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A silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic is the development and adoption of new learning and testing tools

Professor Keith Straughan is the CEO and co-founder of Axiologs

“Let’s stave off another crisis in UK schools and universities in 2021 by embracing online assessment” says Professor Keith Straughan 

Last week, schools in Wales closed their doors to pupils and staff in an effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. A similar picture looks likely for other parts of the UK, too, as we move into 2021.

Almost every academic institution has faced unprecedented disruption this past year.

Many have, perforce, shifted their learning online, and taken on partnerships with major Ed-Tech providers, such as Chegg, Google and Microsoft, to cope with the loss of physical provision, while leading universities including Cambridge, Durham and Oxford have moved some courses online, in their entirety.

Taken together, these changes have altered the learning experience for millions of UK students and thrust the role digital learning – a hitherto niche component of institutional frameworks – to the centre of academic planning.

As we approach the end of 2020, blended learning – of digital and traditional teaching methods – is now a staple in many education settings. The perception of EdTech has, in turn, shifted, from being a pragmatic emergency solution, to a transformative and long-term educational tool.

Moving critical assessment online has lagged behind

Yet, the situation for examinations has so far lagged, and comparatively few institutions have taken the step of moving critical assessment online. The disparity between learning and assessment was evidenced, earlier this summer, when almost all UK schools and universities, having pivoted adroitly to on-line teaching, suspended their end-of-year examinations – and shifted from a starting position of algorithm-led grading back to the determinations of teaching staff. Chaos ensued.

The media storm that surrounded the summer crisis proved how messy assessment has become in the current climate – a reality that was hammered home, again, last month, when Wales’s devolved administration extended its suspension of examinations through to the end of 2021.

It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that government bodies, and a large number of schools and universities, are now seriously exploring the possibility of moving critical assessment online, where possible, in an effort to avoid a second suspension next year.

Technology has come a long way this past year

Previously, the underlying difficulty with the deployment of technological solutions has centred on identifying a platform that can accommodate multiple disciplines, and which can be tailored to the needs of individual institutions. There have also been reasonable concerns by awarding bodies, and traditionalists, about the rigour of online platforms in comparison to physical in-person testing.

Fortunately, technology has come a long way this past year, and there are now a number of options that institutions can use, and scale up, across their disciplines.

Due to its adaptability, one such platform, Tenjin, offers real hope for those looking to escape the COVID quagmire. Designed by a global team of academics, innovators and Ed-Tech professionals headquartered in London, it provides its partner institutions with a secure and scalable platform in which to host critical examinations. Among its many features, Tenjin utilises sophisticated biometric verification to confirm the identity of a candidate from facial and voiceprints. It also checks-in on their test environment and location on a semi continuous basis throughout the assessment and ensures that the security of a traditional exam hall is largely replicated.

The benefits of having such a platform, and the ability to host examinations remotely, en masse, are enormous. For academic decision-makers, it strips away costly invigilation, printing and administration, while, at the same time, offering additional capacity. While, for students, it provides the opportunity to sit an exam in a location of their choice – be that from their halls of residence, university library, or their parents’ home – and ensures that their assessment is both rigorous and fair.

Although adoption of digital assessment tools is now growing at pace, it unlikely that they’ll be ready, as a substitute, for in-person testing by January. However, it is reasonable to think that the likes of Tenjin, and other platforms, could be ready in the time for the May-June examination window – with the backing of government and awarding bodies.

If this happens, and exams can be saved in any measure in 2021, the damage wrought by COVID-19 will have at least yielded some silver linings in the UK. Technologies, which were previously on the margins of institutional frameworks, will have established their place as key items of delivery – while stakeholders, government, and unions, will have shown that they are prepared and willing to embrace technological change for the benefit of students.

Professor Keith Straughan is the CEO and co-founder of Axiologs

Five major barriers to online and on-screen assessment:

  1. IT provision in schools and colleges
  2. Insufficient or unreliable internet and local network capabilities
  3. Staffing
  4. Security
  5. Planning

Online and / or on-screen assessment has been successfully implemented in a number of international jurisdictions, an Ofqual review has found (14 Dec).

The review, however, found five major barriers associated with taking this approach in England. 

None are insurmountable, given the will, but together they do confirm that England could not move large-scale standardised tests (such as such as GSCEs and A Levels) on line in the immediate future, unless the five key barriers to greater adoption of online and on-screen assessments in high stakes qualifications are overcome.

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