Let’s harness lockdown lessons to push for assessment overhaul

COVID-19 lockdowns forced further education (FE) providers to devise and implement new, online means of assessing learners’ progress and giving feedback, using a variety of technology.

COVID-19 lockdowns forced further education (FE) providers to devise and implement new, online means of assessing learners’ progress and giving feedback, using a variety of technology.

This acceleration in the use of digital technology has prompted a fresh drive to revise the out-of-date methods of formative and summative assessment.

Now is the moment to reach a consensus on what worked during that period and what didn’t. What new measures can be implemented across the board to make assessment more inclusive, more accessible and more relevant to the post-pandemic workplace?

Technology has a role to play in enabling those aims. To kick-start that discussion and help plan a route forward, Jisc and City and Guilds are teaming up to hold a series of webinars between January and April 2022.

Aimed at FE leaders, teachers and interested parties from across the sector, the four webinars will look at innovation and the use of AI, accessibility and inclusion, VR and simulated assessment, and mobile assessments and digital portfolios.

City and Guilds’ director of policy, strategic partnerships and stakeholder engagement, Patrick Craven, set the scene for the webinars. He explains:

“Assessment needs a review, particularly its relationship with learning, education and training for the workplace. At the moment, it’s not fit for purpose.

“Indeed, the pandemic has shown us that reliance on end-point, pen-and-paper exams is a weakness. We should think more broadly around a combination of both formative and summative assessment.”

Relevant for the workplace

As we emerge and learn from the pandemic, workplaces are increasingly requiring employees with confidence and competence in the use of technologies.

Jisc’s director of FE and skills, Paul McKean, says:

“Young people and adults will need to adapt and learn how to operate in this ‘new’ workplace landscape. The education sphere also needs to adapt in the way it exposes learners to the post-pandemic expectation that digital is a core component of the workplace.”

Craven agrees, adding:

“We are doing a disservice to learners by not including technology in their experience of learning and assessment.

“Many young people currently at college will be going into careers where they’re not expected to be in the working environment every day and this will be a constant for the rest of their working lives.

“So, it’s a good thing that they should become aware of how to engage with teachers and peers remotely, including for assessment purposes.
“Because of the skills for jobs bill and the way the UK is moving into upskilling and reskilling the existing workforce, there's going to be a real need to make assessment flexible and adaptable - as employers require. This will apply to apprenticeships, T-levels and other kinds of work placements.”

Developing soft skills

Craven feels that technology could also be a means to assess soft skills around ways of working, such as communication and collaboration and other employability skills. He says:

“These skills are valuable to employers, but at present peripheral to the mainstream curriculum and not formally assessed.
“There are some very neat ways that technology can allow these qualities to be looked at, for example with high-end VR simulations.”

Reducing teacher workload

The workload burden on teachers is a theme of the government’s edtech strategy and it emerged as a key problem in Jisc’s research with the AoC in 2020.

“Assessment is clearly a major part of that workload,” says McKean.
“The pressures of providing ongoing, constructive and targeted feedback to large groups of learners puts teachers under strain. Technology can help relieve that burden, but there’s a balance to be struck between human and automated marking.

“Formative assessment technologies, including for essay marking, can be linked to the interactive virtual learning environment (VLE), which could use the pre-programmed assessment grades alongside AI-derived outcomes to signpost students to appropriate revision or ‘stretch-and-challenge' activities as required.”

Accessible, inclusive and personalised

While the pandemic may have increased access to devices and connectivity, digital poverty still exists. Assessment, therefore, must be inclusive. Technology can also help ensure it is flexible and adaptable to the needs and preferences of all. McKean says:

“We don't want technology to create a barrier to assessment; we want technology to enhance assessment.

“With an ‘accessibility-first’ principle, assessment can be delivered in multiple ways, depending on the needs of the learner.”

Craven adds:

“Justs like a paper-based exam isn’t suitable for everyone, particularly learners with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), we don’t want anyone to be forced to use technology. That would become a disadvantage for those in digital poverty.

“We should be providing individuals with the opportunity to present evidence of their knowledge and skills through variety of means - written, spoken performance and digitally, in an e-portfolio for example.

“In a digital environment, the ability to capture those is quite simple and in ways familiar to most young people, who are very adept at using devices to record a variety of inputs and to transfer them, too.”

Wholesale change

Craven believes that wholesale change in assessment is necessary and timely, but he recognises the road ahead may not be smooth without across-the-board collaboration.

“The challenge we face is in generating enough concerted momentum from all interested parties to move forward - and I mean the awarding bodies, the regulators, education providers, organisations like Jisc and other sector bodies, and the government.”

McKean explains that engaging all parties is one of the rationales for the webinars.

“We want to encourage participation from all; we want to be provocative - to challenge and to be challenged in order to see where the pain points are. Only then can we work out the solutions.

“We need to be able to demonstrate that technology-enhanced assessment has advantages in levelling access, in reducing staff workload and increasing wellbeing, in enhancing the student experience and providing a more personalised experience, in better preparing learners for the workplace, in providing and assessing skills that employers value, and in providing instant feedback at any time of day or night.

“That's really the end game.”