The Scottish Qualifications Authority is to pilot on-line assessment procedures across Scotland in partnership with local authorities and bodies such as Learning and Teaching Scotland, the Scottish Centre for Research and Online Assessment and the BBC.
Funded by the Scottish Executive, the Project on Assessment in Scotland on Information Technology (PASS-IT) is being launched this autumn and will run over the next two years. The pilot will not cover all subjects. "We cannot say which ones as yet, in order to explore assessment issues around the country," says Anton Colella, the SQA's director of qualifications.
"The first phase will involve piloting internal components of national and higher national qualifications as well as some components of the 5-14 curriculum.
"A move towards online assessment will require massive investment but there is a price to pay if we don't make that move. As a national assessment body we have a key role to play in supporting development in these areas."
Progress depends on partnership as well as proceeding with caution, says Mr Colella.
"For a national awarding body there are a lot of considerations. Can online assessment provide greater flexibility? Or greater access for special educational needs candidates? Can it enhance validity and reliability? What potential does it have for diagnostic feedback? We are reflecting on these possibilities for the future.
"A varied assessment diet - testing the individual candidate when that candidate is ready - has been mooted as one advantage; the downside is that this could disrupt learning and teaching in any given school.
"What is flexible for one school or college may not be for another. The users will have to decide."
Consistent progress will only be made in partnership with local authorities and presenting centres, says Mr Colella.
"Pupils are already working with software packages that give immediate diagnostic feedback, and this indicates there may be a growing demand for more online assessment for the internal components of national qualifications.
"The time will come when item banks of assessment can be used to help prepare candidates and give diagnostic feedback. We have to look at producing validated e-assessment banks," he says.
E-portfolios are another possibility. "Scottish Enterprise has set up modern apprenticeships with e-portfolios. If it can do it, then the SQA needs to pilot something similar," he says.
Another area under consideration is scanning examination scripts to be distributed electronically to markers.
"There is a significant workload in marking one million scripts every year and it is our responsibility to look at the cost-effectiveness of using electronic processes. We have to work to a very tight timetable and there may be benefits, but we need to proceed carefully and cautiously."
The SQA is not considering automated marking yet. In the future, automated marking of multiple choice papers in some subjects might be a possibility but, points out Mr Colella: "You can't automate the marking of an English composition."
There are no plans for a wholescale switch to online assessment.
"The issue of e-learning and online assessment is very complex for an exam board," says Mr Colella. "It demands a huge infrastructure where everything interconnects. You can only move forward on a national basis in partnership with all the other relevant bodies. It offers an exciting opportunity to work with local authorities and other agencies but a great deal of research still has to be done in order to make such a system deliverable and flexible.
"For now it is the two Ps which matter: piloting and partnership."
Developments in Online Assessment will give a progress report on the multi-agency project at 10am, September 25. A dedicated website will be launched in a few weeks.