How pupils could soon use the web in the exam room

27th May 2016 at 01:00
Ofqual refuses to ban internet-enabled calculators and backs development of ‘innovative assessments’

Ofqual is encouraging exam boards to develop new forms of assessment that could include pupils using internet-enabled calculators in exams.

A report published by the exams watchdog reveals that it has rejected calls to ban the use of internet functions on calculators because these could in future be used as part of “more innovative assessments”.

It said that allowing boards to develop “innovative” approaches was “a good thing”. Ofqual, which will start regulating the ways in which calculators are used from next year, is not prescribing how boards could adapt their assessments to bring in internet use.

No barriers to innovation

But advanced calculators can access the internet, communicate with other calculators and computers, plot graphs and solve simultaneous equations. The watchdog said that it wanted to avoid “putting up barriers” to innovation, although it stressed that any new approaches developed by boards would have to provide valid forms of assessment and not compromise the “integrity” of an exam.

Will Hornby, a maths specialist at the OCR exam board, told TES that any exams in which internet functions were allowed would have to be carefully designed to ensure pupils were not being tested on the functions that a calculator can perform but on their own ability to solve problems using the device.

He said other countries already had these kinds of exams. “Denmark is a classic case,” he said. “The equivalent of A-level maths is taken on a computer with full internet access.

“You can come in [to the exam] with stuff on a USB stick if you like. The result of that is a very different type of question. It’s more investigative. It’s about finding data and using the computer to resolve problems.

“Our assessment is more directly skillsbased. It asks, can you do this in your head?”

He added that in the Australian state of Victoria, pupils took a non-calculator paper and a calculator paper, in which they could use computer software.

Googling the future

Mr Hornby argued that UK exams should in future make more use of technology, but said that there should be a “balance” similar to that in Victoria “because there are skills that you still want students to be able to do”.

“We’re in a situation where technology from graphical calculators, computers and mobile phones is increasing exponentially,” he said. “These are things students would use in their everyday lives and in higher education. It’s reasonable to think A levels ought to prepare pupils for that sort of thing.”

Former OCR chief executive Mark Dawe sparked controversy last year when he said it was inevitable that using Google would be allowed in future GCSE and A levels.

“It’s about understanding the tools [students] have got available and how to utilise them,” he told the BBC. “When we are asking a question where we know there’s access to the internet, we could ask a different question – it’s about the interpretation, the discussion.”

Ofqual will oversee boards’ approaches to the use of calculators once reformed GCSEs are used for the first time from next summer. Previously, approaches had been agreed between exam boards through the Joint Council for Qualifications.

Integrity ‘at risk’

Respondents to a consultation on Ofqual’s new role said that they were concerned that calculator functions such as the internet and communication with other devices could “undermine the integrity of exams” and called for a ban on these functions.

But an Ofqual report published in response says that although “certain calculator functions pose particular risks”, it does not have plans to introduce a blanket ban on such functions because they could be used positively.

“We want to allow for other approaches – such as designing more innovative assessments that make appropriate use of calculators and other technology,” the watchdog’s report says.

An Ofqual spokesman confirmed that this could include, but was not limited to, the use of internet functions on calculators.

The regulator said in a statement: “We have deliberately chosen not to specify how calculators can and cannot be used in exams.

“What matters is that, whatever approach an exam board takes, its exams still work properly and aren’t undermined by the way it allows students to use calculators.”


Internet-enabled calculators

Wireless-enabled calculators can connect to other devices such as computers, meaning they can share data with them and store that data.

In a classroom setting, this means that teachers can send documents, questions, polls and apps to the class and monitor their progress. Many wireless-enabled calculators are graphing calculators, which have a much larger screen. They can store equations, plot graphs and manipulate spreadsheets. Some have an exam setting that means only certain pre-approved functions will work.

But many countries ban the use of these calculators in tests. In the US, guidance on SAT university entrance tests prohibits calculators with internet access, wireless or Bluetooth functions. In Singapore, any calculator with wireless capability is banned in exams.

Iraq ‘switches off the web’

While English exam boards

are being encouraged to think about innovative ways to use the internet to improve assessment, the authorities in Iraq appear to be going in the opposite direction.

Last week, it was reported that the country’s government had turned off the internet across much of Iraq in an attempt to prevent children cheating in exams.

Analysts spotted three separate disruptions to Iraqi internet services, which coincided with exams for secondary and high-school students. One internet service provider said that it had been instructed by the Iraqi Ministry of Communications to cut off the internet.

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