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Online exams a 'significant risk'

There are "significant risks" in being seduced by online assessment, the chief executive of the Scottish Qualifications Authority has warned.

Addressing secondary heads at their spring conference in East Kilbride, Anton Colella said that Scotland was unlikely to follow the pace of developments south of the border where ministers have endorsed a revolution in examinations technology that will allow some GCSE exams to be taken on computers by 2010.

"I am not looking with envy at that. I am just saying, are you sure? Are you absolutely sure that this is where you should be going because once you go down that road the genie is out the bottle and it is hard to put it back. We are being a bit more cautious," Mr Colella said.

He added: "We need to be ensure that in ICT in assessment we protect the primacy of teaching and learning. If technology starts to drive it, we are going to lose something. The science hasn't said to me, this is the way we should go."

Mr Colella said that schools and authorities had already spent vast amounts of money on computer-assisted learning to improve basic skills in English and maths but questions were being raised about the value of this approach.

Scottish schools, however, were already taking a bold approach in piloting ways of using ICT in assessment, without emulating the English rush. "It's not the pupil sitting with a keyboard, looking at the screen.

If that is it, we have missed it," he said.

The SQA was taking a broader approach to computer-assisted assessment and was looking at students taking exams on paper but marked in part using scanning technologies. One company was developing ways of e-mailing papers in batches to markers who could then mark on screen.

Mr Colella said he was equally cautious about such methods since he knew many markers would not want to follow that pattern.

Other approaches included schools and colleges downloading assessments. "We are doing it just now. We have students completing end of unit assessments online and marked by computers, giving immediate feedback and giving us that information. I am not sure this is the way to go but we are testing it," he said.

But one reason the SQA would back such technology was if schools and colleges wanted it. He accepted the power of immediacy in online tests, as with the theory test in the new driving exam.

Mr Colella said that students had to benefit from computer-assisted assessment. "Does it add to the quality assurance assessment process. If it doesn't ask the question, why are we doing it?"

He believed there was potential for students who require special arrangements such as those with eyesight difficulties.

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