Thursday, 18 March 2010

e-Assessment - the case for the defence

It is not difficult to imagine the reaction of my colleagues in HMC and GSA, not to mention the national broadsheets, if the exam boards were to announce that all GCSEs would be conducted online.

e-Assessment has a bad name – the popular imagination associates it with low standards, indeed some would go so far as to see it as an active instrument in the dumbing of the exam system.

We have seen increasing automation of the examination system over the past ten years – online entries, online results, the scanning of scripts, onscreen marking, and even some online testing [AQA offer an e-Assessment version of GCSE science]. The move towards e-Assessment has been driven principally by efficiency and cost savings – the developments above make the whole examination process faster, better able to cope with increased capacity and at a cheaper unit cost. Important thought these factors are they should not be the drivers in this debate.

The fact is that e-Assessment is an established part of adult society, not only in Government departments with the Driving Theory and the UK Border Agency Life in the UK tests, but also as key part of professional training and assessment in aviation, financial services, medical education, fire training and in battlefield simulations for HM forces. It is anomalous that, as a society, we are willing for e-Assessment to play an important role in these vital and professional services, but are reticent about its place in mainstream education.

I believe that there is a strong educational case for e-Assessment that is based on innovative approaches both to teaching and learning and examinations. One of the greatest advantages of e-Assessment is that it is able to effect a shift from summative to formative assessment. Tests within interactive learning programmes are able to give immediate feedback to the learner and give opportunity to go back through one’s answers to learn from the mistakes.

In the same way, e-Assessment can do things that paper examinations can’t. For example it is possible to make examinations adaptive so that if a candidate does well in the early part of the test, they progress to higher level questions; and if they do poorly, then the questions get easier. Adaptive testing allows each candidate to find his or her level, which makes the whole examination process a better differentiator at each level, more meaningful and a more positive experience.

One of the greatest blocks on the move to e-Assessment is that the public is blinded by its preconceptions of what exams look like. Generations have sat in silence in rows in silence with pen and paper – and that image is etched on our brains. There is an element here of the grumpy sixth former about us all “we went through it, why shouldn’t they go through it – it didn’t do us any harm.”

Schools have a responsibility to prepare young people for the world that they are going to inhabit and not one of the past – and I am concerned about the dislocation of schools in general, and the examination hall in particular, from the world of work. e-Assessment is an important step to bridging this divide.


  1. Mark
    Thoroughly agree with this though I would hate for assessment to have to be conformed to what can be tested; great for multiple choice knowledge testing, but not for longer answers where students are expected to show higher level skills of reasoning and rhetoric. Different types of testing are required and ICT cannot replace the marker who has to unravel a poorly spelled and rambling essay.

  2. Alex,

    I agree that we're a long way off from substituting markers with ICT (whether that's a good idea or not), but we should be developing robust ways in which candidates can use technology in the delivery of higher level papers -- it makes increasingly little sense to expect students to present typed essays and coursework during their courses, and then sit them down with pen and paper for their exams.

  3. You can't mark everything. Some stuff would take forever to mark so its great when the computer can generate the questions and provide immediate feedback to the student.

    The problem with most of the software I have seen is that they pretty much only support multiple choice questions.

    In the mid 90s I built a system based on open text answers. It was a better teaching tool. It didn't support multiple choices.


  4. Great post. As others have said already e-assessment may not be great for everything, although as someone who's left-handed and finds handwriting an uncomfortable experience, I'd be in favour of moving more towards essays in exams being typed. The reality is that little that we write in the commercial, grown-up world is hand-written - most of it is touch typed.

    You don't mention the Scandinavian experiments with students also using the Web in exams, so that their research skills and ability to synthesise and make considered analysis are also assessed. Current examinations test one's ability to remember facts, more so I feel than a student's ability to make informed decisions.

    Perhaps what your post does best is raise the issue of future developments for assessment in general. What will be the best path to take as the nature of knowledge and information evolve and adapt to a web-enabled enviroment?