Cardinal Wiseman RC School in Greenford, London, is not afraid of embracing technology, especially when it can ease the workload. So for the past year it has been piloting a device that one of its senior teachers believes will save his department at least 145 hours a year in marking time.
The system, the Series 8 Group Response System from Xtol, is essentially a set of handheld keypads radio-linked to a computer, like those used in audience participation game shows. The system's use in education is largely due to a Cardinal Wiseman pupil, Pascal d'Arc, who realised its potential while on a work placement at Xtol. The school's senior staff backed the idea and gave the green light for two pilot projects.
Pupils undertaking a routine test are given a multiple choice paper and one of the numeric keypads. Instead of ticking answers on the test paper, pupils key in numbers on the keypad, which passes the results by radio link to to a standard PC. The software sorts and displays the data and is fast enough for the teacher to discuss results - picking up weaknesses on a particular question or giving praise for high marks - as soon as the test is finished. This instantaneous feedback can be followed up by deeper analysis once the results are printed.
This form of testing is already under way in the design and technology department at Cardinal Wiseman and it looks impressive. When I was there department head Dermot Quinn used the system for a Year Eight class test of control technology, and despite the fact that the class had not used the keypads before, there were no problems.
The real benefit though, is in the potential saving of teacher time. Quinn spent many hours marking regular tests and then more time keying the results into a database. The Xtol package feeds the data straight from the pupil's desk into an Excel file. If necessary, the teacher can immediately access the computer to see who did well or badly, pinpoint class weaknesses and discover who has particular problems. These results, remember, are immediately available without anyone having had to take a pile of papers home to mark.
Another advantage of the system, says Quinn, is that the combination of keypad and multiple choice test helps the pupil with literacy problems. "It enables the student with special needs to demonstrate his or her skills in the subject," he explains.
Cardinal Wiseman is also exploring other uses of the system. In PSHE and careers, for example, co-ordinator David Lawrie uses the keypads so pupils can remain anonymous to classmates when responding to sensitive questions; the pupil presses a key instead of putting up a hand and the computer records each pupil's answer.
Using the keypads, Lawrie points out, also makes it harder for one or two pupils to hog the class by leaping in with the answers. "Everyone has a chance to get the right answer," he says.
While this technology has been long-established in business training and assessment, it is still in its infancy in education. But it seems certain Cardinal Wiseman and other schools will discover an increasing number of uses for it, such as linking it to existing management systems such as SIMS.
Xtol Series 8 Group Response System (eight keypads, software, cables, radio transceivers), pound;2,750 (25 per cent reduction for schools).
Tel: 0181 991 9500 www.xtol.co.uk