UK education settings have undergone fundamental change since the outbreak of COVID-19.
Back in March, on the eve of the first national lockdown, surging coronavirus infections forced schools and universities to close their doors to pupils and staff.
Almost every UK institution has transitioned from class-based to digital delivery, in some way, the past ten months, with many forging partnerships with online learning providers in an effort to mitigate the loss of physical provision.
More senior settings, including Cambridge, Durham and Oxford universities, have also taken the step of moving courses online, in their entirety – and this is likely to be adopted more widely, as a new variant of coronavirus surges throughout the UK in the approach to Christmas and the new year.
Collectively, these shifts have altered the learning experience for millions of UK students and thrust the role of online educational platforms – a hitherto niche component of institutional frameworks – to the centre of future planning.
The appeal of such infrastructure is obvious. Against a backdrop of a health pandemic and government messaging to limit personal contact with others, it has become clear that online platforms, and learning environments, offer the only workable route for bringing together dozens of students.
In terms of roll-out, such learning is now well-advanced in many education settings across the UK. The perception of education technology (EdTech) has also shifted, from being a pragmatic emergency solution, to a transformative and long-term educational tool.
The decision to move all learning online in Welsh schools, last week, exemplified this, and is likely to be mirrored, again, elsewhere in the UK.
Yet, for examinations, uptake has lagged and comparatively few institutions have taken the step of moving critical assessment online.
This disparity was evidenced, back in the summer, when almost all UK schools and universities suspended their end-of-year examinations – and fell back on what turned out to be controversial staff-led grading E– as a means of progression.
The media storm, as well as the complete failure of Ofqual’s grade algorithm, proved how messy assessment has become in the current environment – and was borne out, again, in November, when Wales’s devolved administration extended the suspension of examinations through to the end of 2021.
It’s therefore unsurprising that government bodies, and a large number of schools and universities, are now looking to move critical assessment online, where possible, in 2021.
In recent years, the underlying difficulty with the deployment of such technological solutions has centred on sourcing a platform that can accommodate multiple disciplines, and which can be tailored to the needs of individual institutions.
There have also been reasonable concerns by awarding bodies, and traditionalists, about the rigour of online platforms, in comparison to in-person invigilated testing.
Fortunately, technology has come a long way in recent times, and there are now a number of options that institutions can harness and scale across disciplines – with platforms, such as Tenjin, offering secure alternatives to traditional exam hall assessment.
The benefits of reaching such a point, where digital mediums can effectively compensate for the loss of in-person testing, are enormous.
At an institutional level, it will strip away costly invigilation, printing and administration, while, at the same time, offering additional capacity for tests on any given day.
And, for students, it will provide the opportunity to sit an exam in a location of their choice – be that from their halls of residence, university library, or their parents’ home – and for their assessment to be recognised as rigorous and fair.
Widespread adoption of such technology will, almost certainly, come too late to stop a further suspension of examinations in January.
However, if uptake continues, and awarding bodies give their sign-off, it is reasonable to think that the infrastructure might be in place, and ready to go, in the time for the May-June examination window.
If the government gives its backing to such a move, as it has for online learning, the disruption wrought by COVID-19 will have at least yielded some silver linings for UK education.
Infrastructure, which was previously on the margins of institutional frameworks, will have established their place as key items of delivery, while stakeholders, government, and unions will have shown that they are prepared and willing to embrace change.