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Finding a way to win – why does e-Assessment love FE?

I'm absolutely delighted at the strides the Further Education (FE) sector has made with e-Assessment since my 2007 FE News article. No matter that C-19 is an existential threat to the FE sector, the e-Assessment sector has stepped up, pivoted hard, and continued to effectively and efficiently serve FE students and educators.


According to JISC, up to 13% of learners are ‘locked out’ by paper assessment delivery modes. What better time to ensure better inclusivity by using tried-and-trusted methods? The emergence of cross-supplier partnerships and provider co-operation at this momentous time gives a robust platform for e-assessment acceptance and usage.


But some commentators call for ‘new thinking’ in FE. I have to disagree. There has always been plenty of great thinking within FE, but also ingenuity in the face of ever-tightening budgets, changing labour market demands, and flaky government policy. The e-Assessment toolkit is bulging with proven and scalable instruments that deliver reliable assessment with results that FE can trust.


FE experts already know this, but to the casual onlooker, even a quick, casual glance at the sector is enlightening. How about comparative judgement? Presenting successive pairs of digitised student work, 'judge and rank' on-screen, provides higher accuracy than regular marking. Or Virtual Assessment Centres? Immersive task simulations, with professional remote assessors, means not having to hire actors or role players.


And let’s not forget the e-assessment poster child of the era: Remote Proctoring. Deliver exams over the web with a remote proctor with a full digital audit trail for the regulator, or support existing invigilation with digital auditing. Much better than a disengaged casual invigilator, who is just there for petrol money and minimum wage. Or, heaven forbid, an ‘invigilator’ known to the candidate, who ‘guides’ the candidate to a ‘happy outcome’, despite it being the candidate’s seventh attempt that day!


The e-Assessment genie has been out of the bottle for a while - not that you’d always know it. One of the many reasons I love the FE sector is because it’s where the pragmatists and solution finders reside. No matter the uncertainty with apprenticeship policy, regulation of end-point assessment, or the dreadful funding situations, FE still finds a way to win. Look at the amazing efforts of Bolton College and their Ada chatbot – a contemporary learner-centric solution, solving real problems with proven tech, and an award winner.


Unlike other sectors, FE is slow to bash and patronise the e-assessment sector. Hand in glove, the suppliers and the FE sector have been getting on with the job building and deploying the tech, providing free subscriptions, helping customers, and supporting on-boarding students. FE gets things done without hand-wringing, whinging about budgets, or attempting to 'seduce' people through boondoggle marketing.


Compare the Department of Education’s lethargic and underwhelming efforts to get laptops and dongles to disadvantaged students, with FE’s can-do attitude in scaling up and pivoting their e-Assessment usage. Also, the indefatigable spirit of collaboration within FE puts higher education institutes to shame. Once the sector gets traction and momentum in building a comparable research base to the higher education and school sectors, justification for positive policy change will be hard to dispute.


However, there’s no room for complacency. FE providers and stakeholders still need to have

greater insight into how much their current practices actually cost – in raw cash and also precious time. The move in the 2007-era from paper to on-screen e-assessment meant that less time was spent photocopying, and more valuable time was spent developing better questions, re-enforcing trust, and finding better value.


This time round, there’s a greater need to understand the change in the risk and security profiles of the e-Assessment solution choices. Denial of Service attacks, white hat hackers, and multi-factor authentication were unheard of in the sector back then. FE providers need to draw upon their resourcefulness to understand what’s changing and deploy their best strategies.


And the world outside keeps moving. Better oversight of carbon footprint and commitments to Corporate and Social Responsibility will still be with us, long after C-19 and Brexit are committed to distant memories.


FE providers have access to global solutions, but need to probe and ask questions, so they get best value, but also to make use of increasingly scarce funds. Question why your LMS provider suddenly thinks that they’re e-Assessment experts in delivering secure summative exams. Interrogate suppliers who are re-badging someone else’s software and calling it their own. Quiz the big brands to see if they’ve recently binned off their UK office, app development team, and senior management, as one big LMS provider has recently done publicly.


There should be greater recognition of how the FE sector has advanced the e-Assessment cause. There have always been progressive and successful uses of e-assessment to benefit FE learners. However, with furloughing and sudden displacement, sourcing the right people to aid e-assessment scoping, deployment and implementation is still critical. But the answer now is the same as it was back then. Use trade bodies such as the e-Assessment Association, get involved with user groups, and look at what works outside the sector.


The FE sector is a winning sector because it always finds a way to win, no matter the obstacles placed in its path. The e-Assessment toolkit remains ready and primed to help navigate practitioners and leaders deliver trusted outcomes to valued learners.

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