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Teaching Machines

The idea of using technology for assessment is not new. In her insightful study, Teaching Machines 1, Audrey Waters explains how the psychologist Sydney Pressey designed multiple choice teaching machines in the 1920s as a pre-runner to the popular teaching machines of the 1960s. She quotes the philosopher Professor John Blyth who wrote in 1960: “A teaching machine is simply a mechanical device for presenting to a student a succession of instrumental items requiring some distinctive response and providing the student with an immediate check of the accuracy of his response.”

Audrey Waters links her study to socioeconomic and sociopolitical forces such as automation, standardisation and individualization in education as well as considering the role of the edtech market. She says: 

“Teaching machines are connected to the changing expectations of what the school curriculum should look like and be designed and delivered.” 

The introduction of computers and especially the internet has speeded up the introduction of technology for learning and along with that eAssessment. Patrick Craven 2 explains that as far back as the late 1980’s Cambridge Assessment was exploring the possibility of developing computer-based assessment solutions for vocational qualifications. The Word Processing Functions Test assessed secretarial students by tracking their use of office applications. However, the frequent pace of software development made updating the tests almost impossible and the assessment was moved from the use of the application to knowledge of how the software worked, rendering the validity of the tests far lower.

In early days, multiple choice questions emerged as one of the most often deployed forms of eAssessment. But, whilst relatively easy to develop and easy to scale, such an approach had its limitations, and it may be that the popular association of multiple-choice questions with eAssessment has held back wider adoption.

We will look in more detail at different approaches and applications for eAssessment below. For example vocational education and training has seen the continued adoption and development of eportfolios since early in the 21st century.

Bringing this short history up to date, the Covid 19 pandemic, which led to the closure of schools in many countries and to restrictions on work-based learning opportunities, also appears to have increased interest and take up in eAssessment as part of a generalised ‘turn to digital’ (of course it may also have led to some disillusion with a common approach based on online lecturing, rather than online learning).

And a final urgent driver for eAssessment (and authentic assessment – see below), at least in the higher education sector, is the ever increasing ability of AI applications to produce original work and answers to traditional exam questions – including essays.

1 Audrey Waters (2021) Teaching Machines, The MIT Press

2  Patrick Craven, History and Challenges of e-assessment. The ‘Cambridge Approach’ perspective – e-assessment research and development 1989 to 2009, https://www.cambridgeassessment.org.uk/Images/138440-history-and-challenges-of-e-assessment-the-cambridge-approach-perspective-e-assessment-research-and-development-1989-to-2009-by-patrick-craven.pdf

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