By Dr Rebecca Eynon (Associate Professor between the Department of Education and the Oxford Internet Institute) & Professor Jo-Anne Baird (Director of the Department of Education)
Now that the infamous Ofqual algorithm for deciding the high-stake exam results for hundreds of thousands of students has been resoundingly rejected, the focus turns to the importance of investigating what went wrong. Indeed, the office for statistics regulation has already committed to a review of the models used for exam adjustment within well specified terms, and other reviews are likely to follow shortly.
A central focus from now, as students, their families, educational institutions and workplaces try to work out next steps, is to interrogate the unspoken and implicit values that guided the creation, use and implementation of this particular statistical model.
As part of the avalanche of critique aimed at Ofqual and the government, the question of values come in to play. Why, many have asked, was Ofqual tasked, as they are every year, with avoiding grade inflation as their overarching objective? Checks were made on the inequalities in the model and they were consistent with the inequalities seen in examinations at a national level. This, though, begs the question of why these inequalities are accepted in a normal year.
These and other important arguments raised over the past week or so highlight questions about values. Specifically, they raise the fundamental question of why, aside from the debates in academia and some parts of the press, we have stopped discussing the purposes of education. Instead, a meritocratic view of education, promoted since the 1980s by governments on the right and left of the spectrum has become a given. In place of discussions about values, there has been an ever increasing focus on the collection and use of data to hold schools accountable for ‘delivering’ an efficient and effective education, to measure student’s ‘worth’ in ways that can easily be traded in the economy, and to water down ideas of social justice and draw attention away from wider inequalities in society.
Once debates about values are removed from our education and assessment systems, we are left with situations like the one now. The focus on creating a model that makes the data look like past years – with little debate over whether the aims should have been different this year is a central example of this. Given the significant (and unequal) challenges young people have faced during this year, should we not, as a society have wanted to reduce inequalities in our society in any way possible?
The question of values also carries through into other discussions of the datafication of education, where the collection and analysis of digital trace data, i.e. data collected from the technologies that young people engage with for learning and education, is growing exponentially. Yet unlike other areas of the public sector like health and policing, schools rarely have a central feature in policy discussions and reports of algorithmic fairness. The question is why? There are highly significant ethical and social implications of extensive data use in education that significantly shape young people’s futures. These include issues of privacy, informed consent and data ownership (particularly due to the significant role of the commercial sector); the validity and integrity of the models produced; the nature of the decisions promoted by such systems; and questions of governance and accountability. This relative lack of policy interest in the implications of datafication for schooling is, we suggest, because governments take for granted the need for data of all kinds in education to support their meritocratic aims, and indeed see it as a central way to make education ‘fair’.
The Ofqual algorithm has brought to our attention the ethics of the datafication of education and the risk that poses of compounding social inequalities. Every year there is not only injustice from the unequal starting points and the unequal opportunities young people have within our schools and in their everyday lives, but there is also injustice in the pretence that extensive use of data is somehow a neutral process.
In the important reflections and investigations that should now take place over the coming weeks and months there needs to be a review that explicitly places values and ethical frameworks front and centre, that encourages a focus on the purposes of education, particularly in times of a (post-) pandemic.
Alex Hodgkiss is a research officer working on the LiFT project, which is a collaboration with Ferrero international.
Within this project, Alex’s research focuses on the development and evaluation of a digital tool to support parent-child conversation in the home, with the overall aim of supporting pre-school children’s language development.
Before joining the Department of Education, Alex completed his PhD in Psychology and Education at University College London. His previous research focused on the role of children’s spatial thinking skills in the development of conceptual understanding in science.
- Cognitive development in educational contexts.
- Cognitive training and interventions.
- Early language development: the role of parental input and parent-child conversation.
- Spatial tools: gesture, spatial language, diagrams/models.
- Children’s conceptual understanding and development.
Gilligan-Lee, K. A., Hodgkiss, A., Thomas, M. S., Patel, P. K., & Farran, E. K. (2020). Aged-based differences in spatial language skills from 6 to 10 years: Relations with spatial and mathematics skills. Learning and Instruction, 73, 101417.
