Dean Seabrook, Stuart Shaw, Rebecca Hamer, Graham Hudson
As the 21st century began to unfurl, it was becoming increasingly evident that technological ‘connectedness’ was revolutionising not only business and interpersonal relationships but also education. It seemed only a question of time before technology would provide an alternative means for supporting learning (Säljö, 2010), drive changes in assessment design (Bennett, 2002; Shute & Becker, 2010), and prompt efforts to reconfigure existing cycles of teaching, learning and assessment (Shute, Ventura & Kim, 2013; Thornton, 2012).
Voices across the world also made bold claims about the scale of change which technology would drive in education, and the speed with which it would occur. In the US, Bennett (2002) claimed that technological advances would force fundamental changes in the format and content of assessment. In the UK, Ken Boston, the Chief Executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, called for a five-year national strategy for delivering electronic assessment, and announced that by ‘2009 e-assessment shall be normal, if not the norm, for thousands of children each year’ (2005). He continued to argue for thoughtful, serious consideration of how digital technologies might expedite improved assessment systems (Boston, 2007).
Now almost a quarter of a century later, we see that while the availability of digital-based learning and assessments continues to expand, we are still on the journey towards being able to assert that ‘we are making appropriate use of good technology’ (Richardson & Clesham, 2021, p.5).
At the 2022 AEA-Europe Annual Conference, our discussion group on technology as a driver of change within education was an attempt to find a consensus, after decades of reflection, on the extent to which technology will shape assessment. To do this, we adopted a different format for the discussion. We posed a range of statements about the role of technology in learning and assessment and asked our participants to physically ‘cross the line’ to indicate their agreement. Importantly, the statements weren’t designed to reflect our own views but to elicit the views of others, yet we were still nervous that attendees might exercise caution and hover close to the line. To our relief, not only did participants cross the line throughout the discussion, but they did so because they considered the viewpoints of learners, teachers and assessment organisations, and expressed strong and considered opinions. More than anything, the discussions emphasised the range of stakeholders impacted by changes to learning and assessment systems.
We first suggested that ‘it is inevitable that technology will drive all formal learning in the future’. This provoked a strong response – and most participants rejected the notion. The idea that technology itself would be the driver caused some to push back on this, reminding the group that ‘technology for technology’s sake’ was not likely to be a valuable philosophy in developing new visions for assessment. Others considered the breadth of practical experiences offered by learning providers, and questioned not only whether technological experiences could ever truly replicate all physical situations but why it would be valuable to create digital replications of practical scenarios which can be taught and experienced effectively in non-digital ways. Yet, others were more accepting. One participant encouraged us to think about the current level of digitalisation in the lives of young people, not just in learning but in their home and social lives, and how likely their lived experience would be to shape their expectations about how they prepare for assessments and entering the world of work. We even heard that as we seek to understand the impact and reach of AI and emerging technologies it could be increasingly likely that the possibilities offered by technology would indeed drive learning, because the benefits for all stakeholders could be enormous.
In numbers alone, participants also rejected the idea that all peer assessment should be conducted digitally. Those in favour also linked back to the highly digital lives of many young people: we heard that providing digital peer feedback could remove awkward social factors from the process, where learners may lack confidence to provide detailed feedback to their friends and classmates; participants also drew comparisons to social media ‘likes’ as a form of peer feedback and endorsement that were normalising the experience of understanding the views of others. The group, though, also considered the well-being implications of receiving feedback online, cautioning that internet cultures can be less positive than in real-life spaces and this prompted thoughtful suggestions that providing digital peer feedback is in itself a teachable skill, and a potentially useful way of developing the confidence to provide and discuss feedback in a face-to-face setting.
We closed with a statement which provoked an almost singular response and declared that ‘physical classrooms are no longer needed in a digital learning environment’ – and very few colleagues crossed the line into the ‘agreement’ space! While participants on both sides of the line recognised that learning providers over the world had shown in 2020 that such a move was possible, they were split on the impact and merits of making such permanent changes. One participant suggested that the shift in 2020 had been so sudden that the preparation and training available to teachers and assessment providers at the outset meant that it would be unfair to judge the merits of a full move to remote learning based on that experience alone – and suggested that it still remains distinctly possible that a fully planned digital learning environment could represent an overall improvement for learners and teachers.
Those that were not in agreement with this premise wanted us to continue to factor the learner experience into our future discussions in this area – remembering that a crucial element in education is that how we learn is as integrally important to our futures as what we learn. One participant insightfully reminded us of Isaac Asimov’s short story character Maggie, who, in 2157, is shown a book for the first time. This prompts her to learn about the way that books were used by children in the past, because they are not used by the robot teacher that lives in her house. The story ends with Maggie thinking about how children must have loved going to schools and ‘the fun they had’ (1951). It was a powerful reminder of the need to identify and value the things we cherish when we plan for the future.
Throughout the session, participants gave deep thought to the impacts of digitalisation within education on learners, teachers and those who design and deliver assessments, and, as they continued to cross the line, they symbolised the push and pull involved in making change. These debates feel essential to future policymaking and learning and assessment design, and we’re grateful to all those who participated for enriching the discussion and expanding our thinking. It strikes us that perhaps the real challenge in the future is not going to be to encourage stakeholders to cross the line, but to reach a consensus on what effective digitalised learning and assessment really looks like.
Asimov, I. (1951) ‘The Fun They Had’ in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, 6 (2), pp.125-127. Available at https://archive.org/details/Fantasy_Science_Fiction_v006n02_1954-02/page/n125/mode/2up?view=theater.
Bennett, R.E. (2002). Inexorable and inevitable: The continuing story of technology and assessment. Journal of Technology, Learning, and Assessment, 1(1). Available from http://www.jtla.org.
Boston, K. (2007) ‘Tipping points in education and skills’. Speech to QCA Annual Review, London.
Boston, K. (2005). ‘Assessment, reporting and technology: System-wide assessment and reporting in the 21st century’ in Tenth Annual Roundtable Conference: Strategy, technology and assessment. London: Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.
Richardson, M. and Clesham, R. (2021) ‘Rise of the machines? The evolving role of AI technologies in high-stakes assessment’. London Review of Education, 19 (1), 9, 1–13. https://doi.org/10.14324/LRE.19.1.09
Säljö, R. (2010). ‘Digital tools and challenges to institutional traditions of learning: technologies, social memory and the performative nature of learning’ in Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 26, 53–64.
Shute, V. J., & Becker, B. J. (2010). ‘Prelude: Assessment for the 21st century’ in V. J. Shute & B. J. Becker (Eds.), Innovative assessment for the 21st century: Supporting educational needs (pp. 1–11). Springer Science + Business Media. Available at https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-6530-1_1.
Shute, V. J., Ventura, M., & Kim, Y. J. (2013). Assessment and learning of informal physics in Newton’s Playground in The Journal of Educational Research, 106(6), 423–430. doi: 10.1080/00220671.2013.832970.
Thornton, K. (2012). Editorial in Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 3(1), pp.2-5.