Whither the Test When Information is Ubiquitous?

The recent attention given to the New Media Consortium Horizon Report for k12 has me thinking of the future again. I had a free couple of hours on Saturday morning when I woke up early with a gentle summer hangover and decided to pick up Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Future.

In the first chapter, Kaku jumps right in and addresses what is to become of the computer. Published in 2011, after extensive interviews with the world’s leading scientists and technologists (an impressive list of names that fills a full seven pages of the introduction), and in light of Google’s recent introduction of Google’s Project Glass at the Google I/O this month, it is hardly a bold prediction when Kaku suggests that our connection to the internet will move into our lenses. With voice command technology and natural user interface capability rapidly improving, it isn’t too far fetched to predict that our interface to access the internet will soon be nearly invisible to those around us.

I felt like an enhanced human being when I first bought a smartphone two years ago. I’m not kidding. Ubiquitous access to the answers to many of my questions has changed how I operate in everyday life. My decisions are more organic and spontaneous because I do not have to plan my daily trajectory before I leave my house.

The device is still a bit cumbersome, however. Though I would like to take it on a run with me to help do the calculations of my mile times in the moment, it is too bulky for that application. I need another appliance for that, the GPS enabled heart-rate monitor. That one is on the wish list. And although I would love to pull the phone out of my pocket and jump on LinkedIn at a Meetup so that I can check the bio of people who have checked in at the event, it appears a bit antisocial to be looking at my hand while I am talking to someone.

When the intelligence of the smartphone can be accessed more naturally, projected into my retina with the aid of smart contact lenses, an ear insert, all controlled with subtle hand gestures and silent jaw movements, then we will have to re-think a lot more than navigation and exercise analytics.

Kaku writes,

This (ubiquitous, invisible access to organized information) may alter the education system. In the future, students taking a final exam will be able to silently scan the internet via their contact lens for the answers to the questions, which would pose an obvious problem for teachers who often rely on rote memorization. This means that educators will have to stress thinking and reasoning ability instead.

The question arises in gatherings of education technologists all the time. “Why bother to give tests anymore when kids currently in school will have the world’s information at their fingertips (or their contact lenses) for the rest of their lives?” It is a fair question. And one that we must address.

Let’s be clear. There will always be a need to know the meaning of words. Just because you can quickly look up the meaning of anachronism, doesn’t make it part of your active lexicon. Similarly, although Google (or Wolfram) can perform just about any arithmetic operation you can imagine, that doesn’t mean you will know what algorithm to employ for a function that dynamically resizes layered images on your website. The development of lower order thinking skills will still need to be facilitated by adults in learning environments. Nobody (except maybe Alfie Kohn) foresees a Utopian society wherein everyone is internally driven to learn and form social communities around their interests. Anyone interested in the unconference topic of finding the lowest common denominator to add double digit fractions?

For the sake of argument, let’s imagine the world ten years from now. A world in which access to information is invisible and ubiquitous. Let’s ignore for the moment, the inequities that are bound to exist. Let’s ignore any backlash that might happen; rejecting the merging of man and machine. School can look like many different things in this world. The need to gather around information resources is less important than it has been. No need for textbook checkout. No need to go to the computer lab to type out a paper. Even the need for the subject area expert is less.

To keep this expansive task of imagination contained, I will focus on that which drives education – assessment. Mindful curriculum development uses a backwards planning design. Conceive of what students should know and be able to do at the outset. Design the curriculum backwards from there. The quality of the assessment determines the quality of the instruction. For this reason it is a worthwhile conceptual exercise to imagine assessment ten years hence.

In a world of ubiquitous and invisible information access, education systems must make a choice. Institutions can continue to abide by the paradigm of deliver content and test for assimilation. This would require extreme security measures that will never be enough to contain the inevitable sharing of information that will occur between students, and I can only imagine the unbalanced power dynamic that already exists in many places would only become worse.

