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Fighting for technology

THE firm that has taken over Britain's second largest exam board is embroiled in a legal battle to control technology that could revolutionise marking by letting examiners assess scripts on screen.

NCS Pearson, which acquired the Edexcel board for pound;20 million in May, is to be challenged in the High Court over who holds patents to on-screen marking technology that could be worth millions.

In March 2002, before the Edexcel takeover, NCS Pearson sent a letter to several organisations advising them that it held five patents covering this new technology.

One of the recipients, Milton Keynes-based Data and Research Services (DRS), has been developing its own on-screen marking technology for several years, but was told that this breached these patents.

DRS has responded. Its action, to be heard in November, alleges that it has not infringed the patents. Separately, DRS will argue that NCS Pearson had no right to claim the patents in the first place. NCS Pearson has responded with a counter-claim asserting that DRS has infringed its patents.

Technology looks set to streamline the bureaucratic marking process. Ken Boston, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, is a fan of on-screen marking. Last week, he told The TES that he could see boards in the future paying companies to provide the technology to do this.

NCS Pearson would be a key player in this new market. Others, he said, would include Educational Testing Service, a not-for-profit American firm, and DRS.

NCS, or National Computer Systems, which is owned by Pearson, has substantial experience of computerised testing in the United States.

The tie-up with Edexcel was hailed as a way of introducing marking technology on a large scale here. Edexcel has said it wants examiners to mark a quarter of its five million GCSE and A-level entries next summer on screen.

The TES was given a tour of Edexcel's offices earlier this year.

Ironically, the marking technology on display was provided by DRS, which has had a close relationship with Edexcel over the past decade.

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