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.
Tracey Denton-Calabrese is a Research Officer at the Rees Centre
She is currently working with Professor Judy Sebba and the Rees Centre team on the Evaluation of the Expanded Duties of Virtual Schools, which focuses on the evaluation of two new policy initiatives announced in Summer 2021, with the Rees Centre being commissioned as the UK Department for Education’s research partner.
In previous roles she worked as a research officer and project manager for the Promising Practices: Curiosity and Creativity research study led by Professor Therese Hopfenbeck and Associate Professor Joshua McGrane at the Oxford University Centre for Educational Assessment (OUCEA). This research was funded by the Jacobs Foundation and examines how teachers in IB Primary Years Programmes foster creativity and curiosity in schools. The research was conducted in collaboration with the Australian Council for Educational Research and the International Baccalaureate. Prior to this, Tracey worked as a postdoctoral researcher on the Go Girl Code+Create project and won a place on the Oxford Foundry LEV8 Women Programme (2019). She was also a participant on the Aspect Network SUCCESS Programme (2020) 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 (information and communication technologies). 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.
Tracey 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 school culture, education reform, ethnographic research, the use of ICTs in formal and informal settings, issues of digital equity, educational opportunities for disadvantaged young people, and fostering creativity and curiosity in schools.
Denton-Calabrese, T. Mustain, P., Geniets, A., Hakimi, L., Winters, N. (2021). Empowerment beyond skills: Computing and the enhancement of self-concept in the go_girl code+create program. Computers & Education, 175, 104321. DOI: http://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2021.104321
Denton-Calabrese, T. & Randhawa, A. (2020) ‘Tackling digital exclusion: The role of supportive informal education settings’, BERA Research Intelligence, 145, 16-17.
Randhawa, A., Denton-Calabrese, T., Kahn, K., Geniets, A., Winters, N. (2020) Go Girl: code + create: Curricular resources for starting your own programme. CC BY NC: This license allows reusers to distribute, remix, adapt, and build upon the material in any medium or format for noncommercial purposes only, and only so long as attribution is given to the creator. It includes the following elements:
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