Technology has always been part of education. In the Greco-Roman classroom, for example, the standard form of what we now call an external memory device was the scroll. That was supplanted in the Middle Ages by the codex, which remains with us today, in the form of the book. A book is arguably a more effective piece of technology than a scroll. It’s easier and quicker to search and more easily integrated with metadata, such as page numbers, a table of contents and an index. This pre-digital educational technology isn’t going to go away. It works. Books don’t need batteries, and pencils are cheap.
In the years leading up to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, when people talked about digitising assessment, I think what many had in mind was students typing their answers to exam questions rather than using pen and paper. However, answering examination questions is not always a matter of producing text. It’s relatively straightforward to design an online interface for an examination in English literature, but a subject like A-level Maths is trickier.
The most likely scenario is that we will have a hybrid system for some time, in which paper-based and digitally delivered summative assessment coexist. That of course presents some significant challenges in ensuring comparability of standards across assessment forms. But this is an issue we face already – for instance, in tiered examinations such as GCSE Maths, or for subjects with multiple options such as A-level History. Nonetheless, these challenges, combined with practical concerns about broadband connectivity in schools, led to a general belief that digitised assessment for GCSEs and A-levels was still some way off. In fact, the pandemic showed that it was possible to adapt very rapidly to digitally enabled new ways of working, and international evidence demonstrates that the technical challenges can be overcome.
In Finland, where the school-leaving examinations resemble our A-levels more closely in style than tests in some other countries do, all external exams are now delivered 100% digitally.[i] While Finland only has about a twelfth of the population of the UK and a different educational culture, a key lesson from Finland’s implementation of digital assessment is that you have to allow time for students and teachers to get used to the technology. Once we are ready to launch digitally delivered examinations, we will need to support students and teachers through that initial period of two or three years of familiarisation.
There is also concern that digitisation could lead to unfairness. Would it place barriers in the way of students less familiar with the interface or the technology? Are those barriers more likely to be faced by students from relatively less socio-economically advantaged backgrounds? These are very important questions that should, in my view, form a key part of research and evaluation as the digital delivery of assessment gathers pace.
Digital technology opens up a whole range of possibilities, such as the ability to integrate videos into questions, or to include simulations of practical situations. But embracing the enhanced functionality of digital assessment does require us to rethink what it is that we actually want to assess. Indeed, much of the current public discussion about the future of assessment tends to focus on the curriculum – what kinds of knowledge, skills, and understanding we should be aiming to equip young people with – rather than assessment itself, which is about how we gain understanding of students’ learning with respect to those objectives. And that is quite proper, because what is valid in assessment ultimately depends on what is valued by society.
There is also a great deal of public discussion on summative assessment – that which aims to provide a warrant or assurance for the award of qualifications that attest to a level of competence in a particular domain (for example, a grade 4 in GCSE Maths, or a distinction in BTEC Health & Social Care). It is just as important, though, to consider formative assessment, exploring how the practice of educational assessment can truly support students’ learning.
Here, digital technology can offer immediate advantages. Assessment products that are designed with an understanding of how students actually learn subjects and skills can provide instant feedback to students and teachers on questions such as: ‘Where should I go next in my learning in this domain?’ ‘How do I get there most effectively?’
Formative assessments of this kind can be adaptive, tailoring assessment tasks to students depending on where they are in their learning journey. They can be integrated into digital teaching-and-learning packages, to help personalise learning support to students, and to reduce teachers’ workload.
Producing effective assessments for learning means involving students and teachers much more closely in the design and piloting of these kinds of assessments than exam boards would typically do, or indeed be able to do, for public examinations. But there is enormous scope here for using digital tools to support teachers in their day-to-day practice of assessment (much of it informal, and perhaps not even thought of as ‘assessment’) as they work with each individual student to help them realise their potential.
So, to conclude, let’s go back to that Roman classroom and have a look at what a student might be reading on their papyrus scroll. Perhaps it is an extract from the letters of the philosopher Seneca who said, ‘It’s not because things are difficult, that we don’t dare to try them: it’s because we don’t dare to try, that they are difficult’.
I suggest that now is the time to dare to try digital assessment in earnest.