Bring on digital exams

2nd January 2004 at 00:00
More and more pupils use laptops in lessons. But when will we be allowed to take them into exams, ask Josie and Candy Scobling?

In an era where technology is used in most homes, schools and businesses across Britain, we wonder whether current methods of assessment in our schools are becoming increasingly outdated.

Every year, as millions of students queue up to take their place for examinations with a ruler in one hand and pen in the other, some must be quietly wondering what century they are in.

For the past two years, 30 students at Eggbuckland Community College, in Plymouth, have progressed through lessons using laptops to do their work.

But when they reached their SATs at the end of KS3, they had to take a step backwards to pen and paper.

Now, a few months into their first GCSE year, these students are not only having to leave behind their laptops when entering an exam room, they are also having to refrain from using this technology in the classroom, due to the constraints placed on teachers by the current assessment methods.

Student Adam Gilmore, 15, thinks that the exam process hasn't caught up with the way he is being taught. "Laptops take you beyond the normal methods of teaching. Exam boards should accommodate the way that we learn," he says.

It is not just students who find the examination methods frustrating. "It's difficult to teach using 21st century technology when students are being assessed in a 20th century way," says English teacher Marcus Cronin.

"A lot of teachers find the use of laptops impractical as you move towards exam preparation. At the moment, the boundaries have been set by current assessment strategies. You are teaching the students so they can perform at their best under exam conditions."

Even the students recognise the difficulties faced by their teachers. "The way that teaching, learning and technology could be combined is being limited by the curriculum that our teachers have to teach," says Lisa Whitefield, 14.

ICT is required to be integrated into the majority of subjects. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) National Curriculum in Action website ( says: "Pupils should be given opportunities to apply and develop their ICT capability through the use of ICT tools to support their learning." But the exams themselves do not cater for this advancement in the use of technology in schools.

Cronin says: "If the use of ICT is being promoted in the delivery of the national curriculum, it should be considered how students taught in that way can be assessed."

Despite electronic exams not being possible at this time, e-test trials initiated by the QCA are taking place in a number of subjects at KS3 and GCSE level. They will establish whether this type of assessment can be integrated into the curriculum.

Martin Ripley, QCA head of assessment policy, says: "In the future, there's going to be an increasing use of computers in tests. Our vision of e-assessment is to reflect e-learning approaches, including in high-stakes examinations, to make them more flexible and more advantageous for the student."

However, he recognises that a certain amount of scepticism will have to be overcome. "There is a lot of confidence building needed. We've all had bad experiences with computers and it's going to take a lot of time, practice and reassurance before we can convince people that e-assessment is the way to go."

In a similar pilot, Northern Ireland's assessment authority, the CCEA, together with exam board Edexcel, have been making progress in their Paperless Examinations Project (PEP).

A selection of students at schools in Northern Ireland took mock GCSEs on computer in April 2001. Results from Phase 1 were promising, with indications so far being that there are "no insurmountable technological difficulties". It does seem, however, that "significant IT support mechanisms will be needed in any larger scale use of online delivery".

Edexcel spokeswoman, Stevie Pattison-Dick, says: "The timescale for when online exams become reality depends on the technology in schools. They are the users and they will drive the concept forward."

With the Phase 2 report due in January, Roger McCune, CCEA accreditation manager, believes the method is much more workable than paper-based tests.

"E-exams have the ability to enhance the assessment process in so many ways," he says. "There is a great amount of motivation for the students involved, as well as there being more ease in terms of logistics and marking. " Both of these trials, including a handful of others around the UK, are showing the potential of e-assessment - but we still have to imagine how the technology may continue to grow.

Students at Eggbuckland have plenty of ideas. Kelly Taylor, 14, likened the future to the science-fiction movie, Minority Report. The film is set in 2054, in a world where predictive technology is used to convict potential criminals before a crime is even committed.

She says: "You can imagine growing up in such a technology-based environment, and you can think how everything in schools would revolve around computers. Then it would just be normal to use laptops in exams."

Rotem Kovner, 15, shares Kelly's view. "If you look at how technology has advanced in the last 10 years, it's hard to think what life will be like in the next 10."

With two additional groups now involved in the laptop programme at Eggbuckland, and an increasing number of schools across Britain opting into similar futuristic styles of teaching, it seems that, until e-assessment graduates from trials to fully functioning exams, these students will have no choice but to continue juggling old and modern technology.

It is, however, reassuring to know at least some of the powers that be are realising it is necessary to modernise the exam system in order to keep up with technology.

Josie and Candy Scobling are 17-year-old twins studying at Eggbuckland Community College

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