ON A recent study tour of British schools and colleges a teacher told me why his students didn't use word processors. "Until my students are allowed to use computers in their exams I would be disadvantaging them by encouraging them to use them in my English lessons".
I had asked him why he resisted the use of computers in his work despite a cross-curriculum policy for information and communications technology (ICT) being driven by his headteacher. This illustrates a barrier to the implementation of ICT in our schools - the examination system actively discourages it.
I found a different situation in Singapore with its Master Plan for IT in Education. This impressive programme to embed ICT across the curriculum in all its schools was underpinned by a recognition that the examination and assessment systems had to change to reflect the introduction of ICT and its use as a new medium for teaching and learning. Singapore is already discussing with the Cambridge Examination Board the changes required.
Why are we not seeing similar moves in Britain? The Government has placed ICT firmly on the education agenda and is committed to greater integration of ICT in our schools, but there is an awkward silence on what it will mean for assessment and examination systems.
The differing rates of take-up of ICT will necessitate a flexible approach to its introduction into the exam syllabus. In our over-regulated system it is difficult to see how flexibility can be found. Perhaps we should not judge the situation until the newly formed Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has had time to exert influence, but it would be reassuring to know that the use of computers in exams is on their agenda.
Regulations allow the use of computers in the coursework components of most exams. The national guidelines for examination boards specify that, where appropriate, computers must be allowed for candidates with special educational needs. Whatever communication medium a student uses in class should be allowed in an exam. Many students today would say their normal means of communication is a computer. It is difficult to see how the distinction between these candidates can be maintained and justified.
Computers are part of the way we all work. They have changed what we do, how we do it and the skills we require.Questions asked in exams must reflect that. We must expect more than re-presenting information. Candidates must demonstrate understanding and application of information and be prepared to argue, persuade and draw out similarities and differences. The challenge to the examiners is to ask the right questions so that those working with computers are challenged and assessed.
The Department for Education in Northern Ireland recently reviewed ICT use in its schools. Its strategy document states: "We are keenly aware that there are large practical difficulties to be overcome in assessing ICT skills in an examination context and even more so in permitting an appropriate level of ICT usage in examinations in other subject areas."
It recognises the need for urgent action, and that neglecting this will form a barrier, if not an insurmountable obstacle, to improving ICT use in schools. It recommends an incremental approach that not only encourages more use of ICT in coursework but which suggests piloting an "ICT enriched" syllabus and examination mode in one or two subjects which could be progressively extended. So students could take the ICT examination mode instead of the traditional style.
This visionary approach demonstrates a flexibility and creativity not evident in other parts of Britain. It recognises that the examination system can be a key part of a strategic ICT development or a barrier to it. Northern Ireland has provided a lead that other parts of Britain may benefit from following.
Margaret Bell, a former chief executive of the National Council for Educational Technology, runs Belle consultancy.