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Testing times ahead for the role of computers

Should students be allowed access in exams to computers or even the Internet? Author and exam guru Patrick Sherratt looks at the pros and cons such a move would bring.

In their latest book, Unlimited, Gordon Dryden and Jeannette Vos deliver an amazing array of examples of how technology around the world is enhancing people’s learning, whatever their age or ability.

This is great to see, yet on the flip side of the same coin, what will we see when technology is used to assess that learning through the examination process? With 25 per cent of high school courses predicted to be available online by 2014, it seems reasonable to assume that using computers in exams (as Norway and Denmark are now doing) will be a natural part of the overall educational process.

Benefits and problems
Because of my interest in helping students improve their exam performance, I can foresee a variety of issues that this technology will create, bringing both benefits and problems. For example, the efficiency of using technology to record and collate typed exam answers and return results will be improved. Those students with terrible hand-writing or spelling, for instance, will be better off (as will be those assigned to mark the paper – unless that becomes computerised as well!). However, individual differences in student users’ technical abilities may create a new variable that influences their exam performances. Those less adept at typing or using their laptop in an exam may record results that are not a true reflection of the learning being accessed.

Less margin of error
With all exam papers recorded digitally, it will likely make statistical comparisons between student and school results nationally and internationally easily created with less margin of error. This has to be a good thing when the traditional system is tainted by stories of students receiving incorrect grades and, in some cases, no grades at all.

I have some concerns about students being able to access the Internet during an exam. Søren Vagner, a consultant for the Danish Ministry of Education suggests, gaining Internet access during an exam will enable students to gather relevant information quickly – a process typical of their everyday assignments. My immediate response is thatthere would have to be an elaborate monitoring system to prevent cheating, such as the extraction of ideas from a site and passing them off as your own without paraphrasing or referencing. There would also be scope for those highly-skilled students to create online ‘cheat sheets’ that can become accessible during an exam.

Embrace where we can
What is certain is that using technology to enhance learning is a growing and positive trend that we must embrace where we can. We should trial these ideas with different student groups to see what works and what doesn’t. How this translates to the examination process is yet to be seen. While some European countries are now leading this charge, it will be interesting to see when and how New Zealand will follow suit.

Patrick Sherratt is author of Passing Exams For Dummies.

© INTERFACE Magazine, November 2009

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