Equality and Assessment: ensuring that learners are set up to succeed during COVID-19

14 Apr 2020
Assessment Equality across Tertiary Education

AONTAS CEO, Niamh O’Reilly chairs the Department of Education and Skills Mitigating Educational Disadvantage (including Community Education Issues) Working Group.

Here, AONTAS is working with stakeholders and experts[1] across the tertiary education sector to ensure that the issues facing adult and community education providers at this difficult time are being resolved. At the heart of this work is the learner.

Important and useful outputs from this work include Discussion Papers that act as a valuable resource for stakeholders and as a set of practical recommendations to the Department of Education and Skills and education providers.

More outputs are being developed, currently the Discussion Papers are:

  • Learner/Student Engagement across Tertiary Sector – A Discussion Paper
  • Assessment Equality across Tertiary Education – A Discussion Paper
  • Digital Learning and Disadvantage across Tertiary Education – A Discussion Paper

    The second Discussion Paper specifically focuses on the theme of assessment in relation to educational disadvantage and supporting learners who are adults living in disadvantaged rural areas, first-time mature students, low qualified migrants, low qualified adults (less than upper second level), early school leavers, long-term unemployed, asylum seekers, people with disabilities, Travellers, Lone Parents, Homeless, people in receipt of social welfare, living in poverty and low income families and other vulnerable learners. The big question during this difficult time can be boiled down to one essential question ‘how can we create conditions and policies that set all learners up to succeed?

    The key issues raised and recommendations made include:

    1. Consideration has to be given to the fact that not all learners are able to equally engage in online assessment. There are broadband connectivity issues, broadband bandwidth for more technically advanced platforms, devices, software compatibility issues, and a range of additional personal and home-related challenges and distractions. Assurances are needed that learners are equipped to undertake assessment. Also, a system needs to be developed to identify and accommodate learners who cannot engage in remote assessments.
    2. Ensure educators are equipped with the materials they needed to meet learners’ needs. Digital tools and WIFI capacity are necessary to deliver quality assessments, and time/work allocation requirements need to be adjusted to prepare learners for remote assessment
    3. Shift to broad learning outcomes and formative assessment practices as required so that all learner cohorts have the most appropriate assessment process.
    4. A flexible approach to assessment deadlines and timelines is needed, with no penalties for repeats for learners impacted by COVID-19 related issues such as ill health, bereavement, lack of necessary accommodation and so on.
    5. Development of an action plan for competency-based and practical assessments. For example, this especially applies to courses and modules requiring a work-placement.   
    6. Assessments should be designed to be applied to students in a way that is not time-bound or requiring a contemporary time period for engagement. For example, this could include home-based projects and/or assignments with flexible submission dates.
    7. Assessment should be as low-tech as possible. This would need to take into consideration that not every learner has the necessary hardware and software to run digital assessment programmes and online platforms.
    8. Students should be asked to self-declare that the work under these circumstances is their own work.

    There are some additional issues for Further Education and Training regarding equality and assessment, such as   

    Assessment should not be a continuation of the disproportionate negative impact of COVID-19 on the most marginalised learners who are already facing overlapping and complex forms of disadvantage. They are being tested and treated unfairly enough during this emergency. As the barriers facing learners continue to unfold, increase and take on new meaning AONTAS will match these challenges by continuing its work with the Department of Education and through chairing the Mitigating Educational Disadvantage including Community Education during the COVID-19 Crisis Working Group. For more information on this work Click Here.

    To make your voice heard and have your issues raised to decision makers at the highest levels of government contact AONTAS via email: or Freephone: 1800 303669.


    [1] i

    MED Working Group Members (The papers do not reflect the views of all members or their institutions):

    Niamh O’Reilly AONTAS (Chair), Dr Leah Dowdall AONTAS (Secretary), USI, ETBI/CDETB, HEA, Dearbháil Lawless AONTAS, Dr Eve Cobain AONTAS, NALA, TU Dublin, DES, SOLAS, AHEAD, THEA, QQI, Pavee Point, NFETL, Longford Women’s Link, SHEP/Cork Community Education Network, UCD, Maynooth University, Dr Michael Hallisey, Professor Tom Collins, Dr Fergal Finnegan


    Addtional Information

    AONTAS Membership and Engagement Update Weekly Webinars

    Click here for more information on these weekly webinars with the AONTAS CEO. These webinars are open to members only. Further information on AONTAS membership is available here

    Outputs from the Mitigating Educational Disadvantage Working Group