Why successful online assessments are all in the blend

Online assessment tools are improving, but still have a long way to go before we can be fully confident of their helpfulness, writes Andrew Cormack

Online assessment tools are improving, but still have a long way to go before we can be fully confident of their helpfulness, writes Andrew Cormack

16 Oct 2022, 5:00

With the Covid-19 pandemic accelerating the digital transformation journey of all educational institutions, it is no surprise that online learning and assessments have increased in popularity as part of a blended approach.

This creates opportunities to match the assessment to the skills being assessed and to choose an appropriate combination of technology and human provision. For example, memory and recall can be assessed through short on-line multiple-choice tests; analysis and some practical skills through simulations.

Artificial intelligence may help human assessors work more quickly and consistently, giving teachers time back to concentrate on curriculum and skills.

Ensuring students are familiar with using technology outside of tech subjects is also vital to the future of the workforce, as almost every job within society contains an element of digital capability.

The use of collaboration tools such as SharePoint in group assessments and ongoing class work will stand students in good stead when joining the world of work.

Online assessments can be extremely helpful to individuals with accessibility issues who may need additional support too. The use of software to ensure students universally receive the same opportunity to do well in an examination can make all the difference to those struggling to achieve their goals through disability or access issues.

A computer will never understand a student as well as a teacher

That said, there are risks associated with online assessments, including opportunities for fraudulent behaviour and cheating. In an exam hall assessment, you can clearly identify each student and ensure the required resources are available; this may be harder to do when examinations are taking place remotely.

Limiting opportunities for cheating and ensuring those who are sitting examinations are who they say they are, are two distinct problems. The key issue for assessors is to ensure the steps they take do not impact the students’ outcomes.

For example, students may feel under intense scrutiny if they are being closely monitored by an invigilator for the entirety of an exam, which may prevent them performing to the best of their ability.

When verifying the identity of those undertaking online assessments, facial recognition and biometric identification tools have been used to reduce instances of fraud.

However, research from Harvard University has shown that these tools can be more than 30 per cent less accurate when used on individuals from different racial backgrounds, compared to when used to identify white males.

This is due to inequality in the database of ‘faces’ used when developing the tools. I am pleased to say that big players in the game such as Microsoft are making strides to improve the accuracy of their software, but more needs to be done before these tools can be a proven source of truth.

The key to a secure assessment is understanding students and working with them to monitor their progress. There are other ways to ascertain if the person being assessed is who they say they are, including making comparisons against previous work and evaluating factors such as sentence structure and knowledge.

This is also a good indication of whether additional resources have been used, or cheating has occurred. For example, if a student suddenly appears extremely knowledgeable of a certain subject they have previously struggled with, then that should raise some red flags (though it is entirely possible they have just put the work in).

AI and algorithms may be able to help make these comparisons, but a computer will never understand a student as well as a teacher who has taken the time to get to know them.

Technology in assessments is not a silver bullet: many students struggle with digital poverty and need help gaining access to equipment, connectivity, and a safe place to study and sit exams to ensure parity with their classmates.

Through a mix of blended learning and assessment – where students are continuously assessed online and in person – along with a close student-teacher relationship, issues students are struggling with can be identified and adjustments quickly be made.

When it comes down to successful assessments, it really is all in the blend.

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