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Come together

Traditionally, computers have kept assessment and admin apart. Until now. Anat Arkin enters the virtual learning zone

FDebate about the future of assessment centres on how far computers can be used to generate tests and mark work. But there is more to it than that.

Suppliers argue their products can deliver the personalised learning the Government wants to see by making all the different bits of software they now use work much more closely.

"The future isn't just about automated, digitised assessment," says Tim Cornford, general manager at nferNelson, part of the Granada Learning Group. "It's about a teacher having integrated, co-ordinated access to a record-keeping system, lesson plans and content and the ability to assess kids in relation to the content just covered.

"Technically, that means that you have a school administration system that can talk to a virtual learning environment and to an automated assessment system."

That would enable a teacher to break long-term attainment targets into weekly or daily objectives for each pupil, find content linked to those objectives, test whether they have been achieved and pick the next set of tasks. Attendance figures and other data held on the school administration system would be transferred automatically to the virtual learning environment to help teachers analyse pupil results.

Software producers are trying to achieve such integration, but those who spoke to The TES admitted they haven't quite got there. They are still trying to overcome barriers that are not only technical, but also concern drawing together people from many disciplines - from graphic designers to those who understand assessment.

Nick Fell, product manager for Kaleidos, a virtual learning environment produced by RM, points out that some systems already include assessment components. "The limitation of those products is that they are very much closed systems and teachers can't add in supplementary materials and extend what's in them," he says.

RM is to release a new version of Kaleidos which, he says, will allow teachers to create questions and generate electronic tests. Where tests are multiple choice, the system will also be able to mark them.

"So it's beginning to automate the assessment process and allow teachers to create and build up a bank of questions which they can re-use," says Mr Fell. "That's one of the key things about virtual learning environments: they allow teachers to re-use material, rather than have to keep reinventing the wheel."

It's not just individual teachers who could soon be able to save time and effort in this way. Brian Hodge, deputy strategic director at Capita Education Services, (producer, with Granada Learning, of the Capita Learnwise learning platform) predicts a big expansion in the use of portals set up by local education authorities or broadband consortiums to allow schools to share learning and assessment content.

"Teachers can then bring that down to their own local virtual learning environment and management information systems and start to edit it and use it as they want to," he says. But he warns that the quality of what goes on to these portals will need to be carefully monitored.

Before the industry's visions can become reality, it will need to tackle the thorny issue of compatibility between systems. Vic Fleming, head of Silkstone primary school in Barnsley, voices the frustration of many heads when he asks: "Why on earth do I have to keep on filling in forms for the DfES with information that should be readily available? Why can't the DfES, or the LEA, log on to my software as a guest and pull down what they want when they want it?"

He argues that the Department for Education needs to take the lead and apply some "comprehensive, linked-up thinking".

To be fair to the powers that be, they are trying to promote what is known as "inter-operability" through initiatives such as the Learning Platforms Stakeholders' Group, a body led by Becta, the Government's schools computer agency. It is trying to encourage software suppliers to adopt common operating standards.

The group also hopes to persuade suppliers to sign up to a registration scheme requiring them to use standard terms to describe their products.

This would help schools make informed purchasing decisions. So, any system described as a virtual learning environment would have to offer features such as tutor support and a mechanism for tracking students' progress, as well as a means of delivering learning.

Such moves, and newer technology, will not on their own create a bright new future of personalised learning. As David Hassell, an assistant director at Becta, says: "You can argue about the technology and the systems. But the quality of what one can do is based on the imagination of the person thinking up the material, rather than the limitations of the system."

e-assessment report, TES Online, November 5

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