What do we mean by ‘digital’?

by Sarah Hughes, 18 November 2021
Student working with a laptop with headphones on

Until now, I’d not properly interrogated what I mean by ‘digital’. I thought of ‘digital’ as an adjective to stick in front of an object and change it from traditional to innovative, from analogue to digital or, more commonly in the context of educational assessment (my area of work), from paper to screen. However, having joined a team working on next generation assessments in Cambridge University Press & Assessment, I now experience first-hand what digital really is.

Tom Loosemore’s definition of digital is widely quoted and describes digital as a way of working, an approach, a set of values:

Applying the culture, processes, business models and technologies of the internet era to respond to people’s raised expectations

Loosemore expands on this definition to describe internet-era ways of working. Our work adopts the principles of this approach, we:

  • put the users (in our case teachers and learners) first and continually check that we are meeting their needs
  • test assumptions
  • are a multidisciplinary team with agency
  • start small, and iterate based on user feedback, and build incrementally

We are developing educational products, including assessments, and their look and feel may be different from what we currently think of as assessment. We are thinking outside of the usual constraints – existing processes, policy, regulatory conditions and requirements for equivalence with an existing qualification – and this means that we can challenge the assumptions that these bring and influence policy.

Migratory and transformational strategies for digital assessment

We are taking two approaches – we are migrating existing assessments as well as transforming for the future. Martin Ripley(1) represents these two approaches against the dimensions of how innovative and technology-rich assessments are (see figure 1).

The dimensions of e-assessment innovation

We are addressing the ‘raised expectations’ that Loosemore talks about and what they mean for our digital assessments (both those developed via the migratory and the transformational strategies). They relate to:

  1. our products – customers expect simple, time saving, personalised products and services
  2. our customers’ experiences – they expect us to understand and respond to their needs
  3. our organisational capabilities – we use ways of working which allow us to react quickly to changing needs and opportunities

Our products

Assessments developed as part of our migratory strategy, include offering IGCSE Progression tests on-screen for the Sciences, and providing on-screen Topic Tests for GSCE and A Levels for schools in the UK, both of which are currently being trialled with customers. Migrating to a technology rich assessment:

  • improves accessibility for a diverse range of learners, not just those with specific needs
  • releases teacher time, for example, by using auto-marking
  • provides rich data which can be used to support teaching and learning
  • recognises the digital literacy of learners - we are designing for learners born in the internet era

As part of our transformational strategy, raised expectations are fulfilled by assessments which:

  • assess constructs not possible using traditional methods. For example, collaboration, communication and research skills are difficult to assess using existing high stakes assessment methods
  • use interactive tools which engage learners
  • use the enhanced availability of data to give immediate and personalised feedback
  • and, potentially, use adaptive assessments to increase efficiency and target individual learners’ abilities.

Our customers’ experiences

The pandemic accelerated the migration to digital for many of our teachers. Teachers have told us that they want assessments which are easy to run and save them time. Our migratory strategy gives us assessments which allow teachers to:

  • schedule assessments flexibly, for example, through on demand assessment which does not require whole cohorts of students to be in an exam hall at the same time
  • provide feedback to support learners
  • recommend next steps and learning resources to support learner progression based on their individual needs
  • scale up numbers

Transformation of teaching and learning is taking place in our schools. For example, Cambridge curricula are being successfully delivered through Project Based Learning with technology embedded in the learning. Such schools have high expectations of our assessments and we address these through our transformational strategy. This approach means that customers can experience:

  • assessments which more authentically represent real tasks
  • a better match between assessment and teaching and learning.

Our organisational capabilities

Developing assessment with the features described above uses and develops our organisational capabilities. For example, our work migrating assessment to technology-rich environments allows us to better understand the barriers and challenges that our teachers and learners face and how to respond to those.

The transformational strategy will require further development of our organisational capabilities - we are working outside of the usual constraints of existing working processes, current regulatory conditions or the need to create assessments equivalent to existing qualifications. Whilst this allows for innovation that fits teachers’ and learners’ needs it has not been a common approach in high stakes regulated summative assessments, and there are implications for our systems, culture, suppliers, relationships, data architecture and skills sets.

So, what does a digital way of working look like?

The best solution, not necessarily a high-tech solution - I now think of digital as a way of working in which a technological solution (an e-assessment, a digital curriculum) is not necessarily the outcome.

How teachers use tools is more important than the mode of the tool - The effectiveness of a teaching and learning tool (I include assessments in that) is in how it is used, not whether it is digital or not.

Effective teaching and learning leads - Our new generation assessments reflect and link to effective teaching and learning and, if the effective teaching and learning is best served by technology, then there will be digital tools in the toolbox.

We trust that our customers know what works for them - Our learners were born into a digital world – they grew up using touch screens, smartphones and social media. They are well prepared to interrogate their use of digital and evaluate how their choice of tool impacts on their learning.

Teachers and learners drive our thinking - Digital ways of working are bringing us even closer to our customers and to understanding how they use our assessments and what they need. Digital working undoes any assumptions we make about how teachers think. Working digitally means that we can build our assessments incrementally; continually checking in with teachers and learners that what we develop provides them with what they need.

Teachers, learners and assessment users want products and services that work for them, they expect us to understand and respond to their needs and to react quickly to opportunities. Embracing digital through migratory and transformational strategies is an important way that we are delivering against their expectations.


Before you go... Did you find this article on Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook? Remember to go back and share it with your friends and colleagues!

Related blogs

Key bloggers

Tim Oates Blogger
Tim Oates

Director of Assessment and Research

Research Matters

Research Matters 32 promo image

Research Matters is our free biannual publication which allows us to share our assessment research, in a range of fields, with the wider assessment community.