FE colleges in Scotland are accessing thousands of assessment questions within seconds, thanks to a rapidly developing internet system. The Solar Project allows staff from all Scottish colleges to look through a growing bank of material aimed at Higher National level, all of which is quality assured by the Scottish Qualifications Authority.
Already about half of Scotland's colleges have used Solar, and a third have used it to set assessments. Ultimately it is hoped that college staff will be able to submit and share questions and assessments, so that Solar is constantly evolving.
The project cost pound;400,000 to establish, but the long-term costs should be minimal as it becomes less reliant on input from the SQA.
Solar has been running for a year, but the assessments and questions have been mostly for computing and IT courses (500). Material for other subjects, mainly languages (300) and care (150), will be released in the next few months.
In the long term, materials may become available for all subjects and types of assessment for which colleges consider Solar appropriate. While the focus is on summative assessment (taking a snapshot of a student's ability and achievement), it is hoped that the project's scope will eventually widen. The SQA may also explore whether it could be used in schools.
The authority's Graeme Clark, who is managing the project, said any grouping of people involved in setting assessments was on a relatively informal and local basis. Solar offered the prospect of a bank of ideas shared and formed by staff throughout Scotland.
Mr Clark did not think there would be an issue where some contributors felt that others were taking advantage of their work without going to the same effort - he believed any such feelings would be outweighed by the benefits users derived from the project.
Mr Clark pointed out that, while most colleges had used new technology to create what have become known as virtual learning environments, the idea of summative e-assessment had not really been explored in Scotland before Solar.
He also stressed that Solar should be seen not merely as a time-saver, but as an innovative way of creating new forms of assessment.
"We haven't promoted it as a way of making things quick and easy, but those are back-door elements," he said.
Bob Smith, virtual learning environment manager at North Glasgow College, said that, aside from the usual small number of technical problems that crop up when using computing technology, feedback had been entirely positive.
He said Solar, which the college has used for about a year, saved staff a considerable amount of time setting assessments. Previously, a team would have had to go over a proposed new assessment, but now this could be created almost instantly and with the peace of mind that any material used had already been verified by SQA. Solar also saved time because there was no need for manual marking of multiple-choice assessments, he said.
Students, meanwhile, appreciated the immediate feedback they got from e-assessment created using Solar.
"From an administration point of view, it's first class," said Mr Smith.