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May 9, 2007

Bill ThompsonBill Thompson’s latest column for the BBC’s Technology News Webpage is well worth considering. In it, he considers how we conduct exams at the moment, and wonders why we are not allowing pupils to use computers in their exams.

It’s a really good question and gets right to the heart of the problem that is facing schools at this time. How reliable is a 3 hour exam in deciding what a pupil knows? Is it an accurate indicator of someone’s ability to find necessary information, or is it a good way of finding out how much that pupil can cram?

eLive LogoI’ve just signed up for eLive, Edinburgh’s celebration of IT in education, and one of the sessions I fancy attending is Kate (digitalkatie) Farrell’s provocatively titled “Don’t Ban Mobile Phones – Use Them!” because I happen to think that it is a bit daft having all this technology sitting in your pocket and not being able to use it…

And then I’m going to add to this mix something that Chris Webb, PKC’s Head of Ed, said at PKC’s Curriculum for Excellence launch: “…a third of the jobs we are educating pupils to do do not exist yet!” I cannot tell the future, but I can be pretty sure that anyone moving into it will need to be able to use a computer in some shape or form. Scotland’s heavy industrial past has been supplanted by an information rich service industry, so why is it not a mandatory requirement for all pupils to learn how to use a PC, and I don’t just mean as a ‘core skill’ that is awarded as an afterthought because of a (perceptually) more ‘important’ subject?

Bill Thomson puts it like this:

…Giving grades for IT as a core skill is not nearly enough; we need to let [pupils] show what they can really do online.

Yet school exams do nothing to assess ability in a world where access to computers, the internet and the tools they offer are so embedded in daily life that not being online is unimaginable…

He’s right, and I would like to add that it is almost unimaginable to realise that we do not have, or allow, a ‘live’ online exam. Even the basic idea of having a real-time live research-based exam is phenomenal. It would be an administrative nightmare if you wanted to prevent cheating… but then again, is collaborative learning really cheating when we are telling the world that each of the 4 stated purposes of A Curriculum for Excellence involves working with others…

Douglas Adams may have been poking fun at our infatuation with technology when he wrote that,

…ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea…

Don’t Panicbut the simple fact is that today your average digital watch has probably got more computing power than the Apollo Spacecraft’s computers (all 36K ROM and 2K RAM of them)… and if that sounds far fetched, think of the processing power that just about every pupil in a school carries with them in their pockets… what would they be able to do if we started teaching them how to research using their phones rather than letting them send yet another text to arrange to meet in their friend(s) in the same place they met them yesterday… If we were to start doing that, we might actually be encouraging the skills they will actually need when they leave school, and who knows, we may even be able to engage them a little more while they are actually our responsibility!

Bill Thompson’s thought that we should be introducing computers into the exams makes sense to me, after all, the computer is no more than a tool just as a pencil is just a tool. What is important is that it is probably going to be the tool that the pupils need to be able to use well… after all, they are not going to be living in the past, even if a lot of their teachers are.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 9, 2007 5:45 pm

    Schools are the last sector that has to embrace on-line assessment or indeed more flexible forms of assessment and move away from the exam hall. Workbased and Further Education have been free to do this for number of years now. The door is already open to this. Have a look at SQA site and find guidance on on-line assessment.

    For the existing school system to fundamentally change we do need to re-engineer currciculum to some degree. Which is expectation that curruculum for excellence will deliver. Learners rather than on-line assessment being the driver.

    In meantime look out for e-enabled National Assessment Bank items and remember there are great tools like Hot Potatoes and others that allow you do all kind of formative stuff online now.

    Wikis are prime tools that both allow group work while the log allows you to track individual contribution.

    Assessment is much more likely to be on demand and based on range of activites – rather than computer being introduced wholesale to exams – even if this is only to spare the Janitor the task of moving all the computers to the school hall once a year.

    Biotechnology and a few other subject areas already have live online exam.

  2. May 9, 2007 5:55 pm

    Online exams?

    I think the stepping stone in between the current system and online exams is having typing become the norm.

    We are still getting pupils to handwrite their exams -and it seems to me that is something that could be addressed right away. It would then be a very short jump to having those exams submitted online.

    At the moment I’m torn between congratulating pupils who type up essays and class work and reminding them that they will still have to write them in exam. Some pupils don’t move between the two modes very well.

    Neil, can you envisage an online English exam?

  3. May 9, 2007 7:24 pm

    But what happens when Skynet kicks in and takes over the internet? 😦

  4. May 9, 2007 10:50 pm

    @Joe: When are you going to get your own blog! 😉
    You make a number of really good points, and thanks for the HotPotatoes mention. I’d heard it mentioned, but you’ve prompted me to actually go and download it. It looks very interesting and worth some time and effort to understand. I’ve been playing with my school’s Moodle installation but am only now getting the time to start developing materials for including on the site. I’ve been encouraged by the response I’ve had with a few people volunteering to help develop more materials for it. Hopefully, this will be something we can build on and eventually roll out to all English Lit teachers i Scotland.

    I like your suggestion for using wikis as a form of logbook… much more useful than asking pupils to keep a ‘diary’, and a lot harder to fake!

    As I was writing the post, I came to realise that the most radical aspect of what I was suggesting is based on Bill Thompson’s observation that we are not really testing the pupils on their ability to use the computer in the way that we generally use it in the social networking sense. Imagine an exam which involved sitting down at a computer, being given a topic, and then being given 90 minutes to create a web-page/wiki/blog/etc about that topic and including all relevant references/citations and observation of relevant copyright restrictions… I’d love an examination like that, and I suspect that a lot of pupils would too. I’ll need to come back to this in another post!

    @Liz: As Joe indicated, there is already a drift towards online assessment, and I don’t think we can honestly expect English, or any other subject for that matter, to be immune. Being honest, I wouldn’t have any problems whatsoever with an online English exam as long as it was subject to the same (though appropriately adapted) criteria for success as the written exam.

    I don’t think this is too far removed from the notion of the PC being a tool like a pencil that I mentioned in my post, but I take your point about kids having to learn to type… My typing is functional rather than fast, and there is a very wide spread of typing ability in my pupils…

    Getting back to your question, I suppose I can see the arrival of an online English exam and I suspect it will be sooner rather than later!

    @z3rb: As Dr. Silberman said, “In technical terminology: he’s a loon.”

  5. May 10, 2007 11:03 am

    Ummm…. we’ve actually changed the title now to “Handheld learning in action: using mobile phones as computers in class” – the other title was chosen by the eTeam until we decided on one. Sorry! It will still be the same content – we were just worried about putting people off 🙂

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