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Electronic assessment gets clever

A new computer-assisted system that can assess skills and competencies rather than just knowledge, was demonstrated at the latest meeting of the eLearning Alliance in Stirling.

In principle, e-assessment can provide fast, accurate feedback to exam candidates and awarding bodies. In practice, this vision is still some way from achievement. Working examples of e-assessment are confined almost entirely to a set of subjects that lend themselves to multiple-choice questions. But this form of testing is unable to assess creativity, organised thinking or mastery of practical skills.

Flexible, intelligent forms would be a big step forward, and this is what Dunfermline company eCom Scotland has been developing. "Our system doesn't just say that someone has completed a task," explains Linda Steedman, managing director. "It also assesses how well they have done, how competent they are. They might have got the right result but made lots of errors, or very few. Our system can tell which."

In a research project in collaboration with Strathclyde University, Britestep has adapted artificial intelligence techniques from the pattern-matching methods used by scientists to sequence genes.

The prototype system is being developed initially to assess computer skills, starting with competency in Microsoft Word.

"Our system goes into the program and discovers the different ways you can perform any action," says Ms Steedman. "So the subject matter expert who sets the questions only has to specify one of these. If the candidate does something different, Britestep recognises that that is correct too."

The new system represents a significant increase in the power and potential of e-assessment, but development work remains to be done, says Ms Steedman: "We are planning to test the system with students at Adam Smith College next session."

eCom Scotland: www.ecom scotland.com eLearning Alliance: www.elearningalliance.org E-assessment at SQA: www.sqa.org.uksqa5606.html

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