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The great e-scape

E-assessment is the latest buzz word, says Jack Kenny. But should children really be taking control of their exams...?

The Holy Grail of assessment is: all work done digitally and all work assessed digitally. It could be argued, therefore, that the key to establishing ICT into the curriculum is e-assessment. Professor Richard Kimbell, of the Technology and Research Unit (TERU) at Goldsmiths College, London, has developed a new form of digital assessment for design and technology (DT) in conjunction with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA).

The work gives clues to how e-assessment might develop in other subjects too. Richard points out that in conventional DT assessment children pursue a design project, identify a task and then, over a period of months, work their way through producing a portfolio with models and artefacts. If the students start in October, they'd finish in April and present their work for assessment.

According to Richard, there are all kinds of problems with this approach, not least of which is: "The portfolio the kids present is so well organised by the teacher in order to guarantee the A to C grades that the scope for individual creativity from the kids is very limited. They become very organised and formulaic. It rules out the whackier and idiosyncratic. The kids who do well in DT are those who are well organised and follow the rules. But we want to discover kids who have imagination and creativity.

"The QCA came to us and said there was reason to believe that we were rewarding the wrong kids in DT. Could we devise a system that would enable us to pick out the design innovators? The first project was called 'Assessing Design Innovation'."

The task for Richard and his team, which includes senior research fellow Tony Wheeler, founder of TAG Learning, was to design an exam that was actually not controlled by teachers. "We set the kids a task; we gave them some resources and took them through by stage-managing it through a series of structured sub-tasks. The teacher has to take the role of administrator reading from a script. The kids have to work their way to a design solution in what amounts to two mornings (three hours each) of work. In the process, they take lots of photographs along the way and the photographs build into a kind of visual storyline.

"Teachers are instructed to behave as technicians and not allowed to intervene in the normal way. This model sets the teacher in a different relationship with students, where basically it is the kids' ideas that drive. We put that model into about 12 schools. It ran for two years, finishing last December.

"In all, we tested about 500 kids in 15 schools working with many teachers and all the exam boards. The kids produced some astonishing stuff and the teachers were amazed. OCR was so impressed that they have now built it into a new specification."

In the paper project, the students were producing digital images to illustrate their progress. Richard went to Martin Ripley, head of e-strategy at the QCA, and suggested a digital version of the six-hour assessment activity. "I'm very opposed to computer-based testing where kids just sit in front of a screen all the time," says Richard. "I'm interested in design and technology in the environment of studios and workshops. I want digital tools that work in that setting," says Richard. "We asked how we could build this activity so that kids, instead of working in a booklet, could work on the handheld device. We now have a contract from the QCA to develop this."

In essence, this is the same as the paper version. The kids will work on a DT activity, they'll write notes and draw sketches on their PDAs and produce images, even audio. "As the students work, the bits they produce will be transferred to the online portfolio via wi-fi. Instead of the work emerging in front of them on paper, it will emerge on the web space," says Richard. "One drawback is the size of screen of the PDA, but we are working on ways of projecting the image on to a whiteboard so that kids will see their evolving portfolio as they go."

The digital project will run this year. According to Richard, "We know it can be done. We will have some preliminary trials in FebruaryMarch, then we will do a pilot in June and July in about 12 schools."

The results of that could have a considerable bearing on the future of assessment.

Advantages for students

The DT digital assessment empowers kids who are great at modelling ideas, but are not particularly good at drawing. Kids can show all kinds of levels of thought that, under conventional systems, they would not get credit for.

...for the curriculum

We can take the power of computing out of the computer room and put it into the subject area. Using PDAs means we can release the power of the digital world into the place where there is real learning, where the work is taking place.

...for teachers

The way we structure the work with sub-tasks helps teachers. Often a teacher will say: "Get on with your project," without it being clear what "getting on with their work" means. When teachers see all the subsets of demands in the structure of the task, they can see how they can use that structure in their teaching. I think one of the spin-offs could be that it will improve the quality of design teaching.

...for exam boards

They will be dealing with digital data not paper. Moderators in Cambridge, Cumbria or Cornwall can look at the same work simultaneously. At the touch of a button they can compare one piece of work with another piece of a similar standard, or an exemplar. Apart from being quick and free from moving paper or people around, it will make it easier to stabilise standards.

...of the PDA

It is a digital design sketch book with the power to take sound files and images. You can beam from machine to machine. Students work in a support group of three and they can beam files and comment on each other's work.

To download a copy of the report go to : e-scapesummary.doc

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