Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Digital exams - the future of assessment

I write as a serendipitously successful product of the school system and as an individual who found examinations to be, if not fun, then at least a satisfying opportunity to demonstrate how hard I had worked, but I recognise that this makes me a bit weird and not representative of the wider population. So, reading about Ofqual's announcement in last Thursday's Times that children entering primary school next September will sit digital GCSE and A Levels when they reach Key Stages 4 and 5, I was briefly filled with hope that one of the major bastions of our nineteenth century education model was being slated for (very gradual) demolition. Hopeful that is until I read the public's comments at the foot of the story.

The criticism centres around two highly charged points. Firstly that all this will be cheaper for the exam boards to administer, the implication being that for an assessment system to be of value it should be paper-heavy, unwieldy and bureaucratic; I don't pretend to understand this point of view. Secondly, voices of dissent were raised over the effect of online exams on the nation's handwriting. I'll have to admit I'm struggling with the import of this one too.

On the plus side though, potentially thousands of children with perfectly functioning and useful brains but who've otherwise been failed by poor literacy (think screen readers and voice recognition software in tests), social pressures or nerves (imagine exams taken whenever and wherever the student prefers), short attention spans or small memories (with learners able to demonstrate what they can do, not what they know) may just be able to emerge from school with something to show for it. Other than neat handwriting, of course.

Despite the impotent fuming of the Times' readership (and if ever there was a neat demographic overlapping successful exam-passers with those with a vested interest in the status quo, this is it), online examinations seem to be an international trend. The BBC report that the Danish government are also of the opinion that "if the internet is so much a part of daily life, it should be included in the classroom and in examinations" and I find it hard to disagree. Information has been truly democratised (a movement started by Gutenberg in the mid-C15th and continued by Google in the late-C20th) and is available to all, irrespective of an individual's capacity to retain it, so for me one of the key challenges in education over the next decade is to devise assessments which measure how well students do something with all this information. This is indeed the Danish ambition, where the students are "no longer required to regurgitate facts and figures. Instead the emphasis is on their ability to sift through and analyse information"

In my opinion, the most salient argument for open-laptop exams is that the current system does not reflect 'real life' and thus is not really measuring anything that's of use to society. An example from the world beyond school is illustrative here; take a medium-sized organisation (a government department, say), which has occasional tasks or problems which present themselves (e.g. a report which needs to be researched, written, checked and released to the media). Such tasks could be identified, I am certain, in any work context across the UK, but in none of these real contexts would the task be sprung on single employees who are then stripped of their access to the wider canon of human knowledge and experience, quarantined from others and sanctioned against collaborating, given tools which constrain creative thought, speed of work and their ability to manipulate language and told to get it done in 3 hours. No; for the C21st century skills of creativity, problem solving and team work, a different model of examination will be needed.

Real life just isn't like that, so why is our exam system so restrictive? The answer, of course, is *history* (for which read 'inertia' and a fair degree of "If it was good enough for me..." See Times comments above...). Written examinations are a paradigm of assessment dreamt up in the C18th by scholars who lived in a culture and a time where learning and intelligence were judged by one's ability to memorise facts. It's worth remembering that this was an age where books were mankind's only way of storing its collective knowledge; developing human receptacles into which a lot of this information could be poured, stored and rapidly searched & recalled was highly prized and these individuals' storage capacity needed measuring. The written examination was first used in the 1850s to promote social mobility (cue bitterly ironic laughter) but today remain only a demonstration of studiousness or memory, and in some cases both (though not in mine!)

Epistemologically, exams are the logical result of projecting an empiricalist philosophy onto education and politicians love the scientific purity of this; the numbers speak clearly to the voter in the street. However, you don't need to be a genius to work out that there is no 'provable truth' in anything as diverse and organic as a school, you just have to have worked in one, which may explain why this approach remains so enduringly popular in government. Still, this news represents genuine progress and if a career in education has taught me anything, it's that progress in this sector is gained a foxhole at a time. To horribly paraphase a former PM, this is not the beginning of the end but it may be the end of the beginning.

Dominic Norrish, B in GCSE Religious Education ('achieved' by reading St Mark's Gospel the night before the exam).

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