Digital assessment could be the answer to closing the digital skills gap

digital assessment
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Peter Collison, Head of Formative Assessment and School Platforms at RM, explores what the education sector can do to help reduce the gap between digital skills and demand

As restrictions are lifted, and we re-emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s clear that the UK is heading towards a digital skill shortage disaster.

As it stands, the number of pupils studying GCSE IT courses alone has dropped 40% since 2015 and over three-quarters of employers’ state that their profitability would decrease with a workforce lacking digital capabilities. Therefore, the gap must be closed.

But while the UK Government deliberates what the future of the education system will look like, other sectors have already made substantial changes to their processes. This asks the question: how does an educational sector ensure its young population is equipped to prosper in life post-Covid?

As a society, we must act with haste to make real and permanent changes to ensure the next generation is digitally literate enough to ensure the country’s digital skills capabilities, can meet the demand. There is no doubt that schools have had an incredibly tough year, to which they have responded with such incredible resolve and commitment, that we now have a golden opportunity to build on the good work and innovation that has already been done to build a better future for all stakeholders.

Students gain several benefits from digital assessments

Within a number of sectors, digital assessments have been commonplace for many years. The likes of IELTS Language Tests and Chartered Accountancy Certifications have been using on screen exams and digital tools to test their students for a number of years. The methods used are more closely aligned with the processes businesses and other educational systems around the world operate.

We are now witnessing wider innovation in the assessment space due to Covid-19 disassembling the ways in which we lived and worked prior to the pandemic. An increasing number of educational institutions are looking for alternatives to pupils taking handwritten exams in a school sports hall under the watchful eye of invigilators, for instance.

In fact, many assessment and certifications providers are already offering digital assessment alternatives, using, for example, remote invigilators.

This provides students with several benefits; firstly, this removes the need to travel to a dedicated test centre on a specific day, which in some countries can involve a considerable journey. Its also means that should a child be self-isolating from Covid-19, or a snow day occurs, assessments will still be able to go ahead as scheduled. And that is one of the biggest benefit digital assessments provide, the flexibility test takers have to take their exam when and where best suits them.

What’s more, the utilisation of adaptive tests has become more frequent. Test takers are presented with substantially more personalised assessment experience which can lead to a much shorter assessment without losing the level and accuracy a more familiar exam provides. The reason being is adaptive testing is supported by artificial intelligence (AI) which adapts to students’ responses to access a broad range of skills to determine an individual’s knowledge and skills. A prime example of this being actively used is The Oxford Test of English, a globally respected assessment, which has been designed from the ground up to be fully digital and adaptive.

Also, there has been a rise in digital tools being to provide regular “Checkpoint” assessments which helps notify the test taker when they are ready for their final assessment. Not only does this provide students with valuable insights about their level of knowledge and help build the confidence they need before a vital exam, in many cases it also saves the candidate time and money but not entering for final assessments too early when they may not yet have the required knowledge or skill.

Pupils are hungry for authentic assessments that nurture real-world skills

The education sector has been historically slow to adopt and embed the latest digital transformations and innovations relative to other sectors. Given how essential digital skills are in life post-education, it’s more vital than ever that pupils are well adept in operating the technology they will later need. There is no doubt in my mind that digital assessment plays a key role in this and so should be implemented across all schools and colleges, to help modernise the overall education experience post-COVID. Students are hungry for authentic learning and assessments that challenge and nurture the skills which we know are critical to success in the working world. And as digital assessment tools and methods are ideally placed to assess these “on-the-job” skills in an authentic and engaging way, there is no better solution.

Digital skills clearly start in lower education and mature as students enter secondary and tertiary education and eventually move into their careers of choice. However, the role technology plays in teaching, which if used effectively can have multiple benefits, is often ignored. Technology should better the relationship between teachers and pupils, but the reality is that it presents more challenges than solutions, as school staff aren’t sure of how to use it effectively.

Digital assessments could provide teachers with a thorough appraisal of each student, looking at what they do well and the areas that need improving, but all with a view of ensuring students get the most out of their education. Also, instead of manually marking individual test papers, digitally assessing students reduces teachers’ workload, giving them more time to do what they love doing: teaching.

We must act now to make real and permanent.

Over the course of the last year, so many industries and companies have made real and lasting change to how their businesses operate. The education sector is no different, we should feel confident that we can do away with the ‘traditional” approaches that no longer serve the needs of today’s pupils. Globally, in extremely challenging circumstances, the education sector responded to a crisis by delivering high-quality teaching to pupils and in many cases, flipped the entire teaching model on its head. We must now build on this good work to prepare the next generation for the challenges they will face in the workplace – irrespective of their career choice – and we now have the perfect opportunity.


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