Why digital exams can't happen without DfE investment

Digital exams are inescapable – but we need funding for training, connectivity and digital resources, writes this principal

Rachael Booth

Covid and exams: Why DfE investment is crucial to make digital GCSE and A-level exams a success

Whether we like it or not, the pandemic has put the pedal to the metal and accelerated our digital capabilities, with data suggesting that Covid-19 has progressed digital transformation strategies by an average of six years globally. 

The digital transformation has been especially apparent in educational settings, with thousands of teachers and students switching to remote learning

Last year’s exam fiasco had all educational professionals and students on tenterhooks; anxiously awaiting the government’s next move and fearing last-minute changes. 


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This unfavourable debacle showcased the need for an exam continuity plan, and subsequently sparked conversations with the Department for Education and England’s major exam boards about the move to digital A-level exams within the next few years.

Digital GCSE and A-level exams: How do we get there?

Although the pandemic has enabled us to make a digital head start, it’s imperative that we contemplate the hurdles to overcome before we reach this revolutionary milestone. 

One challenge we’ve already overcome is the change in educational professionals’ attitudes towards digital; there is a new wave of readiness for electronic assessments because of the pandemic. This newfound appetite for online learning and teaching means that it will be quicker to implement digital exams.

However, we mustn't forget the immense amount of training that will be required for academic and exam staff. To ensure that all educational staff are proficient in digital exam training, a three-year lead time would be needed as a minimum, which must be factored into the Department for Education’s exam roadmap. 

In addition to this, there must be adequate time given for the digital assessments to be piloted, as the consequential impacts and issues need to be identified and addressed before national rollout. 

A breeding ground for cheating?

One issue we may see arise is the potential of creating a breeding ground for cheating; with content leakage and security being a key concern. Online assessments can often be subject to unauthorised distribution of document contents, therefore hindering the integrity of the exams. Therefore, electronic exams would need to be constantly updated with varying topics and questions.

As stated in an academic analysis of electronic exams, students may aim to get the highest marks with the least effort, a goal they can achieve by copying and other cheating. To avoid deception from students, we have to find the balance between driving discipline and creating a culture of trust. 

During a digital A-level exam trial at Leeds Sixth Form College, it proved useful for tutors to access the exam document while the student worked through the questions; providing them with a clear understanding of their responses and thought process, somewhat eliminating the potential for cheating. 

It’s important to grasp an understanding of how digital A-level exams would be marked, with some suggesting that all answers would be auto-marked. Would this be an aid or hindrance to tutors? If a tutor is aware of a student’s writing style and ability, they would be able to clearly identify if the work had been completed by said student. However, this would not be doable for auto-marking.

It would also depend on the subject – for example, maths and chemistry often have definitive and precise answers, making it easy to auto-mark. However, we must consider complex subjects such as sociology, where student responses are often nuanced and require interpretation from tutors.

When considering the shift to digital A-level exams, we may well find that technology interferes with skills assessments for subjects such as art and music. There will be a need for a bespoke approach to exams that considers subjects on a case-by-case basis and is informed through student feedback from digital exam trials.

The digital divide

A constant sticking point to any solely digital approach is the digital divide; an issue rife amongst A-level students, with an estimated 1 million young people and their families in the UK living without adequate access to a device or connectivity at home. 

Although the government has eased the issue with distributions of devices, it’s a sticking plaster that doesn’t address the problem at grassroots level – it needs fully tackling if we are to move forward with digital exams. 

If digital exams were to be implemented, every student would need sufficient training and regular access and connectivity to a digital device in school and at home, allowing them enough time to practise using the device. If this doesn’t happen, disadvantaged students will be left in the dark and the negative impact on their exam marks would be significant.

The issue of connectivity is also mirrored in the rollout of these digital exams. If all the exams take place on the same day, hundreds of students will be accessing wi-fi at the same time to complete these assessments. We can all appreciate the often unreliable nature of wi-fi connectivity, and if it goes down on the day or struggles to connect due to the overwhelming usage, this will have serious implications across the country.

We risk entering rocky new territory when it comes to the security of digital assessments. Compared with traditional exams, which, through years of experience, have been able to reduce the likelihood of cheating and other security breaches, electronic exams are somewhat unprotected because of their dependence on ICT and the internet. Unless robust defences are in place to protect the security properties, it will make the exam process vulnerable to attacks and fraud.

In the current educational climate, mitigating risk is the number one priority for leaders. We must remain mindful of the fact that lockdowns may happen again, making pen-and-paper exams vulnerable.

A plan underpinned by student and staff training

In order to restore the faith with our lost generation of learners, we need to devise a sophisticated three-year plan that is underpinned by student and staff training. Alongside this, we need to trial electronic exams across a diverse range of subjects, paired with student-centred feedback, to inform the exam revolution.

The digital exam makeover cannot be completed without significant investment from the government for training, connectivity, digital resources and pilot schemes. But before we can contemplate this, a serious redressing of the digital divide is needed. Many disadvantaged students are already on the back foot when it comes to digital assessments – we need to take the necessary steps to close this gap before we revolutionise exams.

Rachael Booth is the principal at Leeds Sixth Form College 

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