Inclusive online assessment practices in distance learning education explored through autoethnographic narrative vignettes

Teacher EducationDistance LearningInclusive AssessmentStudent Agency
Discovering new approaches to inclusive online assessment is a major concern for many educational institutions especially in online and distance learning settings. This chapter explores effective strategies used in the Teaching Life Sciences module of a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) programme offered through distance learning by a private higher education institution in South Africa. We identify and examine five inclusive online assessment practices namely, conversational, practical, collaborative, reflective and applicational. We also offer examples of each of these practices, based on our experience in the Teaching Life Sciences module. Drawing on these experiences and the unprecedented events of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, we explore what the future holds for inclusive online assessment practices with a focus on maintaining academic rigour and validity while ensuring that student agency and freedom are not compromised.


In this chapter, we reflect on inclusive online assessment practices in a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) module offered through the distance learning mode by a large private higher education institution (PHEI) in South Africa. 

Our focus is on the inclusive assessment practices of the Teaching Life Sciences module in the Further Education and Training (FET) phase -  the last three years of secondary education, which we explored through autoethnographic narrative vignettes. One of the unique features of the flexible hybrid mode of this module was to provide distance learning students with the choice to either visit the campus to attend in-venue sessions or visit regional centres for a simultaneous broadcast of the in-venue session via Zoom. Alternatively, students could watch sessions via YouTube streaming and participate in the webinar chat on their own devices. If none of these options was possible, they could watch the recording via the learning management system (LMS) after the event. Although academic staff members were largely prepared to move learning engagements online when the pandemic struck in 2020, the biggest challenge was to implement all assessments online, whilst maintaining academic rigour and validity without compromising student agency, and limiting students’ freedom (Crosslin et al., 2018; Czerniewicz et al., 2020; Mbembe, 2016). Drawing on our assessment practices and following a year of much disruption because of the COVID-19 pandemic, our observation of heated online debates on the ethical implications of online proctoring (Hodges & Barbour, 2021), and the mental health of students, we consider what inclusive online assessment practices may look like in the future.


In response to the unique needs of Southern African students, in February 2020, our institution launched the Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) in the Senior Phase and Further Education and Training distance learning programme. The primary objective of this accredited programme was to equip graduates from non-education fields with the necessary educational theory, pedagogical skills, and teaching methodologies to become qualified beginner teachers. The PGCE specifically targeted mature students, who had completed a degree at some point in the past, and were seeking to enhance their pedagogical knowledge alongside their existing content knowledge through accessible and flexible learning approaches.

To provide practical training, students were placed in selected schools nationwide and supported through structured Work Integrated Learning (WIL) processes. These placements offered valuable teaching practice and diverse experiences in various schooling contexts throughout the regions.

The PGCE Life Science for the FET phase specialisation aims to provide entry-level professional preparation for individuals holding undergraduate degrees or approved diplomas. It focuses on developing specialised knowledge and skills for teaching Life Sciences to students in Grades 10-12 of the South African schooling system. The programme attracts a diverse range of students with qualifications spanning from undergraduate degrees in microbiology to environmental sciences and even includes some doctorate (PhD) degree holders.

One significant aspect of this programme is its affordability as it offers reasonable student fees. Coupled with the flexible distance learning mode of learning, the PGCE programme plays a pivotal role in advancing teacher education in Southern Africa.

In this chapter, we focus on the Teaching Life Sciences module whose outcomes include, but are not limited to, engagement with the South African Curriculum Assessment Policy Statements (CAPS), educational theories related to the teaching of Life Sciences, the use of Information and Communication Technology (ICTs) to teach Life Sciences, an exploration of learning preferences, and the development of lesson plans. It should be noted that the CAPS curriculum for the FET phase, which our pre-service science teachers are prepared to use when they become classroom teachers, has three specific aims as highlighted below by the Department of Basic Education (DBE, 2011, pp. 13–17):

Our students are geographically dispersed, culturally diverse and represent a broad spectrum of experiences ranging from recent graduates to highly experienced practitioners. Students can choose between a 12-month full-time and 18-month part-time distance learning offering with options to further extend their study if necessary. Learning is facilitated mainly online with on-ground support at distributed learning centres. Inequities that still exist in this context include varying degrees of access to the internet, different levels of preparedness, life, health and family demands (Cross & Atinde, 2015).  

