The shape of things to come? Mocks on iPads

Exam board also issued Kindles and laptops in IGCSE pilot

Stephen Exley

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While iPads may be exploding in popularity as a teaching tool and throughout the country generally, the devices have so far been strictly off-limits during exams.

But TES has learned that a leading exam board is trialling the use of portable devices such as iPads, Kindles and laptops in exam conditions.

University of Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) has become the first board in the country to experiment with the use of the tablets in this way.

A group of Year 11 students at Impington Village College in Cambridgeshire became the first to sit a mock IGCSE exam last month in biology using computers. Principal Robert Campbell said that the class was "cautiously optimistic" about the trial.

Last March, Ofqual's former chief executive Isabel Nisbet warned that retaining traditional writing materials in exams "cannot go on", as it would lead to GCSEs and A levels becoming "invalid" for digitally native pupils whose "natural medium" is IT.

But while her message was welcomed by exam boards at the time, little progress has been made since then in modernising the way in which students sit exams.

In the CIE pilot, the Impington students were given portable computers on which to view the exam paper.

"We thought it sounded exciting and different," Mr Campbell said. "The potential to do this has been there for a few years; examiners already mark electronically. Why shouldn't they look at doing the same at this end?"

"Exam boards have to provide high-quality printed materials, including supplementary booklets, so it could save them a lot of money, as well as having real benefits for students."

Students in the IGCSE class at Impington reported that they were impressed at the ease with which they could turn the pages of the question paper and zoom in to look at diagrams.

A spokeswoman for CIE, which offers IGCSEs and the Cambridge Pre-U to schools in the UK and overseas, said that the experiment had been well received by students. This is the only trial to have taken place so far, and there are currently no plans to introduce the system in "live" exams.

Of the other major UK exam boards, OCR and AQA told TES that they had not yet asked candidates to use computers in exams. But while CIE was the first to try the scheme out, there were a few teething troubles, Mr Campbell said. "There were issues, such as losing exam time at the start while they were booting up laptops. The technology is great if it works but, if not, that could be an issue. Some found the devices distracting."

The small size of the screens and the iPads' tendency to auto-lock when they haven't been touched for several minutes were among the most common gripes reported by students.

Were the scheme to be rolled out, getting hold of a sufficient number of devices for large cohorts of students could also prove to be a problem, Mr Campbell said.

John Bangs, visiting professor at the Institute of Education, University of London, said that students from deprived backgrounds who did not have regular access to the devices at home would be disadvantaged. "A pen and paper is cheap, clean, simple and not prone to technical problems," he added.

Overall, the class had mixed views on the experiment; 19 out of the 31 students said that they would like to use computers in exams again. But the prospect of students' exams becoming fully digitised remains remote. In the pilot, they still had to write out their answers by hand.

IT: a natural medium

Isabel Nisbet, former chief executive of Ofqual, said in March 2011 that the use of technology in exams should be embraced: "My generation and the next have a lot to learn from today's pupils about the centrality of technology. They use IT as their natural medium. Yet we are even now accrediting new GCSEs, due to run for several years, still taken largely on paper. This cannot go on. Our school exams are running the risk of becoming invalid, as the medium of pen and ink increasingly differs from the way in which young people learn."

Original headline: The shape of things to come? Students take mock on iPads

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Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley is a freelance writer, director of external affairs at Villiers Park Educational Trust and former FE editor at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @stephenexley

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