Dan Sandhu argues that digital assessment is the way to tackle the skills’ gap.
The fastest growing area in education is vocational. In terms of size of market, scale of investment, and the priority attached to it by the Government (such as demonstrated by the imposition of the apprenticeship levy in April 2017), this sector is growing in all respects.
Yet despite all this growth and cash, skills’ gaps still exist. Trillions of dollars are being invested in education globally with the business of education worth almost $5trillion this year – bigger than the arms industry. But we still have some way to go in terms of the ultimate outcomes: learner attainment and skills to match employers’ requirements.
In vocational learning, traditional assessment methods – generally theoretical exams – are useless. And more and more people, from teachers to the biggest employers, are agreeing with this.
For example, some of the biggest names in the private sector, such as Matthew Gwyther, editor of Management Today, have publicly levelled the criticism that exams are “pointless regurgitation” and that organisations are having to fill skills gaps at their own expense because people are leaving schools without demonstrable work-ready skills.
What is needed is a way of capturing real-world skills.
The answer is in the form of evidence-based assessment (EBA). This is the future: replacing exams with a more demonstrable, accurate and meaningful way of capturing skills, and more to the point, more relevant to the skills that today’s employers need.
But we are not talking about some futuristic, science-fiction utopia here. EBA is already real – and it is the vocational and professional L&D community that has been driving it.
While schools and colleges still struggle with the woefully outdated exams system, elsewhere in professions from accounting to medicine, IT to construction, career-shaping decisions are based on scientifically and technologically-advanced methods of assessment.
These assessments give a more statistically reliable indicator of attainment and allow the individual to demonstrate the best of themselves without the stress and unfamiliarity of the pen-and-paper, exam hall environment.
The critical difference between exams and EBA is that the old-fashioned exam is purely summative, whereas modern EBA is by nature formative – that is it allows the student to learn, gather evidence, reflect and improve as they go along, rather than placing all their hopes on a compressed period of intensive testing at the end.
Plagiarism concerns are addressed by the fact that technology now allows such a broad body of evidence to be built that it is much harder to fake.
Case study: Cambridge Technicals
A great example of how EBA is being used here in the UK is the work being done at leading awarding body OCR. OCR’s Cambridge Technicals suite of qualifications is well known in vocational learning, and since 2004 they have been working replace exams with a digital EBA system instead of summative exams.
Initially, the work focused on computer literacy, followed by media and creative qualifications. Today they deliver the evidence-based system at different levels and in a range of different disciplines including areas such as sport, business enterprise and engineering.
With OCR alone, this system has to date been used in over 600 centres, by over 140,000 candidates, with more than 50,000 unique qualification submissions.
The aim was to take a different, more intuitive approach and fully embrace the advantages of modelling the process digitally to capture and measure demonstrable skills – both soft skills and higher order skills – and track progression and feedback.
Unlike a simple ‘tick-box’ portfolio, this system is robust and flexible enough to capture the most appropriate content to evidence every relevant requirement; be that in video, audio, copy or other format; and can be peer-reviewed as well as assessor-reviewed.
Skills for a global market
In today’s skills market, a qualification is a brand. If a vocational qualification can demonstrate that it is well assessed, it can become a globally recognised brand, and the holder of that qualification will be able to market themselves internationally.
In order to deliver this, UK awarding bodies need to ensure that their teaching and assessment are scalable. And key to overcoming geographical barriers is technology.
The L&D community has already shown itself to be a more forward-thinking segment of the education sector, as described in the case study above. And by continuing to pioneer the use of technology, it will stay in front.
L&D has already moved on from ‘chalk and talk’ education and training. Written exams and multiple choice tests seldom enhance learner experience, nor do they ultimately benefit the employer.
So how does the technology market extend itself and continue to drive innovation?
Evidence-based assessment gives employers what they need: evidence in the form of data. It is up to us to make sure that data is relevant, that we assess not only results but also assessors and delivery, that the data is pure, agnostic and authentic.
Already our industry is piloting the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning: such as algorithms that can predict ‘fails’ before they happen and intervene to help individual learners address areas of weakness. The EdTech sector is hiring quantum physicists and statisticians as well as psychometricians to continue to push the boundaries of the possible.
This is where the answer to skills gaps lies. As long as vocational qualifications continue to pioneer cutting edge learning and assessment models, employers will grow in confidence that those qualifications can truly be relied upon.
About the author
Dan Sandhu is the CEO of Digital Assess.