Is e-assessment the way forward?

The fast-changing world of technology is proving that computers may - in the future - be used to mark a range of exams

THERE IS a familiar ring to recent criticisms of computerised exam marking.

The Scottish Qualifi-cations Authority has been exploring the principles of e-assessment and piloting its practice for several years. But critics still reject the whole idea as impractical and unnecessary.

Not long ago they were dismissing the potential of computers in school, and fearing for the social skills of a generation brought up to interact with machines rather than people. Yet computers are now the medium for the most creative and complex educational interactions ever seen in schools.

The critics assumed technology was unchanging. No one foresaw the social web in detail. But it was the vision of a few. So the argument that it is inconceivable that computers could be used, for instance, to mark an English or history essay have omitted two key words - "for now".

It might never be possible, says Martyn Ware, SQA's business manager for computer-assisted assessment. "But I wouldn't be too sure."

In the meantime, e-assessment of the multiple-choice sections of some exams is already with us. Last year, for the first time, external assessment of biotechnology at Intermediate 2 and Higher was offered in seven centres as an on-screen exam.

"We got a lot of positive feedback from the schools, so this year we'll be doing the same again in nine centres," says Mr Ware. "We will also be offering an on-screen exam for the multiple-choice section of physics Intermediate 1 in Dumfries and Galloway."

Around 150 candidates will take part this year at 17 different centres.

Last year, 63 candidates, all volunteers, took part, 13 from Jordanhill School.

Paul Thomson, the headteacher, describes the experience as "very positive.

A clear benefit was the practice pupils got with the online exam beforehand, and the feedback on their answers the online system gave them.

That was useful for exam preparation. It told them if they were understanding, and it motivated them. They also enjoyed the exam. We will be taking part again this year.

"The computerised system has a lot of potential," he continues. "Once you've built up a bank of questions, kids could take the exams at different times. They could sit them in different places.

"In terms of content, you can do things that just aren't possible on paper.

You can present questions with a different structure, so that you're really getting at what the candidates know and can do."

Another valuable feature is the ability to manipulate curves at the touch of a button, so that repetitive, error-prone activities are replaced by interactive experiences which highlight insight and understanding.

A variety of assessment methods will continue to be used across the subjects, Mr Thomson believes. "We assess kids orally, in writing, and with practical tasks. Computers are giving us one more option, and offering the potential to do novel and interesting things. You can make a question more valid, since what the learner sees is more like what they would see in real life."

But that is for the not-so-distant future. For now, the association is taking small steps and building confidence, says Mr Ware.

"We aim to roll out what we're doing with biotechnology and physics, on a planned and well-managed basis, learning lessons and adding a subject or two every year."

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