Assessment in a changing world
There are many critiques of current assessment policies and practices. These include their misalignment to curriculum priorities, an over-reliance on grading and negative impacts on students’ confidence and learning aspirations (Attwood & Radnofsky, 2007; Broadfoot, 2007; Schwartz & Arena, 2009; Gee & Shaffer, 2010; Shute & Kim, 2013; Deneen & Boud, 2014). Such arguments are also backed by growing research evidence about what constitutes effective feedback in both schools and university contexts and a recognition that conventional methods of assessment, tried and tested as they have been over more than a century, are increasingly unfit for purpose (Nicol &t MacFarlane-Dick, 2006; Hattie & Timperley, 2007; Boud & Molloy, 2013).
The world is changing rapidly and with it, the knowledge and skills—even the dispositions and attitudes—that educational systems need to deliver. While previously the focus of education could be predominantly on the inculcation of an existing canon of knowledge, now it must reflect new priorities. The imperative to develop education systems that prepare students for the future is increasingly being pressed in political, business and educational discourses (Claxton, 2009) and through the notion of the ‘knowledge economy’ that associates national and global economic success with investing in education and the increase of‘skills’ (Facer, 2012). Creativity, problem-solving, adaptability, resilience, resourcefulness, even spiritual and moral ‘literacies’, are found in the curriculum aspirations of countries and organisations across the world where such competencies are seen to be essential for success in future society.3
Yet, despite these aspirations and priorities, approaches to the assessment of students’ learning often appear lacking in imagination and overly focused on procedures, particularly in highly competitive assessment situations. James (2014) observes that much research on assessment could be categorised as offering a ‘technical perspective’ where concerns include ‘the optimum application of assessment methods, with attention to matters like fairness, transparency, efficiency ...’ (p. 156). This suggests an uncritical acceptance of the current role of assessment in education, which is at odds with those critical voices calling for new assessment thinking more in line with today’s educational priorities. We argue that there needs to be a re- evaluation of both the purposes and processes of assessment that will in turn prompt the development of new assessment methods, leading to assessment that is more meaningful and more educationally and culturally relevant for learners and teachers.
Digital technologies, learning and assessment
Over several decades, there has been a growing interest in the use of digital technologies as a means of supporting learning and rethinking how teaching, learning and assessment are configured (Saljo, 2010). The rise of Web 2.0 has further increased opportunities for participation and artefact production in online environments and social networking technologies offer new opportunities for communicating, experiential learning and assessment (Bonderup Dohn, 2009). Indeed, the influence of digitally mediated cultures throughout society means that young people are taking on new participatory and collaborative roles in learning online and outside the classroom and there is increasing interest in incorporating these roles and practices inside formal education (Facer, 2012). Jenkins et al. (2006) point to the growing number of young people involved in ‘participatory media cultures’ that support sharing one’s creations and provide greater levels of authorship, autonomy, collaboration and choice for students. Schwartz and Arena (2009) argue that choice is one of the most important concerns for all of us in a democratic society and therefore the capability to make choices and manage the ensuing responsibilities of those choices should be at the centre of assessment.
Central to the international concern to use emerging technologies to help inculcate the skills, knowledge, creative practices and dispositions to learn is the question of how they can be assessed. There is a need to develop assessment tools that are capable of capturing such learning priorities (Honey et al., 2005; Shute et al, 2010; Quellmalz et al., 2012) and widespread agreement about the difficulty of transforming such aspirations into practice (Claxton, 2007). Despite the belief that the use of technology for assessment could become a major agent for change within the education system (Mansell, 2009) and a growing recognition of the potential of technology in this respect, the implementation of genuinely innovative assessment practices using technological affordances appears to remain narrow in scope (Whitelock & Watt, 2008; Beevers, 2011; Mogey, 2011). Critiques in the literature suggest (as with assessment more broadly, see James, 2014) an over emphasis on technology for efficiency and the potential for standardising, grading and recording data. This appears to be limiting the development of more imaginative and creative possibilities. Where innovation is taking place, this is often in isolated pockets or subject to funding constraints on continuation and sustainability. Furthermore, policy discussions and decisions on assessment can contribute to an over simplified view of technology as a ‘quick fix’ or a means of replicating existing methods rather than seeing its potential to challenge and re-model existing practices and re-imagine the purpose of assessment and its relationship to learning (Thornton, 2012; Shute & Kim, 2013).
In this paper, therefore, we argue that there is a pressing need to understand better how digital technologies could help us rethink both the purposes and processes of educational assessment and the different challenges that are likely to be pertinent. Before we present some of the key areas that we argue offer potential for supporting the re-imagining of assessment, we give a brief historical overview of digital technologies and assessment.
A brief history of digital technologies and assessment
Although the use of computer technologies has been a feature of innovations in assessment for several decades, early applications of technology focused mainly on its use in large-scale testing aimed at improving efficiency and reducing cost (Pellegrino & Quellmalz, 2010). Another early innovation was the introduction of simplified authoring tools and test builders aimed at both schools and higher education, which allowed tests and assessments (particularly multiple choice tests) to be developed by teachers and lecturers themselves. In the UK for example, a 2004 report focusing on the use of computer-based assessment in higher education, suggested that the main purposes (of TEA) at that time were seen to be concerned with the delivery, recording and analysing of assessment data, although the report also shows some awareness of the potential of online portfolios and of harnessing the power of networked technologies (Bull & Danson, 2004).
Within the compulsory schooling sector too, it was anticipated that technology would rapidly become a key part of the delivery of external assessments (see QCA, 2004), yet this has been slow to materialise. In the USA, there has been more emphasis on large-scale, automated testing and state-wide initiatives (see Levin et al., 2011). There have been a number of national ‘roadmaps’ aimed at guiding future directions (for example Whitelock & Brasher, 2006; Woolf, 2010). However the issue remains that much of the emphasis is on using technology for efficiency and consistent delivery of assessments rather than the use of technology for rethinking the relationship between learning and assessment. Although there is continuing discussion in the literature of the need to rethink assessment, relatively little attention appears to be being given to the role of technology in supporting such changes. In an attempt to prompt more discussion of this potential, the next section sets out some of the key areas in which TEA is already demonstrating its potential.