Assessment in a digital world

The digital revolution is transforming our lives – but assessment is falling behind, says Patricia Broadfoot.

Tablet computerWe live in a digital world; a world of tablets, phones, and lap-tops, social networking and search engines. Twenty-four hour connectivity is the norm; the internet is available to entertain, to inform and to engage. Digital tools have quite literally transformed all our lives in the course of a generation. For the ‘digital natives’ of the future, it will be unthinkable to be without such tools.

And yet in the world of education, and particularly in the world of educational assessment, this social revolution has, as yet, barely left a trace. The familiar apparatus of written tests and exams still dominates formative and summative assessment in both school and higher education. Does this matter?

My answer is yes - for three reasons. Firstly, we are missing out on the potential opportunity to capture a much wider range of evidence about student learning. At a time when personal and social skills like learning to learn and problem-solving are increasingly being identified as curriculum priorities, assessment remains limited in its ability to capture evidence of progress in these areas. Secondly, the use of digital tools in assessment offers the potential for group assessment and more rapid formative feedback, leading in turn to the likelihood of greater student engagement. Thirdly, there is the issue of validity for students who rarely lift a pen to write at any length, in completing a written examination.

Time for TEA?

In a recent research project at Bristol University, my colleagues and I sought to identify where the ‘cutting edge’ might be in the use of technology enhanced assessment (TEA) in order to help pinpoint the barriers that may be inhibiting progress. The result was a mixed picture. On the one hand, there has been a very rapid rise in what is now called ‘data analytics’ - schools and other stake-holders using digitised assessment data to monitor individual student progress and as a basis for judging institutional quality. Data analytics also play an important part in monitoring national educational standards and in international comparisons. By contrast, the use of digital tools as a means for assessing student progress and achievement, whether this is formative or summative, still appears to be largely confined to isolated initiatives.

At one level, this is not surprising. Designing ways to assess student learning, for either formative or summative purposes, is expensive in terms of time and equipment, and challenging in terms of training teachers to use it. Where summative assessment is concerned, there are the additional complications of finding ways to guard against cheating and equipment failure and the associated challenge of generating the necessary confidence among users in any high-stakes assessment context. Less obvious, perhaps, but nevertheless significant, are the potential ethical issues involved in the capture, storage and use of digital assessment data and in ensuring as far as possible, a level playing field for students who may have had very different opportunities to develop their digital skills.

There are important issues surrounding technology enhanced assessment that deserve wider debate in the education community and beyond. Urgent discussion is now needed about how educational assessment should respond to the opportunities and the challenges of a digital world, and bring assessment practices into the mainstream of the digital revolution.

Patricia Broadfoot CBE is Professor of Education at the University of Bristol

  1. Broadfoot, P. M., Oldfield, A., Sutherland, R. J. & Timmis, S. E. (2014). Seeds of change: The potential of the digital revolution to promote enabling assessment, in Assessment for Learning Improvement and Accountability: The enabling power. Wyatt-Smith, C., Klenowski, V. & Colbert, P. (eds.). Berlin: Springer-Verlag.
  2. Broadfoot, P. M., Timmis, S. E., Payton, S., Oldfield, A. & Sutherland, R. J. (2013). Rethinking Assessment 2012/2013 Series of Discussion Papers: Six discussion papers published by University of Bristol.

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