E-assessment era dawns

Electronic evaluation may soon be rolled out, but this does not mean the end of human contact

The brave new world of e-assessment has dawned. Further education colleges have been developing summative assessment for units of Higher National Certificates and Diplomas for the last three years. Last year, a limited trial was held in 10 centres of e-assessment of Higher and Intermediate 2 biotechnology.

For HNCHND students, computing was an obvious area to pilot. But care, engineering and, a little surprisingly, languages have also been at the forefront of developments. "With languages, e-assessment enables us to use recordings of the language being spoken, or a conversation or dialogue which the candidate can listen to when he or she is ready to do so, and then write the answer online," says Martyn Ware, the SQA's business manager for computer-assisted assessment.

The Pass-IT initiative - one of the earliest pilots in e-assessment - meant that instead of a teacher standing in front of a room playing a listening tape on a tape recorder, the student could use an individual headset and respond to language questions onscreen.

Mr Ware does not envisage e-assessment supplanting the pen and paper tradition entirely - at least not for the foreseeable future. The authority's vision -published this month in an update of its previous report two years ago - talks about "a mixed economy". Nor does he anticipate computers replacing humans.

He draws the analogy with aeroplanes, saying that computers can probably fly a plane more safely than a pilot, but no one would be happy with just a computer at the controls. "Even if a computer could mark better than a human, most people would want a human involved," he says.

Mr Ware also accepts that some areas are still unsuitable for electronic assessment, such as the extended English literature essay. Even in maths papers, a human marker can spot one error which has led to the wrong answer but still give credit to the candidate for knowing the right method of working out a problem.

The SQA points out that some online assessments are designed so that, if a student is struggling to start a question, he or she can ask the computer for help with the first step and then take it from there - the analogy being, perhaps, the "ask the audience" option in Who Wants to be a Millionaire? In such a scenario, the candidate is marked out of four instead of the potential five marks.

One of the major innovations the authority wants to introduce is an e-portfolio for every pupil - an electronic space where learners could store evidence of their achievements and attainments - everything from assessment evidence to Duke of Edinburgh awards.

External access would be permitted, for instance, if evidence was needed in an appeal. Pupils could also use the space for peer assessment.

The authority sees another advantage in e-portfolios - facilitating moderation or verification by a remote user. This would mean that moderators would not need to go into schools, colleges or training providers to ensure national standards were being met; they could work from home, an SQA office or another location. This would save time and money, but the downside would be the loss of face-to-face dialogue and involvement.

Mr Ware acknowledges that the development of e-assessment in a way that makes Scotland a centre of excellence will be expensive in the early stages. "We will have to work to bring costs down, but we hope to benefit from other national developments, for example, Glow," he says.

He anticipates that the IT infrastructure which will support Glow - Learning and Teaching Scot-land's digital schools intranet system - will also support e-assessment. A Curriculum for Excel-lence is expected to pave the way for new forms of assessment to support the new curriculum.

"The thinking about how that will change what is assessed and how it is assessed in schools and colleges is still in development," Mr Ware says.

Bill McGregor, general secretary of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland, is more sanguine. "Is Glow ready for this? Assuming in the long-term that Glow is going to glow, that is fine. But in the next few years, the evidence is not particularly strong that it is going to be ready for everyone."

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