Considering the profile of our students and aligning the module to the CAPS curriculum for pre-service teachers to teach this curriculum in schools, we aim for assessment design of online assessments that are authentic, rigorous, fair and aligned with the outcomes of the module. We consider the time demands in terms of the credits and we acknowledge the diversity of students in terms of gender, health, ability, and the availability of technology. We aim for inclusive assessment to promote student agency and self-regulation, as well as modelling practices that our students as current and future educators may adopt. These practices challenge the examination-based norm characteristic of the typical distance learning model which, when moved online, by default, require much-contested proctoring.


Although we recognise the literature on learning design as addressing diverse student needs through flexible and hybrid approaches, flexible assessment is under-researched and “has only recently gained attention in scholarly research” (Wanner & Palmer 2015, p. 357). We acknowledge Achille Mbembe’s (2016, p. 31) warning against higher education “substituting this goal of free pursuit of knowledge for another, the pursuit of credits. It is replacing scientific capacity and addiction to study and inquiry by salesman-like proficiency” (Mbembe, 2016, p. 31). Therefore, we argue for the creation of opportunities to conceptualise and challenge the role of formative and summative assessment and how these can be mediated and supported online.

In this chapter, we discuss five inclusive online assessment practices, namely conversational, practical, collaborative, reflective, and applicational, that we found to be supportive of student learning and which were intended to promote inclusion, access and equity for our distance learning students.

We followed a collaborative autoethnographic (CAE) approach (Chang et al., 2012) with the first author (Oluwakemi) as the lecturer providing an insider perspective, in dialogue with the second author (Jolanda) in the role of the instructional designer. Jolanda had recently joined the institution and was tasked with facilitating the migration of the PGCE programme to a new LMS. Five online conversation sessions between the two authors were conducted via MS Teams and recorded. These sessions totalled just over four hours between 20 August 2021 and 28 September 2021. The vignettes were conceptualised during these dialogue sessions and the quotes for each inclusive practice were derived from Oluwakemi’s insider perspective as the lecturer.



We present the five inclusive online assessment practices as vignettes, using selected quotes by the lecturer to sketch our stories, scenarios and situations (Hill, 1997) in written and pictorial form. This approach enables us to reflect on and interpret the “actions and occurrences that allow situational context to be explored and influential variables to be elucidated” (Barter & Renold, 1999). The inclusive online practices that we selected demonstrated a range of characteristics across the different categories. The inclusive online assessment practices were categorised based on their prominent characteristics.

Conversational inclusive online assessment practices 

During semesters 1 and 2, we employed conversational inclusive online assessment practices in two spaces, in discussion forums in semesters 1 and 2 for summative purposes,  and in the live chat room sessions for formative purposes. 

When you make it conversational it reduces the isolation of students because everybody is somewhere alone … tools that could make students engaged even when they don’t see one another.

The discussion forum provided an asynchronous text-based conversational platform for the students. Students were asked to discuss and critique one another’s “Introduction to writing lesson plans and designing a practical task from the Environmental Studies’ Strand in the CAPS Curriculum” topics in semesters 1 and 2 respectively. The forum discussion assignments spanned two to three weeks and the groups typically included around 44 students. Notifications were sent out as soon as someone made a post, alerting the others to pay attention and respond where needed. The discussion forum in semester 1 counted for 5% of the total grade for the semester, and 10% for semester 2. Our experience is that grading provides some incentive for students to actively participate.

When you say it is for marks, then everybody wants to participate.

Through our autoethnographic reflections, we discovered that asynchronous conversational assessment methods were suitable for mature students studying online and at a distance. It gave them the necessary flexibility to balance study and life commitments. Asynchronous text-based conversations afforded these students a platform to reflect on their classroom practices through narratives and to share and discuss these with their fellow students.

We cannot easily teach them all this information in one year.

