Monday, 7 March 2011

Are meaningful Digital Exams actually any closer?

Back in the Winter of 2009 (wow, that sounds a long time ago!) I wrote this in response to some early stirrings around the imperative for examinations to move online. If you have the time to read it, you’ll find it’s a characteristic polemic about the need for change/ the shackles of the systems of the past, et cetera. I wasn’t expecting anything to actually, you know, happen – at least not in the lifetime of this Government.

Late this February, many media outlets (including The Independent and the TES) reported on the announcement by Ofqual that pen and paper exams must come to an end or risk becoming an irrelevance to candidates.


Isabel Nisbet (Chief Executive of Ofqual) remarked of learners "They use IT as their natural medium for identifying and exploring new issues and deepening their knowledge”, displaying a grasp of the drivers and needs of modern youth which quite frankly throws the rest of Whitehall into sharp relief. Just think - exams which measure people’s abilities not knowledge, their capacity to work together, to adapt, to understand and to remodel information. Sounds fantastic doesn’t it?

There are, however, some flaws in Isabel’s logic which (before we go into the street to declare the arrival of a new age of enlightenment in UK education) cause me no little concern.

Firstly, any examination system is by definition the output measure of its curriculum. For Ms. Nisbet’s vision of digital exams to become a reality, it must be preceded by similarly transformational thinking in terms of what is taught, studied and therefore valued by society. In short, the curriculum would need to shift significantly towards the development of the skills of assimilation and synthesis of information that she describes. This might be a problem; to judge from announcements by other offices of the DfE, the national curriculum’s direction of travel is quite the opposite, and is accelerating exponentially. No, I fear that what Ofqual are actually talking about is the digital administration and marking of exams, albeit clothed in the undeliverable rhetoric of ‘21st-century learning’. They are the tail, after all, and not the dog.

exam papersImage:

So if it’s not for the good of learners, what’s the point of digital exams? The bodies which stand to gain the most from a shift towards digital exams (not students – they’ll see no benefit until the content on the exams changes) are the examination boards themselves. The financial overheads and logistical complexities of pen and paper exams are vast and restrictive, particularly for an industry which earns a substantial chunk of its income from overseas markets. The key to retaining the UK’s edge as the world’s leading supplier of qualifications lies in getting the job done more quickly and with fewer people. Of course, I won’t even begin to speculate on how much easier it will be to outsource exam marking to the 2nd world once they are all digitally sat and transmitted.

This may in reality be nothing more than the cynical manipulation of  the educational change agenda to further the interests of UK plc, without evolving to any degree how we actually measure and value learning.

Sadly we seem to lack the vision of the Danes to reinvent what exams are for, but those who make decisions about the nation’s curriculum and exams should consider this; not every country is in awe of PISA league tables and the regurgitation of facts and learned techniques that they laud. Those economies which will produce the kind of entrepreneurs David Cameron was calling for last week will do so through an education system which allows students to discover, collaborate and use their technology skills just as in ‘real life’. Successful C21st countries will have curricula and exams which reflect this, and those which fail to adapt will wither.

I'd be delighted to be wrong, let’s hope I am.

Dominic Norrish
Follow me on twitter @domnorrish