In 1990 as the first professor and head of design at Goldsmiths, University of London, I founded the Technology Education Research Unit (TERU) and focused its attention on the same challenge. A series of research and development projects followed, funded by many agencies including the Design Council, NESTA, QCA, DES, and their focus was frequently on the twin challenge:

  • Empowering learners through creative projects;
  • Making good assessments.

In the early 1980s, one of the PGCE students at Goldsmiths was Tony Wheeler. A naturally creative individual (BA in Multi-Media Arts), and subsequently a fast-rising teacher in Hertfordshire, he was tempted him out of the classroom to work in TERU and so was born a partnership that has persisted to the present day. Tony’s facility with digital media allowed him to lead the digital aspects of TERU’s work, and when he left it was to create the software company TAG Learning, now part of Sherston Software Ltd. After ten years as creative director at TAG, Tony returned to work in TERU and was part of the launch of truly ground breaking project; e-scape (see e-scape on Wikipedia).

e-scapeE-scape:'astonishingly innovative'Funded by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) and Becta, the project was to create a system that would enable learners to generate web-portfolios that would then be assessed using web technologies. In partnership with the software designers in TAG, they created a flexible portfolio-building toolset in which a real-time trace of learners’ performance emerges automatically and naturally through a task – which can be in any subject.

The multimedia ‘trace’ automatically uploads to a website where the story of the project builds (without any intervention by learners) through drawings, photos, text, sound and video. The use (and choice) of these tools can be personalised for and by learners and/or teachers. In-built scaffolding (eg by teachers or peers) enables the performance to be supported and individualised. Any web-connected devices can be used, including smartphones, laptops, tablets, netbooks or desktops.

In a series of national trials with awarding bodies in the UK in 2009, teachers in 20 schools collaborated to run e-scape projects in technology, geography and science. As a result, 350 technology portfolios, 60 science portfolios, and 60 geography portfolios were created in the e-scape web server.

But it is the e-scape approach to assessment that is astonishingly innovative. It was designed to overcome the all-too-common reliability problem. Rather than one teacher marking their own learners’ portfolios, with e-scape all teachers collaborate in assessing all the portfolios. Making use of web connectivity TERU and the TAG developers created an on-line adaptive methodology in which teachers have merely to make a series of simple comparative judgements (comparing the performance in portfolio A and portfolio B). A string of such simple binary judgements, by a connected group of teachers, results (via a Rasch modelling engine) in a rank order of astonishing reliability.

'Better reliability than awarding bodies – and teachers loved it'

While awarding bodies – using conventional models of assessment – struggle to get reliability statistics above 0.7, the e-scape assessment trials consistently produced reliability statistics of 0.95 or better. The software adapts to the emerging consensus of the judging team, producing the reliability for minimal investment of judging time. Real-time measures of reliability are available to students and judges alike. And – best of all - the teachers who have used it, love it.

Sadly the current flavour of educational policy in the UK is to look backwards rather than forwards, so the e-scape innovations are not at present impacting on our schools despite the technology affording solutions to annual marking problems that include this summer's GCSE English fiasco. Instead, our e-scape team are pushing ahead with e-scape projects in Sweden, Israel, Ireland, USA, Australia and Singapore, where governments are enthusiastic about the potential for teachers and learners and about the reassurance provided by such a reliable approach to assessment. So while our government looks to other countries to help inform UK policy, many of those same countries look to the UK to help inform theirs.

Richard KimbellRichard Kimbell is emeritus professor of technology education at Goldsmiths, University of London

E-scape at Goldsmiths 

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Professor Richard Kimbell presents his research at his BETT LearnLive seminar in LearnLive Theatre E on Friday February 1 at 11.15am. "Overcoming the challenges of capturing and assessing 21st Century Skills in the classroom - Creativity, Collaboration and Problem Solving.", The seminar is free to attend, but is available on a first come first served basis only.