The dawn of digital

In my role at Cambridge International Examinations, I give advice on the ‘digitalisation’ of assessment. I’ve been in post for over a year now, and I’m still not quite sure what ‘digitalisation’ means. Some colleagues have interpreted this to mean ‘anything involving a computer’. Some see it as operational changes, such as on-screen marking or the digital tracking of exam scripts. Others look to exciting new projects around the on-screen delivery of assessments. However, I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s less about technology and more about people.

I read an article recently about Hitachi’s Digital Microscope project. In the age of digital, apparently we can all look forward to being tracked around our place of work via our ID cards, having our water cooler conversations, and our toilet breaks monitored.  As someone who doesn’t believe in walking uphill and always takes the elevator, my tactic of hiding in the stairwell when I need a moment of head space is going to start to look like chronic indecision!

In a recent video released by Boston Dynamics of their new high-tech Atlas robot, a human is seen pushing the robot over from behind with a big pole. The robot falls to its ‘hands’ and ‘knees’, but soon gets up. The point was to show that the robot can balance and right itself, but many were appalled by the ‘mistreatment’ of the robot. “The guy who kicks the robot will be fully responsible for the forthcoming robot-human wars,” wrote one. People are emotional creatures, even when it comes to technology. A good friend recently required consolation as she burst into tears telling me Margo had died. Margo was a 2001 Vauxhall Corsa.

Social media and technology have completely changed the way an entire generation interacts with each other. It’s easy to mourn the loss of ‘real’ human connection, but relationships can now span the globe and be formed between people who may never have been able to meet in person – an exciting possibility. Technology such as Skype Translator is even starting to nibble away at the language barriers that can interfere with instant online communication.

What are the implications of this 24/7 global communication?

We are always on show, choosing what version of ourselves to be and putting our best digital foot forward. My social-media-self drinks cocktails, bakes delicious cakes, reads interesting books and goes on fabulous holidays. This is not so much a lie as a selected version of the truth. I leave out the bit about being in bed by 20:00 on a Saturday, in my pyjamas eating crisps and watching X-Factor with the cat.

I was challenged by my husband recently to give up using my phone while watching TV for a month. It was torture. I am so used to browsing the internet on my phone to do any number of tasks that to not have this at my disposal felt very strange indeed. Things I would never have taken the time to look up in a book are now available to me the instant I desire to know them. I am learning differently.

Changing expectations

Our students’ expectations are changing. They want to be able to communicate with their teachers digitally, and often in real-time, to seek help and guidance. They want to access their learning resources wherever and whenever they like. Industry has long-since striven for the paperless office, so the paperless classroom may not be far behind. Even the way students type is changing. The iPad generation types with their thumbs as much as with their whole hands, and thought-powered control of computers is advancing apace: perhaps soon we won’t need our hands to communicate in writing at all!

What is the best way to communicate with students? 

There has been a proliferation of group messaging tools recently. An overheard conversation between a large group of teenagers on a train gave me some insight into the baffling array of communication tools available.  WhatsApp, SnapChat, Line, Telegram, Viber (to name but a few), all allowing you to chat in real time to anyone, anywhere, for free. Can we harness these in education without creating an expectation that already overworked teachers be available to their students 24/7?  Are these forms of communication even appropriate?

All of this can be daunting. Digital is spreading its tentacles in all directions.  It can seem impossible to keep up, let alone prepare for what education might look like ten years from now. There is no denying the direction of travel; the world is changing, and we need to adapt with it. But while the methods change, our basic needs and wants don’t. The relentless march of digital can overlook that, at its core, this is still all about people; how we learn, how we interact and how we get the tasks of our daily life done. We need to consider the emotional reactions we have to technology, to recognise the good as well as the dangers, and remember to bring people along with us. Love thy robot!

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  2. A nice and honest beginning to your foray into e-assessment and its potential benefits for the learner.

    Hope to hear more soon

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