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Qwerty skills revival as exams go online

Every office worker does it. For children, it is becoming second nature at home and increasingly at school. But it has no place in today's GCSEs and A-levels.

Yet typing, that unavoidable staple of 21st-century life, is likely to become a feature of exams within a few years, The TES can reveal.

Functional skills tests, which are about to be tested before their introduction in 2010, may feature sections in which pupils type in their answers at the keyboard.

And within four years the first trials of GCSEs containing "free text" input at the computer screen are expected to begin.

Both of these developments would be radical advances on the current position.

Some GCSEs, notably in science, now feature multiple choice or objective tests, which can be taken at the computer screen. In addition, at least one exam board is now offering a GCSE in which pupils compile "electronic portfolios", or digital folders, into which they place coursework.

But the goal of allowing exam candidates to input their answers at the computer screen remains, at present, unrealised.

Bob Penrose, principal manager of new technology at AQA, Britain's biggest awarding body, said the board would soon be in a position to trial questions which could be answered in this way.

For years exam boards have been investigating computer-based assessment, with paper and pen tests increasingly seen as anachronistic. However, the risks attached to reforming exams on which pupils' futures depend mean progress has been slow.

But Mr Penrose said change would come. Multiple-choice tests on their own were not enough and on-screen assessment would have to become more sophisticated.

Instead, candidates' typed answers would be sent to human examiners to mark. In time, this might happen electronically, Mr Penrose said, with the pupils' response sent to the marker to be assessed on-screen. Perhaps within five years, sections of A-levels which are already multiple-choice could be examined on-screen.

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