The live chat room sessions, facilitated by the lecturer, usually took place on Monday evenings from 19h00 to 20h00. A live synchronous text-based (no audio or video) platform was created on the LMS, for engagement and support that are informal and formative assessment that was not graded, but students received real-time feedback. Chats were set for specific time slots and hosted on the LMS. The chat room was not compulsory and provided one large thread of conversation that could be accessed afterwards at any time, as a resource. Prompted by questions, the students were keen to share their experiences and queries while interacting with the lecturer and their peers. They were able to access immediate feedback on academic issues which reduced one-on-one email queries and correspondence with the lecturer. Also, through the chat room conversations, non-academic issues could be addressed, for example, when the lecturer assisted students with technical questions or referred them to the relevant support unit to investigate any technical challenges that students might have had with the LMS.

The issue of lecturing where you just lecture and go, I think it’s not working in this generation. We have to also teach … We have to engage them. So, we need feedback. When you have feedback from them (the students), it also informs your practice as a lecturer.

Mature PGCE students can engage more independently but undergraduate students need more guidance. Students also need to be given clear instructions and be made aware of the ground rules, guidelines or rules of engagement.

One of the things I’ve learned is to give detailed instructions, so you don’t get floods of emails.

We found that a lecturer can manage groups of up to 40 students, but not more, preferably with the assistance of a tutor. The lecturer must actively facilitate the discussion forum and intervene where needed. Where recurring issues appear, the lecturer can address those issues during a live online session.

We learned that it is important to provide clear instructions, including word count as a guide, and a detailed rubric. In the future, we want to consider how we can promote students’ engagement with indigenous knowledge content and how to take conversational assessments forward on the LMS.

This conversational assessment … enabled us to get more from the students, to teach more … It also informed, helped the lecturer to also know what are some of the challenges that they (the students) faced.

Practical inclusive online assessment practices 

Two practical assessments were introduced in the year: the heart dissection in semester 1 and the science project in semester 2, each counted 30% of the total mark for the respective semesters. The practical inclusive assessment practice described in this chapter is the heart dissection assignment. It covered the content of the dissection of the mammalian heart and speaks to Specific Aim 2 of Life Sciences in the CAPS curriculum: doing science or practical investigations. It constituted 30% of the year mark. 

The fact that the module was offered through distance learning did not lessen the importance of practical assessments as part of the curriculum. Specific Aim 2 outlines seven skills that relate to doing practical work in Life Sciences: 

Therefore, for the PGCE pre-service teachers to be competent in doing practical work in the classroom as future teachers, their teacher training program should expose them to a range of skills that relate to practical work in Life Sciences. 

The assignment spans semesters 1 and 2. In semester 1, the focus is on how to dissect, measure, draw and present the outcomes of the experiment. In semester 2, the focus is on project-based learning and how to design projects around the topics of environmental studies, health and circulatory systems. Students have six weeks to complete the assignment which comprises two equally weighted parts. Part A focuses on the studying of a range of skills and designing scientific investigations and part B involves a video presentation by the student. For part A, students are required to provide a three-page write-up on the range of skills that relate to “doing” practical work in Life Sciences. Using the CAPS document for Life Sciences (Grades 10 to 12), students are required to select one scientific investigation that can be carried out at home, perform the investigation, take pictures of the process and formulate a scientific report on the investigation, including a discussion of the required safety measures. In part B of the assignment, students are required to produce a five minute video of themselves dissecting the heart of a cow, sheep, or pig obtained from a butchery, showing the various parts of the heart. The video must be accompanied by a list of required apparatus, an annotated diagram of the dissected organ and a discussion of the safety measures.

Distance learning students would not normally have access to equipment and materials as would be the case for contact learning students. In 2020, due to the COVID-19 protocols and movement restrictions, this assignment was specifically challenging because students did not have easy access to materials for practical assessments, for example, organs in this case, to execute the assignment and hence they often had to compromise.

The aim of practical assignments is to help students gain confidence in carrying out practical assessments in the classroom without fear of making mistakes, to encourage them to find resources and to improvise in cases where resources are limited.  Holstermann, Grube and Bögeholz (2010) argue in “support of designing biology lessons that allow for experiences with hands-on activities that also interest students”. Thus, not only was the acquisition of the range of skills emphasised in the assignments, development of the pre-service science teachers in practical work/hands-on activities was also considered. According to the feedback received from the students’ reflections at the end of semester 1, the heart dissection assignment was for many of them the most interesting of all the assessments.

