Are Online Exams The Future?

While the nationwide lockdown of 2020 undoubtedly accelerated the need for improved digital learning environments for students and teachers, it’s now become impossible to overlook the increasing influence that technology has on the education experience as a whole—including the way in which students are assessed. It seems that a move from pen-and-paper written exams to those performed online is almost inevitable. 

This is not a new idea, of course. In early 2020, a month before the pandemic, a report was made by Jisc, a company that provides digital services for UK education. The Future of Assessment paper suggested that the accessibility features built into many standard programs and applications would make the task of supporting individual requirements through digital assessments much easier.

But, while Jisc suggested that the shift would be feasible, it warned that such a dramatic change in legislation and infrastructure would take a great deal of time and investment to bring into effect. 

The move into a digital assessment landscape has also been backed by the International Baccalaureate, a non-profit education foundation based in Geneva. Back in October of last year, the director-general of the IB said that moving exams online would create an online assessment environment for students that would be beneficial for their future workplaces. Furthermore, it would also provide an assessment gateway for those students outside of mainstream education.

Again, however, as outlined in the Future of Assessment paper, this digital revolution would not happen overnight. Indeed, it would take time and resources to ensure that teachers were up to speed with new technology and software.

A pile of old laptops

Online exams would
protect teachers’ time

Digital exams will afford a number of benefits to teachers and educators. For one, time spent creating, printing, and distributing test papers—before individually marking and returning them to the students—would be almost immediately eradicated. The time saved can be then spent focusing on lesson planning and hands-on teaching.

While auto-marking features in Microsoft Forms would considerably reduce marking time, it would also eliminate the chances of human-made marking errors and mitigate the risk of test papers going missing. In an environment in which teachers have limited room for maneuver within their schedules, these time-savers would be hugely valuable.

A digital exam paper also allows the option for tests to be reused again, without the need for printing; once again saving precious time and resources. Microsoft Forms offers the ability for teachers to design short-response questions which can be paired with an auto-mark tool, providing educators with an instant visual summary of how each student has responded to individual sections of the digital exam.

How might online exams
benefit students?

The clearest benefit for students is the flexibility they offer. Exams can be completed at home, on their own devices, or in purpose-built digital exam rooms. Once exams are finished, there is no requirement for paper-based feedback. Instead, students can receive their responses online; either written or in audio format, which can give them a far better understanding of the feedback provided and offers much less chance of misinterpretation. Once again, time is saved for both the student and the examiner. 

Microsoft Assignments is easy-to-use grading software that allows teachers to assign tasks and exam questions to their students. Educators can also manage assignment timelines and track individual student progress. For students, this can eliminate the anxiety of having to provide hand-written responses. The software also makes it easier to navigate between questions and test pages, further streamlining the assessment process.

The widespread use of digital exams can also increase opportunities for technology to improve assessment for those with disabilities. Online assessments offer easy adjustments for screen reading, font size changes, and many other sensory considerations—a great example of how technology can level the playing field for students.

The challenges of
online exams

While the benefits of online assessments are manyfold, care must be taken to ensure that both students and educators receive the best experience possible. It is imperative that initiatives are planned with consideration and forethought.

The challenge for teachers is getting to grips with an online learning and assessment program for which they have never been officially trained, as it won’t be part of their traditional IT teacher training curriculum. It’s vital that any education technology and online learning software works seamlessly with the current learning and teaching objectives. Ensuring staff can use and apply these technologies effectively will ensure they deliver the best learning experience possible for their students.

Outdated, insufficient

In more practical terms, another challenge is ensuring schools have sufficient access to computers on which to sit the test. While a computer science department might afford the necessary provisions for students, as the faculty would already have an adequate number of computers, this might not be the case for a maths or English department.

A lack of provision within departments, or the ability to prepare itself for the shift into a fully-fledged online assessment environment could lead to unfairness to students.

There’s also the issue of compatibility between different hardware, and the lack of devices with consistent specifications for multiple students to sit examinations at the same time. Meanwhile, insufficient or unreliable internet connections could also create issues, particularly with a whole classroom of students all logging into an online exam platform at the same time. Without a high-quality internet infrastructure in place, the effectiveness of the digital exam would suffer.

Indeed, in a recent AQA report, the number one stumbling block in the minds of teachers in England on the road to making digital exams commonplace was insufficient internet connections. A massive 87% of those asked suggested that their infrastructure would need to be upgraded in order for online assessment to work.

How can Computeam help?

While exam boards have announced a range of pilots to begin to develop and fine-tune their approach to digital exams, it’s clear that any move to online assessment can only be implemented through mutual endeavor. It will take a multilateral effort from schools, teachers, parents, exam boards, the Department for Education, and technology providers such as Computeam to ensure the integration is a smooth one.

When it comes to finding the right technology set-up for your school, one that would facilitate the application of digital assessments within your school, creating a level playing field for all students, we understand the decision isn’t always straightforward, and there are many factors to consider when finding a good fit. 

As trusted partners to over 450 schools across the UK, we pride ourselves on offering expert advice and consultation when it comes to making the right technology choice. Every school is different, and we will put all our efforts into finding the perfect IT infrastructure for your school.   

If you’d like to discuss your options further with the team, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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Posted on February 21st 2023

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