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What if all students did their exams online?

If all exams were online, examiners would never have to decipher illegible scribble ever again, writes Yvonne Williams

4-hour exams could become a reality, warn teachers

If all exams were online, examiners would never have to decipher illegible scribble ever again, writes Yvonne Williams

Now that half term is firmly in the past, teachers' thoughts will turn naturally to the pedagogical path in front of them: the downhill sprint to the examination hall.

Now that the mocks are over, reports have been written for exam classes and parents’ evenings have delivered the learning points, the real business can be addressed.

As I reviewed revision plans and practice essays, I began to wonder: do we have the most effective means of assessment?

More and more students are taking exams on computers for a variety of reasons. Similarly, more and more students are handing in work that has been word-processed. It’s much more natural to teenagers who spend their lives texting and typing.

So what would be the benefits – for candidates and examiners – of having all exams taken online? What would be the barriers to overcome to make it a reality? And how could IT companies make this dream a reality?

In the 21st century the mode of examining has migrated from paper scripts to online marking. Ofqual, awarding bodies (exam boards) and IT platform providers have been delighted with the outcomes so far – or so they tell us. But have we looked at just how unnecessarily cumbersome the whole set-up is? Is it really so hi-tech to have answers completed in old-fashioned biro on to papers which are then dispatched to a secret factory somewhere to be scanned online and then put on to an e-platform for examiners?

An exam system for the 21st century

Surely a much better solution would be to have school halls set up with computers on to which candidates could type their answers. The boon to examiners whose eyesight is seriously compromised by poorly handwritten answers would be enormous, and it would make examining so much more efficient. Online marking of near-illegible scripts combines the worst of both worlds, especially when the "window" through which the script is read is so small.

The security and efficiency of the exams officer’s role would, too, be improved. The correct question papers could be uploaded by the exam boards on to the candidates’ screens on the day of the exam at exactly 9am or 1pm. There would be no need for the exams office to be like Fort Knox, with barred windows and extra padlocks.

The possibility of theft of scripts from high-security vans (as has been known to happen in the past 10 years) would be wiped out. Surely it wouldn’t be beyond a decent IT company to ensure the confidentiality of exam papers online. With GDPR requiring us to keep online material secure, we are all now accustomed to such requirements and IT companies are getting better at this aspect of their role.

The job of monitoring examinee behaviour could be done in the exams hall or remotely, to ensure no internet sites were being accessed beyond those permitted. It would also be possible for exam boards (awarding bodies) to monitor how long it takes the cohort to answer each question and to spot where difficult questions stop candidates in their tracks, so that boards can take the level of demand into consideration when marking the papers.

So with all the advantages to examiners and examinees – those at the centre of the system – why aren’t schools and even whole nations migrating online to bring the system into the 21st century?  

I can only think of two problems, and both are to do with capacity.

Do schools have sufficient computers on-site to make the examining online dream happen?  

And how sophisticated does a computer have to be to enable a candidate to type in answers? There is, of course, the difficulty in technical and mathematical subjects of drawing graphs online – but this is not impossible to overcome: IT systems are used by designers and artists. And, actually, for people like me (who found the drawing of straight lines and circles almost impossible), this would level the playing field.

For IT providers, the capacity of the online platform has to be considered. Online marking systems have crashed because the required capacity has been underestimated. It is a challenge for IT companies to provide for the volume – but if phone companies can do it, so can they.

It’s time to abandon the work- and paper-intensive system we currently employ and bring in a mode of testing that’s more environment- and people-friendly. We need to bring the examination system as a whole into the 21st century.

Yvonne Williams is a head of English and drama in the south of England

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