The recent leaking of SAT papers and the growing body of evidence on the stress and anxiety experienced by students who have to sit a battery of tests and exams highlight an area of serious concern. It is all particularly frustrating because it does not have to be like this.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) could wipe out all this pain and change schools forever: it could do away with the need for exams.
This is not to suggest that we should do away with assessment. It is essential that we know how students are progressing in their knowledge, understanding and skills, and how teaching practices and educational systems are or are not successful. However, assessment does not have to mean tests and exams.
Artificial Intelligence is difficult to define because it is constantly shifting and interdisciplinary. However, in our new report Intelligence Unleashed we identify a definition of AI that is useful for this discussion. AI systems are computer systems designed to interact with the world through capabilities (for example, visual perception and speech recognition) and intelligent behaviours (for example, assessing the available information and then taking the most sensible action to achieve a stated goal) that we would think of as essentially human.
AI has been in the news recently with the AlphaGo programme beating a human champion Go player for the first time, and the prospect that Google’s driverless car will soon be available for us to try. On the negative side there are concerns about the impact of increasingly sophisticated AI on our economy and in particular the jobs market.
However, the sort of AI I am talking about here is specific to education and has the catchy acronym AIEd. It has been the subject of academic research for more than 30 years and promotes the development of adaptive learning environments and other tools that are flexible, inclusive, personalised, engaging, and effective. At the heart of AIEd is the scientific goal to “make computationally precise and explicit forms of educational, psychological and social knowledge which are often left implicit.” In other words, in addition to being the engine behind much ‘smart’ EdTech, AIEd is also a powerful tool to open up what is sometimes called the ‘black box of learning,’ giving us deeper and more fine-grained understandings of how learning actually happens.
Artificial Intelligence tools and techniques could do away with the need for stop and test assessments and all the stress and anxiety that goes with them. There would be no more need for marking and re-marking, no appeals about results, none of the machinery of exam sitting that dominates the summer term in secondary schools with its “Silence, exam in progress” signs and the commandeering of sports facilities for use as exam halls. There would be more time for teaching, more time for sport and more time for curriculum enrichment.
AIEd provides the technology to conduct fine-grained analysis of learners’ skills and capabilities as they learn so that their development can be tracked continuously and appropriate support provided. Instead of traditional assessments that rely upon evaluating small samples of what a student has been taught, AIEd-driven assessments could be built into meaningful learning activities, perhaps a game or a collaborative project, and will assess all of the learning (and teaching) that takes place, as it happens. AIEd also offers the capability to track the 21st Century Skills that the modern workplace requires and that traditional assessment miss. These are skills such as critical thinking, collaboration and initiative.
There is of course a considerable commercial ecosystem surrounding the current assessment system and this may cause some hesitation about adopting the AIEd continuous assessment and support approach. There are also significant ethical issues that need to be considered, such as who has access to the data-stream about student performance and can it be edited or commented on by parents, teachers or the student. The adoption of an AI driven assessment system would be a huge cultural change and not everyone would understand it or feel comfortable with it. Many innovations do not meet with immediate popularity – electric vehicles for example – but over time they are accepted, their benefits are appreciated and their popularity grows.
Unfortunately, there is a hesitation in the UK to exploit either the social and economic potential of AIEd or its commercial benefits. Funding is poorly targeted and as a consequence the UK is at risk of losing its internationally leading research base and its competitive edge. We need to move from the cottage industry of existing UK AIEd research, to a rich ecosystem of disciplined innovation. And we need to move from siloed and short term funding to a funding landscape that reflects AIEd’s enormous potential.
But, most importantly of all we need to engage teachers and learners, employers and workers, in the design of the AIEd systems that are developed to provide both the assessment and the learning benefits that this technology has to offer.
This blog post draws on Intelligence Unleashed (Pearson) where readers can find out more about AIEd:
 ODE: The Oxford Dictionary of English (Oxford Dictionaries online). Oxford University Press, Oxford (2005) AND Russell, S.J., Norvig, P., Davis, E.: Artificial intelligence: a modern approach. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River (1995).
 Self, J.: The defining characteristics of intelligent tutoring systems research: ITSs care, precisely. International Journal of Artificial Intelligence in Education (IJAIEd). 10, 350–364 (1999).