Gilligan, K. A., Hodgkiss, A., Thomas, M.S.C., & Farran, E.K. (2019). The developmental relations between spatial cognition and mathematics achievement in primary school children. Developmental Science
Hodgkiss, A., Gilligan, K. A., Tolmie, A. K., Thomas, M. S. C., & Farran, E. K. (2018). Spatial cognition and science achievement: The contribution of intrinsic and extrinsic spatial skills from 7 to 11 years. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 88(4), 675-697.
Gilligan, K. A., Hodgkiss, A., Thomas, M. S. C. & Farran, E. K. (2018). The use of discrimination scaling tasks: A novel perspective on the development of spatial scaling in children. Cognitive Development, 47, 133-145.
Sophie Booton is a research officer working on the LiFT project.
The Learning for Families through Technology (LiFT) project is a collaboration between Ferrero international and three research groups in the Department of Education: Applied Linguistics, Learning and New Technologies, and Families, Effective Learning, and Literacy. The project aims to examine key questions about children’s learning with technology, with a focus on language and literacy skills.
Within the project, Sophie is investigating vocabulary development in children with and without English as an Additional Language. Sophie’s research interests lie in children’s cognitive and emotional development, particularly in in how areas of development interact to affect children’s learning and well-being.
Before joining the Department of Education, Sophie studied for her PhD in Psychology at the University of Sheffield. Her doctoral research in collaboration with Dr Daniel Carroll focused on the impact of emotional states on children’s self-control. Prior to her PhD, Sophie gained a MEd on the Mind, Brain and Education programme at Harvard Graduate School of Education, and a BA in Experimental Psychology from the University of Oxford.
1 January 2017, Ken joined the Department of Education to work on the EU-funded eCraft2Learn project.
The project aims to improve STEAM education (both formal and informal) for 13 to 17 year-olds using visual programming, micro-controllers, 3D printing, electronics, and other “maker” technologies. Ken has been working on child-friendly programming interfaces to AI cloud services and machine learning.
Ken Kahn has been a senior researcher at the University of Oxford since 2006. He is leading the Modelling4All project that combines ideas of accessible agent-based modelling within a web 2.0 community.
He did research in technology enhanced leaning at the London Knowledge Lab and the Institute of Education from 1998 to 2014 where he participated in four large EU research projects, a BBC project, and two UK projects.
He is the designer and developer of ToonTalk a programming system for children that provides concrete analogs of advanced computational abstractions with a video game look and feel. Many of his papers can be found here. He has been creating ToonTalk Reborn an open-source web-based rethinking of ToonTalk.
He taught Computational Thinking and Modelling at the National University of Singapore in 2015, 2016, and 2017.
Ken piloted an OLPC Project in West Papua.
Ken did his doctoral research in at the MIT AI Lab in the 1970s. During the 1980s he did research in AI, visual, and concurrent programming languages before focusing on programming languages for children.
Tracey Denton-Calabrese is a Research Officer at the Oxford University Centre for Educational Assessment.
She is currently working with Professor Therese Hopfenbeck and the OUCEA team on a research study funded by the Jacobs Foundation on assessing and facilitating creativity and curiosity in the classroom. This research is being conducted in collaboration with the Australian Council for Educational Research and the International Baccalaureate.
In her previous post, she worked as a postdoctoral researcher on the Go_Girl Code+Create project and won a place on the Oxford Foundry LEV8 Women Programme. She was also a participant on the Aspect Network SUCCESS Programme and a finalist for the Fair Education Alliance Innovation Award 2020.
Tracey completed her Doctorate in Education at the University of Oxford where she undertook an ethnographic multi-site case study on how school culture shapes and is shaped by the implementation of the New Technology model (or “New Tech” model), a prominent school reform effort in the United States with a strong focus on developing school culture and combining project-based learning with extensive use of ICTs. She utilized ethnographic methods to understand the everyday experiences and practices of school leaders, teachers and students working within New Tech schools. The study was framed using a sociocultural perspective, examining the culture of New Tech schools and its contextualization within broader cultural ideologies, social patterns and influences.
She has taught school ethnography sessions for the MSc Education (Learning and Technology) programme. She is a former teacher and technology curriculum coordinator and earned her M.A. in Instructional Technology & Media from Teachers College at Columbia University. She is also a fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute and has a wide range of research interests which include educational anthropology, creativity and curiosity in schools, education reform, school culture, the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in formal and informal settings, and issues of digital equity.
Tracey has a presence on LinkedIn and Twitter: @tdcalabrese