Emergency learning requires next-generation assessment

This may be the first year in history that assessment is harder for universities than for students. Urgent work is underway to advance student assessment to ensure the continuity of higher education. With focused investment it is not too late to build robust student assessment.

Online learning has carried university teaching for the past few months. Over the last 20 years a lot has been done to shift student admissions, curriculum resources, teaching activities and student support into the cloud.

After lots of documents and video conferencing, however, it is necessary to learn what students know and can do. Here the world has a problem, for university assessment processes have not changed in over one hundred years. Much still relies on getting lots of people together in big rooms.

Already, major assessments that keep education flowing are being cancelled or deferred. International Baccalaureate exams have been cancelled, impacting 200,000 students globally. Although the Educational Testing Service has just announced that TEOFL and GRE are shifting into the cloud, other major tertiary admissions tests are on the brink. Thousands of less well-resourced faculty, deans and presidents are wondering how to assure their students’ learning.

Universities have options for tackling this problem. One approach is to reduce or eliminate assessment. Another option is to award pass grades for participation. Exams might be converted into papers where academic and professional conditions allow. Assessment could be delayed until favourable circumstances permit. Considering the trend of increasing online learning, the best option is to move assessment online.

Next-generation assessment

Now is the time to advance practices and platforms for moving assessment into the cloud. Many important things in life can be done online, and it is time for university student assessment to join this list.

The education methods and technology exist to deliver very innovative forms of assessment and to authenticate students’ response. Indeed, the technology exists to make step-change advances in assessment hence academic productivity.

In 2019 design research articulated the attractive characteristics of next-generation assessment. These assessments are woven invisibly into education experiences, almost indistinguishable from curriculum, teaching and support.

Design research sculpts each learning moment with challenges and guides that help each person reach their maximum potential. Resources are produced by education engineers who share a scientific commitment to their profession. Next-generation assessment yields tailored insights for a range of audiences, helping people move seamlessly through study and work.

Shared online assessment resources

We are leading the next stage of this research. Tsinghua University, in collaboration with Blackboard China and Genix Ventures, is leading a collaboration of business schools in China.

This work is building shared online assessment resources which are mapped against curriculum frameworks and which will allow institutions to compare themselves to performance standards. Quality standards and checks are built into the system to assure outcomes. Collaboration saves time and money and embeds immense strength and agility into the solution.

Advancing assessment has proved tough for a few reasons. People have had vested interests in entrenched approaches, universities have attached low priority to reform, there has been a lack of expertise and viable alternative options, big universities can be hard to change and there have been costly security and confidentiality constraints. These factors have held back progress.

The huge shock to higher education arising from the COVID-19 pandemic has already spurred major educational reform. Campuses across the world have moved online, faculty have studied pedagogy like never before, isolated students have nourished their intellects with documents and videos.

Assessment is a looming bottleneck. With clever innovation, universities can leverage next-generation assessment to improve education for all.

Hamish Coates is a tenured professor at Tsinghua University’s Institute of Education, director of the Higher Education Research Division and deputy director of the Tsinghua University Global Research Centre for the Assessment of College and Student Development, China.