Alternatively, institutions could choose to embrace the notion that learners will always have access to information, to each other, and even regular personal access to experts. In such a system, summative assessment can not continue to look as it has. The whole-group, timed paper and pen (or even computer) test looks like an anachronism in this world. The need for assessment will not disappear, however. Whither the test when information is ubiquitous?

Formative assessment will grow in significance. Learners and their guides, let’s be nostalgic and call them teachers, will continue to need feedback on learner progress. In this world, testing becomes low stakes and continuous. There is little motivation for a learner to cheat on a formative assessment because the feedback is only there to guide their learning. We are already seeing advanced formative assessment applications in adaptive math software programs like Sokikom and Dreambox. Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari, has promised that he can cut the time it takes someone to learn any memorization task by thirty percent with the smart algorithms coded into Brainrush using feedback loops to inform the learner in a psychologically responsive fashion. Formative assessment will become more important than the content itself since content will always be there.

In a growing number of job categories, employers will stop looking for coursework certification that serves as a poor proxy for the industry specific capabilities of an individual. Rather, they will want to know exactly what their potential employees have done. This is already the case in technology. Nobody cares about your English degree from Harvard if you can show them that you wrote the code that suggests what else a customer might like on Amazon.

In a world where information access is ubiquitous and invisible it will be assumed that you have curated resources that help you to do what you wish to accomplish. If you have a retired uncle who dictates prose for you as you do your technical writing for Sony electronics brochures, nobody will care. Just get the job done. If you have to consult with a virtual therapist every time a client is rude and demanding, fine. Make sure it doesn’t take any longer than the time between that client and the next.

In the entrepreneur world there is already an adage that goes something like this.. The kids in school who got A’s became professors. Those that got B’s became professionals. And the C students run companies. The obsolescence of our industrial model for education with calisthenic-like testing is parody. The pen and paper test has been the default instrument of motivation for institutions crippled by bureaucracy and inertia. Pervasive information and constant formative assessment will liberate the institution from these shackles, and it is about time.

Performance demonstrations, the panel defense, apprenticeships, internships, and portfolios with badge authentication security systems will slowly replace the summative (high stakes midterm/final/or standardized) test. The test exists as a benchmark for college entrance. College is almost dead for most Americans. The economy has changed, and college has not kept pace. Fifty three percent of recent college grads are either unemployed or underemployed. K12 education is shaped around college entrance criteria. When it becomes apparent that for all but the elite few that fit the mold for a rigorous liberal arts education and can afford to pay it, the system of higher education will implode.

Rising to fill the void will be services like LearningJar, and Alison that provide skills training and certification. Social profile sites like Linkedin will become the new transcript. Employers will expect to see personal websites with blog entries or photo essays of a potential employee’s accomplishments. Maker spaces will become significant community resources for young people to learn skills. And if we are lucky, there will be a resurgence in some form of trade schools.

In a world of ubiquitous and invisible information access, the bubble test will not survive, seat time will seem as archaic and barbaric as segregated water fountains, and the role of the teacher will become more important than ever. In a world where genuine interests that may shape a career will emerge in early adolescence, and in this same world where raw talent will be easily and cheaply assessed, the teacher will have a more impactful role than ever before. And if as Kaku suggests, cars will be driverless, the adolescent boy will have to focus his automotive obsession on more productive things like learning to code.

About Jack West

Consultant, writer, analyst, teacher, coach, maker.

1 Response

  1. Del

    The only place I’m probably thinking a little differently is my belief that you can still have a performance type assessment that is high stakes and summative. In other words, the day may come when students no longer need to memorize and be quizzed on the symbols in the periodic table, for example, but they might still be taking a high stakes test in which they are asked to explain how they would perform an experiment or analyze the meaning of data. … Perhaps I’m a little more cynical than you when I look at education’s history. Even if I’m right, though, a test where students have to think or be creative has to be better than one involving rote memorization, right?

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