Image courtesy Jack Hynes
Digital Record of Achievement
Picture a large hall with about two hundred people, all sat behind small desks arranged into a grid pattern. For three hours, they engage in a curious ritual. These people will attempt to answer a series of questions in a way that they think will bring them the highest marks. They cannot talk to one another, or to anyone outside the hall. They cannot view any information beyond any books or materials that were authorised. And the product of these three hours will influence the rest of their lives.
I could be describing a scene from Imperial China a thousand years ago, back when exams served as a meritocratic way to test and select candidates for government and further training – but I’m actually talking about the British A-Level exams in 2019. These exams acted as if study and work was a solitary pursuit that depended largely on rote memorisation. Clearly this was never the case, no matter the year – but it was never more antiquated an idea in the age of the internet and the dawn of ubiquitous connectivity.
Yet while these exams were taking place, an entirely different model of learning and assessment was being recognised for the first time, and I actually have a token of it here: a digital ‘record of achievement’ belonging to Ellie Vinge, a 17 year old from Newcastle who’d just completed her third personal project and had just been accepted to study at Cambridge University.
According to this record, Ellie had written, produced, and directed an original play about the Saudi Arabian revolution, attracting about two hundred people during its three performances and viewed seven thousand times online. She hadn’t done it on her own – Ellie had collaborated with playwrights in the US, authors in Scotland, and lighting technicians from her local theatre during its four months of planning, and she’d received a small amount of funding and support from the Braid. In the opinion of the examiners who reviewed her work and correspondance, Ellie had demonstrated a solid understanding of logistics and organisation along with an admirable perseverance at improving her online collaboration skills. With the addition of her previous engineering and biology-focused projects, she was viewed as an ideal student for Trinity College.
In 2017, Ellie Vinge was among over a thousand British 15 and 16 year olds who chose to do independent study instead of the traditional A-Level exams. They had a variety of motives. Some were unhappy that the existing schooling system wouldn’t allow them to use modern tools in their study or mix with people even a year younger or older than themselves; why, they wondered, should they be rewarded for memorising reams of information when it was just as important to be able to find information and collaborate online? Others wanted to produce work that would make a genuine contribution towards society that others would find useful, to learn resourcefulness and flexibility.
Practically all of them, however, were united in their belief that school was needlessly constraining, boring, and suited more towards crowds than individuals. It’s hardly surprising that they had this reaction – it was only in the 20th century that societies began thinking of 16 year olds as anything other than responsible adults. As a commentator, James Maitland, noted, “Standardised testing means standardised thought – and that’s not what anyone wants or needs any more.”
The ‘independent’ system was not particularly organised, being an outgrowth of the existing homeschooling movement, although some guidelines and rules did emerge. For example, teenagers frequently continued to use school facilities for certain science projects, and they would usually post daily updates of their progress online – partly to share expertise, and partly as a record of their work for their mentors and examiners. Education historian Marcus explains the sorts of people who joined became ‘independents’:
“The first wave of students took a risk by opting out of formal education, and so they tended to be upper-middle class students, who had enough security to fail, and also poorer students who saw it as an alternative to substandard schooling. Often, they were ambitious students who weren’t stimulated by school and preferred to pursue their own interests but still wanted guidance.”
In the first few years, there was a fair amount of confusion about the role of the mentors and examiners, who typically volunteered their time and came from academia, business, and creative industries – were they actually assessing the work, and if so, were they qualified? And how could they prevent cheating, if cheating even made sense under this open system? Eventually, certified records of achievements were set up, with trust networks and reputation systems establishing the validity of the work; Ellie used one maintained by Eduhub (previously known as Github).
What they didn’t do was provide any kind of mark or grade; the quality of the work and the student was left up to individual organisations and businesses to decide. This caused problems for the amusingly-named ‘human resource’ departments of big businesses who preferred to filter based on basic and easily gameable qualifications, but proved to be a real improvement for others who appreciated being able to see relevant work in detail, online.
The adoption of the independent system settled a long-standing argument in the UK between those who felt the purpose of formal education was vocational – in other words, as training for work – and those who adhered to the liberal arts view that it should help produce rounded and intelligent citizens. Neither view had wholly worked in the 20th century, particularly within the overstructured environment of schools. Independent students were trusted to find their own way, in their own time, and for the most part, it worked far better and cost far less money than the existing system. In a way, digital records of achievement harkened back to the days of apprenticeships with respect to the relationships between mentors and students, but they also moved forward as they were far more flexible by not confining students to a particular trade or profession.
With massive structural changes taking place in the economy, the government’s tacit encouragement of the independent system in the 2021 Budget proved to be foresighted; in the coming decades, expert systems, 3D printing, and robots were becoming progressively more powerful and cheaper, consuming more of the low and medium-skilled jobs that students in earlier generations could have walked into. The only alternative was to simply learn how to learn.
And what about our student, Ellie Vinge? She studied Engineering at Cambridge for a year and then promptly dropped out, unhappy at not being able to work on her own projects. She studied at home for another year and created her own electronic products, and then eventually moved to Gujurat in 2029 to co-found one of India’s largest consumer robotics companies.