Big data, trust and the future of language assessment

During the recent IATEFL conference in Brighton, ELTjam and Cambridge Assessment English hosted a series of talks exploring the future of learning and assessment. Below is the transcript of the talk given by Pamela Baxter, the Director of Cambridge Exams Publishing. 

Advances in technology are framing the future of language learning and assessment. The questions we’re asking about the industry have changed. Instead of how will language learning and assessment look in the future?, the question is will there still be a need to learn languages and will exams even exist?

Tracking industry trends

Data is the big disrupter. New players, like Duolingo, are engaging with a vast number of learners. Around the world, Duolingo’s 200 million active users complete no fewer than 6 billion language exercises every month. This generates a huge amount of data, which can be analysed and used to create more effective ways of teaching and learning online.

Nevertheless, there is the question of pedagogical validity. Do these kinds of exercises really help people learn a language? Some researchers suggest that they don’t exactly stand up to academic scrutiny.

Another trending topic is the promise of a fully-functional auto translation device. If you can put something in your ear and receive real time translation, would this make language learning obsolete?  There have also been remarkable developments in VUI technologies, but seamless translations without delay are still not quite within reach. And can they really replace interaction in a common language?

Of course, it’s not just a matter of technological capability, but one of trust.

Trusting in technology

Technology is disrupting industries everywhere, automating data-entry and repetitive tasks and improving efficiency. The education industry is no different; education boards and edtech companies everywhere are aiming to build online platforms and machine learning artificial intelligence systems that can take on the more repetitive tasks, freeing up teachers to focus on work related to problem-solving, creativity and social interaction.

However, while computer-based exams are already commonplace, we are a long way from trusting all technologies to automatically mark speaking and writing exams.

Simon Lebus, former CEO of Cambridge Assessment English, offers a more radical perspective. He suggested that technology may help us do away with exams altogether and make way for a more graduated form of assessment:

Theoretically, you could actually envisage a situation in 20 or 30 years where people were no longer taking exams. You could actually see technology and evidence-gathering during the course of learning eventually displacing the need for final terminal exams.

Implementing best practices

Even if these predictions materialise, such fundamental changes to how we go about learning and assessing language won’t come into effect tomorrow. Or the day after. For now, let me share some key findings about best practices and exam preparation from a joint research project carried out by Cambridge University Press and Cambridge Assessment English.

The first finding is related to beliefs and perceptions about intelligence. We find that fixed beliefs (e.g. that intelligence is innate or unchangeable) are associated with low self-worth and a host of negative feelings. This can include anxiety, fear and a lack of perseverance in learning. It can also lead to less attention to feedback and less self-reflection in general.

On the other hand, a learner with strong incremental beliefs (e.g. that intelligence is changeable) is more likely to ascribe language learning success to effort and opportunity. This kind of learner believes that success is in their hands and, as a result, is more engaged and motivated.

We know that intelligence is malleable and that everyone is capable of success in language learning. It is important, then, for us to encourage learners to adopt an incremental mindset.

What does this mean in practice? Well, it’s essential to consider how we determine success in the classroom. As teachers, we should be providing learners with evidence of their own progress. The learner, instead of comparing results with those of fellow classmates, should focus on the improvements they make in relation to previous results.

Teachers can also introduce language learning strategies, highlighting the relationship between hard work and learning outcomes. In addition, praise should be given not only for a smart answer or a high mark, but also for effort.

Digital tools and resources can be incredibly positive, offering fabulous new opportunities for learning in the classroom and at home. However, we must remember that educators perform an array of crucial functions that, as far as I’m concerned, make them irreplaceable.



Pamela started her career as a researcher at the House of Commons. She moved on to various strategy, research and policy roles in the health, travel and charity sectors, before finding her home in education. She has been with Cambridge Assessment for over 10 years, working in a range of positions, including a global role for IELTS, regional manager for the UK and Ireland, director of the Cambridge English transformation programme and is now the Director of Cambridge Exams Publishing, Cambridge Assessment’s joint unit with Cambridge University Press, providing first class learning resources for those preparing for the range of Cambridge English exams.

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