Groundwater-Smith and Cusworth (1998) point out that opinions about education courses are formed by individuals. Given the large amount of time and money invested in education by the state, parents, teachers and students, something more than opinion is needed to decide on how good a course, program or university is. The educational buzzwords for this are evaluation. , with evidence gathering and collegiate interpretation. But in the end it comes down to opinion, admittedly the opinion of many students, teachers, practitioners, employers and others combined together, but it is still subjective opinion. There is no objective way to evaluate a course: in the end someone has to decide what is important, based on their opinion of what is important.
Groundwater-Smith and Cusworth describe evaluation as: "... a process that allows school professionals to gather evidence in an orderly manner..." and "... well-informed judgment ...". So this is not just a matter of collecting results and adding them up.
Real Time Course Evaluation
Ideally courses are designed and tested before they are run with students. Teachers should not be using their students as involuntary experimental subjects, to try out new educational material and techniques (that would be unethical). The course should have been first designed and run through some form of evaluation, such as peers reading through the material and trying out the assessment items. But some course evaluation will could be take place in real time as a course is run, checking if the course meets the needs of the cohort of students and if there are changes needed due to circumstances.
The teacher will be looking at how students are progressing, by seeing what actvities they are undertaking. For a face to face class this would involve looking out at the class to see how many are actively engulfed. With a computer assisted class I have found I can use the Learning Management System to help with this, as I can see what students are doing. The =same can be done with distance on-line students: using the system to see who is up to where. However, the temptation to check every little thing the students are doing needs to be resisted: if the student get the feeling they are being continually watched, they will start to act in a way they think will keep the teacher happy (or they may rebel against the intrusion).
Assessed can also be used for evaluation of the course: if students have not done some of the formative assessment or are having problems with it, then the fault may be with the teaching, not the students. In my e-learning coruses I have weekly exercises for students and can see if there is a problem.
Link Between Assessment and Evaluation
It may seem obvious, but there is a link between assessment and evaluation in education. Some of the same theory and techniques can be applied to both and in some cases the same data. If an external form of assessment is used for several different courses then this can be used as a form of evaluation of the courses (allowing for differences in the students). If the same students do different courses, then their results can be compared for consistency. Also the result from the same course in previous years can be compared with the present (this is done routinely by university course examiner's meetings). If a course produces consistently lower results than other courses on the same topic or with the same students, then there may be a problem.
Groundwater-Smith and Cusworth go into detail on problems with Action research (AR), but without first explaining what it is. As far as I can work out from the Wikipedia entry, AR involves practitioners working together (in a "community of practice") to investigate current practices and improve them. But what is not clear is where the research comes into this. The average teacher does have the resources to conduct experimental research and using their students as subjects of an experiment would require ethical clearance. Having a group of teachers discuss teaching practice could be useful, but dressing it up with fancy terms does not make this "research".
Groundwater-Smith, Susan. & Cusworth, Rosie Dobbins. (1998) Teaching : challenges and dilemmas Harcourt Brace, 1998: