By Gavin Gibbon
Sue Trory, head of adult and higher education in business and marketing at Cambridge Assessment English, reveals how AI-powered language tests enable effective learning and improve employee performance and retention
As the business world grapples with the digital cogs and wheels of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and technology gathers pace to an age where robots are commonplace in the working day, there is that nagging suspicion that humans might even become redundant in most roles.
Whether this is the stuff of dystopian fiction or our bleak future on earth, either way Sue Trory, head of adult and higher education in business and marketing at Cambridge Assessment English, disagrees.
She tells CEO Middle East: “It fascinates me that when you start to look at the literature around what are the skills that are going to be needed for the world going forward, they are the very things that the English language teaching (ELT) world has been teaching all along, they’re no different. I guess it’s rebranding.”
Actually, artificial intelligence (AI) has become a good friend of Trory and Cambridge Assessment English as the company, renowned for its paper-based examinations, switches to a more digitised strategy.
“I think what we have learned is the world of assessment is changing rapidly across the globe and people in higher education, but also in business, are really needing faster results and they want it to be really easy and accessible to take a test. That’s the advantage of having a digital test as opposed to a paper-based test,” she says.
Already a valuable tool in the company’s armoury, Linguaskill was launched in Dubai by Cambridge Assessment English last year and has witnessed interest from the banking sector as well as the UAE Ministry of Education and Zayed University and King Abdullah University in Saudi Arabia.
Trory explains: “We’ve got some fantastic interest, both in business and in education and I think it mirrors the buoyancy of the economy in the area that it’s one of our key focuses, to understand what customers in the Middle East need in terms of assessment and demand is currently outstripping supply in a way. We need to ramp up our development and we’re really keen to do so.”
In terms of the aforementioned Fourth Industrial Revolution, according to Trory, a former English teacher herself, the automation of traditional jobs in business will offer-up opportunities for humans to provide added value in other ways, through communicative skills and collaboration.
She says: “English plays a really pivotal role as we need that lingua franca to be strong. Their (businesses) staff need to be able to operate in that language and that they need to be able to recruit, understanding the levels of the people of people coming into their business, but also understand the levels of English of the people who are already in business, in order to continue to grow in a global market.”
Taking the UAE alone, according to the World Bank, its population as of October last year was 9.77 million, with a total expat population of 8.477m. From that, 2.623m were Indian, 1.211m Pakistani, 706,000 Bangladeshi, Philippines (530,000), Iran (454,000), Egypt (404,000) and Nepal (303,000).
“Clearly the Middle East is one of those absolutely fundamental areas of the world where that globalisation is happening. That’s what we’re interested in, helping economic growth,” says Trory.
The English test takes roughly an hour to complete and returns results within 48 hours which can be used by HR departments to identify strengths of candidates in an interview process; or highlight any skills gaps or strengths of staff already employed in the organisation.
“That machine learning allows us to mark, to assess, free-speaking and free-writing along with listening and that is really ground-breaking,” says Trory.
“The ability of an algorithm to understand patterns of free speech and free writing, using data from all over the world and to then accurately assess and grade people within 48 hours, that’s the really exciting bit,” she adds.
The subsequent report details the level of English of the candidate, their level in speaking, in writing, and listening.
It also eliminates the element of bias, particularly in the interview process, where previous studies have shown interviewees have just seven seconds in which to impress their potential new employers.
“That’s the really key part, because inevitably, in any assessment scenario, there is always an aspect of human bias and we know from our studies that the speed and the accuracy is there and also it eliminates that human bias because it’s just taking the data of speech. It doesn’t know where you are, if you’re a man or a woman or where you’re from,” says Trory.
Cambridge Assessment English already works with Air France as Linguaskill is deployed all over the world.
But it is in the Middle East where Trory sees greatest interest and potential.
She adds: “The Middle East has been the region that has been the most receptive and responsive and I think that is in recognition of the fact that it’s an area where industry is really recognising the importance of English and communication.”