Deborah Millar, Grimsby Institute, using VR headset
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Deborah Millar, Grimsby Institute, using VR headset
©Jisc and Matt Lincoln

Assessment overhaul: time to ditch pen and paper exams for good

After hundreds of years of putting pen to paper, Jisc’s new report explains why it’s time for assessment to evolve, for the sake of students, staff, and organisations. But how can colleges and universities embrace innovation and support staff to start an assessment revolution?

While other sectors are already experimenting with artificial intelligence (AI) and hyper-personalisation, how can the education sector make use of the emerging technologies and tools of the fourth industrial revolution to bring student assessment into the 21st century?

As part of its Education 4.0 vision, Jisc has joined forces with sector experts and organisations across the UK to release a new report, the future of assessment: five principles, five targets for 2025

The report suggests that, by 2025, colleges and universities could ditch the pen and paper approach, instead assessing students in the same format in which they do their work, digitally.

Richard Walker, head of programme design and learning technology, University of York, says in the report:

“When students are completing all their formative work digitally it’s rather bizarre to be expecting them to sit under examination conditions for three hours or more doing handwritten examinations.”

Andy McGregor, director of edtech at Jisc, says:

“This report highlights an important opportunity for improving education in the UK. If used well as part of good assessment design, then emerging technologies can transform the way students are evaluated so that it is more relevant to their careers, more accessible and more secure, while promoting student wellbeing and removing some of the administrative burden on teaching staff.”

Technology is already being used globally to change assessment for the better. For example, augmented reality and virtual reality (AR and VR), analytics and automatic marking are playing a role. India, for example, is ahead of the curve with face recognition technology, using it to prevent plagiarism in the exam room.

Back in the UK, there’s real appetite for change. Granted, staff will need to be given time and space to experiment and develop confidence with new technology, and implementing such an infrastructure overhaul will take time. This is a huge challenge, and the report recognises that journey by outlining five guiding principles leading to a set of five targets.

Five targets to advance assessment by 2025

Authentic: There will have been a shift in focus from acquiring knowledge rooted in a particular curriculum or occupational area to acquiring transferable skills, and these will be assessed in a more realistic way, using the technology students will use when they leave education.

Accessible: The design of assessments will have moved to an accessibility-first principle that allows the same assessment to be delivered in multiple ways depending on the needs of the learner.

Appropriately automated: A balance will have been established between automated and human marking and feedback that delivers the maximum learning benefit to students.

Continuous: Data and analytics will be in widespread use to assess the effectiveness and impact of continuous assessment and to plan strategies across the whole organisation.

Secure: There will have been a general adoption of authoring detection and biometric authentication for identity and remote proctoring.

The report highlights there are already some strong home-grown examples of technology being used to assess students, for example by using AR and VR. Martyn Ware, head of assessment futures, Scottish Qualifications Authority said:

“We're starting to see people exploring the potential of virtual reality approaches and not just for assessing pilots and tank commanders, but for assessing learners in more mainstream educational settings.” 

The school of music at Preston’s College in Lancashire has embraced immersive technology by using a 360-degree camera to assess a live performance. The 360-degree video footage was embedded into a platform, allowing comments and feedback to be placed over the screen at crucial points.

And when it comes to wellbeing, Anglia Ruskin University is experimenting with video to tackle the problem. James Trueman, academic lead: assessment at Anglia Ruskin University said:

“Technology is a huge boon to what we can offer students. Some students find presentations terribly daunting and so one of the things that we are trying to do is develop an iterative workload.

"Students can video record themselves doing the presentation and they can do it as many times as they like until they get it right, until they are happy with it. They then submit their video.

"It iteratively grows from there, until eventually they have built the skills and confidence to deliver a face to face presentation.” 

Easing teacher workloads, a high priority in the government’s Edtech Strategy, is another reason for evolution in assessment. The report shows that technology can help by automating aspects of assessment such as marking and feedback, doing so in a way that improves the student experience and frees teacher time for valuable face-to-face sessions with students. Birmingham City University is looking at using AI to accomplish this.

Luke Millard, director of educational development, Birmingham City University said:

“We’re looking at AI, we’re looking at automated marking, and we’re looking at those types of things to free up staff to work with students in a different way to support them to better succeed, to support them through assessment rather than just measuring the assessment.”

Sarah Davies, director of education innovation, University of Bristol, says in the report:

“Assessment is a massive driver of everybody's workload. It's almost the beast everyone has to serve.”

As such a fundamental part of the education process, isn’t it time assessment became less of a beast, and more of a supportive ally?

Get involved

The report contains advice and guidance to help organisations improve assessment. The work is part of Jisc’s Education 4.0 vision to explore how emerging technology may change education.

What do you think is the future of assessment? Join in the conversation on Twitter using #FuturesReport and #Edu_4.0, tagging @Jisc 

The report will be discussed at Digifest 2020, our annual event exploring lifelong learning and ways in which technology can transform it for all. Book your tickets to come along, 10-11 March 2020.