These pre-service teachers will be teaching FET phase students who must be able to design and plan a simple investigation or experiment. This would require them to identify a problem, offer a hypothesis, select apparatus or equipment and/or materials, identify variables, suggest ways of controlling variables, plan an experiment, suggest ways of recording results, and understand the need for replication or verification. It is therefore an important assessment at the PGCE level. However, some PGCE students find it challenging to do practical work. During the hard lockdowns of 2020, when some people could not travel, the practical task was adapted to compensate for the fact that they couldn’t all get access to a butchery. Those students who were unable to source a real organ were required to develop a model of the heart from recycled materials from home. One student built a model of the heart using bread dough. 

She’s made the heart, using several materials to make the bread dough, and now she has labelled the different parts of the heart for demonstration.

This process prepared the teachers quite well to negotiate challenging circumstances, innovate and compensate for a lack of resources. This project prepared teachers for the kind of resilience needed for teaching in South Africa and it helped develop their confidence. 

One of my students said, I could carry out this practical activity, I know what to do, (even) if I don’t have all the equipment – I can make a plan

We concluded that practical work is important in the classroom, especially for life sciences and natural sciences subjects. Practical work can bring the theory to life and make it real for the students, especially distance learning students who don’t always have easy access to a learning community.  

… because I don’t see the students, I must be creative as a lecturer, it will give them that confidence and competence when they go to class, when they become teachers …

As a lecturer, it is important to model the behaviour that you want your students, in turn, to model to their learners when they, themselves, become the teachers.

Collaborative inclusive online assessment practices 

In semester 1, a scenario was created as a collaborative forum (Wiki) and students were required to reflect on the pedagogical skills that they developed. This assessment counted for 5% of the total semester mark. Students were asked to identify, explain, and share their practical experiences of teaching methods that worked and those that they observed from others. Students were invited to engage asynchronously by sharing experiences including direct instruction group work, teaching methods, field trips and lessons learned from their mentor-teachers as part of the teaching practice module. These inputs could be text-based but also include pictures, other images and audio if needed.

We did not explicitly set out the ground rules. Instead, we relied on our expectation that postgraduate students should be familiar with the basic rules of online engagement. The lecturer’s presence was visible, and he regularly added comments and responses. The Wiki was different from the discussion forum in that it was about students building content and receiving comments from their peers. The frequency of the student inputs differed and the discussion forum was more like a conversation – it provided more immediate responses.

Some of these students have higher degrees, they bring in their knowledge … Some of them even include links in their arguments, references, they substantiate their arguments.

Assessments are not typically considered to be collaborative. However, the essence of this online assessment is to bring the students together to critique each other’s ideas constructively.

… Everybody was there … you go there, you post comments, you criticise … you say, “Oh why don’t you do it this way, why don’t you do it that way?” In that collaboration where they were helping one another … it must be a kind of constructive criticism and interaction … so some people would just go there … it wasn’t that I grouped them …  it’s just an open space, where you can go and say, “Okay, I like what you’re doing but why don’t you add this to this?” And then she will respond and say, ‘Okay ja okay,  it’s a good idea.” … and then they were also able to see what others were writing and that made it kind of interesting.

Students were assessed on their inputs of ideas for a practical task including annotated drawings and text. They were also required to comment on the post of a fellow student as well as comment on a reply to a post. These inputs were assessed based on the logic of their designs, the clarity, and the quality of drawings, annotations and text. We planned the collaborative assessment to be peer-assessed, but the students felt that they didn’t have the competence and therefore, in the end, we abandoned peer assessment. Although peer assessment did not work in this case, students still reported how much they learned from each other.

In her reflection, one of the students explained how this assignment helped her to see how talented her peers were, and it encouraged her appreciation for the discipline of teaching.

 … by giving them (students) the power, it’s not only the teacher that (sic) knows everything.

In this collaborative environment, they (students) are able to see ways to do experiments … they were able to help each other …

We learned that collaboration in the Wiki forum gave students the power to generate content, innovate and share ideas. It was important to give them the rubric upfront, as a guide, so that students could understand how they would be assessed. We acknowledge that it is difficult to measure and assess student ownership and reflection; these are issues that we wish to further explore in the future. Additionally, qualitatively assessing peer-to-peer engagement in a forum, beyond simply counting the instances of engagement, remains challenging.

