How Ed Tech is Assessing New Skills, Changing the Assessment Landscape

Today's world is drastically different from what it was only a few decades ago, driven primarily by societal and cultural shifts and advancements in technology. As members of a globalized workforce, people are expected to integrate many, diverse modes of technology into their everyday lives, transforming the way we learn, interact and work together. The complexities that humans come face to face with on a daily basis are ever increasing. Because of this, the core skills that are demanded of students are shifting rapidly as we are trying to adapt to an ever-changing environment.

These skills and aptitudes are often referred to as 21st century skills, though they have existed for centuries. However, more so than ever before, they are necessary for people to be successful working and adapting in our multifaceted society. Some of the skills needed for today's workforce include:

  • Communication: Technological literacy has become a central part of everyday communication, including the ability to assess the credibility of digital information.
  • Critical thinking: In a world that's turning to automation and artificial intelligence for as many things as possible, critical thinking to obtain effectiveness, efficiency and better outcomes is imperative.
  • Social and emotional learning: Being self- and socially aware to drive one's decision-making is increasingly important.
  • Problem solving: Being able to solve complex issues and problems across varying contexts to prepare for the ever-changing future.
  • Collaborating: Working with others on a global scale, considering and adapting to cultural differences, language barriers, time zones and other challenges.

The need to acquire 21st century skills directly affects the education sector. We need to be teaching our children more than just reading, writing and math, such as how to communicate appropriately and work with others in our globalized world. As educators increasingly adapt to fulfill that need, we need to change the way we assess students. What we are assessing and how we are collecting this assessment data will need to transform to better serve teachers and students.

This is where ed tech will play a critical role. While technology has been part of education since before the turn of the century, our shifting needs are driving the push for the development and use of education technology that is designed to help students discover, practice, learn and acquire 21st century skills. Though, as we focus on developing the right technologies moving forward, we should also prepare for 95 percent of our current education technologies to become obsolete and prove unsuccessful. We can expect that our world, and therefore the future of ed tech, will look very different, and we'll have to simultaneously adapt. 

Currently, ed tech is being used in classrooms in multiple ways — including interactive presentations, learning games, automated quizzes and a range of learning management tools. Ed tech is mostly used to try to engage students on the one hand and automate standard processes on the other.  Only in some cases does it provide trustworthy data to inform further learning. Moving forward, we need ed tech to evolve past lower level interaction and basic functionality to advanced ways of letting students practice and develop skills. These are also the skills that are difficult to measure.

Think about smart devices — artificial intelligence is just on the precipice of the kind of ed tech that is necessary to be most useful in today's environment. To truly assess 21st century skills, ed tech assessment tools must decipher and interpret cues from different cultures, languages, scenarios, nuanced inflections and more — and it needs to be able to continually adjust in real-time, as a conversation would progress, and constantly provide cues back to the student. In short, technology-based learning and assessment tools need to significantly advance to keep pace with the complexities that students are currently facing in the real world.

That said, developing and adapting technology-based assessments to adequately assess 21st century skills is a radical transformation, with ed tech at the heart of this monumental, yet necessary shift. This shift in assessments is necessary to ensure that students are presented opportunities to thrive and be successful for the future. The industry needs to be prepared to make these changes and serve students purposefully.

To do this, we need to understand that just because a technology is available, that doesn't mean that it is automatically effective or useful in every context. Technology needs to be properly utilized and understood in order to drive results. For example, ed tech developers need to consider all ramifications of using a piece of technology — could it desensitize a student's use of a particular skill, or create difficulties for students with disabilities? If so, that technology is not appropriately assessing students on their full potential and is therefore providing inaccurate data. Continuously collecting data will help us to better understand how to measure these new competencies and increase the usefulness of these assessments.

To continue on this critical trajectory, there needs to be an increased investment to fully understand which and how technologies are able to help different individuals in ways least restrictive to them. Only once we comprehend how to design technologies that can meet people's needs can we determine how to adapt and optimize to better help students master critical skills and fulfill their potential. It will allow us to meet individual students where they are in terms of ability, background and other key factors.

As our society, economy and workforce continue to change, powered by the rise of technology and globalization, ed tech is in a position to advance the field of education and empower students for future success. However, as we explore new ways of teaching and assessing students, we must remain critical and inquisitive of how we develop and use innovative technologies to ensure that we are leading our future generations on the best path forward.

About the Authors

Joanna Gorin is a Vice President of Research at ETS, where she oversees research focusing on current and future educational assessments and educational technology like next generation assessments, cognitive and learning science, non-cognitive assessments and natural language processing, among others.

Andreas Oranje is a General Manager at ETS, where he leads the generalized capabilities development area within ETS' Research Division. This work includes overseeing the AI portfolio and cognitive computing and sciences.