From education to employment

Digital assessments could be a vital tool for reducing the digital skills gap

Peter Collison, Head of Formative Assessment and School Platforms at RM

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way businesses and industries operate indefinitely. So much so that being able to meet the demand of future employers will be paramount. But education is struggling to keep pace and, as I write this, it’s clear that the UK is spearheading towards a digital skills shortage disaster.

Already, there has been a 40% drop in the number of pupils studying IT at GCSE level alone. A worrying statistic considering over three quarters of employers claim that their profitability would drop with a workforce lacking in digital capabilities. It is vital that this gap is closed.

Other sectors have made substantial changes to how they operate, but the UK Government is still weighing up the future of the education system. The question that should be driving the conversation is how does an education system ensure that young are equipped to thrive in the world of work post-education?

And we, as a society, must act swiftly to make lasting changes so the next generation have the digital capabilities to ensure the UK can meet the demand for digital skills. Without question, schools have had an incredibly challenging year, but they have shown incredible resilience, commitment, and capacity for change.

Now is a fantastic opportunity to build on this good work and innovation achieved over lockdown to ensure the next generation have a better future ahead.

The benefits of digital assessments are as clear as day.

For many years now, digital assessments have been used frequently within a number of sectors. For example, IELTS Language Tests and Chartered Accountancy Certifications both use on screen exams and digital tools to assess students. In many cases the processes the assessments follow is intentionally closely aligned with the digital processes used by businesses and employers.

And, as a result of the pandemic altering how we live and work, we are seeing wider innovation in the assessment space. For example, many institutions are turning to alternatives to handwritten exams under the watchful eye of invigilators with many assessment and certification providers using digital assessment alternatives with remote invigilators.

There are several benefits to this. Firstly, the need to travel to a specific test centre on a specific day, which in some countries is a genuine problem and can involve a considerable journey. Also, if an individual were required to self-isolate from Covid-19, or another unforeseen situation should arise such as a snow day, that student’s assessment will still be able to go ahead as scheduled. Assessment, in effect, becomes an on-demand delivery model. There is no greater benefit to digital assessments than the flexibility test takers must sit their exam where they like and when they are ready.

The utilisation of adaptive tests is becoming far more frequent too; this gives students an experience that is substantially more personalised. This can lead to a much shorter assessments without compromising quality or accuracy. The reason for this is adaptive tests use artificial intelligence (AI) and other techniques which adapt to student’s previous answers, assessing the individual’s knowledge and skill in a highly efficient way. A perfect example of this is The Oxford Test of English, a globally recognised assessment designed from the ground up to be fully adaptive and digital.

What’s more, there has also be an increase in the number of digital tools being utilised to provide “checkpoint” assessments. These types of assessment help notify a student when they are ready for their final assessment, which provides students and teachers alike with valuable insight. The insight students gain raises awareness of their level of knowledge and can help build the confidence needed before an important exam. In some cases, this also saves them time and money by not entering for an exam before they possess the knowledge or skill required to succeed.

Students want authentic assessments that reflect the real-world.

Historically, when compared with other industries, the education sector has been slower to implement and entrench the latest innovations. Considering how important digital skills are post-education and the UK’s current digital skills capabilities, now more than ever the younger generation need to be well adept in using the technology they will later use on a daily basis.

Digital assessment can unequivocally play a starring role in developing the student’s digital capabilities and should be widely embraced in both schools and colleges to help modernise education. Students want to nurture, and be assessed on, the skills that they will use in the real world and digital assessment practices are ideal for testing “on-the-job” skills in an authentic and engaging way.

Clearly the development of digital skills should start in lower education and then mature as students enter secondary, college and higher education. However, the role of technology in teaching is often overlooked which is surprising considering the benefits if used effectively. Used well, technology improves the relationship between teachers and students by, for example, reducing admin and freeing up time for teacher: student interactions. Or perhaps by providing real-time insight into a student’s progress and level of skill. But the truth is that more often than not it presents more challenges than solutions as teachers aren’t sure of how to use the technology available effectively.

Like students, there are fantastic benefits to digital assessments for teachers; being provided with an extensive appraisal of each student, looking at their strengths and weaknesses with always the aim of improving their overall education experience. No longer will teachers have to spend hours on end manually marking test papers as digital assessment eradicates this mundane task, giving teachers more time to spend doing what they signed up for, teaching.

Real and lasting change is needed now.

The last year has forced countless industries and organisations to make permanent and lasting change to how they operate, and many would argue the changes made are for the better. The education industry is no different and should have full confidence in doing away with “traditional” approaches that no longer serve students with the best education possible. In extreme circumstances, the education sector successfully flipped their delivery model on its head and delivered high quality teaching to students regardless of their physical location. We must now build on the foundations that have been established and prepare the next generation for the difficulties they will inevitably face in the working world. We have never had a better opportunity to do so, than now.

By Peter Collison, Head of Formative Assessment at RM

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