What is the future of assessment?

Nick Saville, Director of Research and Thought Leadership, Cambridge Assessment English 

Greece has always played an important role in English language assessment and has become a hotbed of research and discussion in our sector. But what does the future of assessment hold for Greece and beyond? 

In many ways the restrictions we’ve all faced this year as a result of Covid-19 have given us a glimpse into what the future of assessment may look like. This is because the pandemic has accelerated the need for technology-driven solutions for learning and assessment. In the short term we’ve had to pull out all the stops to find new ways of helping people to learn, teach and assess English remotely. But what’s on the horizon longer term?

In the future it will be essential to think about language education as an ecosystem of learning. This idea of an interconnected system of learning is about recognising and exploring the complicated relationships that exist between individuals and society. At the heart of the ecosystem are the learners themselves supported by other participants in various social contexts. These participants include teachers and parents, as well as other community members. Traditionally we think of the school classroom as the context where the learning takes place, with a teacher giving instruction and organising learning tasks for the whole class at the same time. But the learning context has already started to change in the past year; it has shifted to a blended or hybrid model with much of the learning taking place outside of school, especially in the home. In the future we will see the learning-environment expanding further to encompass many social contexts, taking advantage of mobile devices to keep learners connected and engaged. This could be on a bus or in the coffee shop. Wherever the learning takes place, we must continue to put the learner at the heart of everything and tailor the educational experience to general educational goals as well as to their individual preferences and learning needs.

With this in mind at Cambridge, we have been working hard to integrate learning, teaching and assessment based on a theory called Learning Oriented Assessment or LOA. LOA as we see it, is a systemic approach to language learning that uses all forms of assessment to help teachers and learners to plan more learning more effectively, measure progress and deliver improvements. Using this approach to integrate the learning and assessment more effectively, we can set realistic learning goals, design learning-oriented tasks, provide formative feedback and accurately measure progress.

Despite the rapid shift to blended learning, the traditional classroom isn’t going away anytime soon. But the LOA concept will play a huge role in transforming the way that teaching and learning takes place and technology will be a key driver in allowing us to do this effectively. Technology enables us to connect the learner to the society in ways that have never been achieved before. Over the past 20 years we’ve seen various forms of educational assessment being enhanced by technology. First, it was all about substituting what had been done before but now it’s much more about augmenting and redefining everything. However, as educators we have a big responsibility for ensuring that technology remains true to our core educational values and gets the best out of learners and teachers. 
What kinds of technological advances are making an impact in our sector? 

The 4th industrial revolution  

What has changed in the last decade is the arrival of the 4th industrial revolution. This is an era of data and devices and is already having a huge impact on learning and assessment systems. Billions of people are remotely connected, and devices have become essential in our daily lives. This year has been a great example of how important devices have become in the learning space. From students home-schooling, to teachers teaching remotely, the one thing that makes the necessary connection is a digital device of some kind. Of course, as education becomes more dependent on these devices there are risks and challenges, in particularly related to equality and inclusion, but I hope that in a post-Covid world, the disparity that now exists between people’s access to devices will diminish.
There are many exciting developments that a few years ago would have felt like something from a science fiction film, but they are happening now. Artificial Intelligence is playing an increasingly important role, and particularly the very specific uses of it such as machine learning. As a department of Cambridge University, we’re part of a powerful and dynamic environment that fosters research into these types of technologies. In fact, Cambridge Assessment and Cambridge University Press will become a single organisation from August 2021 in an exciting move that will help us take our vision to the next level.

We fund and participate in Cambridge University’s Institute of Automated Language Teaching and Assessment – ALTA. This brings together a team of PhD students, post-doctoral researchers and leading professors into a virtual institute covering a range of different academic disciplines, such as computing, speech engineering, linguistics and language assessment. ALTA works closely with ELiT – English Language iTutoring – a technology transfer organisation that turns the research of both Cambridge English and ALTA into engaging, practical and pedagogically sound tools to support learners. For example, the Write and Improve service is a free application based on LOA principles.

We’re also seeing modifications that will allow our assessments to be taken by learners at home. At the moment many of these are used for lower stakes purposes but with the advent of remote proctoring, this opens up many other possibilities. We’re also seeing modifications that are transforming how speaking skills can be assessed, such as our successful Speak and Improve that uses speech recognition to give learners instant feedback.  Another great example in this space is our hi-tech online test Linguaskill, which uses artificial intelligence capabilities to make sure that test content is tailored to a candidate’s individual performance. It also includes a high-tech auto marking feature.

 

Projects like this raise the question of how far can we go with tech in the learning space in transforming the way teaching and learning take place? We need to explore how we can use technologies such as virtual reality to simulate ‘real life’ environments for practising English, as in a virtual hospital or other workplace setting. Another interesting development on the horizon is eye tracking, which is a non-invasive method of tracking a person’s eye movements on the screen. This is particularly useful as it shows how people are reading and gives us insightful data that is not available from traditional assessment tasks. Eye movements can tell us a lot about how people read and what they find difficult and this can help us to improve our tests by ascertaining whether an assessment task is at the right level. This can be taken a step further by supplementing eye-tracking with Electroencephalography (EEG) which can actually capture someone’s brain responses and how they react to words and pictures. 

PISA  

I’d just like to end by reflecting on an important project that we are working on. In October we were delighted to announce that we will be supporting the OECD in measuring language skills in schools worldwide in the next PISA study. This is a very exciting project and the first time that PISA has included foreign languages. Now we’re working with our colleagues at OECD to develop the assessments for the 2025 programme. 

As English language learning and assessment continues to be transformed, it’s clear that it is a very exciting time to be part of this sector in Greece and beyond. As new tech and innovative opportunities arise, we want to support our stakeholders in building more effective ecosystems of learning - and to be with our learners every step of the way.