What is a digital assessment? Exploring the digital vs non-digital divide 

Dr. Pauline Rooney, Academic Developer at Trinity College Dublin, poses the question, can we really categorise assessments as digital vs non-digital—and is it a useful distinction at all?

Digital technologies provide new ways of designing, facilitating and managing assessment processes. There are various terms used for this, including “Online Assessment”, “Technology-Enhanced or Enabled Assessment”, “E-Assessment”, and the lexicon around digital assessment is constantly evolving as new practices and understandings emerge.    

At Trinity, we use the term “Digital Assessment. But what do we mean by this? And what does this term mean to you?  

Photo by Sebastian Sikora / CC BY 3.0

For many people, digital assessment is equated with online assessmenta term which often conjures up images of online MCQ tests, virtual simulations, blogs, wikis and proctored online exams. These assessment modes are made possible by recent advances in digital technologies, and are often defined by their use of technology. Can you imagine how one might create a blog without a blogging tool?!  

I would argue that the term “digital assessment” encapsulates far more than assessments conducted online, or assessments which are defined by their use of technology.  

Let’s take the traditional essay for example. Is this digital or non-digital? Non-digital, I hear you say!  However, these days, it is rare to research, write and submit an essay without the use of digital technologies at some point in the process. Many essays are now disseminated and collected within virtual learning environments. Students typically write their essays using laptops and word processing software, having undertaken their research online. Their lecturers may also have given digital feedback in the form of text-based annotations/comments, or even audio or video recordings.   

Still non-digital do you think?  

What about a performance? Take, for example, the Drama student as they enact a theatre performance with their class peers. In pre-Covid times, this was typically a live, in-person affair, with the actors performing to a reactive live audience in a constant cyclic interchange of energies. With the Covid-19 pandemic, many such performances moved online, designed, rehearsed and performed in isolation. See, for example, the wonderful Lockdown Shakespeare produced in July 2020 by final year acting students at Trinity College’s Lir Academy. For me, this constitutes a wonderful example of digital assessment, where digital technologies are used so creatively to enable new forms of performance and assessment processes.  

Digital technologies now permeate our lives for better or worse. They have changed how we access and consume information, how we communicate with our peers, how we collaborate and, as some would argue, they are even changing the way that we behave and think. (See for example Carr 2010). Against this backdrop, the way in which our students engage with most assessment processes is now a complex fusion of analogue and digital technologies, spaces, activities and practices (Fawns 2020).  

With this in mind, can we really categorise assessments as digital vs non-digital? Is it a useful distinction at all? And if yes, what does it mean to you?