Hang Ups

10th May 1996 at 01:00
Teachers in East Sussex have been having trouble with a digitiser that "developed an electrical fault and started emitting clouds of smoke". In other parts of the country, their colleagues, battling with the new technology, had to cope with programs that repeatedly crashed, a virus, "delay in the delivery of hardware", "incompatibility between hardware platforms" and a string of "teething problems and steep learning curves".

They were participating in a cluster of projects sponsored by the National Council for Educational Technology (NCET), which set out to explore the ways in which IT might help teachers to assess students more effectively and help the students themselves to record their own achievements.

Using IT for Assessment contains detailed reports on how the schemes were organised and what was achieved. As a rule, case studies such as these tend to sound as if they are set in Cloud Cuckoo High - all the pupils are Little Lord Fauntleroys and tireless teachers regard sessions on the computer as invigorating as a course of Prozac.

In this collection, however, the best contributions are those that don't shy away from including the warts and all reality and concede that using computers is never the easy option.

But there is also plenty of evidence to indicate that it's worth the effort. For instance, Damian, who is understandably reluctant to pick up a pen, would certainly say it is. His hand-written Personal Statement looks like the congealed remains of a spag bol. Next to it is his impeccably word-processed version.

Other pupils who were reluctant at first to produce Personal Statements in multimedia format were eventually won over: as one testified, with a biblical eloquence, "When I saw what I had done it was good and I was glad."

Pupils have used nifty Concept keyboard overlays to help log their interests and aspirations; others have filmed their best efforts in drama and cookery, digitised the images and immortalised them on disc.

Self-evaluation of this sort is undoubtedly the most creative way of incorporating IT into the assessment process, but as the teachers recognised, "the resources involved in this sort of recording mean that it is impractical, if not impossible, to use it for all students all the time".

That, predictably, is the recurring theme in these reports. Schools don't have the resources and teachers don't have the time to make the most of the new technology. It's a shame, because under ideal circumstances - and it doesn't have to be in Cloud Cuckoo High - IT could revolutionise the way teachers assess their pupils. Several schools, for example, experimented with computerised diagnostic tests which are able to pin-point precisely what a pupil can and cannot do with a subtlety which is never possible with the crude pen-and-paper approach.

A few schools, of course, went in pursuit of that most ludicrous of Holy Grails - the computerised end-of-term report. Teachers spent hours creating statement banks and suffered the tedium of ticking endless boxes on those finicky forms which then have to be fed into an optical mark reader (OMR). It took a secretary at least five days to process the reports for each year group and to oversee the printing.

A "substantial minority" of staff thoroughly approved of the system, but it's hard to see why. Even if parents are impressed by the first laser-sharp report they see, once they have received a few, they will treat them like any other piece of computer-generated junk mail.

It's important that the substantial minority shouldn't be allowed to become too dependent on their OMR and bank of statements.

They must be encouraged to pick up their pens again and to write. They might be reluctant at first but when they see what they have done, it will be good and they will be glad.

Using IT for Assessment, Pounds 15.95 from NCET, Milburn Hill Road, Science Park, Coventry CV4 7JJ. Arnold Evans' e-mail address is arnoldevans@easynet.co.uk

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