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In Europe as elsewhere, the pandemic has hit the field of education with a vengeance. Primary and secondary schools as well as institutions of higher learning are challenged with balancing a return to school with maintaining the safety of students, faculty and staff. At all levels, schools are struggling to provide remote learning options that present compelling experiences for students.

Technology is playing an even more important role with immense focus on online delivery of knowledge. Primary and secondary schools are scrambling to raise the quality of hastily-put-together online learning programs. Colleges and universities are grappling with an onslaught of student deferrals, impacting their financial viability. In sum: These are trying times for educational providers.

The challenges are even more acute when it comes to student assessments. In the case of the U.K., precautionary measures implemented to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have caused severe disruption to the administration of GCSEs (General Certificates of Secondary Education, which are taken at age 16); AS (the pre-A-level assessment) and A (Advanced) levels (which come before university); and many other vocational and technical qualifications. That’s a problem because the attainment of these qualifications is often essential for an individual’s future learning and career aspirations.

The resulting impact is twofold. First, many candidates have been left anxious over their ability to attain the qualifications they need to enter the workforce, progress their education or move between countries. Second, assessors are facing sharp declines to revenue as in-person assessments are paused.

Assessment providers’ revenue reportedly fell off a cliff overnight as COVID-19 lockdowns prevented standardized tests from being held. U.K. assessment providers and educators have been forced to rethink how evaluations — indeed, the overall educational experience — will be delivered today and in the future.

Educational institutions worldwide are searching for innovative solutions to these challenges. With revenues and their very business model at stake, the need is urgent. In Europe, emerging learning consortia and coalitions with diverse stakeholders (including governments, publishers, education professionals, technology providers and telecom network operators) are coming together to apply digital tools and techniques to provide cost-effective platforms for learning and assessment, at least in the near term. It remains to be seen whether these platforms will remain in place post-pandemic, as the necessary quality trade-offs in the evaluation field may not be acceptable over the long haul.

These interim virtual tests enabled assessment providers to recoup some revenues, but the evaluations were built in a matter of weeks and do not provide a quality experience for the learner. The first round of online tests also present potential security threats. With the coronavirus not yet conquered and in-person testing again in jeopardy, it is clear European assessment providers will need to improve the quality and security of their online assessments.

Learning Assessment: In a State of Flux

The role of the face-to-face exam/examiner is indeed changing dramatically in real time. Assessment providers shifted to interim remote qualification models to help challenged learners get the test results they need to proceed. This was very successful, but the wave of digital assessments were developed at maximum speed and so left much to be desired in terms of user experience. Meanwhile, many schools have permanently turned away from standardized tests.

The situation has made it urgent for educators and assessors to digitize many of their educational products and services to both protect their existing revenue streams and open up new segments and geographies. As in other industries, the pandemic has driven the imperative to become software-centric. How well educators and assessment companies deliver quality software and software products that address current needs will determine their revenue, costs and customer satisfaction going forward.

Even prior to the coronavirus, the learning and assessment space was undergoing significant shifts. Education providers seek to create unified and embedded learner experiences and products with a focus on life-long learning and delivery of tailored skills-based learning to address the needs of the 21st century. Increasingly, the focus is on blended and immersive learning experiences that adapt to learner needs. The one-size-fits-all approach to assessment no longer works. “Assessment for” is now more important than “assessment of.” Assessments have become formative as opposed to summative, providing a more useful indication of the test taker’s ability to apply a particular skill set.

At all levels, learner expectations of effective learning are shifting from achieving certificates to developing skills such as critical thinking, entrepreneurial skills, and collaborative communication along with social engagement.

The Rationale for Digital Assessment

The shift from traditional “paper and pencil” to next-generation digital assessments drives increased flexibility, responsiveness and contextualization, which are critical in the face of the exigencies faced by educational providers, which should act now to implement or incorporate the following:

  • Embedded and contextualized learning. One of the key lessons from the pandemic is that assessment organizations and schools still cannot assume student evaluation will happen following the assessment period. The pedagogy needs to shift to continuous evaluation so that the impact of unforeseen situations can be minimized without affecting student learning.
  • Continued demand for online delivery of assessments. The last few years have seen an intense focus on online ways of delivering student assessment. This now becomes still more prevalent and covers even high-stakes assessments, given the current situation.
  • Adaptive teaching approach. Both teaching and assessment should be flexible to adapt to the ever-changing needs of the learner. Assessment organizations must understand the student’s potential and interests and deliver accordingly. Real-time evaluation and feedback powered by artificial intelligence (AI) and predictive analytics provides opportunities to address student needs and shortcomings immediately, rather than waiting for exam results as is the case in traditional assessment delivery models.
  • Simulations/graphical/video representation. Online channels are a good fit for delivering assessment questions represented via simulations and video representations. These make it easier for students to comprehend and provide responses. For example, the University of Newcastle leveraged virtual reality to create immersive training in the latest childbirth techniques.

A Wealth of Advanced Technologies Aids Assessments

A software-centric approach driven by more agile approaches to building assessments and learning experiences using pods, guilds, enabled by deeper forms of automation, through DevOps and the like, would deliver on the promise of digital engineering. Technology tools are helping educational providers and assessment companies achieve many of their business objectives — everything from providing digital assessments in the COVID era to creating more engaging and personalized learner experiences:

  • AR/VR tools. As mentioned above, universities and assessment providers are applying augmented reality and virtual reality as a means to develop immersive learning experiences that enhance learner comprehension and knowledge acquisition rates.
  • Adaptive learning platforms. Taking a data-driven approach to learner development by continuously analyzing learner performance via big data analytics and modifying course content/teaching methods to provide learning pathways better fits current knowledge levels.
  • Learning analytics tools help schools and higher-education institutions track, capture, model and analyse learning, personal, academic and other data acquired over a learner’s lifetime to facilitate interventions, provide recommendations and ultimately improve learner outcomes.
  • Blended learning. As they have learned all too well in recent months, it is now critical for learning providers to develop blended learning models that combine in-person and digital modalities. In-person classroom teaching is not obsolete, but it is at a premium.

    In-person time should be reserved for problem solving, discussion and group work while leveraging digital learning tools to support personalized, self-paced learning.

In a world reeling from the coronavirus outbreak, educational and assessment organizations are engineering digital solutions to meet pressing challenges. But the digital learning curve has proved steep. We have helped a number of education and assessment providers leverage digital technologies to personalize user experience, enable robust remote assessment and fortify contextual learning. The next instalments in this series will discuss our work helping providers overcome today’s challenges by becoming software-centric and devising new ways of building assessments and learning experiences, positioning them for growth.

This article was written by Marcin Remarczyk, Manoj Chawla, Daniel Liddy and Nitin Kumar of the Cognizant Consulting Practice UK.

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