It showed us the importance of participation and highlighted that we must teach more than lecturing.

This collaborative inclusive assessment did not involve group work. However, we are planning to explore group work in the distance learning space. For example, we are considering how to accommodate formal and informal online platforms for engagement. We found that the Wiki was less successful in terms of student participation. The online system had glitches, and, in the end, the students couldn’t engage properly.  

Reflective inclusive online assessment practices 

In each semester, there is a reflective writing assessment that counts for 5% of the total semester mark. PGCE students were asked to reflect critically, in theoretically informed ways, on the teaching skills acquired through the life sciences module in both semesters respectively. They were asked to reflect on what they learned and how they would apply this knowledge as professional teachers, in the future. In addition, through the student reflections, it was possible to establish whether and how the goals and objectives of the module have been met, where the students’ weaknesses are, and how to improve the module in the future.

The most common topics that the students reflected on were the practicals, lesson planning and teaching methods. The PGCE students reflected on their desire to engage their learners rather than do all the talking, overcoming obstacles and classroom resource limitations through innovative solutions. Others commented on the role of technology in the classroom and the need for them to demonstrate concepts to learners in the most practical and tangible ways.

The rubric for the assessment included five main criteria: the acquisition of skills, analysis, implementation, language use and format. The reflections had to clearly explain the students’ thinking and their learning processes as well as the implications for future learning. Students were required to provide an analysis of their learning experiences, the value of the derived learning to themselves and others and their appreciation for the discipline. Furthermore, students had to provide examples to explain how they would implement the pedagogical skills in the classroom environment. A clear layout and sophisticated use of language and vocabulary, grammar, punctuation and spelling were rewarded.

Student reflections ranged from the practical to the philosophical including the factors to consider when selecting a textbook for teaching life sciences in the classroom when they become professional teachers. According to William Bragg (1959 cited in Shour, 2019, p. 2), “the fun in science lies not in discovering facts, but in discovering new ways of thinking about them”. 

You could hear their own voices coming through.

Two prominent themes that emerged from their reflections are their understanding of the value of collaboration, learning from their peers and the potential to innovate to overcome ordinary challenges associated with the schooling context in South Africa.

The textbook is not the only resource you can use. You can use a bottle of water, for example.

An important unintended outcome of the reflective online assessment is the value that it holds for lecturers to help them reflect on their teaching and how to improve their modules.

Another thing that I picked up was that students who come from backgrounds such as the Sciences were not used to doing qualitative research. These came out of their reflection.

We acknowledge the value of reflection as a teaching and assessment tool, as well as a tool for the lecturer to reflect and act on towards ongoing improvement of the module content and teaching. Perhaps we underestimate the value of feedback as an assessment practice which can also inform lecturer reflection and inform teaching. The student reflections displayed evidence of sense-making by the students, of what they observed and experienced. However, the reflections were not specifically critical, which could be a result of the way that the rubric was formulated. In the future, we could revisit the rubric to include a requirement for critical reflection and the interrogation of their ideas.

Applicational inclusive online assessment practices  

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the general reliance on invigilated, venue-based examinations which tended to focus on testing students’ memory and information retention.  Moving these assessments online meant that in-venue invigilation was no longer possible, thus driving requests for online proctoring. However, proctoring is understandably highly contentious on the grounds of social justice and the privacy of students. As suggested by Crosslin et al. (2018), “more authentic ways of assessing what was learned” (p. 112) need to be sought, to replace these high-stakes standardised testing because the problem with standardised testing based on rote memorisation is that “the answers are the same for everyone – and typically already on Wikipedia or some other website somewhere” (p. 114).

We introduced a time-based lesson planning assessment in semester 1 and a research proposal development assessment in semester 2, each counting 15% towards the total semester mark. Both these assessments, which took the form of online workshop activities and the submission of written work, relied on students’ application of their knowledge and understanding, rather than memory retention.  These assessments required students to apply judgement, synthesise and make sense of the given situation.

 When the students go and do some work, they’re producing an output.

