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Assessment Blog

16th March 2021

The most authentic assessment is digital

Peter Collison

Digital technologies were a saviour in the early days of the pandemic – and again during the second, and now third, national lockdown. Yet, it begs the question: has COVID-19 been the catalyst to a much more digitally-enabled education system, or is digital adoption just a passing trend simply designed to mitigate the impact on traditional learning? 

Simply put, we have come so far that I truly believe this will be an inflexion point for the sector. For schools, colleges and universities, technology should not be seen as a problem-solver to a one-off crisis, but instead as something that enhances and enables what we are all here to do: support the improvement of educational outcomes around the world.

In a world of remote teaching and social distancing, schools and exam boards face the significant challenge of re-thinking the ways exams and assessments are delivered to learners. Educational institutions should look to technology now more than ever to ensure assessments can be conducted successfully and in an authentic, meaningful way. Why? Because assessment doesn’t have the choice of standing still – the lives of learners have not stopped, their aspirations and goals for the future have not vanished and so the role that assessment plays in their learning journey also can’t grind to a halt.

Why digital assessment?

Digital assessment is much more than a practical tool to assist remote teaching; instead, it’s about offering young people the best possible quality of education and allowing them to prove their capability in a credible way. While in many cases, universities have been flying the flag for digital assessments for some time, schools and the FE sector are now starting to embrace it too.

Technology is already widely embedded within the everyday lives and learning experiences of students, and yet digital assessment technologies often lag behind, thus creating a weakness in the overall system. Unlike the paper and pen, through digital testing and assessment, teachers gain a much deeper understanding of how students learn and their overall approach to tasks. Similarly, learners can benefit from a much more engaging assessment experience and in many cases, can receive immediate feedback on their performance which allows for short cycle interventions to address gaps in understanding.

Developing real-world and on-the-job skills

All too often exams have become removed from the working world, yet in experience, pupils are hungry for learning and assessments that are more akin to what they’d be doing in the ‘real’ world of work and life. A great example is accountancy accreditation where we are already assessing students using exactly the same technology/IT they use in their day jobs.

As we move increasingly towards a ‘skills society’, and against the backdrop of a rapidly-evolving jobs market driven by automation and AI (artificial intelligence), as well as a drive in new technical jobs – such as coders and developers – there is a very strong argument that assessments need to reflect this wider range of skills.

“Additionally, digital assessment also provides a wealth of data. This means teachers and examination organisations can generate a much greater level of actionable insights, and in turn, drive improvements to both the learner taking the assessment and to the assessment itself.”

We are seeing great examples of modern assessment design, combined with powerful digital assessment technology that provides an assessment experience that’s ‘Google-proof’, whilst still focusing on higher order skills like knowledge interpretation and application, communication, problem-solving and increasingly testing team-work and collaboration skills.

Higher quality and improved hours

Not only is digital assessment a better approach to the modern job market and a more authentic experience for the learner, but it can also open-up a world of benefits for teachers, examiners and awarding organisations. As Ofsted reported, teachers work 12 hours a day – more than the average full-time employee. However, there’s growing evidence that digital assessment can play a key role in reducing elements of this workload.

With the appropriate deployment of automation and AI, it’s entirely possible for digital assessment systems to automatically generate questions and assessment tasks to score and mark student responses and to provide, often immediate, feedback to the learner about their performance. Clearly this level of automation is not appropriate in all cases and, at no stage is the role of the teacher undermined. In fact, it’s the exact opposite; such an approach would permit the teacher to focus on high-quality interventions, leaving technology to take away much of the ‘heavy lifting’, freeing up teachers to build stronger connections with pupils.

Additionally, digital assessment also provides a wealth of data. This means teachers and examination organisations can generate a much greater level of actionable insights, and in turn, drive improvements to both the learner taking the assessment and to the assessment itself. This is a win-win situation for teachers, reducing their time spent marking while offering improved actionable feedback and insights to the benefit learners.

Improving teacher pupil relationships

Another time-saving advantage of digital assessment, when combined with good assessment and question design, is the ability to highlight ‘common misunderstandings’ in subjects, rather than just ‘wrong answers’. This equips teachers with the ability to see not only what an individual pupil has learnt, but also what they still need to learn. And quite often this can be done in real-time, allowing the teacher to make on-the-fly adjustments to their teaching.

For the learner, this results in a far more personal learning experience – especially when intertwined with the additional time that teachers gain from a the reduction in marking. What this means is that teachers can build stronger connections with individual learners and this is a virtuous circle; it can have a material impact on the learner’s engagement with their education and their eventual academic outcome.

However, it’s important to remember that no solution is one-size-fits-all, and there are different forms of assessment for different subjects, pupils and schools. For example: in subjects that often have clearly right or wrong responses (like maths and science) on-screen testing makes it far easier to enable the creation of assessments that accommodate the full range of student abilities. In more subjective areas like language, art and music for example, there’s a growing trend towards peer-to-peer assessment and using principles like adaptive comparative judgement to give a greater depth of feedback to students, allowing teachers to use their professional expertise to maximum effect.

Making the transition

Despite the undeniable benefits of digital assessment, for many educational institutions the pace and scale of transitioning to it is highly dependent on the circumstances of the organisations, whether it’s a question of funding, the needs of their pupils or the wider social context.

A great first step is to take an agile approach to the transition, starting first by introducing digital assessment for a particular subject or course of study, one where the time-saving benefits will be the most meaningful for all parties. Then – with a blended approach where teachers continue to deliver physical assessment in the interim – digital assessments can be scaled up with ease to suit a full transition in the future.

There’s been undeniable progress made to introduce technology in schools, equipping teachers and pupils with the means to continue their education despite the biggest disruption in a generation – but now it’s time to build on these new skills and appetite for change. With blended learning likely to evolve from the current focus on remote learning, the same needs to apply with assessment by embracing digital assessment as a means to supplement this new found tech-enabled commitment.

Watch Peter Collison,  Head of Formative Assessment & Schools Platforms RM talking about the impact that COVID has had on the assessment landscape and what this means for the future in this video interview for ICT for Education.

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