the e-Assessment Association

Things we learnt in 2020, by Gavin Cooney, co-founder and CEO of Learnosity

Things we learnt in 2020, by Gavin Cooney, co-founder and CEO of Learnosity
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The past year has thrown up more challenges for education than any in living memory. Physical restrictions have created a new reliance on the possibilities of digital – and none more so than in assessment.

After a year of unprecedented user growth for its assessment technology, Learnosity’s CEO Gavin Cooney digs into the data to share key takeaways and emerging trends.

In October 2020, Learnosity delivered 2.15 billion questions to 36.7m students. Here’s what we learned.

There’s still some time to go, but what a year it’s been.

At this point, you’d be forgiven for just wanting to get through what’s left of 2020 and putting the year that just kept on taking in your rearview mirror in a hurry. But if there’s one thing that’s become clear in 2020, it’s that education, both as a field and an industry, has been pushed to do something new: evolve at pace.

As CEO of a SaaS company that deals in assessment infrastructure, I’ve seen the sea change firsthand. Here are some things I’ve observed from our data:

The rise of Authentic Assessment

When Mark (CTO) and I started Learnosity, one of the drivers was to enable more authentic assessments. Simply put we wanted to enable a whole industry to go beyond multiple choice questions, which are inherently geared for recall and convergent student responses than they were for deeper, more nuanced evaluation.

For a century and more, multiple choice questions were the de facto question type across the industry. But digital has made a difference. In the last 10 years we’ve seen clear signs that education is starting to free itself from its codependent relationship with MCQs. It all comes down to the more expansive capabilities that technology can offer.

So what do our numbers tell us?

Our customers have authored over 61 million questions and stored them with us, so we’re well-placed to analyze trends from the number of questions authored. We can see that just over half of all questions authored were MCQs – 53% to be precise. The rest are more innovative question types, better suited to support more authentic assessment.

 Of course the proof is in the pudding.

Out of the 2.15 billion questions delivered in October, 947 million of them were rich questions (i.e. not MCQs).

Without digging into the details too much, here are some notable numbers relating to questions delivered:

  • 223 million were math questions
  • 3 million were video questions, which are used for demonstrating presentation skills, scientific experiments, and creative work
  • There were 13 million file uploads, which are suited to demonstrating offline learning (i.e. paper-based upload via photos or handwritten work)
  • 3 million were audio questions, often used for demonstrating spoken languages skills
  • 142 million were essay questions, indicating a switch toward a more long-form format

COVID's impact on e-Assessment

COVID has disrupted life as we know it. But seeing how people adapt to it is some kind of silver lining.

It’s been astonishing to see how quickly our clients have onboarded new users in response to COVID, with the first peak we observed being around week 12 (mid-March, coinciding with earlier global “lockdowns”).

Each year we expect to see a nice ramp of new users coming onboard over the ‘back to school’ period (around the end of August). This year was different.

The graph below shows new users every week for the last few years. In 2020, we onboarded more than 2 million students every week for the first six weeks. Some weeks we had as much as 3 million.

Users per week year 2020

In addition, what we’re seeing – at least in formative assessment – is that the usage pattern has changed dramatically. Prior to COVID, we might expect a user to do one assessment once or twice a week (for example, as part of their homework). Post-COVID, we’re seeing students come back every single day to do hours of work.

In essence, we’re seeing more students, each doing more work.

When all is said and done, compared to last year, we’ve observed over a 2.5x increase in the number of students using our system, and an increase in the region of 10x increase in the number of assessments they’re taking.

In times of crisis, innovators lead the way

User numbers during ‘back to school’ period compared to previous years.

Graph showing monthly active users in the month of October over the last six years, showing a dramatic increase in 2020

There’s a quote from Warren Buffet I’ve been using a lot lately.

“Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.”

When COVID hit earlier this year, a bunch of major assessments were cancelled. The tide went out, and a lot of folks were swimming naked. It’s totally understandable. But in 2021, there’s no excuse. The industry needs to adapt, and quickly. Cancelling two years in a row is not an option.

The pivot to online as a necessary failsafe actually paves the way for real innovation in the sector. We’ve seen massive gains in traffic for clients who’ve really leveraged new technology into their own learning products to better serve learners in core areas like accessibility, engagement, and reliability.

Their success reminds me of something I read in a Uri Friedman piece for The Atlantic on the role of resilience in geopolitical power.

“International power dynamics will be rooted in resilient power amid the types of mass traumas that look set to dominate this century.”

The surest way for education to fortify its resilience to such traumas is by investing in critical infrastructure now. Let’s not wait for the tide to go out again.

Author bio

Gavin Cooney is a co-founder and CEO of Learnosity – an SaaS company that provides cloud-based assessment infrastructure to the learning industry

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