Coursework's in orbit

17th March 2006 at 00:00
Oh for the days when pupils could blame the dog for eating their homework, writes Geoff Brookes

How quickly the world can change. Once we all embraced coursework as a genuine and realistic assessment of a student's ability.

I believed in it too. I felt that it gave an accurate picture of someone's capabilities. It was better than a hurried exam answer written under pressure. And the work and the responses were so much more interesting - an opportunity to explore things in detail, to pursue a particular interest.

It has gone now, all gone, eaten by the digital age.

I can't authenticate anything anymore. Unless it is handwritten under controlled conditions - which rather defeats the object of coursework - that piece of neatly processed writing could have been written by anyone, anywhere: bought, sold, bartered, swapped. And with the demise of coursework we have seen the demise of the well-honed excuse, the carefully constructed artifice, the reason why you have been unable to hand in your work.

The past was much more entertaining. For where once there was the need for considerable imagination in explaining why you have not done it, now there is only one: "My printer's bust."

Generations of children have spent hours constructing elaborate deceptions.

Now there is no need. One simple, plausible, "one size fits all", disappointing excuse.

The younger generation has it easy, not like when I were a lad. You had to have real stamina in them days, had to construct epic excuses, with all possible avenues covered. It was an art form, and the greatest excuses achieved mythical status.

Many of them appeared to involve an ill-disciplined family dog. Sadly, a noble tradition has died, murdered by the computer.

"I put it in a letter to my cousin in Australia by mistake." "My mother washed it."

It is at least reassuring to note that mothers still get blamed. It is always their fault. Where they once put homework under the cat's tray, now they buy the wrong ink cartridges.

It is too easy today. Computer problems are so plausible. We have all been there. Your computer will not recognise your printer? Tell me about it. I am sure I will not recognise what the poor thing eventually prints myself.

Or how about: " My computer doesn't have enough memory." Funny how these things are catching. Must be a virus. "Now you come to mention it, we had one of them things. Turned all my coursework back to front." Ah, that explains it.

Those who do not have a printer have a wonderful time. They cannot save their work and bring it to school, of course, because they do not have a disk or a stick. So they whizz it across the internet to their mate who does.

But of course it never arrives, lost forever in cyberspace. Or one wrong digit means suddenly that maths project is cluttering up the inbox of a confused Uzbek.

It is impossible to keep track of coursework anymore. An assignment on Shakespeare is a visitor from the spirit world. It appears for a moment on a computer and, unless it assumes earthly form, it will fly off again, an angel seeking out a functioning printer.

And in the end it is not too fussy about who the printer belongs to. After the piece has flitted lightly on to three computers, how will I ever know who actually wrote it?

Today I can only make an educated guess about authenticity. But of course there is a serious point here. Coursework has been destroyed. It belongs to a vanished age. I lament its passing.

Today the world is much more complex. We face more sophisticated deceptions than incontinent dogs. The authenticity of wordprocessed material is too frequently in doubt. Cut and paste your way to a GCSE? Why not?

Gradually the brief flowering of coursework as a creative force within assessment will be replaced by a series of modular exams. Will this solve all our problems? I think not. The technology - and our students - will always be one step ahead. Teachers will always be one step behind.

Look around at what is already happening. We need see-through pencil cases for exams. We must search for MP3 players and mobile phones in case some horse whisperer is speaking to them beneath their long, untrammelled hair.

Fashion will be dictated by the need for deception.

If you go into your exams with short hair, ears butt naked, you will be considered a fool or a genius, or possibly both.

Soon we will only allow candidates into an examination room once they have passed through body scanners. Exams will begin with the sound of the all-clear from the metal detector. Electronic sweeps of the examination hall will be normal. Invigilators will deploy sophisticated listening devices.

Perhaps candidates will be required to take exams with heads shaved and completely naked. But will we then have problems with electronic implants? I yearn for simpler times.

There will always be new ways to hoodwink us. Where did it all go wrong?

Geoff Brookes is deputy head at Cefn Hengoed comprehensive in Swansea

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