The writing is on the wall for paper exams, but pupils should hang on to their pencils for a while yet. That's the message from Pass-IT, the pound;1 million project set up two years ago by the Scottish Executive to explore the use of computers in assessment.
Managed by the Scottish Qualifications Authority, Pass-IT has just come to the end of its second and final pilot phase. The SQA is currently putting the finishing touches to a business case to the Executive arguing for further funding of pound;1 million over the next three years.
Online assessment will increasingly be offered to support SQA qualifications, Martyn Ware, the the authority's policy and research business manager, told a seminar in Edinburgh last week. But only where it demonstrably adds value.
Higher maths will be the initial focus for implementation - perhaps as early as January in some parts of the country - with the aim being to offer the national assessment bank (NAB) end-of-unit tests in an online presented and assessed form called e-NABs. These have been thoroughly tested in a number of the 18 schools and colleges taking part in Pass-IT.
Mr Ware told the seminar that more research is needed in the other subjects investigated - English, chemistry, computing, French and music. This will determine how questions can be presented and assessed in such a way that the medium does not influence the marks awarded.
A key message is that online assessment is not simply multiple choice testing, said Professor Cliff Beevers of Heriot-Watt University, director of the Scottish Centre for Research into Online Learning (Scrolla) - a key player in the Pass-IT project. "In practice, that is often just multiple guesswork," Professor Beevers said.
Concerns that a move to online assessment entail a dumbing-down arise from the mistaken identification of multiple choice with online assessment, which can be a much broader and richer resource, he said.
Pass-IT had already made progress towards creating an environment that was "far more real, creative and engaging for students", Mr Ware said. "We will be developing these areas and we won't be spending the next three years converting every NAB into an e-NAB."
Pass-IT had shown that besides this potential for assessing process and cognitive skills, online assessment can add value in many ways - greater flexibility, rich and immediate feedback, improved validity and reliability, and better access for students with additional support needs.
"The move from paper to online assessment will be evolution not revolution.
The pace will be one the educational community feels comfortable with," Mr Ware said. "We can only develop a coherent national system of e-assessment through effective collaboration."
The model for the next phase will be testing in a live environment, John Young, the SQA's director of qualifications, said. "Selected subjects and selected schools initially, then building incrementally to other subjects and schools.
"It is a steady approach, grounded in realism - forward-looking in a hard-headed way."