Technology shapes how we live our lives, the way we carry out our work and the social habits we develop. It affects not only how we do things but changes the nature of the tasks themselves. For example, online shopping achieves the same ends as in-store shopping - i.e. the shopper purchases and receives goods – but the task itself is different; we buy things from the comfort of our homes, rather than wandering the aisles of items on display. The process is not the only thing that changes - the task itself takes on a new meaning. If technology transforms such basic tasks in our daily lives, we might expect it to shape the nature of assessment itself.

What is assessment for learning?

“Assessment” commonly brings to mind a test or examination of knowledge or skills, but in our study[i] the focus was on classroom practice and formative assessment, sometimes known as ‘assessment for learning.’ This was part of a European project (Fasmed)[ii] which aimed to explore the ways in which digital technology was used by mathematics and science teachers to improve student achievement. Our starting point was that formative assessment is a process involving both teachers and students, in which evidence of student learning is used to adapt teaching and learning so it meets students’ needs. We captured the essence of this process in four stages (Ask-Answer-Analyse-Adapt) and mapped what we saw happening in classrooms, with and without technology.

Our research focused on the questions: How do teachers obtain, process and present formative assessment data from students using digital technology? How do teachers inform and adapt their future teaching using such data? The findings provide insight into the transformative effects of digital technology on student learning. Our exploration also leads to some interesting conclusions about the power of digital technology in assessment more generally.

How do teachers use technology for assessment?

It soon became clear that teachers used a wide variety of packages and apps but many of these would simply mimic mathematical tasks that could otherwise be carried out on paper. The basic task and mathematical thinking remained unchanged from a paper-based task so the obvious questions to ask next were: Why did they use digital technology rather than paper? What were the benefits?

From further analysis, we could see benefits for teachers in the speed of communication and accessibility of information. The technology could assist teachers by collecting information about student performance, processing it and quickly making it accessible. Teachers could view summary data for the whole class, or track what an individual student was doing, or display student work on the board for discussion. This allowed them to follow the learning as it was taking place and adapt the lesson to meet students’ needs. For students there were advantages such as receiving feedback more speedily than could be achieved when handing in work on paper to then be marked and given back later.

There were, however, some disadvantages. The quality of computer-generated feedback was often considered inferior by students compared to that provided by their teachers and the lack of permanence of their on-screen work also caused problems. Drawing accurately on screen was challenging, as I am sure many teachers have witnessed. These observations illustrate how technology changed operational aspects even when the task itself was similar.

How can digital assessment change learning?

We were particularly interested in examples where the nature of the task was radically modified and technology opened up a different type of mathematical thinking. For example, exploring the properties of graphs or how shapes tessellate on screen involves different forms of activity from paper-based approaches. With less reliance on practical competencies (e.g. drawing accurately) and an increased capacity for students to transform representations electronically, tasks are reshaped into explorations of mathematical relationships that are difficult to achieve on paper.

We also found that when students can move fairly independently through an electronic learning package, the teacher acts as a facilitator and guide, whilst in other scenarios the technology is a useful means of communication and source of data but the teacher remains the orchestrator and instructor. The ability of teachers to adapt and shift between roles seems to be a crucial but frequently overlooked factor in the effective use of technology in classrooms.

What is the impact of the digital revolution on assessment?

With formative assessment we see clear gains in the efficiency of data gathering, processing and communication but also the potential for new ways of thinking mathematically, accompanied by changes in the role of the teacher. Just as the task of online shopping differs from a visit to the supermarket, so does the role of the online shopper who selects items from their armchair compared to the person who pushes a trolley around a store to purchase the same items. Once we venture into technologically-mediated forms of assessment we should be prepared to be challenged - not just by changes in the operations involved but in the nature of the tasks themselves and the roles of the users.

As part of AQi’s work, we are inviting people from a wide range of viewpoints to engage with us on a wide range of topics. We welcome alternative views to help stimulate discussion and ideas. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent the views of AQi or AQA.

[i] Dalby D. and Swan M., (2019), ‘Using digital technology to enhance formative assessment in mathematics classrooms’, British Journal of Educational Technology - Wiley Online Library

[ii] The Formative Assessment in Science and Mathematics Education (Fasmed) project was an international EU-funded research project that aimed to expand knowledge of technologically enhanced teaching and assessment.