6 September 2021

Where is digital assessment going?

By Ian Castledine – Head of Proposition for Assessment at RM
Where is digital assessment going?
For digital assessments to be the way forward, how much of a culture change will be needed in the school system to embrace edutech disruption?

It would require significant cultural change but one that we know, from the shift to remote learning over lockdown, schools and other education institutions are more than capable of facilitating.

We know from our own research that many teachers lack confidence with Edtech and that many of them feel they would benefit from more training in this area so making school staff feel more au fait with technology is where schools should really be starting. Of course, in order to upskill teachers support them in their continued professional development, they need to be allowed the time to do so – something that we all know teachers, and schools, currently lack. What’s more, a lack of funding is also a major blocker for training teachers. Whilst some Edtech solutions are not overly costly in themselves, in order to get the best use out of any new tool, people need to be offered the time and knowledge to utilise them effectively – and that comes at a price. School budgets are universally tight, with some particularly acute pressures in the FE sector and within small schools where the current funding formula struggles to keep up with the fixed costs of running a school, regardless of its size.

One area we do need a culture change in order to facilitate more innovative adoption of Edtech, and in particular digital assessment tech, is to address the fact that in England we have a single system that assess pupils and also holds school to account (think GCSE league tables etc). But that comes with its own set of challenges, especially given that it is arguable that schools are actively discouraged from trying new approaches of assessing pupils. Take, for example, the iGCSE: that was very popular amongst independent schools, international schools and others that wanted to offer a different (many would argue, richer and more robust) curriculum and assessment approach to the traditional path. But as soon as the iGCSE no longer counted towards league tables in 2014/2015 it’s popularity in England plummeted almost overnight, despite it remaining hugely popular in many other countries. Why? Did the pupils suddenly have different needs, or was the assessment no longer of high quality? No, of course not – it’s all because of a political change from the top. This needs to change.

Same question as above but with regards to the university system,
especially in light of Gavin Williamson's recent comments?

We have been speaking to a lot Universities, and their students, over the last few months, both in the UK and internationally and Gavin Willamson’s comments seem to be out of keeping with what’s happening on the ground. Yes, students should be getting value for their fees but value does not necessarily equal lecture time. And more widely we need to remember that tuition fees are not a “fixed price for fixed outcome” transaction. On the one hand, the student needs to do their bit, otherwise they will not earn the degree outcome they want. On the other hand the re-payment of fees (if funded via the standard Student Loan approach) is more akin to a graduate tax than it is a typical bank loan. Both of these facts have a bearing on the value for money debate.

But, back to the topic of lectures and specifically face-to-face lectures - the notion of flipped learning is a highly positive one and is rightly gaining a lot of traction in a wide range of educational settings. In fact, the University sector was arguably somewhat behind the curve on this thinking prior to the pandemic – with the face-to-face lecture still the dominant model for most programmes of study. Whilst flipped learning was not the only response needed help students carry on with their studying during the pandemic, the notion of moving the large scale, impersonal, “chalk and talk” lectures into an online, on-demand, anywhere model was a key step. And in the vast majority of cases student actually prefer this. These pre-recoded lectures, can for example, be re-watched as part of revision, and paused to allow notetaking without missing the content. You can’t do that when sat with 500 others in a stuffy lecture hall. Most universities I speak to are clear – Students don’t want “old style” lectures back and in most cases they have no institutional desire for them either – they are gone for good and that is no bad thing.

So does that mean that contact time between educator and learner can be, or will be, reduced? Of course not. Most that I speak to are already delivering the same level of contact time but in a much more impactful way – smaller groups, collaboration sessions, workshops and seminars all feature highly. Every one of these is more personal and engaging than a traditional lecture. In fact, one university I spoke to in Australia is already planning how they will physically remove some of their lecture halls and replace them with these smaller, multipurpose spaces.

And back to the point about value for money – value is far more likely to measured by looking at a student’s degree outcome combined with their learning experience, than it is by counting the number of hours they spend sat in a lecture theatre.

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