For the research proposal, students were required to identify a topic that represents a challenge in the teaching and learning of Life Sciences in South Africa. They then had to contextualise the problem, select and discuss relevant literature and identify any gaps. The idea was for the activity to be done via a workshop tool available on the LMS. The workshop is a valuable peer assessment activity where students add submissions which are then distributed amongst their peers for assessment. However, many students felt that they did not have adequate foundations in research knowledge and skills from their previous qualifications to properly review the work of their peers.

In addition, students were required to complete 12 weekly involvement trackers per semester, making up 10% of the mark for each semester. The involvement trackers were short weekly quizzes to test what was taught in the previous week. We wanted to ensure that students engaged with the live online sessions which were recorded or pre-recorded lectures, PowerPoint slides, and other resources uploaded on the LMS for the week in focus. Although not all 12 involvement trackers required knowledge application, some were applicational in the sense that students were required to do some research, find the right answers and develop solutions. They were required to draw on what they learned weekly and apply that knowledge to a new situation to demonstrate, not only what they know, but also what they can do. The applicational inclusive online assessment practice draws on the other four practices namely conversational, practical, collaborative and reflective.

Although the workshop activity was not executed as we had planned, the student proposals were submitted through Turnitin and assessed by the lecturer. We learned that we cannot assume that students with previous degrees have adequate knowledge of research methodology. We discovered that there should be provision in the module design for the teaching of fundamental research principles and techniques especially education-focused research work. We also found that, although some students felt overwhelmed by the frequency of the weekly involvement trackers, it kept students on their toes which ultimately helped to improve their performance.

Although there may be specific circumstances that require invigilated sit-down or proctored online assessments like professional examinations, most sit-down exams can be replaced by applicational online assessments. We are currently piloting a proctoring solution at the institution. However, we are aware of the critiques of online proctoring, and therefore we aim to use this practice selectively, and where possible, allow students to select their preference for each assessment instance. This principle aligns with the institutional aim of student-centredness and the flexible mode of learning to, where possible, always allow students a choice.

Reflection and imagination

In this chapter, we discussed five inclusive online assessment practices: conversational, practical, collaborative, reflective and applicational. The discussion forum and the chat room provided examples of conversational inclusive online assessment practice, the heart dissection, and the science project illustrated practical inclusive online assessment practices. A collaborative inclusive online assessment practice was achieved by the Wiki, and reflective writing was an example of a reflective inclusive online assessment practice. Finally, the lesson planning assignment and the research proposal development assignments offered opportunities for applicational assessment practices, providing alternatives to sit-down exams.

Through our investigation, we have identified a common factor that hampers success in various online assessment practices: the inflexible time constraint. This prompts us to inquire about the specific contexts and circumstances in which the imposition of time limits would genuinely benefit students in their assessment endeavours. Essentially, we aim to determine when time becomes a critical factor for measuring competence and when its influence diminishes. To gain deeper insights, future research should explore innovative assessment designs that transcend the mere acquisition of credits and instead foster a genuine pursuit of knowledge (Mbembe, 2016, p. 31). Moreover, it is crucial to examine the potential role that private higher education institutions can play in realising this ambitious vision.


Illustrations by Mariana Morkel.


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Oluwakemi Adebayo

STADIO Higher Education

Dr Adebayo is the Academic Manager at the STADIO School of Education on the Centurion mega campus and lecturer for the Postgraduate Certificate Education programme for Teaching Agricultural Science in the Further Education and Training. He is the former Head of Academics and has over 20 years lecturing experience including work at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the University of South Africa. Dr. Adebayo’s research focuses on Inclusive and alternative Assessment, Critical pedagogy, and University-Community Engagement, including a peer-reviewed journal article with Dr. Ronicka Mudaly entitled ‘Creating a Decolonised Curriculum to Address Food Insecurity among University Students’.
Jolanda De Villiers Morkel

STADIO Higher Education

Jolanda Morkel is the Head of Instructional Design at STADIO Higher Education since January 2021. During her former 20 year academic career at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, she designed, coordinated, and facilitated various transformative learning and teaching interventions employing innovative learning technologies. These blended and flexible student-centred learning interventions were designed to serve culturally diverse, non-traditional, and working students to promote access, diversity, and inclusion at the University. Her current research focuses on learning experience design, studio-based education, and design thinking for higher education. Jolanda Morkel is a Professional licenced Architect.

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