A virtuous combination for the teacher of the future?

by Nick Saville, 14 July 2021
teacher working at a laptop

Over the last 12 months existing digital platforms used to deliver English learning and assessment have been fully road tested, but what does this mean for the teacher of the future? To answer this question Dr Nick Saville, Director of Research and Thought Leadership at Cambridge Assessment English, looks at the types of technology that are making an impact in language education. This blog is part of a series of blogs looking at the future of education, based on a set of 12 outline principles that we believe will help all those that are interested to continue the debate around teaching, learning and assessment.

I believe there is a huge opportunity to improve learning outcomes with the appropriate use of digital technology, such as the use of artificial intelligence (AI) that is specifically designed for educational purposes. Let’s call it EdAI. The recent advances in AI and speech recognition based on learner data mean that we can now complement the work of human assessors and give accurate English language evaluations that highlight areas for further improvement, i.e., through formative feedback and scaffolding. 

Will AI replace the teacher?

Teachers remain central to education, but this tech can add a great deal of value to their work

Teachers remain central to education, but this tech can add a great deal of value to their work. For example, it can provide additional layers of quality control, speed up processes such as marking and give detailed feedback to help learners improve their English more effectively. A machine can do this in a reduced amount of time and to a scale that teachers would never be able to. I am a great advocate for a hybrid model with the teacher but is important to note that the AI is being developed and validated through interdisciplinary collaboration for a very specific purpose within an approach to learning and assessment. This is what we call Learning Oriented Assessment. 

How is Cambridge Assessment English harnessing this opportunity?

We currently have two examples of assessments that use automated rating and feedback solutions based on our technology developed in collaboration with the Institute for Automated Language, Teaching and Assessment (ALTA), which is a virtual institute of experts at the University of Cambridge. The first is a free application available to help learners develop their writing skills. It was originally based on the data from our learners and provides learning through practice with automated formative feedback to support further learning. It’s called Write and Improve. The second is a multilevel assessment system called Linguaskill where learning outcomes are measured by skill and used for decision-making about the level of proficiency of the test taker in each of those skills. This system uses AI in both speech and writing, and the ratings are made alongside human raters.

How do we ensure this technology is fit for purpose?

Assessment should be based on the individual needs of the learner and on pedagogical aims of the teacher. And so, it is important to keep these goals in mind when evaluating new solutions using EdTech. The technology is not an end in itself! It is important to think about the quality of the language assessments that are delivered using new tech and to ask assessment providers about the quality control measures they have in place to ensure fitness for purpose and use. In the language assessment profession, we expect there to be academic and professional mechanisms in place to safeguard stakeholders against the risks of using poor quality assessments. These mechanisms are vitally important because language tests are known to have very powerful consequences for learners, in terms of progress to the next stage in their education or career pathways. 

The existing mechanisms already being used for evaluating high-stakes tests can be extended to cover the use of digital data and other ethical concerns associated with EdAI. In other words, we can build on what we already have without starting again from scratch. 

We can also turn to well-respected membership bodies that work in this area for support and guidance. I am the secretary general of the Association of Language Testers in Europe (ALTE), and we have been addressing these challenges for many years and have robust Principles of Good Practice and quality management systems. These are being reviewed and updated considering AI developments.

The expertise that goes into developing AI and other new technologies for teaching and learning is another important consideration. In Cambridge, we collaborate with colleagues in ALTA, bringing together interdisciplinary teams from computing, engineering, linguistics and language assessment. Its aim is to investigate new ways of using technology to enhance language learning and develop cutting edge approaches to assessment incorporating AI. It is through this work that we have developed expertise in technologies such as text and speech processing, machine learning, and corpus development.

As we look to the future, the challenge for English teachers and education providers is to look at what we have learned during the Covid crisis and to focus on a brighter future that is not just different, but better.

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