As a society, we have already embarked on what is known as the ‘fourth industrial revolution’, one in which technology permeates every aspect of our lives like never before. Advanced technologies have fundamentally transformed many everyday functions and processes, changing the way we live, work, and interact with one another.
Digital assistants such as Amazon Echo, Siri or Google Home are now common fixtures within peoples’ homes. Self-driving cars have gone from sci-fi imaginings to a very real possibility, with leading automotive brands already trialling them on our roads. Even those industries typically thought of as more traditional, such as banking, have transformed operations beyond recognition from that of a decade ago, granting us fingertip accessibility to our finances and instant payments.
Very few industries remain untouched by the advent of new technologies, yet the pace of change has varied considerably within each. It is clear that some sectors are significantly more advanced and innovative than others. Where does assessment sit within this, and what can we learn from those ahead of us?
This question was at the centre of debate during our recent RM roundtable event, co-hosted by The National Agency for Education, Lithuania.
Acknowledging that assessment is somewhat further behind than other industries, Roberto Hortal, Head of Innovation at RM, suggested that the point in the cycle at which technology is introduced is crucial if we are to replicate their success. He said:
“There is an element of inertia that we need to consider with technology adoption. If you think about buying a new smart car, the technology is already embedded within the vehicle when you get it, so you embrace it because you’ve paid for it. The technology is present at the start of your relationship with that car.
“In terms of assessment, because of a lack of experience using technology in the process, people don’t embrace it because they don't know any other way. If a young child is given a bit of technology and is told to take a test, they do it, and that is how ‘testing’ becomes known to them. If you ask someone that has become used to taking paper tests for most of their life to start using technology as a formative assessment tool, it is more likely to be met with resistance, as it’s out of the bounds of the ‘normal’ learning process they have become accustomed to.
“We have an opportunity at the beginning of a cycle to introduce new technology to the user – this could be introducing it to teachers or pupils that are new to the school, or following the creation of a new learning environment.”
“We also need to think carefully about what the motivation is for people to embrace the product. For example, I wear my smart watch not just because it can tell me about my health and fitness, but also because it’s stylish and I like showing it off. In assessment, yes, we want to make the lives of learners, teachers, and examiners easier through technology, but we also want to make it more enjoyable. Motivations are not always purely functional; they are also emotional and social, so we need to address the entire scope of this and not just the utility.”
Matt Wingfield, Chair of the e-Assessment Association, agreed that motivation is key to technology take up on a significant scale. He said:
“We have to provide our stakeholders with a reason to engage with the technology. In the context of assessment, there is still a degree of uncertainty about how technology is going to help, particularly amongst teachers. The view that technology is a threat persists. To try and counteract that view, when I talk to teachers about AI, I refer to the ‘A’ as augmented, rather than artificial, intelligence. The shift in meaning there is significant – it’s about supporting teachers to do their job better, rather than artificially trying to replace or replicate them.
“I think the biggest challenge of technology adoption in the assessment industry is that people simply don’t yet understand what technology can do. We need to articulate that better. It’s about trying to support and not trying to replace. It’s about trying to give more insight to teachers and examiners. It’s helping teachers to understand how they can improve their practices. Technology can really help because it provides data insights and understanding about how to move forward.
“As a sector, we are still quite early on in our adoption of technology. However, there is light at the end of the tunnel, and that is growing brighter all the time as people bravely step forward and try new things.
“In terms of industries we can aspire to, I think the banking industry sets a good example, which has seen a monumental leap in quite a short space of time. The majority of the population engages with online banking because they know what they are going to get as a benefit: quick, instant access to functionality that they need to be able to control their money. It is interesting that people don’t give a second thought to the fact that they are using technology to access sensitive information. That’s where we want to get to with e-assessment. The focus should not be on the technology itself, but on what it enables people to do.”
Slowly but surely, the assessment industry is acknowledging and embracing the role it needs to play in the fourth industrial revolution. Rather than rushing into large scale digital transformation, the focus needs to be on ensuring that change is driven by pedagogical improvements, with the right technology used as an enabler. Keeping the learner’s needs at the heart of such change will drive the sector to continue to evolve in the right way, developing more meaningful assessments to equip learners with the skills needed to thrive in a changing world.