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On-line with the trail-blazers

One company pioneering the use of tests on-line is Question Mark Computing. It has offered software for writing and marking multiple-choice test items for some time, but its latest venture goes one step further; it converts these tests into html, the format understood by World Wide Web browser software. These tests can then be posted on the Web, and accessed and completed by anyone who reads them.

Currently this technology is not being used for formal assessment; there are too many security issues which need to be addressed for one thing. However, a visit to the Question Mark Web site gives a flavour of things to come. There are tests you can try out to judge the look and feel of the interface as well as response time, which is remarkably fast.

You can also browse the accumulated results of other users' attempts to answer the quizzes. The scores on the test of common European road signs, from the UK and the Netherlands for the most part, may leave you hoping the respondents were mostly too young to drive.

More interesting in terms of immediate educational application is a system called MedWeb. This is a bank of multiple-choice items for medical students, which can be usefully used for self-assessment. Created in a number of medical schools, it covers various specialist topics. Potentially the world's expert researchers and teachers can contribute to banks of assessment items to be used by students anywhere to check their own current knowledge of rapidly developing fields. Responses can be compared to a secure file on the test writer's server and the user given a mark instantly.

How secure these answers are will depend on the security of the server. For self-assessment items, disclosure of the correct responses is desirable, although the possibility of hacking into the file and possibly corrupting it is obviously not.

Question Mark claims on its Web pages that it is monitoring security issues and will develop additional measures if necessary. Protection of data within on-line systems, especially during transfer when it is most vulnerable, is a much bigger issue than one company alone can address and will ultimately need global co-operation to solve.

As well as setting up banks of assessment items, the Question Mark software can be used to build surveys or questionnaires. Once converted to html format, these can be distributed via the Web or e-mail, posted on a school or university network or even distributed on disc. They can be read and completed by anyone who has a Web browser on any hardware platform. Similarly, the responses can be returned for marking via any of these distribution methods, with additional feedback where desired.

Clearly these are early days for on-line testing, but the Question Mark system is pioneering something which may ultimately change the face of educational assessment for ever.

* Question Mark,5th floor,Hill House, Highgate Hill, London N19 5NA.Tel: 0171 263 7575.

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